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The Cross of Lorraine

The Cross of Lorraine(1944)

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teaser The Cross of Lorraine (1944)

Hollywood does a little Allied flag waving for the French in The Cross of Lorraine (1943). The film stars Gene Kelly and Jean-Pierre Aumont as two French soldiers who are shipped to a Nazi concentration camp after the fall of France in 1940. Directed by Tay Garnett (The Postman Always Rings Twice [1946]), The Cross of Lorraine also stars Peter Lorre as a barbaric Nazi sergeant and Sir Cedric Hardwicke as an imprisoned priest.

The film is based on the novel A Thousand Shall Fall by German refugee Hans Habe. A former French Foreign Legion member, Habe reportedly based the story on his experiences during World War I. MGM was asked to make the film as the War Office hoped to promote better regard among the Allies for the French. It was the studio's New York sales office that changed the film's working title from that of the novel to The Cross of Lorraine. It was a ripped-from-the-headlines title the Cross of Lorraine (originally a symbol of Joan of Arc) had very recently been added to the French flag by Charles de Gaulle and adopted as the symbol of the Free French.

The Cross of Lorraine was only Gene Kelly's fifth film and his third in a row (following the star-studded Thousands Cheer and the Pacific theater Pilot No. 5 [both 1943]) with a wartime setting. It was also one of Kelly's better non-musical, dramatic roles. Of his performance, Kelly remarked, "I thought I did quite well in the first half. But missed towards the end. I had several close-ups which just weren't registering what I wanted them to." Nonetheless, Kelly gave the experience of making the film high marks, commenting, "it was fun doing the picture. I didn't have to wear any make-up, nor did I bother about shaving. And it was a great pleasure to be able to get dirty without having the wardrobe department jump down your throat."

Tay Garnett remembered the production fondly as well, especially a couple of humorous on set moments. In his autobiography, Light Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights, Garnett recalls the day that then Senator Harry Truman came to the set, escorted by the normally imposing MGM head Louis B. Mayer. "It was a delight," admitted Garnett, "to behold the Republican magenta of Louis B. Mayer's face as he personally provided top-drawer courtesies for the dapper little Democrat."

Another Garnett story had him and Cedric Hardwicke on their way to the commissary for lunch. Hardwicke was still in full priest attire. They came across Tommy Dorsey and his band rehearsing for Girl Crazy (1943) and stopped to listen. After a few minutes, Hardwicke turned abruptly to leave, as they only had an hour lunch break and plowed right into Greer Garson who was hurrying by. Garson apparently thought she had nearly taken out a real priest and offered up an "I'm so sorry father." According to Garnett, Hardwicke reacted "deadpan [and] blessed Miss Garson with the sign of the cross, then...executed a slow sensuous grind ending in a violent bump. In his priest costume, it was outrageous." Garson's reaction was momentary horror until she recognized Hardwicke. The incident remained a running joke between the actors; Hardwicke always greeted Garson with "bless you my daughter."

A couple of other interesting notes about The Cross of Lorraine: First, according to The Hollywood Reporter Charles de Gaulle supposedly wrote a letter to Jean-Pierre Aumont praising the film. Garnett, however, apparently never received the praise. "There's a rumor that the film was awarded a citation by General de Gaulle," said Garnett. "But if memory serves, I've never been kissed by a French general." The Hollywood Reporter also noted that preview audiences found the film too violent and that several viewers walked out of a screening. Critics, likewise, cited the film's graphic depictions. Variety, for example, called it, "gruesome," and said the film "provide[d] a vivid display of barbaric tortures."

But one such scene, where Hume Cronyn's turncoat character is shot by the guards, may be memorable for another reason - the scene was duplicated almost frame for frame in Stalag 17 (1953).

Producer: Edwin H. Knopf
Director: Tay Garnett
Screenplay: Robert Hardy Andrews, Alexander Esway, Michael Kanin, Ring Lardner, Jr., Robert Aisner (story), Lilo Dammert (story), Hans Habe (novel)
Cinematography: Sidney Wagner
Film Editing: Dan Milner
Art Direction: Daniel B. Cathcart, Cedric Gibbons
Music: Bronislau Kaper, Eric Zeisl
Cast: Jean-Pierre Aumont (Paul Dupre), Gene Kelly (Victor La Biche), Cedric Hardwicke (Father Sebastian), Richard Whorf (Francois Le Mer), Joseph Calleia (Antonio Rodriguez), Peter Lorre (Sgt. Berger).
BW-90m. Closed captioning.

by Stephanie Thames

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