(School of English Literature, University of Sheffield)
Joan of Arc is as much an artistic muse as she is an historical figure, a view widely reflected in critical discussion on her persistence in the cultural imagination. In her study, Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism, Marina Warner writes:
[Joan] is literally a cypher. Just as a feather in the cap, green doublet and hose and a merry gallantry signify the figure of Robin Hood, so Joan is instantly present in the mind’s eye: a boyish stance, cropped hair, medievalised clothes, armour an air of spiritual exaltation mixed with physical courage.
Warner’s reading neatly encapsulates the notion that there is an idea of Joan of Arc, one based upon consensually recognised aspects of her hagiography and iconography. Building upon the premise of a female acolyte of God sent to save medieval France in its hour of need, artists rework new versions of her character and narrative to fit their various political agendas. As Susan Hayward writes, ‘[…] each interpretation is designed to suit the ideological cloth of either the filmmaker or the nation producing the film.’
In 1916, America was on the brink of entering the First World War, a conflict that isolationists, opposed to military intervention, argued was Europe’s war and thus not a responsibility of the United States. This sentiment was captured in the rhetoric of the year’s Presidential election, where the re-elected incumbent Woodrow Wilson ran on the slogan “He kept us out of war.” Cecil B. DeMille and his screenwriting collaborator Jeannie MacPherson thought differently. Strident internationalists, they made a film that adapted the tale of Joan of Arc to promote America’s entry to the war. This production, Joan the Woman, presages the use of the heroine’s icon and associated message on stamps issued by the U.S. treasury department in 1918. Here, the American government encouraged the nation’s women to do as Joan did and lead their men into battle, not through literal combat, but rather through the purchase of stamps (fig. 1). Joan of Arc’s revolutionary connotations make her a proxy representation of the mutual values of liberty shared by America and France, as cemented in The Statue of liberty [which France gifted to the U.S. in 1886]. Thus, an attack of these is an attack on the very virtues set out by the founding fathers in The Declaration of Independence. The poster’s appeal for women to invest in the war effort by providing additional sources of capital consigns them to the passive role of fundraisers rather than active combatants. It encapsulates the contradictory virtues espoused through the Joan icon in the cultural milieu of DeMille’s production. This paper considers how the eponymous Joan the Woman serves as a pacified mascot for limited female participation in the war effort, a representation of women in war consistent with a trend of heritage melodramas that DeMille and MacPherson replicated in their subsequent film collaborations.
Defining the Heritage Melodrama
The term ‘heritage melodrama’ is not widely used in film criticism. Instead, it is one that I have coined as an appropriate descriptor for DeMille and MacPherson’s allegorical approach to depicting American-European encounters. In essence, it is intended to encapsulate how the filmmakers use the conventions of melodrama to perpetuate themes of American heritage and its geopolitical role on the world stage, especially during and immediately following the First World War. First, one must define heritage melodrama’s constituent terms. So, what exactly is cinematic melodrama?
Established criticism overwhelmingly aligns the mode with representations of gender. Writing on Hollywood films released between 1910 and the onset of the Second World War, E. Ann Kaplan makes a distinction between what she calls early maternal melodrama and the woman’s film. She argues that the former is an outgrowth of the literary melodrama and the latter of the domestic novel (or women’s fiction). Both types of films, according to Kaplan, are subversive in different ways, and both address different audiences: melodrama (male and female) and woman’s film (female). Emphasising the distinction between them, she writes:
It is significant that in general the woman’s film, by virtue of being a resisting form, shows more sensitivity to social concerns than does the maternal melodrama, which situates itself more firmly in the terrain of unconscious Oedipal needs, fears and desires. The woman’s film on the other hand put more stress on the cognitive/conscious level, often foregrounding sociological issues and dealing more frequently with social institutions.
