The war brought many European talents to Hollywood, and gave them plenty of stories to star in about their home countries. Two such actors were Michèle Morgan and Paul Henreid, who both fled the Nazis and ended up at RKO, where they starred together in Joan of Paris, a Joan of Arc riff set in Nazi-occupied France. The script, by Charles Bennett and Ellis St. Joseph, isn’t particularly strong, but the film gets by on the strength of its cast and its poignant timeliness.
Paul Lavallier (Henreid) is a French pilot who escaped France before the occupation and joined the air force in England, only to be shot down over Paris and stranded there with four other pilots. He enlists the help of his childhood priest (Thomas Mitchell) and a local waitress (Morgan) to find their way back to London. With the assistance of schoolteacher and resistance leader Mademoiselle Rosay (May Robson), the pilots work to evade capture by gestapo leader Herr Funk (Laird Cregar) and plot their escape.
While Henreid gets to play the dashing hero, Morgan is relegated to fawning over him, fantasizing about buying dresses, and delivering ludicrous lines such as, “I think a woman’s place is to make a man happy, not to ask questions and be curious.” Thankfully, the story shifts toward her perspective as the film ends, and she is able to somewhat regain her dignity.
Also in the cast was Alan Ladd, a bit player who had been appearing in tiny and even unbilled parts for nearly a decade. Henreid wasn’t especially impressed with him, writing, “[Director Robert Stevenson] asked me, ‘Those three young actors who play the airmen—which of them, if any, do you think will make it?’ I shrugged. ‘Certainly not Ladd. Maybe Dick Fraser.’ ‘Yes, I think Dick has the right stuff!’ How wrong we both were! Frazier never got a break, but in his next picture, This Gun for Hire, Ladd was . . . an instant success, but so much of success in Hollywood is based on just that one lucky break.”1
Cregar also appeared with Ladd in This Gun For Hire, where he again plays the flamboyant, manipulative villain. He’s fun, but the real scene-stealer is Robson, a complete delight as the eighty-three-year-old, Nazi-hating resistance leader. Sadly, it was also her final film, as she passed away the following October.
One of many war-themed films produced before America joined the fight, Joan of Paris was one of few that actually made a profit for the struggling RKO that season.2 Both actors went on to much better things—Henreid in Hollywood, and Morgan far from it—but at the very least, Joan of Paris gave them both a moment to show they were capable of those better films.
Where to Watch
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For More on Joan of Paris
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References [ + ]
|1.||^||Paul Henreid, Ladies Man (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984), 97.|
|2.||^||Richard B. Jewell, “RKO Film Grosses, 1929–1951: the C. J. Tevlin Ledger,” Historical Journal Of Film, Radio And Television 12, no. 2 (1992): 37-49.|