When Lew Ayres first meets Belinda, she is raggedly clothed, with a dirty face, attending the birth of a heifer, tending to chickens and lugging sacks to the grist mill, consumed as much as her father and her aunt are in the endless drudgery of working just to eat. It is not a glamorous role for Jane Wyman, but as Belinda changes and cleans herself up to primp for the doctor, we see profound beauty in her, and in her studious dark eyes that dart over the faces around her, and in the lovely expression of her hands.
The film introduces sign language for a movie going audience which probably had not seen it before. It is conveyed in a simple and almost childlike way, as Belinda learns to sign “father” from the two signs of “man” and with hands to indicate he is holding a child. Even her father wonders delightedly at the fluttering fingers sign for “butterfly”. He shows this to his sister, asking her if she can guess what it means. Miss Moorehead’s crushing and funny reply is, “It means you’ve gone looney.”
When Belinda is raped by Locky, the progress she has made is lost and she retreats back to a zombie state, frightened and repulsed at being touched. There is a nice scene when Ayres, frustrated at being unable to reach her, confesses his own loneliness to her. A softness returns to her inscrutable expression, and we see that they are the key to each other’s happiness.
It is a tight script, and several incidents build on each other. Some fine scenes are when Richardson must tell Belinda she is going to have a baby, when he confides in Aggie, who expresses horror at the crime and sympathy for her niece with whom she has always been sharp, and when he finally must tell Belinda’s father, who does not take the news well. Richardson eventually guesses that Locky is the father, and when the banns of marriage are read between him and Stella in church, Mr. Ayres’ sardonic expression, like Jane Wyman’s performance, is restrained yet tells us everything about his disgust and lack of surprise.
Another good scene is when Belinda’s baby, called Johnny, is born and Aggie wearily tells the worried expectant grandfather, “It’s hard to get born and it’s hard to die.” When Johnny is born, we hear only his infant cries. Belinda cannot even whimper much less scream. Just as affecting are her crying scenes, particularly when Richardson tells her he must go away. Her expression is anguished and her tears are silent, and all the more powerful for being so. Black MacDonald’s tears are silent, too, as he sits in the dark, waiting to be told if mother and child are well.
The trial is a bit melodramatic, but movie trials tend to be. The stalwart Canadian Mountie is positioned like a product logo for Canada in several shots to remind us the Dominion is just and fair, even for unwed deaf mute mothers who kill people.
Back to the musical score for a moment, at each tense scene, such as the Belinda’s difficult labor and the struggle between Locky and her father that results in her father’s death, we hear the scratchy fiddle sound that Locky made on the violin he stole to trick her into coming close enough to him for him to grab her. The sound is a harbinger of doom and a reminder of violence. It’s a small element, but very effective.
“Johnny Belinda” rode the crest of an era of post-war socially conscious films. It was a powerful film for its day tackling uncommon subjects, which director Jean Negulesco keeps from descending into lurid sensationalism by his attention to detail of everyday life in the village, on keeping this primarily a character study, and through the intelligent playing of a complicated girl half her age by a very talented lead actress.
This slide show from “Johnny Belinda” was recently placed on YouTube. Here you get a nice chance to listen to Max Steiner’s score.
For more tributes on Jane Wyman, see J.C. Loophole’s entry on The Shelf , and Laura’s post at Laura’s Miscellanous Musings and by Jaime J. Weinman at Something Old, Nothing New.