Kaplan’s diagnosis of cinematic aims and conventions is insightful in its suggestion of their subversive functions. Her idea that the woman’s film was distinct in style, subject matter, and target audience is an important and valid nuance that reflects how, on the whole, male audiences would not relate to the inbuilt injustices of American society during the Progressive Era (1890-1920). During this period, Hollywood cinema was dominated by films that foregrounded the sociological issues Kaplan speaks of, that of everyday struggles that were more immediately relatable to the female social experience than the male. As Mintz, Roberts, and Welky argue, so many films of the Progressive Era dealt with themes of prostitution, abortion, and women’s suffrage, in a way that ‘[…] transformed complex social issues into personal melodramas.’ In contrast to Kaplan, then, Mintz et. al view melodrama to be a broader style of pathos that foregrounds the film’s sociological context and the protagonist’s relation to it. Kaplan’s division of attributes between the labels of melodrama and the woman’s film is not especially useful in the context of DeMille and MacPherson’s productions. In their films, the characteristics Kaplan describes are interchangeable and extant within individual texts; and, most importantly, the nature of the sociological becomes fundamentally transformed by the context of war and its centrality to the problems faced by the characters.
In her reconsideration of melodrama, Linda Williams re-emphasises the term’s unconscious and sociological attributes by aligning it with cinematically constructed notions of national identity. She writes:
Melodrama is the fundamental mode of popular American moving pictures. It is not a specific genre like the western or horror film; it is not a “deviation” of the classical realist narrative; it cannot be located primarily in woman’s films, “weepies,” or family melodramas – though it includes them. Rather, melodrama is a peculiarly democratic and American form that seeks dramatic revelation of moral and emotional truths through a dialectic of pathos and action. It is the foundation of the classical Hollywood movie.
Significantly, Williams aligns melodrama with the style of filmmaking that dominated Hollywood’s classical era. David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson have defined classical Hollywood style as lasting between 1917 and the early 1960s. It deployed techniques of filmmaking that maintained realism and foregrounded the experience of the narrator as hero and the viewer as spectator with clear and direct access to the events being portrayed on screen. Nickolas Haydock captures critical sentiment on the style well, writing:
The classic Hollywood style produces a movie to be looked through, not at. Film editing, shot protocols, music, lighting, and dialogue propel viewers through the story without calling attention to its construction, thereby rendering the simple joys of escapist fantasy through a coherent and uninterrupted diegesis.
The conditions of the classical style help to explain a lot about the narrative logic of the melodrama. By emphasising a dialectic of pathos and action, Williams extends the observations of Mintz et. al to suggest an intriguing tension between sentimental appeal and spectacular action. This is especially useful when one considers the interplay between melodrama and national identity in collaborations between the director DeMille and the screenwriter MacPherson. A whole host of their films produced between 1916 and 1920 centre on female protagonists who react to the dispatch of troops to war, men who are their sons, husbands, and lovers. They combine action-orientated narratives that, as Steve Neale has identified, would become more typical of the battle sequences seen in male-dominated war films of classical Hollywood with the nuanced character dramas of the woman’s film that Kaplan refers to. In DeMille’s The Little American, for example, we encounter the heroine in a series of action sequences caused by the circumstances of the wartime conflict and, often, the resolution to these encounters can be found through sentimental or emotive appeal, either on behalf of the characters or the filmmakers. When faced with attack by German U-boats, the protagonist attempts to reason, appealing to the hostile party’s emotions, and subsequently she is saved. Here, complex and fast-changing geopolitical circumstances are personified and reduced into the microcosm of personal melodrama that Mintz et. al identify.
