Joan of Arkansas [Television Show]
Joan of Arkansas was a 1958 unsold television pilot about a woman from Hot Springs (Garland County) who is selected by a government computer to be the first person on the moon. The pilot, written and directed by Philip Rapp, is the last filmed appearance of Josephine “Joan” Davis, a comedic actress who starred in a number of radio, film, and television projects in her life, most notably the television series I Married Joan.
The episode opens with Dr. John Dolan (John Emery), Professor Henry Newkirk (Ben Wright), and Dr. Curtis Short (Wilton Graff) in an “impregnable vault” in Washington DC that houses Cerebright, a “top secret electronic brain” that is about to offer a “hope for peace” in the world. The goal of this computer is to select “the one perfectly normal American adult” for a mission to the moon. The three men are surprised when the computer selects a woman; Dolan insists, “There are no normal women.”
The woman in question is Joan Jones, a dental technician in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and much is made of the name “Joan of Arkansas” as being reminiscent of Joan of Arc, which causes Prof. Newkirk to comment that the name of his colleague, John Dolan, bears a striking similarity to Jean d’Aulon, who served as squire to Joan of Arc.
The episode then switches to the Hurley Medical Building in Hot Springs, where Joan is preparing a patient (Olan Soule) for a wax impression of his teeth but accidentally cements his mouth shut. Dolan informs Joan that she must go with him to Washington DC, and Newkirk shows up with her luggage packed. She insists that her employer, Dr. Ferguson (Robert Brubaker), cannot spare her, but he arrives at the office with her replacement, a Miss Kelly (Jolene Brand). On the train ride to Washington, when Dolan informs Joan that she has been selected to go to the moon, she panics and pulls the emergency brake. In Washington, Joan is put in the care of one Mrs. Putnam (Lee Patrick) but is scandalized that she is to live in the same buildings where Dolan and Newkirk have their quarters and laboratory, and that she must also undergo a physical from Dolan. She complains that a radioactive isotope she has to drink “needs a twist of lemon.”
The next morning, Joan is put into an aircraft for a flight into the ionosphere. (The footage of the aircraft exterior shows a Ryan X-13 Vertijet, an experimental aircraft flown in the 1950s.) During the flight, Dolan tries to reassure her that they are not more than thirty miles high (the maximum ceiling of the X-13 was only 20,000 feet, however). Joan threatens to jump from the plane, and when she pulls her lever to eject herself, the pilot is launched from the plane. She pulls another lever and launches Dolan from the plane, which then enters “an antigravity orbit” that leaves Joan weightless. Newkirk assures her that they can bring the plane in remotely, but when she grips both handles on her seat, Joan is ejected from the aircraft.
After the experience, Joan insists upon going back to Arkansas, and Dolan offers her a trip to the train station but instead takes her to meet the president, who gives Joan a statue of Joan of Arc, describing the French warrior saint as “a young woman, like you, not trained for leadership” who nonetheless “took command of an army,” adding, “But it was a time of great crisis, a time like today.” As the president continues to talk, Joan daydreams of being Joan of Arc, and scenes of Joan of Arc’s life play out on the screen, ending with her being burned at the stake.
The episode ends with Joan (who has decided to stay), Dolan, and Newkirk at dinner. Dolan informs her that the next step is a two-week stay on a deserted island to test her survival skills, and so she starts taking food from the dinner table and dumping it into her handbag, with the narrator (Paul Frees) saying, “Chin up, Joan. There are better days ahead.” The credits roll over an image of Joan Davis as Joan of Arc.
The central conceit of an everyman selected to journey to space shows up again in a 1994 episode of The Simpsons, “Deep Space Homer.” In that episode, Homer Simpson calls NASA to complain about how boring the telecasts of Space Shuttle launches are, after which NASA recruits Homer to become an astronaut in a bid to raise their Neilsen ratings. However, it is unlikely that the writers of The Simpsons were aware of Joan of Arkansas.
The name “Joan of Arkansas” has been used in other ways. A sludge pop band from Arizona has the name Joan of Arkansas, and in 2023 New York–based writer Milo Wippermann published a drama titled Joan of Arkansas.
For additional information:
“Joan of Arkansas.” Internet Movie Database. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt15720392/?ref_=fn_tt_tt_21 (accessed November 14, 2023).
“Joan of Arkansas.” YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gEyn6EwK0r0 (accessed November 14, 2023).
Ohmart, Ben. Hold That Joan: The Life, Laughs & Films of Joan Davis. Albany, NY: BearManor Media, 2007.
Rapp, Philip. The Television Scripts of Philip Rapp. Albany, NY: BearManor Media, 2006.
Staff of the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas
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