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Otto Preminger was an avid showman as well as an energetic producer-director. When he set out to make a movie version of George Bernard Shaw's play Saint Joan, about the trial and execution of Joan of Arc in 15th-century France, he remembered the excitement David O. Selznick had generated with a highly publicized search for a new face to play Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, the megahit of 1939. Preminger started hunting for his Joan of Arc in 1956, distributing thousands of application forms and personally auditioning hundreds of hopefuls. But instead of finding the somewhat inexperienced Vivien Leigh, who made an ideal Scarlett, he wound up with the totally inexperienced Jean Seberg, a 17-year-old from Iowa who struck Preminger as a "vital young woman" with "great personality." When the picture reached the screen a year later, it became clear that vitality and personality weren't enough to make Joan a convincing heroine for modern audiences. Saint Joan (1957) went straight to "international flopdom," in Seberg's words, and the neophyte actress received a fair share of the blame.
On paper, the 1957 film officially called Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan looked like a fine prestige picture with solid chances for success. Preminger's recent releases included such high-profile items as the African-American musical Carmen Jones (1954) and the drug-addiction drama The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). He hired the great novelist and screenwriter Graham Greene to pen the movie adaptation of the 1923 stage play by Shaw, a British playwright with a loyal American following. And he surrounded Seberg with an impressive cast, including affable Richard Widmark as Charles VII, smooth-as-silk John Gielgud as the Earl of Warwick, and worldly Anton Walbrook as the bishop who ensures that Joan's trial for witchcraft will end with her burning at the stake.
The subject seemed sure-fire as well, with a long pedigree in film history. The earliest version of Joan's story, produced by Thomas Edison's studio in 1895, was followed by a Lumire version in 1898, a George Mlis version in 1900, a Path Frres version in 1909, an Italian version in 1913, a Cecil B. DeMille version in 1916, and various others through the years, including two with Ingrid Bergman, the first directed by Victor Fleming in 1948 and the second by Roberto Rossellini in 1954. The versions most celebrated today are Carl Theodor Dreyer's silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, from 1928, and Robert Bresson's rigorous The Trial of Joan of Arc, released in 1962. Preminger's film isn't in the same league of those lofty achievements, but it's a major cut above, say, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, the 1999 action picture directed by Luc Besson with Milla Jovovich in the lead. The virtues of Preminger's movie include Greene's screenplay, which reshuffles Shaw's text but respects his literate dialogue; Georges Prinal's cinematography, elegant if unexciting; Saul Bass's eye-catching credits; and performances by worthy character players like Finlay Currie, who's suitably imposing as the Archbishop of Rheims, and Victor Maddern, who's lightly likable as the English soldier who comforts Joan at the stake. While it's not a great movie, it's definitely a good one.
With so much going for it, what scorched Saint Joan at the box office? Revisiting the movie years later, Preminger decided the fatal error had been his own. "I made the mistake of taking a young, inexperienced girl and [wanting] her to be St. Joan, which, of course, she wasn't," he candidly remarked. "I didn't help her to understand and act the part." According to David Richards's biography of Seberg, an even harsher verdict came from an associate who saw the auditions of all three finalists for the coveted role: "Jean had the sincerity Otto was after. Unfortunately, he would stamp it entirely into the ground." And he didn't do this gently. "That was cold as a cucumber," Preminger shouted at Seberg during a typical day on the set. Made to repeat takes as many as twenty times, Richards reports, "she felt the spontaneity draining from her....In the edited film, the strongest impression she would make was that of a helplessly bewildered girl struggling to get things right."
At least Seberg earned the respect of the cast and crew. But her most trying moment came when she stood on the pyre for the burning-at-the-stake scene. Two hidden gas canisters ignited at the wrong moment, surrounding her with a rush of flame and smoke. "I'm burning!" she cried, yanking her arms free and covering her face as her costume started to burn. The fire was quickly extinguished, and Seberg suffered no significant harm. But it must have seemed like the last exasperating straw to an actress already on the ropes. Preminger was momentarily traumatized as well, but he recovered in time to make sure the mishap had been caught on film. "The camera took four hundred extra feet," he told a Newsweek journalist, adding that he would "probably use some of it" in the movie. Not surprisingly, he did.
Seberg is certainly out of her depth in Saint Joan, but responsibility for the film's lack of sparkle also lies with Preminger's directing. His visual style grew out of his early work as a stage director (he had directed Shaw's play in Vienna years earlier) and often relied on daringly long takes of continuous dialogue and action, following his theory that every cut is an interruption of the cinematic flow. This serves wonderfully in pictures of other kinds - think of the great noir Laura (1944), the courtroom classic Anatomy of a Murder (1959), the political drama Advise & Consent (1962) - but joined with Greene's talky adaptation of Shaw's talky play, it makes for viewing that's frequently static and dialogue heavy. Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch gives a good example of the problem, citing the moment when Joan realizes she will lead the French against their English invaders. "Who is for God and his maid?" she cries, brandishing her sword. "Who is for Orlans with me?" It's a scene of high intensity, but Preminger keeps the camera at a distance, offering a neutral, unexciting view. At such times, Hirsch writes, "Preminger is self-effacing to a fault." Sadly, he effaced Seberg's effectiveness as well.
Seberg went on to give a strong performance as a poor little rich girl in Preminger's next picture, the 1958 melodrama Bonjour tristesse - according to Preminger biographer Chris Fujiwara, he may have offered her that role soon after the fire on the Saint Joan set - and her performance in Jean-Luc Godard's legendary Breathless gave her a running start in European cinema in 1960. Reviews of Saint Joan after its world premiere in Paris were negative, though, and London critics were equally ungenerous. American reviews were the worst of all, perhaps fueled by what Fujiwara calls a "delayed outburst of resentment" against the publicity machine that had surrounded Seberg from the moment she won the talent search. The review in Time was among the most pungent, saying that Shaw's heroine is "a chunk of hard bread, dipped in the red wine of battle and devoured by the ravenous angels," whereas Seberg makes her "the sort of honey bun that drugstore desperadoes like to nibble with their milkshakes." Today more reasoned views have taken hold, and Fujiwara deems Saint Joan to be "one of Preminger's must underrated films, and one of his most personal," with a "methodical, inquisitive camera," lighting that creates "density and complexity of texture," and a "rhythmic" visual form that enhances the characters' emotions. The truth about Saint Joan is probably between these extremes of opinion, and the same goes for the still-debated talent of its star.
Director: Otto Preminger
Producer: Otto Preminger
Screenplay: Graham Greene; based on the play by George Bernard Shaw
Cinematographer: Georges Perinal
Film Editing: Helga Cranston
Production Design: Roger K. Furse
Art Direction: Ray SimmMusic: Mischa Spoliansky
With: Jean Seberg (Joan), Richard Widmark (Dauphin, Charles VII), Richard Todd (Bastard), Anton Walbrook (Cauchon), John Gielgud (Earl of Warwick), Felix Aylmer (Inquisitor), Archie Duncan (Robert de Baudricourt), Harry Andrews (John de Stogumber), Margot Grahame (Duchesse de la Tremouille), Barry Jones (de Courcelles), Francis De Wolff (la Tremouille), Finlay Currie (Archbishop of Rheims), Victor Maddern (English soldier), Bernard Miles (Master Executioner), David Oxley (Bluebeard), Patrick Barr (Captain la Hire), Sydney Bromley (Baudricourt's steward), Kenneth Haigh (Brother Martin), David Langton (Captain of Warwick's Guard).
by David Sterritt