Williams also considers melodrama to be conducive to the fundamentally democratic premise of American society. This is a crucial point of access in unifying the constituent terms of heritage and melodrama thematically. When present, the heritage element at work in their melodramas is overwhelmingly concerned with the interplay between America and the nation’s progenitor Anglo-Saxon cultures in central and western Europe. Strikingly, few DeMille-MacPherson pictures delve into the Italian or Slavic cultures of America’s new wave of émigrés, who provided what Eileen Bowser calls ‘[…] an infusion of culture distinct from earlier German and Irish migrations.’ Instead the filmmakers’ heritage melodramas opt for depictions of white Anglo-Saxon cultures long assimilated into constructions of Americanness. They place their emphasis firmly on American characters’ interactions with England, France, Germany, and The Low Countries (Belgium and Holland). One democratic element to all of this comes in the form of America’s intervention in a Europe beholden to bickering monarchies and the carnage associated with their disintegrating empires.
The filmmaker’s use of melodramatic trope to exude the concerns of a geopolitical consciousness is not limited to films set in the historical past, as is the case in Joan the Woman. Both The Little American (1917) and Till I Come Back to You (1918) are set during the contemporaneous war and each film exhibits DeMille and MacPherson’s proclivity for internationalist rhetoric that allegorises American primacy and the emergent geopolitical power’s place in the world. Starring Mary Pickford, The Little American caricatures nationhood through its characters. The film opens during the birthday party of its heroine, Angela More, who – like America – was born on the 4th of July. Her lover Karl is defined by his ethnic hybridity: he is half-German, half-American. A competitor for her affections is a Frenchman named, Count Jules de Destin. With hubris and naivety, Angela leaves her comfortable life as a socialite to follow her suitors to Europe when they are called back to fight in the war, only to be caught up in the horrors of the impending conflict. Ignoring the warnings about German U-Boats, she sails across the Atlantic on the Veritania, a fictional version of the real-life Lusitania (a British-American cruise liner torpedoed by the Germans in 1915). In a moment of high sentimentality, Angela escapes the wreck on a floating table and pleads with the aggressors not to attack innocent passengers. This emphasis on sentimentality in the face of conflict continues throughout the remainder of the film and culminates in the climax, where Angela wanders the war-torn landscape of The Western Front in search of Karl. Upon finding him, approaching bombs force the weak and exhausted lovers to shelter in a church, which is hit in the barrage. The smoke clears from the ruined refuge to reveal a perfectly intact statue of Christ on the crucifix (fig. 2). With its clear message of divine protection, this scene reiterates the tendencies of melodrama identified by John Mercer and Martin Schingler, who view the tradition as dominated by dramatic twists and turns, disasters, suspense and last-minute rescues.
The film’s combination of patriotism and emotional appeal forms a crucial part of the ways in which it was marketed to audiences. One theatrical poster describes it as ‘a stirring photo-play of great patriotic appeal,’ alongside a picture of Pickford’s Angela waving from a car, an expensive consumer object indicative of the character’s socialite lifestyle, whilst another presents the image of a more sombre Angela with the caption: ‘the silent sufferers.’ The distinction between the two images is significant. The poster of Angela waving from the car infantilises the character, depicting her as blissfully unaware of the horrors of war. The other poster details sentimentality, showing a friend crying head down on the protagonist’s lap, whereas another poster presents a bedraggled Angela, dressed in torn and muddied clothing. Together, these posters capture the emotional transitions of Pickford’s character throughout the film: what begins as a combination of naivety and hubris becomes a traumatic realisation of the carnage and horrors of war. Thus, in the film and the corresponding narrative perpetuated by its marketing campaign, to recall Mintz et. al, we see the transformation complex social issues – to the American cultural psyche in 1917, the war had emerged as a major issue – into personal melodramas.
The gender politics of Joan the Woman
So, DeMille and MacPherson’s heritage melodramas are defined by their amplification of the personal melodrama through the personification of national identities and their reduction of complex geopolitical relations into microcosmic and sentimental character dramas. The relocation of American characters to the theatre of war emphasises the relative comfort and congeniality of the homeland, whilst drawing empathy for cultures most relatable to dominant white, Anglo-Saxon American culture in an attempt to make the case for U.S. intervention in European affairs. In Joan the Woman, the filmmaker’s take various artistic liberties with the historical Joan narrative to make it consistent with the representational sensibilities of their subsequent heritage melodramas.
