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Joan of Arc (1948)
A superb Joan - True depiction of the Catholic Church
1948's "Joan of Arc" is disturbing to many people who see it now because it is not ashamed of depicting the Catholic Faith by downplaying the significance of Christianity in the daily lives of the people, high and low born alike.
Later versions such as the yawn-producing milquetoast CBS miniseries of 1999 starring Lee Lee Sobieski (convinced by her production team that Joan was no saint but only a schizophrenic political pawn) and the horrendously rotten version that came out the same year "The Messenger". In that film Milla Jovovich played Joan AS an imbecilic madwoman through the conniving of her estranged husband Luc Besson to successfully destroy her career.
Victor Fleming takes Joan's story at face value, directing Bergman in her portrayal to respect Joan as a true and virtuous soul, using direct quotes from the trial records. Rivalling Miss Bergman's portrayal of innocent sanctity is the magnificently obese Franis L. Sullivan as Pierre Cauchon (in English "Peter Pig"), count-bishop of Beauvais, an utterly worldly prelate who is bent on serving the secular power more than the spiritual order he is supposed to represent. His title "count-bishop" brings into sharp focus the dictum of Christ that no man can serve two masters. Because he is aligned with England as a count, Cauchon had to flee his diocese of Beauvais as Joan's army approached. Cauchon seeks revenge for such a humiliation.
There is a certain staginess to this production betraying its origins as a Broadway play written by Maxwell Anderson. Once the viewer understands that fact the willing suspension of disbelief should set iin so that this motion picture may be enjoyed for its story rather any technicalities.
"Joan of Arc" sets the purity of Catholic teachings against the evil actions of men who pervert those teachings to bring about selfish ends. We see also that the pope, in this case Martin V, had little or no knowledge about what was going on in Rouen, the town in which Joan was tried. The film also makes plain that Joan's appeals to the pope were utterly suspensive but were overruled by the English-paid court of clerics trying her.
Joan of Arc, a young woman who was given a divine mission, proving yet another dictum of Christ's. Some people find it odd, in fact an affront to God, that someone would assert that God is on "her side". They forget that God is always on the side of justice. Wherever injustice appears in human dealings, God is against it. It is the duty of a true Christian to fight any injustice against his neighbor, indeed, to give his life for his friends to save their lives or their souls at the expense of his own.
This is what Jesus did. Joan humbly followed in her Master's footsteps.
Francis of Assisi (1961)
Francis of Assisi needs a shot of joyful playfulness
I saw Francis of Assisi at the age of 11, when it came out in 1961 at the old Stanley Warner Beverly Hills theatre. The film was given the red carpet treatment and a bunch of us Catholics went to see it.
Unhappily this film is nowhere near as good a biopic of a saint as, say, "Song of Bernadette" is. Zefferelli certainly had a lot more fun with Francis in "Brother Sun, Sister Moon."
The film is one of those "international all star casts", 2nd rate epics popular the late 1950s-early '60s made by European production companies but released Stateside by one of the name studios, Fox in this case. The American actors either unknown at the time (Dillman)or of lesser rank status (Hart, Whitman) were shipped to the Continent to make European films more acceptable to US audiences. The rest of the cast was mostly unfamiliar to US filmgoers then, unless they caught British imports at the more offbeat theatres in town.
Michael Curtiz, so effective at Warners with "Captain Blood," "Adv of Robin Hood," "Yankee Doodle Dandy," and "Casablanca" among so many other classics, drops the ball here. He must have been tired by this time, having directed movies for some 40 years. The actors are given by-the-book direction. A few scenes remind one of how great a film Curtiz had been able to make in the 1930s-40s.
Bradford Dillman does his best with what he's given but the screenplay, closely following Louis de Wohl's novel, "The Joyful Beggar," comes across pretty unexcitingly. The film is more outline than biography, going from one episode to another, interested in the standard (fictional)romantic triangle, as s sop to attract Protestants, one surmises, and never gets down to really giving a dynamic cinematic portrait of Francis.
