The recent death of actress Jane Wyman calls to mind one of her most famous roles, the role for which she won the Oscar as the deaf mute in “Johnny Belinda” (1948). It’s an interesting film, and quite unexpectedly beautiful.
The character of Belinda is isolated from the small Nova Scotia community by her deafness and by their prejudice. A lot happens in the film, most notably her rape and resulting pregnancy, and afterwards she goes on trial for murder. With such a forlorn character in such harsh surroundings and grim events, one would think the film could be as lurid as the sensational movie poster advertising the film, with its menacing shadow of a man over a cowering Belinda. The unusual inclusion of rape, a taboo subject in those days, was enough to attract publicity. There are indeed a few menacing shadows in the film; one can pick out film noir influences here and there, particularly the table level and floor-to-ceiling camera shots. However, the film comes off as gentle and kindly, and almost uplifting.
Max Steiner’s lilting score that seems to echo Belinda’s innocence may have something to do with this, and perhaps that most of it is shot out of doors, against a wide sea and a majestic sky. But a lot of the credit for the hopefulness and gentleness of this film lies with Jane Wyman.
Miss Wyman reportedly studied at a deaf school and learned, along with sign language, to use her eyes to convey how Belinda learns about the world, in effect to listen with her eyes. Her expression, and her whole body language, is curtailed and without any exaggeration. It is a minimalist performance. She stiffens at the presence of others, like an animal relying on its instincts. She has adjusted to her world, but is lost in the world of others. She is classic case of a handicapped person who has been dismissed by others, and she has adjusted to being dismissed as much as to her deafness.
The film tells us right off what kind of world this is. We see immediately the working harbor, the fishing boats unloading their catch. We see the weather-beaten cottages and straggling fences, the peeling paint, the laundry that hangs limply in a wet ocean breeze. We see this is a hardscrabble existence. This is a poor community, but not an indolent, depressed and out of work community. Just the opposite, everyone is working as hard as they can at whatever they can to do survive. It is a hand-to-mouth existence. There is no time for pity even for someone like Belinda, who works as hard as any indentured servant on her father’s struggling farm and grist mill.
We also see immediately how the principle characters are established. Locky, played by Stephen McNally, is bullying, selfish and a charmer. Dr. Richardson is preoccupied, aloof. We see that Stella, played by Jan Sterling in a small but important role, his young housekeeper has a crush on him, but is courted by Locky because she is to inherit an uncle’s property. Locky needs the money to pay off his debts. We see Pacquet, the posturing, arrogant store owner to whom Locky, and many in the village, owe money. The villagers make the film. They are realistic and create a caste system we can easily follow.
Agnes Moorehead plays Belinda’s aunt, in one of her best roles. Miss Moorehead is feisty, curt, no nonsense, humorless, with a charming Scots burr.
But it is Miss Wyman’s film, and not just because she has a soap-opera heroine type role as an uber-victim. Her Belinda, curious and kind, blossoms under the attention of Dr. Richardson. He teaches her sign language, and by the end of the film even we know enough to understand her signing The Lord’s Prayer over the dead body of her father, and her confession of love to Dr. Richardson.
It is a simple message from the start, as Richardson, played by that master of kindly doctors, Lew Ayres is told by Black MacDonald, Belinda’s father, played by Charles Bickford, “If people would only learn to let each other live, it’d be a different world.”
More tomorrow on "Johnny Belinda."