The film begins with the story of Eric Trent, a British officer (played by Wallace Reid) in the trenches of the First World War. After being ordered to consider a suicide mission, he finds a sword in his trench that conjures up the spectre of Joan, played by famous opera singer Geraldine Farrar. She proclaims that it is time for Trent to rectify past wrongs, an allusion to the soldier’s betrayal of her in a previous life. Subsequently, the film’s action shifts ‘Into the Past’ of medieval France. Here, the main part of the plot deals with Joan’s parabolic tale: her rural youth, defiled by rampant Burgundian invaders; her subsequent role as mascot for French resistance; and finally, her demise at the stake thanks to the treachery of Trent’s previous incarnation. The film ends back in the trenches, where a newly inspired modern-day Trent accepts the suicide mission.
The American subtext of the medieval setting is best evinced through the establishment of Joan’s narrative in the film’s early scenes. In particular, Robin Blaetz observes that: ‘Joan’s rural childhood, allowed Cecil B. DeMille to extrapolate to such a degree that a contemporary reviewer of Joan the Woman described his Joan as a “girl you might meet in the smaller farming communities of our country.”’ Upon transporting the audience back into the past, a lingering longshot introduces Joan, who slowly herds sheep into the foreground of the frame before disappearing out to the right. The shot provides focus on her beaming face; its stillness and subject matter work in tandem to emphasise the tranquillity of the pastoral paradise in Domrémy, Joan’s home village. Subsequent scenes compound this tone through repeat use of the long-running static shots, one of which reasserts the rural idyll of small town values by detailing an affable exchange between farmworkers and a local pastor (fig. 3). Here, the filmmakers create a setting in which pious citizens work hard, routinely stop for thanksgiving prayer, and greet one another in the street. This bliss is soon broken. When the film revisits the same town, just two scenes later, the audience sees it subjected to a brutal attack by marauding invaders, a traumatic disruption that motivates Joan’s quest. Significantly, this is where the film introduces the fictionalised love story between Joan and Trent (the medieval incarnation). Trent enters the village as a commander of the invading English forces, who occupied large swathes of France in the early 15th century. He is knocked unconscious during the ensuing fray and Joan hides him in a hay-loft, where she nurses him back to health and brings him flowers in the meantime. The latter act provides an interesting subversion of gender roles typical to the cinema as, here, the girl woos the guy with gifts. Like the love triangle at work in The Little American, the casting of Joan and Trent as two lovers on opposing sides of the war is consistent with Mercer and Schingler’s reading of the melodrama as a tradition dominated by dramatic twists and turns, disasters, suspense and last-minute rescues. As an addition aimed at adding character depth to the narrative for popular appeal, the inclusion of the romance turns a broader
conflict into a personal melodrama.
Later in the film, Joan’s revolutionary spirit and fervour for liberty is juxtaposed with the stagnant and corrupt court of King Charles VII, an ignorant and inept European monarch of the order that the United States emancipated itself from. Under the influence of an enemy agent, a character known as “The Spider”, the king is caught in a web of deceit at the expense of the French state. It is the task of Joan the revolutionary to cast the cobwebs of conspiracy from the court and force the king from inertia to action through her rousing battle cries. We see her give a stirring speech to the troops, urging them to fight for France (fig. 4). The mise-en-scène of the shot is particularly symbolic: in the foreground, a beaming Joan with a stage light upon her face grabs the flag, whilst in the background, the precarious King Charles (played by Raymond Hatton) casts a nervous look. Joan quite literally steals the limelight from the king, threatening to obscure him from view with her rousing unfurling of the flag.