De Wohl wrote a long series of novelized saints' biographies in the 1950s that were popular among Catholics of the era. He died rather unexpectedly in 1961. They are of a type, sometimes a touch titillating, but in the end quite inoffensive. They were deemed fine reading for Catholic youth in the 1950s; they are still good for children to introduce them to the saints. Just as an aside, it's fun to know that De Wohl was employed by the US military in WWII to write pseudo-Nostradamus quatrains denigrating Hitler, dropped by Allied planes over Germany to offset Hitler's claims that Nostradamus had predicted Der Fuhrer's success.
Pedro Armendariz has a great role as the Sultan, and is the most believable actor in this show altho Dolores Hart is very affecting as Clare, especially at her leave-taking of Francis at the film's conclusion. The scene in which Francis ministers to Moslem prisoners after a Crusader victory is Dillman's most effective, Francis being exposed to the brutality of war, shuddering at the horrors committed by Christians in the name of Christ.
Francis was revered even in his own time as "Father Francis" by his friars even tho he was only ordained a deacon. "Father" is a title given founders of religious orders by their spiritual "children" even today. The title has nothing to do with ordination. Indeed, Francis did not want to be ordained at all but Pope Innocent explained that, to be allowed to preach in church, a man had to be ordained at least a deacon. Only then did Francis accept the formality so he could preach in churches.
On the other hand Francis was an administrative failure. This is why Brother Elias, his successor as Master General of the order is shown to be - accurately - pretty coldblooded in doing his job.
Brother Juniper, always muddling up things in the "Flowers of St Francis" had a simplicity that was beloved by Francis. another reason for Juniper to be in the movie - there was a popular daily 1-panel daily newspaper cartoon at mid-20th century detailing a present-day Franciscan "Brother Juniper" getting into comic situations. This was a simpler time when few citizens gave a 2nd thought to seeing a Catholic friar as a cartoon character. Today the Leftists wd surely be crying foul. How dare Catholics be funny where they can see it! Finley Curry as a (Scottish???) Innocent III is much too old. And I doubt that popes, even then, conducted daily affairs dressed in Mass vestments and wearing the tiara, just to let everyone know who was pope. Cecil Kellaway plays Cardinal Ugolino, the sponsor and "protector" of the Franciscans. He wd later become Pope Gregory IX and spar with St Clare who fought him to a standstill, winning the right for her and the Franciscan nuns to keep Francis' demand that his followers own nothing.
Sorry to say, the imposition of the Stigmata is one of the lamest special effects in film. It does nothing to convey the utter spirituality of the event, and Mario Nascimbene's score leaves a lot to be desired. He did a lot better in other foreign films but he was nowhere near Korngold or Steiner in backing up Curtiz' direction as they had at Warners 25 years earlier.
"Francis of Assisi" is an inoffensive 1950s wannabe epic, almost a precursor of those "sword and sandal" movies made in Italy that were to follow during the early '60s - the "Son of Hercules" films and others.
This one could have been - and should have been - a lot better.
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
Brewster is code for Roosevelt!
Best comedy ever made in Hollywood. Bar none. No exceptions.
Remarks in the rear of the comments section belittling "Arsenic" are pretentious, seemingly written by film students hoping to become the next Costa-Gravas or Wertmuller. They consistently describe "Uncle" Teddy when he is Jonathan's and Mortimer's brother. Another dismisses Capra as a director unfamiliar with comedy. despite "It Happened One Night" - the only contender as the funniest film ever made - being the first to win the top five Oscars: Best movie, director, actor, actress and writer.
Cary Grant sat on stage one evening reminiscing with the audience. He considered Mortimer Brewster his worst performance. He was wrong and I know why. Cary judged his films by their box office and his performances by the critics. His best films, in his judgment, made a lot of money.
