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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Warner Bros. JOHNNY BELINDA (1948) is yet another highly regarded and
unforgettable Hollywood classic offering from its Golden Age! From the
exemplary performances to the brilliant low key monochrome
Cinematography to its arresting music score JOHNNY BELINDA quite
rightly deserves a revered place in the history of the Hollywood film!
From a successful play by Elmer Harris it was stylishly written for the
screen by Irmgard Von Cube and Allen Vincent and strikingly directed by
The story centers on a drab and shabby deaf mute girl Belinda MacDonald (Jane Wyman giving the performance of her life) who with her father (Charles Bickford) and her aunt (Agnes Moorhead) endeavour to eke out a livelihood on a post war Nova Scotia farm. She is befriended by a young doctor (Lew Ayres) who takes her under his wing to teach her sign language. Later the girl is brutally raped by an unscrupulous villager (Stephen McNally) becomes pregnant and has a child. Throughout her predicament she is supported by the compassionate doctor. Finally when the baby's father tries to take the child for himself Belinda kills him. She is arrested for murder but when it comes out who the rapist was and that she killed only out of defence of her baby she is exonerated. Wyman is quite stunning as the hapless girl and rightly deserved the Acadamy Award she received for her adroit performance! Excellent too was Charles Bickford in his nominated role as Belinda's father and even better was Agnes Moorhead (sporting a perfectly clipped Scottish accent) who won a nomination as Belinda's erstwhile crusty aunt Aggie. Nominated also was genius Cinematographer Ted McCord whose wonderful coastal imagery at Mendocino and Pebble Beach locations in California were nothing short of breathtaking!
Another stunning aspect of this exceptional motion picture is the music by the great Max Steiner! There is a distinctive Scottish flavour permeating the score which aptly points up the Nova Scotia setting. For instance in the marvellous Main Title the composer makes reference to Robert Burns' "O Poorith Cauld" as well as the Canadian national song "Maple Leaf Forever" which is altogether very appealing when heard over the film's beautiful aerial shot of the pretty fishing village at the opening of the picture. The highlight of the score is, of course, the winsome and thoroughly engaging lullaby the composer wrote for the infant Johnny. First heard when the doctor informs Belinda "you're going to have a baby" and then when the child is born. This inspired hum inducing theme - the score's most memorable tune - is then heard throughout the rest of the film soaring to uplifting beauty in the closing scene. Other splendid cues are for the moving sequence where Belinda recites The Lord's Prayer in sign language at the wake of her slain father and in stark contrast the music for the violent rape scene where stabs of screaming and shrieking strings, in their topmost register, drive home the brutality of the moment. This was the genius that was Max Steiner! Ever the consummate dramatist and film's emphatic musical commentator! 1948 was a banner year for the indefatigable composer! Besides JOHNNY BELINDA - which garnered him an Acadamy Award nomination - he also scored ten other pictures which included such masterworks as "The Adventures Of Don Juan", "Treasure Of The Sierra Madre" and "Key Largo".
JOHNNY BELINDA was remade three times for television in 1967, 1969 and again in 1982. Each version was quickly dismissed and are now totally forgotten unlike Warner's awesome 1948 original which has and will continue to stand the test of time!
Am 79 years old. Saw it at age 23. Saw it again on TV tonight.It is
still a stunning film, the black and white cinematography could not be
achieved by many of today's a.s.c. people. Anybody can shoot color.
She was poignant in every scene. The northern California coast doubles nicely for Nova Scotia from whence my maternal ancestors emigrated.
I have difficult time seeing Lew Ayers not in a German soldiers uniform but he was wonderful in this as he was in "All Quiet..." Bickford is always Bickford but in this he is truly in character. And who can deny Moorehead? Direction is flawless as is the casting. The score is gripping.
I had always written Jane Wyman off as just the ex-wife of Ronald Reagan and the matriarch of the Falcon Crest clan, but this movie really changed my mind about her. I was completely blown away by her performance as a deaf-mute. It is very easy to fall into stereotypes when playing physically challenged roles (especially in 1948), but Wyman underplays her part with great skill. She rises above the melodrama of the film without saying a single word and everything can be seen in her eyes. This film is truly a shining moment in her career.