Joan’s status as inspirational figurehead forms part of the film’s saleable pitch to audiences. In this sense, the film’s promotional material places star and protagonist in an almost conflating close comparison. Its theatrical posters are emphatic in their credit of Geraldine Farrar as the leading lady (fig. 5), a bankable star with a large fan-following, dubbed ‘Gerry-flappers’ by The New York Times. In a spectacle that echoed Joan’s rabble-rousing scene from the film, Farrar appeared at Joan the Woman’s Boston premiere draped in the American flag. The location of the screening was not coincidental. The city was home to the Boston Tea Party in 1773, arguably the event that served as catalyst to The American War of Independence. Accordingly, the posters display the name of Farrar’s character with equal emphasis to that of the star, implying that she is the woman to follow: note the underline on both posters. The result is a message of a constrained aspiration, one that encourages servitude in one respect and freedom through proxy. After all, the film poster does not show Joan solely in her valiant armour; instead, it makes a point of drawing binaries between a drab reality and the translucent, heroic apparition of ambiguous gender. By retaining the depiction of passive and domesticated womanhood, the film’s marketed message conforms to cultural attitudes of the time, portending Joan’s usage in the poster for war bonds from the U.S. treasury department.
Although Joan the Woman was penned by a female screenwriter, with an emphatic script development credit for DeMille’s brother William, the way in which its coda glorifies Trent’s sacrifice reinforces the narrative’s male instincts. The film’s closing shots show Joan consigned to the sort of passive entity displayed in the theatrical posters. For all her rabblerousing in the past and despite the fact that the audience sees her donning armour and commanding armies, Joan does not serve an active role in the contemporary war. Ultimately, the performance of the heroic feat back in the trenches lies with a man: Wallace Reid’s Eric Trent.
In a cathartic act of sanctification for the soldier, Joan’s translucent apparition floats over the graves of the war dead. In Joan the Woman, the eponymous heroine may freely traverse the boundaries between medieval France and the present, yet the film’s static and binarised gender portrayals are at odds with such temporal fluidity. Joan’s limited agency in the present casts her among the ranks of her sisters in the heritage melodrama. In such films, female protagonists lead spectacular moments and provide sentimental resolution but, ultimately, the narrative relegates their primacy in favour of a valorisation of male sacrifice.
Joan the Woman. Dir. Cecil B. DeMille (Paramount Pictures, 1916)
The Little American. Dir. Cecil B. DeMille (Paramount/Artcraft Pictures, 1917)
Till I Come Back to You (Paramount/Artcraft Pictures, 1918)
Anon., ‘The Little American Poster’, Wayback Machine Internet Archive, https://web.archive.org/web/20170216180418/https://verdoux.files.wordpress.com/2008/04/the-little-american-1917-misspickford.jpg [accessed 01.05.2018]
Anon., ‘War Savings Stamps’, World Digital Library, https://www.wdl.org/en/item/4591/ [accessed 10.04.2018]
Anon., ‘Gerry-Flappers’ in The New York Times (April 23, 1922), p. 20
Blaetz, Robin, Visions of the maid: Joan of Arc in American film and culture, 1st edition (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 2001)
Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, 1st edition (London: Routledge, 1985)
Bowser, Eileen, ‘1907 Movies and the Expansion of the Audience’, in American Cinema 1890-1909: Themes and Variations, ed. by André Gaudreault, 1st edition (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009), pp. 179-201
Casella, Donna R., ‘Feminism and the Female Author: The Not So Silent Career of the Woman Scenarist in Hollywood – 1896-1930’, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 23 (2006), pp. 217-235
Dumenil, Lynn, The Second Line of Defence: American Women and World War I, illustrated edition (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2017)
Haydock, Nickolas, Movie Medievalism: The Imaginary Middle Ages, 1st edition (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2008)
Hayward, Susan and Phil Powrie (eds.), The films of Luc Besson: Master of Spectacle, 1st edition (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006)
Kaplan, E. Ann, ‘The Maternal in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film 1910–1940’, Home Is Where the Heart Is, ed. by Christine Gledhill, 1st edition (London: BFI Publishing, 1987)
Mercer, John and Martin Shingler, Melodrama: Genre, Style and Sensibility, 1st edition (London: Wallflower Press, 2004)
Mintz, Steven, Randy W. Roberts, and David Welky (eds.), Hollywood’s America: Understanding History Through Film, 5th edition (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016)
Neale, Steve, Genre and Hollywood, 1st edition (London: Routledge, 2000)
Warner, Marina, Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism, 2nd edition (London: Vintage, 1991)
Williams, Linda, ‘Melodrama Revised’ in Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory, ed. by Nick Browne, 1st edition (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998), pp. 42-88
 Marina Warner, Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism, 2nd edition (London: Vintage, 1991), p. 6.
