Cecil B. DeMille’s first historical epic takes on the life of Joan of Arc. An intriguing, uneven and thoroughly entertaining spectacle, the films stars operatic soprano Geraldine Farrar as the doomed Maid of Orleans and the tragic Wallace Reid as her chief antagonist and romancer-in-chief. What’s that? The real Joan didn’t have a romancer-in-chief? La la la la, not listening!
Making a spectacle of yourself.
In the years leading up to the First World War, Italy was the blockbuster capital, its lavish, long and expensive epics were screened all over the world. Filmmakers in the United States were inspired to emulate Italian scope but getting studios to loosen purse strings was not always easy. Why spend hundreds of thousands when a pretty fancy picture could be made for $50,000? Today, Cecil B. DeMille’s name is synonymous with epics but he was only on his third year as director in 1916 and most of his pictures had been mid-budget programmers, costing somewhere in the range of $20,000 a pop.
This time around, our intrepid director ended up spending over $300,000 on Joan the Woman. Every penny of it shows up on the screen for the picture is storybook gorgeous (DeMille cited the illustrations of Maxfield Parrish as a visual source). However, the massive budget meant that it was almost impossible to create a blockbuster. While Joan the Woman was well-reviewed and did good business, it ended making only a small profit. The risk had not been worth the headaches, sleepless nights and bicarbonate of soda. DeMille was once again obliged to work with a mere mortal’s budget.
Before we get deeper into the film, I wanted to lay out a few things.
Of all the Joan of Arc films, Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is probably the most famous but it is one of dozens. She has been played by actresses of every style and nationality, from Ingrid Bergman to Milla Jovovich. Further, the historical record of the Maid of Orleans is hopelessly muddied and remains controversial.
Because this review has the potential to spiral into dozens of tangents, let me lay down my plan right at the beginning.
- I will not be dissecting the real Joan vs. Saint Joan.
- I will not be consumed with seeking out historical inaccuracies in this version. It’s a Hollywood DeMille production, I think we all know how accurate those tend to be. That being said, I will mention historical details when they are pertinent.
- I will not be watching every Joan of Arc movie ever made in order to compare. In the first place, that’s not the point of this review. In the second place, I really don’t find the Joan narrative to be compelling enough to seek out more versions at this time.
My plan is to review this film as it compares to the rest of Cecil B. DeMille’s output and to discuss its portrayals of women and how it succeeds and fails in its message of empowerment. Put down your pitchforks. Dreyer is for another day.
To play the heroine of his picture, DeMille chose Geraldine Farrar, the famous operatic soprano who had turned to the movies. This may seem like an odd choice. After all, Farrar was thirty-four, old enough to be the real Joan’s mother. Fact acknowledged. My problem is that quite a few reviewers fixate on Farrar’s age and never manage to get past it, which seems just a little sexist. I would take these writers more seriously if they also voiced objections to Hobart Bosworth playing La Hire though he was at least a decade too old for it. Age aside, Farrar had the acting chops and presence to believably command armies and her name was box office. She had more than proven herself in the delightful 1915 version of Carmen, also directed by DeMille.
As for the rest of the cast, DeMille watchers will surely recognize some of his usuals. Script by Jeanie Macpherson, Wallace Reid as the leading man, Raymond Hatton in a character part, Alvin Wyckoff in charge of cinematography.
A quick historical refresher: England was busily trying to take over France in the fifteenth century. Charles VII, the uncrowned king of the French, was treading water with his political and military ambitions when Joan of Arc showed up and gave everyone the morale boost they needed. Charles eventually drove the English back to Calais. Happy ending for him but not so much for his famous friend. Joan fell into the hands of the English, was charged with heresy but finally burned for wearing trousers. The Age of Chivalry, ladies and gentlemen.
Joan the Woman opens with a frame story set in the trenches of the then-raging First World War. I will come back to that later but for now, let’s just skip to the good stuff.
