By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
I’m not sure exactly what I thought Johnny Belinda was before I watched it, but it might have been this.
That’s a Johnny Belinda if I ever saw one.
Well… I was wrong. Johnny Belinda is a Broadway adaptation about a kind country doctor and a deaf and dumb farmgirl he teaches to communicate. Their lives, and their place in their small community, is torn apart after a shocking act. Will they overcome?
Walking into this film blind was very interesting, because in a lot of ways it’s initially presented as a rather sanitized, family-friendly drama. Then the thematic stuff hits, and it goes a lot farther than I expected it to. This is the first Hollywood post-Code film to address rape for one, and a deadly scuffle later might use a dummy, but is still incredibly harrowing to this day.
Director Jean Negulesco manages the tension and drama of this plot with a steady hand, and pairs with DP Ted McCord to take full visual advantage of its wild Nova Scotian setting. It’s the acting, though, that really sells this film. Jane Wyman would win an Oscar for her portrayal of Belinda, imbuing her with innocence, earnestness, and intelligence. Her transformation is exhilarating, and her misfortunes heartbreaking, but she stays centered and optimistic.
Meanwhile, in your life…
Lew Ayres as the kind-hearted doctor is full of the personal integrity and humane nature that Gregory Peck would go on to practically trademark, and Stephen McNally is as despicable a brute as you can imagine. My favorite performances, though, were from Belinda’s simple farmfolk parents (Charles Bickford and Agnes Moorehead). They are very hard people, focused on work and survival more than anything, but Bickford shows a softer side as he realizes a deeper relationship with his daughter is possible, and while Moorehead seems unloving, she’s fiercely protective of her kin no matter what. Their love may not be overt, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
This is still Hollywood in 1948, so there’s still a good deal of sanitizing going on. Belinda’s reaction to being told she’s pregnant in particular seemed way too simplistic and cheerful.
I’m having my rapist’s baby? Yay!
The score also seems to think it’s in some sort of jaunty, lighthearted romp for much of the movie, and honestly could’ve been done away with entirely.
Johnny Belinda is a beautifully acted, deeply humane stone-cold classic.
Take a Drink: for small town pleasures
Take a Drink: whenever the old doctor’s orders are referred to
Take a Drink: for each new villainy
Take a Drink: for vicious gossip
From the female equivalent of these guys.
Do a Shot: if the opening narration brings Terrance & Phillip to mind
Do a Victory Shot: for justice, finally