Mute Witness – Rediscovering ‘Johnny Belinda’ (US 1948 – 102 mins)

Posted in Rediscover by - June 18, 2014
Mute Witness – Rediscovering ‘Johnny Belinda’ (US 1948 – 102 mins)

Based on Elmer Blaney Harris’s 1940 Broadway hit, the immensely enjoyable 1948 drama ‘Johnny Belinda’, is one of those old black and white movies which holds up to repeat viewings, and contains what I think, are two of the most likable performances from that era.

Belinda McDonald (Jane Wyman), a shy, deaf-mute, lives on a farm with her father and aunt. The new local doctor; Robert Richardson (Lew Ayres), makes friends with Belinda and helps her by teaching her sign-language. They slowly begin to have feelings for each other, but one night, after a town dance, a drunken local; Locky McCormick (Stephen McNally), goes to Belinda’s farm and rapes her. Now pregnant, Dr. Richardson stands by Belinda and wants to marry her and help with the baby. Locky however, decides that he wants to care for the baby himself, but while visiting the farm, he gets into a fight with Belinda’s father, who falls to his death from a cliff. Later, Locky attempts to take the baby and, after a scuffle, Belinda grabs a shotgun and shoots him, resulting in her arrest for murder.

An expertly made melodrama; ‘Johnny Belinda’ contains some well-staged and memorable scenes. Apart from the tense finale, the most memorable moment for me is the one where Belinda, now adept at sign-language, signs “The Lord’s Prayer” at her father’s wake. Jane Wyman’s emotional acting in this scene is superb, without being overly sentimental. Although Wyman won the Academy Award here, I do think that it should have gone to Olivia de Havilland for her magnificent turn in ‘The Snake Pit’. A talented actress, Jane would be nominated again in 1951 for ‘The Blue Veil’, and in 1954 for Douglas Sirk’s melodrama ‘Magnificent Obsession’. It’s interesting to note that all three of these movies starred both Wyman and Agnes Moorehead.

As the kind and caring doctor, Lew Ayres is also terrific, and would receive his only Oscar nomination. Ayres will forever be remembered for his early, powerful role as Paul Baumer, a disillusioned young soldier, in the anti-war classic ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ (’30). For all his great roles though, I will always remember Lew Ayres from his final film; ‘Damien: Omen II’ (’78), where his character dies after falling through the ice and getting trapped. As Belinda’s father and aunt, both Charles Bickford and Agnes Moorehead are their usual solid, reliable selves, and lawyer-turned actor; Stephen McNally, is impressive as the menacing Locky. Also good is Jan Sterling as Stella, Dr. Richardson’s secretary, who is secretly in love with him.

Director Jean Negulesco was brave to take on what was considered a taboo subject at the time, and was himself nominated for the Academy Award. A very diverse director, Negulesco went on to make the romantic comedies; ‘How to Marry a Millionaire’ (’53) with Marilyn Monroe, and ‘Three Coins in the Fountain’ (’54) with Clifton Webb and Dorothy McGuire.

The acting is superlative all round, and both Wyman and Ayres have great chemistry, with all of their scenes together appearing very natural and real. ‘Johnny Belinda’ was a popular audience-pleaser at the time, but over the years has been largely forgotten. Tackling such adult themes as rape, pregnancy and murder, it has a storyline that grips you and characters you care for. For me it remains my favourite movie of 1948.

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