Joan (Geraldine Farrar) is a devout peasant with a fair amount of spunk. When a group of English raiders attack her village looking for provisions, she is the only one who stays to try to negotiate with them. The English commander, Eric Trent (Wallace Reid), bundles Joan off with intentions of Worse than Death. His lust is expressed through a strange fixation with her left bicep. No, I don’t know why either. No one seems comfortable with the scene and Joan makes Trent feel like such a heel that he almost instantly backs down. Well, that was awkward but at least it was over quickly.
What with one thing and another, Trent ends up staying behind and is wounded. Joan hides him in the hay loft and nurses him back to health. She also brings him flowers. (Can I make a joke about who wears the pants in the relationship? Oh please, oh please?) Trent thinks he’s doing pretty well until Joan starts seeing things. Specifically, visions telling her to find the king and help him out.
Trent is sent away with pretty much the ultimate “It’s not you, it’s me” speech and Joan heads out to find King Charles.
The king (Raymond Hatton) is indeed in trouble. He is on the verge of losing his claim to the crown and slick spies for the English are encouraging him to eat, drink and be merry. Only General La Hire (Hobart Bosworth, who is rocking that suit of armor) is offering good advice but Charles ignores him.
Joan shows up, impresses Charles with her astonishing ability to detect treason and deception and is immediately put in charge of the French army. She promises to drive the English out of Orleans. And guess who’s in charge of the English troops there? Just guess. Go on. Just a little guess.
Yup. Eric Trent.
Joan’s crew completely thrash her sometime lover’s army in a stunning battle scene and he is forced to surrender to her. Very embarrassing to surrender your fortress to the woman who dumped you. Joan is fond of Trent but is completely consumed by her visions and her mission to make Charles the crowned king. Why, I have no idea. I mean, her visions let her see who is good and who is bad but they don’t tell her that Charles is an unworthy rat who will sell her out? That’s kind of a big omission, wouldn’t you say? I mean, one would think these uncanny visions would come with terms, conditions and disclaimers.
Trent ends up betraying Joan and helping to capture her, which leads to her trial for heresy and eventual death by burning. I guess that could count as a spoiler but if you don’t know that a Joan of Arc movie is going to end up with a witch trial and burning at the stake, you have more problems than spoilers. Trent feels just awful. Should have thought of that before he went around capturing his potential inamorata.
So, how did Mr. DeMille do in his very first foray into the historical epic? Pretty well, as it turns out.
The sets and costumes look great. As is typical for films set in the Middle Ages, the styles are a potpourri from several different centuries, with Wallace Reid looking ready for the Battle of Hastings while Hobart Bosworth seems set to attend the coronation of Henry VIII. However, they have a stylistic consistency and generally everything looks like a lavish storybook illustration, which was what DeMille wanted.
The battle scenes are particularly fine. DeMille’s talent for handling large-scale productions really shows itself at this early date. While hundreds of extras are lobbing arrows and hacking at one another with sword, the action is easy to follow and it is immediately clear which side everyone is on. This may seem obvious to you but you didn’t just have to sit through Judith of Bethulia.
Oh, I should also note that the idea floating around that this was a copy of Intolerance is just silly. Intolerance was released when Joan the Woman was still in production. Both pictures involve big budgets and sieges but that is where their similarities end.
DeMille was always lavish in his praise of D.W. Griffith but there is a scene during Joan’s trial that makes me wonder. The priests involved in her trial and torture wear white robes with pointy hoods. Hmm. A dig at the Klansman of The Birth of a Nation? It turns out, I am not the only one who noticed this but I can find to evidence either way as to just what DeMille meant by this. I like to think it’s a dig but that’s just me and I am notably biased in this regard. (Yes, I realize that this review was published on the 100th anniversary of Birth. The counter-programming was intentional. I have already explained why I will not be holding any D.W. Griffith celebrations.)
