The Song of Bernadette is a tasteful Hollywood treatment of a religious story. The pious ad campaign which accompanied the film in 1943 had taglines like, "The final fulfillment ... of everything you are ... or ever hope to be." The film we see is certainly idealized, but it's a reasoned argument for faith, that may or may not have anything to do with the facts of what happened at Lourdes in 1858. It's also a very satisfactory emotional experience.
This is an unimpeachably good production, with a very intelligent script, fine direction and performances by actors who don't behave as if told to, 'hurry up and be enlightening.' It's a far cry from the fossilized reverence of something like The Greatest Story Ever Told. The casting of the radiant, compellingly beautiful Jennifer Jones raises more questions of Hollywood aims and motives: When is one glamorizing a subject? Would the audience care about the film's religious content, if its Bernadette weren't so beautiful & desirable?
There is no shortage of naive and embarassing films dealing with religion and faith, which makes the achievement of The Song of Bernadette all the more impressive. At first, we think it's going to be about the oppression of the poor, or a statement about the uncomprehending crudity of humanity when faced with a miracle. No, Bernadette's struggling family is neither crass nor noble, and the crowds which first surround the phenomenon at the grotto aren't presented as any inspired elite. The George Seaton script makes no bones about the circus that grows around Bernadette's miraculous spring, and charts fairly the simultaneous efforts to suppress and profit from her visions.
Very surprisingly, the film even has the daring to show the authoritarian Catholic Church, at least initially, as hostile to the miracle. The local Dean (Charles Bickford) wants the rabble out of his garden, and both he and his higher-ups are primarily concerned with their personal political problems. What with civil and church authorities passing the buck, and harassing the young girl into a bureaucratic pit, for a few minutes The Song of Bernadette goes in the direction of a martyr's tale.
Vincent Price's skeptical prosecutor character Vital is what makes the movie work, and it's one of his best roles. In contrast to the selfish mayor and police chief, Vital is a man of principle who has chosen science and logic over faith and superstition. He tries every kind of nonviolent persuasion and intimidation to stop Bernadette, convinced that her 'miracle' is just hysteria, a social sickness that needs to be discouraged.
The movie is thoughtfully, wisely even-handed. No definite miracles are presented, and the vision of the 'beautiful lady'- never claimed by Bernadette to be the Virgin Mary - is firmly established as something she alone sees. Except for one shot of her feet, the vision always appears as Bernadette's isolated point of view. Everything that happens to Bernadette can be rationalized as coincidence - the 'virgin' spring, and Bernadette's reportage of concepts she claims she knows nothing of, like The Immaculate Conception.
Avoiding a direct endorsement of Bernadette and her visions, the film carefully positions the Vincent Price character to represent the rational alternative. This keeps things from turning into a tract - at least until near the end, when the picture finally gives in and portrays Bernadette's saint-like finish, with all her doubters and persecutors conquered. Price remains discouraged but skeptical until the film's only cheap scene, where he reveals that his previous atheism has made him lonely and miserable. Faced with death, he has a conversion at the grotto that throws the score solidly in God's favor. The show still retains its dignity, more dignity than, say, Schindler's List's sudden eruption of sentimental slop just before its finish: "I could have saved more!".
Within the limitations of honesty that could be reasonably expected from a 1943 Hollywood picture, this is still a triumph. I'm surprised the Catholic Church didn't come down on it for not showing their representatives as being virtuous and infallible from the start. It's a huge credit to Fox, and perhaps Darryl Zanuck, for not letting this picture turn into faith-kitsch, a Bells of St. Lourdes.
One couldn't ask for more from Jennifer Jones, a remarkable actress from whose face emotions radiate like heavenly grace. She was in her twenties and had two children when she played Bernadette, and her convincing adolescent innocence can't be explained away by acting professionalism. Her mentor David O. Selznick later placed her in one overboiled romantic part after another, each of which she overcame with her incredible talent - in a couple of scenes in Portrait of Jennie, she plays an even younger girl, and even more convincingly. At the time, audiences were convinced Jones was about 15 or so, which made it all the more puzzling when her divorce from Robert Walker and breaking-up of the Selznick marriage quickly followed.
1946 must have been a year of disillusion for moviegoers, what with Bernadette and the Dean of Lourdes (Jones and Bickford) playing fiancees (briefly) in the grossly oversexed Duel in the Sun. Part of the popularity of the Western epic had to be the See-Bernadette-In-Heat factor. The beatific Beautiful Lady of Bernadette's vision was played by Zanuck's girlfriend Linda Darnell, who became the hot-to-trot Restoration floozie of Forever Amber - although I'm not sure her divine cameo was publicized at the time.
The talent on display in small, well-integrated roles is very impressive. Lee J. Cobb cruises in and out as a thoughtful doctor. Gladys Cooper (Now, Voyager, The Pirate) is terrific as a harsh nun jealous of the young novitiate; Earth-woman Anne Revere (Body and Soul) is Bernadette's strong mother, and the weak Roman Bohnen (The Best Years of Our Lives) her father. King and Zanuck sure could pick 'em, bringing over the excellent Edith Barrett (The Ghost Ship) from RKO, for a tiny but impressive bit. All the casting is equally careful.
Produced under the strait-jacket of studio, church and censor oversight, religious movies are rarely as good as this one. Belief becomes a crippling problem with well-intentioned Church-initiated projects, the kind that usually have much too much proselytizing to do. 1 Like it or not, movies about miracles become fantasies, and when the makers insist the fantasies are 100% real, something gets lost in the translation, just the way The Exorcist, a fantastic film coming from the other end of the spectrum, goes too far when it claims to be presenting a literal Truth with no leeway for interpretation. The Song of Bernadette saw and avoided that trap 60 years ago; most movies today are so dumbed-down, its intelligent approach now seems inspired.
Last note: Alfred Newman's quietly ecstatic music for the visions, holds long, tremulous notes that are almost painful in their wistfulness. They remind me very strongly of the eclectic John William's very similar music in the alien encounter section of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Fox's Studio Classics DVD of The Song of Bernadette is a beauty, as can be seen in the restoration demo included as a special feature. An entire Biography episode on Jennifer Jones provides a slightly glossed-over version of the 'great lady's' career, but sticks nicely to the facts. An audio commentary provides the views of a Jennifer Jones biographer (Edward Z. Epstein), an Alfred Newman biographer (John Burlingame) and noted Hitchcock critic Donald Spoto.
A brief newsreel excerpt shows a nervous Jones delivering an awkward short speech about the boys overseas (one can imagine it being hurriedly scribbled for her by Selznick on a napkin) and being hustled about by Milton Berle. There's also a theatrical trailer, filled with the necessary but depressing hype for the film.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Song of Bernadette rates:
1. Savant once cut
a trailer for such a movie, China Cry. I wish I had a voice tape of the client producer,
who actually went around using lines like, "Hey, it made a believer out of me!", to mean, "Right on!"