Johnny Belinda (1948) – A Review
In the farming and fishing community of Nova Scotia there lives Belinda (Jane Wyman), a deaf/mute daughter of a farmer. She is dismissed by the town and even her own father and aunt as being ‘deaf and dumb’.
It isn’t until the new town doctor (Lew Ayres) arrives and takes an interest in Belinda when she begins to learn to communicate with his help. However, an optimistic future is taken away when she’s raped by a local fisherman.
Scandal and gossip overwhelm the town, life is made more difficult for Dr. Richardson and Belinda’s father and the confusion and emotional turmoil Belinda endures may prove fatal to her ever having any kind of normal life.
I had seen this movie years ago and it always stuck with me. It could of been a overly melodramatic story, and in a way it is, but it’s so well done the emotions it evokes feel genuine and it doesn’t feel like it’s cheaply manipulating you, but earning that emotional response.
It’s mainly due to the performances and direction by Jean Negulesco. He stages scenes with a real simplicity, utilizing his actors faces and expressions to help drive scenes forward and get across what these characters are feeling. It shouldn’t be a surprise that a story of a deaf girl would so heavily rely on visuals to express what she’s feeling.
One scene in particular that I always remember is Belinda learning about music by the good doctor. He places her hand on a violin being played and her face lights up. She suddenly understands why all these people around her are moving the way they are. The doctors and violin players smiling faces, the movement of the dancers feet and Belinda attempting to move to the rhythm. As I said it’s a simple scene and it’s put together so well by the actors and Negulesco.
Jane Wyman won an Oscar for her performance and she does an excellent job. She doesn’t overplay things or appear like she’s vying for our sympathy at any time. She’s very understated with her expressions, which always speak volumes about what her character is feeling.
Lew Ayres is good as Dr. Richardson who attempts to untangle the confusion Belinda is experiencing, but sometimes I feel he’s a little too saintly a character. At points he veers into preachy territory and the story’s message of understanding begins to get a bit heavy handed. But for the most part he stays a somewhat relatable character.
Charles Bickford and Agnes Moorehead are both convincingly rough and abrasive as Belinda’s father and aunt. Being under their care you can understand the limitations Belinda’s life would be, so it’s very satisfying when they begin to change their understanding towards her.
The darkest episode in the movie is Belinda being attacked by local fisherman Locky (Stephen McNally). Thinking about when audiences saw this in 1948 they must of been quite disturbed by seeing it. Dark, eerie shadows, Wyman’s frightened face and a literal screeching, unsettling sounding violin. It’s a tense, unsettling scene and really makes you feel Locky could be one of the most horrible, uncaring characters ever.
It’s a very good movie, the performances, the score, the story. It’s hard not to be won over by it and not have it affect you. I know people who hate ‘black and white movies’ who somehow were convinced to watch Johnny Belinda and found themselves loving it. There’s a timeless message in this story. The title is something I’ve always been confused by though.