Outstanding and forgotten masterpiece from the late-1940s that led the way in 1948 with a dozen Oscar nominations, but somehow lost most of its steam as the Academy Awards were handed out. The titled character (Jane Wyman in a well-deserved Oscar-winning part) is a beautiful young lady who sadly happens to be deaf and mute. She is treated as an outcast by those within her Nova Scotia village's landscape. Her father (Oscar-nominee Charles Bickford) and aunt (Oscar-nominee Agnes Moorehead) love her very much, but become easily frustrated when they have trouble communicating with the youth on their small farm. When kind doctor Lew Ayres (yet another Oscar-nominee) comes to town he begins to teach Wyman how to read, teach her sign language and teaches her about life and love. Naturally those within the community despise the new outsider (they have never cared for Wyman and her family either). Jan Sterling comes to hate the doctor as she is turned down by Ayers and town bully Stephen McNally commits a horrific act by raping Wyman one night in her father's barn. A pregnancy occurs and the townspeople believe that Ayers is the culprit. Now those unfriendly people in the community wish to take Wyman's new-born child for their own, believing that Wyman is not fit to be a mother. Jean Negulesco (Oscar-nominated for direction) was a film-maker that never got too cute. He let his performers dominate the action and "Johnny Belinda" is no exception here. His subtle direction just adds to everyone else in the film. "Johnny Belinda" sometimes plays more like a stage play than an actual motion picture (this is a compliment by the way) and that just adds to the emotions and realism that are displayed throughout this fine movie. 5 stars out of 5.
Most of the previous posts were on the mark. I thought every aspect of
the movie was magnificent. A great deal of thought, care, and attention
went into the production and filming of "Johnny Belinda." Wyman was
unforgettable. Everyone else in the cast--down to the smallest
role--was superb. The black and white cinematography is stunning, and
the location work (I'm assuming the film was not shot in the studio)
pays off handsomely. Costuming, props, sets--there's not a false note
anywhere. The acting, screenplay, and direction all meld beautifully so
that one of the film's greatest achievements is that it never becomes
Wyman's Oscar was greatly deserved, but "Johnny Belinda" should have won several more. Throw a dart at the cast and credits list--wherever the dart lands will be a worthwhile Oscar winner.
The reviewer who hailed this as a "forgotten masterpiece" nailed it perfectly. Not only do they "not make 'em like this any more," they only very rarely did before. This is a film crying out to be rediscovered.
The movies had been talking for 20 years when Johnny Belinda came out
in 1948. Those first Oscars were awarded for silent films and it took
20 years for another Oscar to be awarded for a performance without a
single word of dialog.
Jane Wyman, who for the first ten years or so of her film career, played a lot of second leads, proves she could have competed with Mary Pickford or Gloria Swanson in the silent era, got an Oscar for her career role as Belinda McDonald. Belinda is a deaf mute who gets raped and impregnated by the town lout and because of what she is, she can neither name her attacker or speak out against the small minds that inhabit the town she lives in.
The story takes place in one of the Canadian isles off Nova Scotia and it begins with the arrival of a new doctor, Lew Ayres in town. One night he gets a call for a veterinary problem from farmers Charles Bickford and his sister Agnes Moorehead. While there he meets Bickford's mute daughter, Jane Wyman.
It's a rough life on that farm which doesn't yield much for creature comforts. Rough of course for Wyman, but also rough for Bickford who brought his sister in to help raise the child after his wife died in childbirth with Wyman. They're hard people, but they have a tender side also which is brought out as the film develops.
Johnny Belinda brought home a flock of Oscar nominations, for Ayres as Best Actor, for Bickford as Best Supporting Actor, for Agnes Moorehead as Best Supporting Actress, for the film itself, for Director Jean Negulesco. But only Wyman got the prize on Oscar night.
The closest performance I can think of to Wyman's in more modern times is that of Hilary Swank as trans-gender Brandon Teena. Swank hasn't the education to articulate her feelings either just as Wyman doesn't until Ayres teaches her to sign, still an audience made of statues will understand and be moved.
In addition to those already mentioned, look for fine performances from Stephen McNally as the lout and Jan Sterling as his wife.
But most of all look to be terribly moved by Jane Wyman.
Belinda (Wyman) lives in a small fishing village with her father
(Bickford) and her aunt (Moorehead). She has one slight problem though.
She's deaf and her guardians never really taught her how to understand
and associate with the outside world.
That all changes when a doctor (Ayres) comes to town. He takes a liking to Belinda and begins to teach her sign language. She learns how to read lips and ends up being a very good pupil. But when the doctor goes away on business, he returns to Belinda and finds a shocking discovery while taking her to a doctor in another town.
