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A Poignant Masterpiece
There are very few films that have literally brought tears to my eyes. They must be films of uncompromising emotional power. Films like Magnolia, The Passion of the Christ, and now Johnny Belinda.
It is the story of a deaf and dumb young woman named Belinda. Treated as an unintelligent workhorse all her years, Belinda's life changes forever when a lonely new doctor moves into her small coastal Nova Scotian port town. He takes an immediate liking to her and, proving to her family that she is not the "dummy" they think, he teaches her to read lips. But after a drunken sexual assault leaves her pregnant, rumors begin to fly throughout the small town, and both Belinda and her loved ones must fight for what's right.
The performances are wonderful. Of course, Jane Wyman simply steals the show in her Oscar-winning performance. She brings an incredible heart, warmth, and emotional resonance to the character of Belinda, and she does it without ever saying a word. The rest of the cast is marvelous as well, especially Charles Bickford, who lovingly portrays Belinda's father, and Stephen McNally, who turns Belinda's attacker into one of the most easy to loathe characters ever put on celluloid - yet the film still brilliantly keeps him at the level of a realistic personality - no one is a caricature.
Director Jean Negulesco brings an understated visual beauty to the film reminiscent of the silent ages, when one had to use aesthetics to make up for the lack of aural stimulus. Every shot is a perfectly composed work of art, turning every moment of Belinda into a masterwork of lighting and raw, majestic nature. The seaside settings are utilized so well that they put Johnny Belinda in league with such legendary jaw-droppers as L'Avventura and Black Narcissus.
But this film is much more than just visual appeal. It is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, often simultaneously. There are so many thought-provoking themes to gnaw on in Johnny Belinda - the way people view the handicapped, the bonds of parenthood, the power of rumors, the justification of violence as self-defense, and overall morality and humanity. Even the film's setting could be considered an allegory on Belinda - the brutal waves of the ocean constantly pounding against the serene shores.
The film is also, as I mentioned before, emotionally overwhelming. While it certainly has a focused narrative, Belinda is foremost a progression of feelings, and they are so well conveyed that I was simply overcome with joy, pain, heartbreak, and hope. While the film is often described as a melodrama, it is far from a soap opera. There are no miraculous moments of sudden verbal triumph for Belinda, no ridiculously overacted moments of teary-eyed abandon - Johnny Belinda is a terribly real experience. There are aspects of the story that remain unresolved - not loose ends, but difficult problems that would most likely also remain unresolved in reality.
However, I don't want to give the impression that Johnny Belinda is depressing. I felt uplifted and rapturous just as often as I felt overcome by grief and fear. I felt so much for these characters and I wanted so sorely for things to turn out a certain way - but I won't reveal whether they do or not. I will say that the film ends on a note of nearly unbearable poignancy, and this is the moment that massaged my tear ducts.
My only complaint concerning the film is Max Steiner's score. He is perfectly suited for epic films like King Kong and Gone With The Wind, but here it feels somewhat overdramatic and occasionally awkward. He tends to play up the melodramatic angle and spot score in a ubiquitous manner, which simply doesn't fit with a film like Johnny Belinda. Still, it tends to work more often than not, and it is not a major enough problem to work seriously to the film's detriment.
This picture is a true gem. It has been unavailable for years, but thanks to Warner Brothers, it finally has a DVD release, and the restoration is simply glorious - it more than does justice to this cinematic treasure. Do yourself a favor and see Johnny Belinda.
An enjoyable movie!
I came across this name of the movie when I went to a Deaf History tour at University of Iowa library last Feb., otherwise, I wouldn't have known about this movie. I wrote down the name of the movie, so I can find the movie to see it and came across Amazon.com that are selling one on DVD with closed-captioned which was a plus.
Since I know sign language, it was very interesting to see a big change from the signs in the movie during 1948 to the same words comparing to now in 2006. I can see most of them are different and a couple of them like 'thank you' are still the same. I guess time have changed from 'old-fashioned' signs to 'modernized and simple' signs. It would be interesting if I could talk to Jane Wyman herself in today's sign language and see if she can understand some or not. I wonder if she knows some or have forgotten completely?
It was an enjoyable movie with excellent acting by Jane Wyman and Lew Ayres (bless his heart!). I'm sure I will watch the movie again later.
"Stop puttin' those grrrand idears into her head"
Jane Wyman one the Best Actress Oscar - and rightly so too - for her sensitive and touching portrayal of a deaf mute who blossoms under the attentions of a compassionate young doctor on a Nova Scotian farm. Dealing with the themes of rape, teenage pregnancy, single-motherhood and small town intolerance, Johnny Belinda was probably quite sensational for the late 1940's, the period in which it was made.
The film begins as the gentle Dr. Robert Richardson (Lew Ayres) moves to a windswept coastal Nova Scotia town to escape from a spoiled relationship. One night, he is asked to deliver a calf and upon visiting the farm Black McDonald (Charles Bickford), she meets Belinda (Jane Wyman) a young deaf girl, whose unofficial name is "dummy" and is treated like some kind of serving wench.
Apparently her mother died giving birth to her and since then her Aunt Aggie (the great Agnes Moorehead), has been holding it against her. Neither her father nor her aunt ever actually believes that there's a sharp mind and deep emotional intuition behind Belinda's innocent fašade. But Robert sees something quite magical in the girl and he takes the time to teach her sign language and how to read lips when no one else will.
Her progress is astonishing, and soon she's altered from a dirty and overworked rapscallion into an attractive and spirited young woman. In fact, she's so pretty that she even attracts the attentions of the town's local bad boy Locky McCormick who gets rotten drunk one night and brutishly rapes her in the McDonald's barn. Belinda internalizes the experience, keeping it a secret.
When Robert takes Belinda to see a specialist in the city, he discovers that she is pregnant Unfortunately Belinda ends up pregnant, a fact that Robert discovers when he takes her to a hearing specialist in the big city. Because Belinda won't name the man who attacked her, the townspeople - who are mostly a bunch of god-fearing, intolerant old biddies - quickly assume that Robert is the father.
Everything comes to a head when Locky realizes he is the father of the baby now named Johnny Belinda and tries to talk his fiancÚ Stella (Jan Stirling) into obtaining custody. What could have been an unadulterated, over-the-top weepy is actually played out in an understated and minimalist way.
Wyman avoids going for the grand gestures, playing Belinda with a mixture of quiet sensitivity and respect, and her supporting cast are equally as strong, especially the wonderful Agnes Moorehead who steadily warms to her vulnerable young niece as the story progresses.
Of course, due to the censorship restrictions of the time, the handling of the darker themes are a rather whitewashed - we never actually see Belinda when she is pregnant and her delivery of Johnny is so shrouded in mystery it merely looks like she is laying in bed with a severe case of the flu. But the issues of the rape and its consequences are shockingly audacious. Also, the actions taken by the townspeople "on behalf of" Belinda, whom they see as some kind of feral animal, are especially bleak.
Johnny Belinda definitely belongs to the stunning Ms. Wyman. She really manages to capture the sensitive heart and soul of Belinda. But the picture is also notable for its stunning exterior shots, the landscapes which run down to the sea's edge, village streets, fishing boats and weathered barns look as though they might be indigenous to Cape Breton Island and they really give you the feel that you are actually struggling to live a hand-to-mouth existence along with these people. Mike Leonard June 06.