Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, the late 1940s. Belinda Macdonald (Jane Wyman) has been deaf since infancy and has never learned to speak. Belinda is patronised and generally regarded as “the dummy” by the local fishing community until the doctor Robert Richardson (Lew Ayres) takes an interest in her and begins to teach her to lip-read and to use sign language…and soon the two fall in love. One night, Locky MacCormick (Stephen McNally) rapes Belinda – and she becomes pregnant…
Johnny Belinda began life as a stage play by Elmer Harris and, since this 1948 version (adapted by Irmgard von Cube and Allen Vincent), was remade for television in 1967 and 1982, with the role of Belinda played by Mia Farrow and Rosanna Arquette respectively. It’s not difficult to see the attraction: it’s a strong story, even if it becomes melodramatic in its latter stages, with Belinda being put on trial for murder, with a plum part for its leading lady. But the 1948 version, with its Oscar-winning performance by Jane Wyman – its only win from twelve nominations – remains the definitive version. It’s easy – and not unjustified – to be cynical and point out that the Academy frequently favours able-bodied actors playing people with disabilities. However, it should be said that playing a mute does put particular demands on the script and the actor: everything is in the face. Jane Wyman had a long career, beginning in her teens and ending in her late seventies, which included three other Oscar-nominated performances in The Yearling, The Blue Veil and Magnificent Obsession, so it’s a pity that she tends to be best remembered for her marriage to Ronald Reagan. This is her finest performance, managing to convey her character’s essential goodness without undue saccharine, and moving us without resorting to sentimentality. Lew Ayres, who had played the lead in the 1930 All Quiet on the Western Front and who had undergone blacklisting for being a conscientious objector in World War II, gives a quiet, somewhat wounded dignity to the role of Richardson – he was actually forty when the film was made, but seems quite a bit older. There’s fine support from Charles Bickford, Agnes Moorehead, Stephen McNally and Jan Sterling.
Jean Negulesco is a director who has never become a name to conjure with. He had a prolific, thirty-year career, and every so often there’s a film that stands out from the rest: the noirish thriller The Mask of Dimitrios, the lush romance Three Coins in the Fountain (okay, more a popular success than a critical one) and this one. Even if the production didn’t move much further from home than the California coast, there’s a real sense of place to this film, which is undoubtedly contributed to by Ted McCord’s black and white photography and Robert Haas’s art direction. Max Steiner’s score makes a strong contribution as well.
Johnny Belinda is certainly a product of its time: it’s a “first stage” film in its dealing with a minority character (in this case a disabled woman) who only appears because she is basically the film’s subject. The narrative is largely about integrating her with a community she has previously been excluded from. That said, the film did push the envelope by the standards of the late 1940s. If the treatment of rape seems very coy by today’s standards, remember that this was a subject rarely broached at the time, when rape was often seen as a more manly variant on foreplay. (Ida Lupino dealt with the subject more forcefully two years later in Outrage, but that was a B picture.) And, perhaps most importantly, Johnny Belinda stands up as a moving, well-made and well-acted drama that holds your attention to this day.
Johnny Belinda is another release from Warner’s back catalogue. This NTSC-format disc is encoded for Regions 1, 2, 3 and 4.
As the film was shot in Academy Ratio, naturally we have a full-frame transfer. Warners have done an excellent job with this black and white film, with strong but not overwhelming blacks, clear whites and every shade of grey in between. The picture is sharp. There is some grain, but it’s not displeasing. The soundtrack is single-channel mono (both original English and a French dub) and there’s nothing wrong with it, dialogue, music and sound effects all well balanced. There are twenty-seven chapter stops. Subtitles are available for the feature only.
Extras are a little lightweight. Jane Wyman is still alive at this writing (in her nineties, and admittedly I don’t know her state of health), but even if an interview or even a full-length commentary were not possible, is there not an archive interview with her? A commentary by a film expert might have been enlightening. Instead we get the theatrical trailer (2:36), with captions of a kind so declamatory they have been parodied endlessly over the last fifty years. The other extra is a short, made by Warners in 1949, but otherwise entirely unrelated to the main feature. The Little Archer (8:35), shot in Technicolor, is the story of four-year-old Melvin Beeby from Washington State, a very talented young archer. His encounters with local wildlife include a deer, a cougar and a young bear, but you’ll be glad to hear that he befriends his quarry rather than shoots them. This film is lumbered with a folksy narration that’s equally ripe for parody.
Johnny Belinda is not one of Warners’s most extras-packed discs, but you get the film looking and sounding fine, and that’s the necessary thing.