Stephen McNally and Jan Sterling are supporting characters and they give fine performances. But the real stars here, are the four ones that were nominated for Oscars. Agnes Moorehead is one of the most interesting and mysterious characters, Charles Bickford is the one that you'll be rooting for, Lew Ayres will make you feel special, and Jane Wyman will give you one of the greatest performances of the '40s and possibly of all time.
The film was nominated for twelve Academy Awards. This is a fantastic thing for any film. Sadly, it was only awarded the Oscar for Best Actress. I sometimes wonder what it would have been like if it had had more of a success like it should have had.
That Jane Wyman, then in private life Mrs. Ronald Reagan, was able to find the strength to film this masterpiece of her career so soon after the birth and death of her baby daughter in 1947 is a glimpse to us of her utter sheer determination and complete professionalism. Miss Wyman uses milestones of her own life in her acting; she becomes the character and thus we catch emeralds and wheats, the good and the bad, the happy and the sad. It makes for a performance the audience never forgets and the film remains fresh after having had seen it several times. The supporting cast is pure gold. I understand that Jack Warner buried the film for nearly a year after completion and only got on the band wagon after Wyman made him take out an apology in the trades which lead to the big Oscar buildup which snagged Jane Wyman her best actress oscar for 1948. Sadly her greatest professional triumph marked also the death of her marriage to husband Ronald Reagan.
This is a great storytelling and movie-making rolled into one and I can
see why it was up for so many Academy Awards in its day (when they
rewarded the best movies.)
Jane Wyman seems to get the most attention here but I was totally impressed not only with her but all the actors, the director and the photographer. All excelled in this film, I thought - a great effort all-around.
Wyman and Lew Ayers were terrific in the leads, playing endearing characters who were easy to become involved with and root for in this story. Wyman, like Dorothy McGuire in "The Spiral Staircase" (1945) and Alan Arkin in "The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter" (1968), plays a deaf mute effectively with haunting, expressive facial features. I hope people don't overlook Ayers' extremely warm performance as the doctor who truly cares for this woman. Ayers plays a very decent man and does it with a lot of dignity.
Charles Bickford was powerful, too, as Belinda's father and ditto for the always-entertaining Agnes Moorhead, playing Belinda's sister. I can't leave out the "villains," either: Stephen McNally, who really looks his part, and his reluctant bride Jan Sterling, an underrated classic-era actress.
Jean Negulesco's direction provided numerous interesting low and high-angle camera shots and cinematographer Ted McCord made the most of it, including some great facial closeups. To be honest, I am not familiar with either of these two names but I was very impressed with their work here. Oh.....having Max Steiner doing the music didn't hurt, either!
The film gets a little melodramatic at times but it's never overdone. The story flows nicely. No scene - pleasant or unpleasant - overstays its welcome. You get a cohesive blend of heartfelt sentiment, romance, drama and suspense. In addition, the DVD transfer of this film is magnificent. I would like to have seen some behind-the-scenes features with the disc, but the film was so good I am not complaining.
Every great actress has one signature role, the film for which she's
forever identified because of the amazing impression she leaves on the
screen. Rosalind Russell has Hildy Johnson in "His Girl Friday," Judy
Garland has Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz," and Jane Wyman has Belinda
MacDonald in "Johnny Belinda." Without saying a word, Wyman speaks
volumes as the lonely deaf mute who learns about love and tenderness
from doctor Lew Ayres as well as fear from bully Stephen McNally. She
shines in every scene and creates one of the most touching
characterizations ever put on screen. Moments such as her discovery of
music and her sign-reading of the Lord's Prayer are beautifully done
with a skill exceeding those of the best silent screen stars. Her Oscar
was richly deserved.
Wyman, though, is not alone in creating this great film. Ayres, Charles Bickford, Agnes Moorehead and Jan Sterling all give complex, layered performances that make each character believable and memorable. And "Johnny Belinda" would probably not be as powerful or moving without the exceptional black-and-white photography and Max Steiner's lovely score, one of his finest, which underscores every moment. Warner Bros. deserves extra credit for taking on a delicate subject (the rape of a deaf character was hardly typical screen fare in the 1940s) and handling it in a tasteful manner.
Ultimately, the movie is a showcase for Jane Wyman who rightly became Warner Bros.' top female star upon its release. She and the film are unforgettable.
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