Allyn Joslyn, a fine, somewhat prissy, leading man and light comedian on the stage and occasional films, originated the role of "Mortimer Brewster" on Broadway. The critics thought him wonderful. It was part of the play's joke that Joslyn played Mortimer completely unruffled by all that beset him, the calm center in a cyclone of larger-than-life performances around him. This was much on the same order as William Gillette, "the Master of Undercting," played Sherlock Holmes in the famous stage play of his own creation in 1899.
It worked well on stage - it might not have on film. Capra saw the movie version of the play in the same fast-paced light as the writers, Julius and Philip Epstein. Capra began his Hollywood career as a silent film screenwriter who understood setting up a gag as building one chuckle on another until the last, the "capper", set the audience howling with laughter.
Another consideration of directing "Arsenic" at breakneck speed was to bring it in at under 2 hours, saving money on film prints. Frugality was a virtue at Warners.
I first saw "Arsenic" in the late 1950s on KCOP, channel 13 in Los Angeles, the least important station of the seven servicing Southern California back then. Because the station management had such a small audience it sold lots of cheap commercial 10-second "spots" to local restaurants, re-upholsterers, grocery stores and other small businesses that could never afford a full minute or a 30 second commercial from the six other local stations.
Problem was, KCOP trimmed movies badly, very often keeping the projector running under the twelve 10-second spots shown at each break. When returning to the movie, several scenes and a lot of plot had been eliminated. Since the breaks occurred at different times each broadcast it took at least four showings to actually see an entire film.
This handicap aside my brothers, sister and I, even as small children, recognized "Arsenic" was a side-splitter from beginning to end. Many years later I was honored to be asked to play Teddy in a production of the play and discovered that, as wonderful as the play is, it lacks the pizazz of the film. The reason is the brothers, Julius and Philip Epstein had not written the play.
The Epsteins added situations and hilarious lines into the play's dialogue that, even today, make it sparkle even if the jokes are topical: "And that will be the end of the Roosevelts in the White House" - "That's what you think."
Another line pays a kind of back-handed homage to the Brooklyn Dodgers who had finished leading the league for the first time that year: "Yes," says Aunt Martha, ready to go to Happy Dale. "The neighborhood's changed so ever since they won that old pennant thing."
These lead to the hilarious, madcap climax. Mortimer grabs Teddy's bugle and charges up the staircase. The sequence crackles with James Gleason's exasperation, playing Lieut Rooney of "New York's Finest" as he looks over the commitment papers only to find, "These papers aren't any good - he's signed them Theodore Roosevelt." In the midst of the chaos following Jonathan's apprehension, Mortimer begs Teddy to sign the papers with his real name, Theodore Brewster. Teddy considers a moment then refuses, "No, it's chicanery." At the end of his rope Mortimer thinks fast, "Brester is code for Roosevelt."
This piques Teddy's interest.
"Take the 'B' away from Brewster," Mortimer quickly asks Teddy, "and what do you have?"
Teddy pauses then brightens, "Rooster!"
"And what do roosters do?"
"And where do you go hunting in Africa?"
Another moment as Teddy considers then smiles, "On the Veldt!"
"There, you have it," Mortimer concludes exultantly, "'Crows-Veldt!'"
The joke's set-up and punchline never fail to break me up.
From the first, I was in awe of the thought devoted to, and the cleverness given this hilarity which comes at precisely the right moment to rev up the funny bone for one one-liner after another which has put audiences in stitches for six decades and more.
"Very clever," says Teddy, now ready to sign. "My compliments to the boys in the code department."
MY compliments to the amazingly brilliant Epstein twins. Aside from writing their own scripts they were known as the best script doctors in Hollywood, often called by producers to goose scripts, competent or weak, into masterpieces.
Nevermind sending your kids to the goofy, smutty and always inane summer comedies. Get a DVD of "Arsenic," invite your kids' friends over, pop some (real not microwave) popcorn and don't forget the REAL butter instead of the horrible mineral oil "golden topping" so many theatres desecrate popcorn with today. Sit the youngsters in front of the TV. Prepare for the belly-laughter that comes from genuine humor, mirth, merriment and wit.
And watch them all JUMP when Jonathan comes through the window!