What about the acting? When portraying someone holy or historically important, silent film actors tended to stiffen and grow stagy in their mannerisms and that is what seems to have been the case here.
Geraldine Farrar’s performance is wildly inconsistent. She is great in quieter emotional scenes and comes alive during combat. The scenes of her trial and death are also very good, when she is not busy gazing heavenward. She works best when her character is just Joan and forgets the “of Arc” bit as her scenes with visions and courtly intrigue are stiff and overacted.
Now, let’s talk about fashion! Farrar’s peasant garb is inexplicably dowdy. (For heaven’s sake, bone those darn lace-up blouses or they will look slouchy! Especially on a curvy lass. 95% of all historical fashion fails are either due to lack of boning or the wrong petticoat. I do reproduction sewing on the side, I know this stuff!) But her armor is fantastic, one of my favorite costumes in all of silent film. It looks heroic and glistening with just the right nod to femininity. Seeing that the chainmail bikini is still alive and well in fantasy and video games (though things have slightly improved), I would call this a breath of fresh air.
In the end, though, it all comes down to the acting. Farrar inconsistent performance is really a pity since, as I said before, she was a phenomenal Carmen. In his autobiography, DeMille wrote that he felt her spark from the previous year was missing. He laid the blame on Miss Farrar’s recent marriage to actor Lou Tellegen, an unpopular and demanding fellow by all accounts. (He’s sometimes hyphenated as Lou-Tellegen. Not sure why. Don’t care.) It seems Mr. Tellegen was using his wife’s clout to further his own career but his talent was not up to his ambitions as a director/writer.
DeMille wrote that Tellegen had been given one task as director but had failed miserably. I can find no record of a Tellegen-directed film being released in 1916. DeMille is unclear as to whether the film Tellegen directed that year was a short or feature and whether or not it was ever released. If it was made, it was likely shelved or reshot.
Tellegen’s official debut as director came in 1917 when he helmed What Money Can’t Buy, starring Famous Players-Lasky’s other resident pain in the rear, Jack Pickford. Jack’s big sister Mary was top moneymaker for the studio and she was always ready to pull out all the stops to help her kid brother be a star. Young Pickford managed to take the career that was handed to him on a silver platter and smash it beyond repair within a few years but that is another story. (Save your hand-wringing, Jackophiles. I have read the soppy, heartrending accounts of the Poor Little Rich Boy and I still have no sympathy for the little worm.) Tellegen and Jack Pickford seem to have thoroughly deserved one another.
Tellegen directed one more film for Famous Players-Lasky in 1917. He and Farrar departed for Goldwyn and they co-starred in several pictures including a sheik film, The Flame of the Desert, in 1919. (The film survives. I am dying with curiosity, being an ironic but enthusiastic consumer of all things Sheik.) The pair divorced in 1923, with Farrar alleging infidelity. By then, Farrar had retired from the screen while Tellegen was reduced to smaller and smaller roles in smaller and smaller films.
Almost every DeMille historian whose work I have read agrees that Farrar’s desire to prop up her husband’s career was the cause of her staid performance. In any case, whatever the reason, Farrar was indeed not up to her previous standard in Joan the Woman, which is a great loss.
Leading man Wallace Reid had a higher hill to climb. He does try and his natural charisma, combined with his chemistry with Farrar, does wonders for his character. Until you stop and think, that is. You see, Eric Trent is an absolute dolt.
Here is a list of Trent’s, um, accomplishments:
Raids village for supplies. End up getting bashed on the head and hidden in a hay loft.
Tries to make time with Joan. Ends up getting dumped when she hears voices.
Ordered to hold Orleans against the French. Forced to surrender.
Ordered to capture Joan. Makes a few whining objections before agreeing.
And he captures Joan. This is the one thing he gets right?
Tries to ransom Joan. Forgot to deposit money in his bank account.
