Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Johnny Belinda is that rare animal, a heart-warming sentimental story that doesn't tax one's intelligence, even if it does take a few melodramatic turns on its way. It's a socially conscious picture, one of the first Hollywood films to look at a handicapped person as a worthy subject for drama. It generates a warm feeling for the possibility of decency between people, even if its ideas about community are pessimistic.
The film was nominated for eleven Oscars and won a best actress award for Jane Wyman, who had been acting for fourteen years and only recently been receiving good parts. But the real honors in a top cast go to Lew Ayres, who animates the picture, and in a way, provides much of Wyman's performance by giving her a solid voice with which to react.
In Cape Breton Nova Scotia, doctor Robert Richardson (Lew Ayres) takes an interest in Belinda McDonald (Jane Wyman), the 'dummy' deaf-mute daughter of Black McDonald (Charles Bickford), who believes she has no intelligence. Richardson teaches Belinda sign language, and soon Black's sister Aggie (Agnes Moorehead) is impressed as well. Unfortunately, so is the local tough Locky McCormick (Stephen McNally), who takes advantage of Belinda's affliction to rape the girl. He then marries Stella, Richardson's housekeeper, for her inheritance, but only after Stella realizes her employer isn't attracted to her. When Belinda turns up pregnant it's trouble for everyone, due to local small-mindedness and the hostility shown Dr. Richardson by Pacquet (Dan Seymour), the local shopkeeper grabbing up everything of value in town, including Locky's boat. But in her silent world, Belinda is enraptured by the thought of having a baby of her own, which she decides to name Johnny ... even though nobody knows if it will be a boy or a girl.
Actresses have been winning the hearts of audiences by playing 'adolescent' and acting cute since the days of Mary Pickford. Johnny Belinda finds a legitimate way to make the formula work by having 34 year-old Jane Wyman play an intelligent but almost completely inexperienced deaf-mute girl. Belinda is perhaps in her early twenties but has never been to town or known people besides her stern but good-hearted father. She's aware of nature's cycles of weather and the life cycle of animals but is starving for human contact. So when Doctor Richardson teaches her sign-language (well-portrayed) and lip-reading (only the results shown) Belinda blooms into a world of pure feelings and delightful discoveries: Meaningful conversation, friendship, humor, and the sound of music as felt by holding a fiddle as it is being played.
The script from a play by Allen Vincent doesn't abuse the character by going too far in either of two typical directions. Belinda isn't a supergirl blessed with inordinate powers of intuition or Godliness. And she isn't a misfit martyr either, in some author's scheme that defines innocence as somehow doomed.
Johnny Belinda could be called classic Americana, even though it technically takes place in Canada. The story has several twists as melodramatic as D.W. Griffith's Way Down East, which it in some ways resembles. Ted McCord's 's cinematography lends an expressionistic presence to the windblown trees and high cliffs of the Cape Breton fishing/farming community, but the script emphasizes the economic hardships of the town, where even the villain - rapist has fallen on hard times.
One might easily believe that Johnny Belinda had to be set in Canada, and a few scenes trimmed, to escape charges of anti-Americanism. A lot of screen talk is expended to establish that the Pacquet character is able to slowly buy up the whole town by lending money, and having cash to buy things when people are forced to sell. Pacquet resents Richardson because the Doctor demands payment for services in money. Only Pacquet seems to have any money and by dealing with the locals on a barter economy rarely has to part with any. A radical case can be made for the villain Locky being the villain because he's been put out of work by Pacquet.
This only becomes relevant because of certain things Doctor Richardson says. When asked why he came to be a doctor in a tiny town, Richardson mentions losing a sweetheart but also says that he was disillusioned by the war and what came after the war. It's only 1948, so what is he talking about? Is Canada having a tough time economically? It would be interesting to know if Johnny Belinda was updated from after WW1, or if a complete script would be more specific about Richardson's malaise. Is it the fact that the world has been divided into new hostile camps? Is he lamenting the bomb? 1
Viewers of Johnny Belinda are not likely to think that aspect of the film is very important next to the magic of Johnny Belinda's story. The rape scene is fairly frightening for a 1940s movie, but when Belinda becomes pregnant, the only important thing to her and us, is the magic light that comes into her eyes. It's beautifully underscored by Max Steiner, who waits until this moment to introduce the hopeful "Johnny Belinda" theme. We know that Belinda is explicitly familiar with how farm animals are born. She puts two and two together and is enraptured.
The Belinda character strikes a positive chord in viewers yearning for reasons to give a damn about the world, as Belinda's response to the promise of life is both natural and beautiful. The film is also highly complimentary about the role of the teacher in the world -- a language teacher. Dr. Richardson's hobby of sign language opens a new world to another human being, enabling Belinda to transform herself. Note that Richardson tries his best not to interfere in McDonald family politics -- he wisely allows the gruff Aggie to discover the "new" Belinda for herself.
Johnny Belinda is top work for Ayres and character actor Charles Bickford, who was rarely allowed to express as much depth. Agnes Moorehead is fine in a less flattering role. Stephen McNally (Criss Cross, The Harvey Girls) is so convincing a dastard that this film surely harmed his future as a romantic hero. The real peach in the pie is the beautifully unique Jan Sterling, soon to be seen in Billy Wilder's unlucky Ace in the Hole. Ms. Sterling is nothing less than terrific. When she unwittingly goes with Locky to essentially steal Belinda's baby, she makes the entire melodramatic final act compelling.
Warner's DVD of Johnny Belinda is a good B&W transfer with rich contrast and sharp detail. The soundtrack is especially good, with Max Steiner channeling the spirit of Erich Wolfgang Korngold in his earthy country themes. 2
The disc doesn't have a commentary; I'd really like to know more about how the film was made, as most mentions never get beyond Jane Wyman's ace performance. For an extra, the disc offers us an insanely juvenile short subject (live action) called The Little Archer, about a real-life little kid who has terrific skill with a bow and arrow. He goes on a hunt, only to become friends with a deer, a bear cub and a mountain lion cub ... it's completely nutty.
The trailer portrays every violent incident from the film while omitting mention of Jane's affliction ... she just isn't very talkative, I guess. The original poster art (seen above) is so lurid that I wouldn't be surprised if many people thought it was lurid trash and stayed away. Word of mouth about Johnny Belinda's quality must have made the difference.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Johnny Belinda rates:
Supplements: Short subject: The Little Archer, Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 8, 2006
1. Underscoring the doubt is actor Lew Ayres' personal story. He was not only the star of the most famous anti-war film, All Quiet on the Western Front, he took Erich Maria Remarque's message to heart and became a highly visible conscientious objector in WW2 -- not a popular position. Many people never knew that he instead became a battlefield medic and served on the Pacific front in three campaigns. Ayres had some okay parts after the War but his activist image didn't help his career.
2. To learned musicologists -- forgive the narrow opinion, but this score just reminds me of King's Row. I'm sure you can point to 40 scores that show that Korngold may have imitated Steiner! I do think that Steiner gets short shrift for much of his later work, which isn't all drumbeat repetitions of his western scores. Percy Faith didn't write the great pop tune A Summer Place, after all.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson