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The Warner Archives' disc Joan of Paris is a big surprise. It's a seldom-screened WW2 espionage picture from a time when the stereotypes for Nazis vs. French Underground sagas were not yet fully formed. The RKO picture was in production before Pearl Harbor, as it was released in January of 1942. The four different writers emphasize solidarity between England and France against the oppressive German occupation of Paris. But the movie plays best as a moving romantic drama between a Free French flier and a Parisian barmaid who helps him evade the Gestapo. Joan of Paris was the first Hollywood appearance for its stars Michèle Morgan and Paul Henreid.
An English bomber crashes near Paris. Its five crewmen find sanctuary in the Cathedral of Father Antoine (Thomas Mitchell), who knew one of the fliers as a child. Paul Lavallier (Paul Henried) is the only Free French member of the crew, and the only one who can show his face on the street; the problem is that the Gestapo already has a sentence of death on his head. Paul meets Joan (Michéle Morgan) in a bar and hides in her room to avoid a Gestapo man (Alexander Granach) who sticks to him "like a postage stamp". Joan prays to her personal spiritual inspiration St. Joan. When the two fall in love Joan helps Paul contact a British agent, who turns out to be an elderly schoolteacher, Mademoiselle Rosay (May Robson). But their every move is being watched by agents dispatched by the cool, sophisticated Gestapo mastermind Herr Funk (Laird Cregar). Funk is waiting for the false move that will allow him to arrest all of the fliers in one fell swoop.
Joan of Paris is an impassioned wartime romance. A noble modern St. Joan who sacrifices herself to save a loyal Frenchman and strike a blow for her country. The strong screenplay gives Michèle Morgan and Paul Henreid a fine introduction to American audiences; they generate ample chemistry together. Paul sneaks into Joan's room and charms his way into her good graces without telling her who he is. The romantic aspect of the story all but takes over (who are those other four guys hiding in the sewers, again?) until Joan sees that the only path forward is to emulate her patron saint. On the weepy level, the movie works 100%. English transplant director Robert Stevenson pulls the maximum out of the actors and the script. The foggy chases on the midnight sidewalks of Paris are accomplished with minimal resources. Stevenson also sees that supporting player Alan Ladd -- up to this time a glorified bit-part player -- gets a couple of showcase moments. Joan of Paris may not be well remembered but almost every actor seems to have benefitted from it -- Ladd's next move sent him to Paramount to play his breakthrough role in This Gun for Hire. And of course, villain Laird Cregar is a natural standout as the suave villain.
The only confusing moment in Joan of Paris is when it appears that both Joan and Mlle Rosay are blasted by a squad of German riflemen. No, in the next scene they've apparently escaped, with only a minor scratch to show for their trouble.
This was Henreid's first film not using his full name Paul Von Hernreid, under which he had appeared as a Nazi in Carol Reed's Night Train to Munich. It took Henried a while to ditch the Teutonic issue. After this picture he appeared in Now, Voyager and Casablanca and was established as a major star, at least for the duration of the war. Ms. Morgan was already a big star in France, much in demand until she decided to leave. Like a special guest on loan, she didn't make it in Hollywood and by the end of the 1940s had returned to the continent.
It took at least a few months more to establish the formula for morale-boosting anti-Nazi filmmaking, after which screens abounded with sadistic officers, depraved Gestapo agents and various zealots spouting Nazi threats taken straight from the mouths of Der Führer and Herr Goebbels. Summary executions by sneering Nazi villains were the norm, along with crude advances to virtuous women. The best of these pictures is Fritz Lang's Hangmen Also Die!, which shapes up as a brilliant paranoid thriller while also flexing the anti-Fascist chops of its leftist writers (the first film folk to make anti-Nazi films in the late 1930s). Hangmen's Fascists are portrayed as grotesque sexual perverts and syphilitic monsters.
But Joan of Paris was essentially made before our entry into the war, and its heroes vs. Gestapo plot was formulated without benefit of facts about what was really going on in Paris. The Germans and their Parisian collaborators were doing horrible things to most anybody suspected of the slightest resistance to the New Order. Here Laird Cregar treats Paul Lavallier with kid gloves. Cregar is cautious in his methods, as if there were are laws restraining his actions. The Gestapo knows that the priest, Joan and the convicted "terrorist" Paul are co-conspirators, yet they allow Paul to go free "to lead them to the others." Cregar's Herr Funk enters into various personal deals and bargains with Paul and Joan, which is of course laughable. If the German experts couldn't obtain the answers they wanted, their French cronies maintained torture chambers of their own.
Finally, only two Gestapo agents are assigned to this crucial case, the "postage stamp" Alexander Granach and an unbilled creep expertly played by favorite Hans Conried. The hide and seek surveillance games in the street don't seem altogether logical, as Granach keeps letting Paul know he's being followed. The rational idea would seem to be to fool Paul into a false sense of security, so he'll lead you to the other fliers. But hey, sequences like this one weren't yet a standard feature of every thriller, and few Hollywood shows from before the war made an issue of street realism. Although the spy vs. spy details seem like fantasy, the film knows what it wants to say and says it well.
Joan of Paris may have been altered for reissue later in the war, or perhaps was "improved" a bit just before release. Injected before the moody downbeat opening with the downed fliers is what seems to be a clip lifted from another film. A lighthearted montage of Paris night spots (with the 1934 Les Misérables playing on a marquee) segues into a partial musical number with showgirls using their hands as ballerina puppets. The film suddenly cuts to black for a radio announcer to report a "massive Allied air raid" over Germany. Then the movie proper begins. All that's missing from this odd prologue are the thumbtacks holding it in place. Anybody have the full story on this? 1
We're also told that favorite actress Marie Windsor is somewhere in the picture, but I didn't spot her. She was at RKO at the time, so maybe the IMDB is correct in this case.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Joan of Paris looks a tiny bit rough in the first reel but from then on is a quite stunning copy of this vintage RKO hit, one of the studio's more lauded releases of 1942. Cameraman Russell Metty's noir-ish lighting on Morgan and Henreid looks especially good. It's altogether possible that the newly minted RKO producer Val Lewton screened Joan of Paris, as the stalking sequences on the wet Paris sidewalks remind us of his Cat People. Wartime movies about the Underground in France would soon become more realistic, but at the outset of hostilities the American public were probably not ready for the grim details. Joan of Paris is an entertaining romantic thriller.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Joan of Paris rates:
Hello Glenn: I don't have any idea why the film Joan of Paris has that unusual opening scene. But I thought I would let you know that you are correct that it is from another film altogether. You would think it was from an obscure RKO musical from the 30's but it is in fact the opening scene from the 1934 Astaire/Rogers film The Gay Divorcee. I find that odd since that film was only 7-8 years old at the time of Joan of Paris' release, quite popular and probably re-released, and I would think easily recognized by audiences of the time. Regards, Greg
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