Monday, September 10, 2012

Review: "Johnny Belinda" is a Powerful Drama (Remembering Jane Wyman)

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 236 (of 2006) by Leroy Douresseaux

Johnny Belinda (1948) – B&W
Running time: 102 minutes (1 hour, 42 minutes)
DIRECTOR: Jean Negulesco
WRITERS: Allan Vincent and Irmgard von Cube (based upon the play by Elmer Harris)
PRODUCER: Jerry Wald
EDITOR: David Weisbart
COMPOSER: Max Steiner
Academy Award winner


Starring: Jane Wyman, Lew Ayres, Charles Bickford, Agnes Moorhead, Stephen McNally, Jan Sterling, Dan Seymour, and Alan Napier

The subject of this review is Johnny Belinda, a 1948 American drama that earned a best picture Oscar nomination. The film is based on a play of the same name by Elmer Harris, and the play is based on a real-life incident that occurred in the area of Harris’ summer residence. The film focuses on a deaf young woman and the doctor who befriends and teaches her.

Cape Breton is a small island on the northeast corner of Nova Scotia, and the kindly Robert Richardson (Lew Ayres) is the new doctor in a small fishing village on the island. Dr. Richardson takes a professional interest in Belinda MacDonald (Jane Wyman), a deaf mute, whom most everyone calls “Dummy.” Using his past experience and some medical text, Dr. Richardson teaches Belinda to communicate through sign language and by reading people’s lips.

A whole new world unfolds before Belinda, and she even surprises her doubting father, Black MacDonald (Charles Bickford), who more or less uses his daughter as a common laborer, and her aunt, Aggie MacDonald (Agnes Moorhead). Things turn ugly, however, when the town bully, Laughlin “Locky” McCormick (Stephen McNally), rapes Belinda, and she ends up pregnant – turning the town against her, her family, and her dear friend Dr. Richardson, whom the town mistakenly believes to be the baby daddy.

Jane Wyman earned the “Best Actress” Oscar for her turn in Johnny Belinda as a young deaf woman who finds herself awakening to the world, both its best and worst, when she learns to communicate. It’s actually an amazing performance when considering how quiet and undemonstrative the character is, and Wyman captures it with equally soft grace. Hers, however, isn’t the only good performance. Lew Ayres is steadfast as Dr. Richardson, so convincing that Dr. Richardson seems to be a real person who somehow stepped into the film’s fictional setting. Charles Bickford as Belinda’s father and Agnes Moorhead as her aunt provide a solid counterbalance to the influence of Dr. Richardson in Belinda’s life.

Perhaps because director Jean Negulesco allows this quartet of brawny performances to breath and develop without melodrama, Johnny Belinda is a solid weepy, the kind of tear-jerker that doesn’t jerk tears out of the audience so much as it touches them in a profound way. Negulesco finds room in the script for the rest of the cast who aren’t so much characters as they are the backdrop to this little drama. The denizens of Cape Breton are insular, conservative, and oh-so set in their ways, and it’s a nifty move of directing that allows these people and the way they live to enhance the drama. Negulesco uses these obstacles and adversaries our protagonists face to make Belinda’s ultimate victory even sweeter.

8 of 10

1949 Academy Awards: 1 win: “Best Actress in a Leading Role” (Jane Wyman); 11 nominations: “Best Picture” (Warner Bros.), “Best Actor in a Leading Role” (Lew Ayres), “Best Actor in a Supporting Role” (Charles Bickford), “Best Actress in a Supporting Role” (Agnes Moorehead), “Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White” (Robert M. Haas and William Wallace), “Best Cinematography, Black-and-White” (Ted D. McCord), “Best Director” (Jean Negulesco), “Best Film Editing” (David Weisbart), “Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture” (Max Steiner), “Best Sound, Recording” ((Warner Bros. Sound Dept.), and “Best Writing, Screenplay” (Irma von Cube and Allen Vincent)

1949 Golden Globes, USA: 2 wins: “Best Motion Picture – Drama (shared with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre-1948) and “Best Motion Picture Actress” (Jane Wyman)

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


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