 Susan Hayward and Phil Powrie (eds.), The films of Luc Besson: Master of Spectacle, 1st edition (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), p. 163.
 Joan the Woman. Dir. Cecil B. DeMille (Paramount Pictures, 1916).
 E. Ann Kaplan, ‘The Maternal in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film 1910–1940’, Home Is Where the Heart Is, ed. by Christine Gledhill, 1st edition (London: BFI Publishing, 1987).
 Donna R. Casella, ‘Feminism and the Female Author: The Not So Silent Career of the Woman Scenarist in Hollywood – 1896-1930’, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 23 (2006), pp. 217-235 (p. 226).
 ibid., Kaplan, p. 126.
 Arguably, the Progressive Era began prior to the inception of cinema in the 1890s and ended in 1920 with the nationwide prohibition of alcohol and the dawn of the Jazz Age.
 Steven Mintz, Randy W. Roberts, and David Welky (eds.), Hollywood’s America: Understanding History Through Film, 5th edition (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016), pp. 12-3.
 Linda Williams, ‘Melodrama Revised’ in Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory, ed. by Nick Browne, 1st edition (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998), pp. 42-88 (p. 42).
 David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, 1st edition (London: Routledge, 1985).
 Nickolas Haydock, Movie Medievalism: The Imaginary Middle Ages, 1st edition (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2008), p. 91.
 C.f. Steve Neale, Genre and Hollywood, 1st edition (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 181; Kaplan, p. 126.
 Eileen Bowser, ‘1907 Movies and the Expansion of the Audience’, in American Cinema 1890-1909: Themes and Variations, ed. by André Gaudreault, 1st edition (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009), pp. 179-201 (p. 179).
 The Little American. Dir. Cecil B. DeMille (Paramount/Artcraft Pictures, 1917); Till I Come Back to You (Paramount/Artcraft Pictures, 1918).
 John Mercer and Martin Shingler, Melodrama: Genre, Style and Sensibility, 1st edition (London: Wallflower Press, 2004), p. 7.
 The posters are in the public domain and available online at Wayback Machine internet archive: Anon., ‘The Little American Poster’, Wayback Machine Internet Archive, https://web.archive.org/web/20170216180418/https://verdoux.files.wordpress.com/2008/04/the-little-american-1917-misspickford.jpg [accessed 01.05.2018]. See, also, Dumenil’s display of ‘the silent sufferers’ poster in – Lynn Dumenil, The Second Line of Defence: American Women and World War I, illustrated edition (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), p. 251.
 Mintz, Roberts, and Welky, Hollywood’s America, pp. 12-3.
 Robin Blaetz, Visions of the maid: Joan of Arc in American film and culture, 1st edition (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 2001), p. 50.
 See figure 3.
 Mercer and Shingler, Melodrama: Genre, Style and Sensibility, p. 7.
 Anon., ‘Gerry-Flappers’ in The New York Times (April 23, 1922), p. 20.
 Haydock, Movie Medievalism, p.18.
 Jeannie MacPherson is given a credit for story, concept, and screenplay as a whole, specifically the insertion of the contrived love story of Joan and the reincarnated Trent. Although, William is awarded a screenwriting credit, it is unclear how much and what parts of the story were subject to his penmanship.