Tries to break Joan out of prison. Ends up accidentally helping the villains catch her in trousers, which gives them an excuse to burn her. (Yes, I realize that is a very strange sentence.)
Our hero is not exactly acquitting himself well, now is he? To be honest, I have no idea what Joan sees in him. Well, other than the fact he is played by Wallace Reid. And his weird marcelled pageboy bob. Apparently, that must be appealing.
In fact, the two actors who come off the best are Raymond Hatton as King Charles and Hobart Bosworth as General La Hire.
At this point in his career, Hatton was prone to overacting but this hamminess works very well for the cowardly and greedy king. He manages to strike the right balance between epic stage acting and the more intimate acting required for the screen. Bosworth, on the other hand, goes for the wholesale devouring of scenery but he does it so well that he is fun to watch.
Now it’s time to talk about the most controversial aspect of the film, the frame story. Jeanie Macpherson wrote a framing tale of a modern English soldier, Eric Trent, who gets the courage to go on a suicide mission thanks to Joan giving him the Obi-wan Kenobi treatment (taking the advice of a translucent apparition often leads to discomfort) and sending the movie into flashback mode.
The Paramount executives wanted the frame story cut as theater owners were already complaining that the films length was cutting into their bottom line. (Feature films were often 50 to 70 minutes the time and Joan the Woman was a whopping two hours and twenty minutes.) In his autobiography, DeMille stated that he regretted keeping the World War One scenes in the picture as they were jarring to the audience.
Why did they stay? Jeanie Macpherson launched an impassioned campaign to keep them in. She argued that without the frame story, the film would end with Joan dead. To which most people would say, “Yes, that’s right.” I think the majority of the movie-going public would have been aware that Joan was burnt at the stake. It wouldn’t be a shocking turn of events. Besides, the movie ends instead with Wallace Reid dead. Why is this an improvement? (I should also note that even though the flashback structure was Macpherson’s idea, DeMille was a hawk when it came to the war and made more than his share of anti-German propaganda.)
I have read some criticism that states the frame story is sexist. Supposedly, it takes all the bravery stuff away from Joan and hands it over to the modern Eric Trent. I think this is ridiculous. The frame story is silly, true, but it is not what the audience remembers after seeing this film. They remember Joan storming a castle and pulling an arrow out of herself before rejoining the fray. They remember the haunting shot of the empty street as a lone workman piled up wood to burn our heroine.
Also, I highly doubt that these critics would be complaining if it were a male warrior saint saddled with a frame story. I am all for calling out sexism (see above) but this theory is without merit.
Some other aspects of the film that may strike modern viewers as sexism on DeMille’s part actually have basis in historical fact. In the film, Joan does not use weapons in the battle scenes, she wields the flag of France. This is true. She was considered a valuable leader in the French army because of her ability to boost morale, not her fighting prowess. Joan also did maintain her male garb as a defense against the very real threat of rape in prison as she was jailed with male guards instead of being watched over by nuns, which was a violation of protocol.
That’s not to say that DeMille’s outlook was feminist or even progressive. Joan still gets caught in the old “love her enemy” plot device that ensnared many a heroine. She is also the only major female character in the film, with just a few peasants and noblewomen idling in the background. (I don’t care for Intolerance but, give the devil his due, it does have plenty of juicy roles for the actresses in the cast.) While Macpherson wanted the title “Joan the Woman” specifically to emphasize Joan’s humanity, the film does not do a very good job of establishing who Joan was sans visions.
For all my snarking, I will say this: I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. Point of fact, I had a blast re-watching it for this review. Is it uneven? Sure, but it is never, ever boring. The gorgeous cinematography is a plus and there are enough good performances to keep things afloat. Considering that this was DeMille’s first stab at the epic motion picture, I have to say that I was very impressed.
While not necessarily my first choice to introduce newcomers to DeMille, it is a real treat for his fans.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★
Where can I see it?
Joan the Woman is available on DVD from Flicker Alley.