Judge Joel Pearce is...something you can't even pronounce!
She was alone with terror—and torment!
While Johnny Belinda is a thriller at times, this DVD has one of the most misleading covers in film history. I went in expecting a lurid thriller, and was pleasantly surprised by a touching, if oversimplified, tragic drama. Like so many films, it wants to be all things for all people, but it does a better job than most performing an impossible balancing act.
Facts of the Case
When Dr. Robert Richardson (Lew Ayres, Calling Dr. Kildare) arrives in the small Cape Breton town where he has chosen to practice medicine, he finds a small, backward, unwelcoming community of fishermen and farmers, struggling to survive in their harsh and rocky land. Though he is happy to settle into this simple life, things quickly become complicated when he meets Belinda (Jane Wyman, The Yearling). Deaf and dumb, Belinda is known as "the dummy" to her whole community, though she helps out as best she can around the mill.
Robert, with his superior scientific knowledge, immediately recognizes that she is a perfectly intelligent woman, trapped alone by her inability to communicate. Over the next few months, he teaches her sign language and lip reading. Unfortunately, Robert is not the only man in the village to take notice of Belinda. She is attacked and raped by local tough-guy Locky McCormick (Stephen McNally, Hell's Crossroads). When it turns out she's pregnant, Robert and Belinda's family have some difficult decisions to make.
The most famous aspect of Johnny Belinda is Jane Wyman's Oscar-winning performance as Belinda. This is justified, as few people would probably care about the film if it wasn't for her great performance and the fascinating relationships she has with the other characters. Her development into communication is delightful to watch, and her movement and actions are completely believable. Although she is a victim of a horrible crime, the quality of the performance makes her much more than simply a victim of terrible circumstances. She has the stubbornness and drive that is so often found in people with disabilities, even though she does learn inhumanly fast once Robert starts working with her.
The relationship between Belinda and Robert is also interesting. It is a love story, but it isn't a simplistic, typical love story. She approaches him with a childlike innocence, and he sees her first as a patient, then a friend, then with a growing fondness that he can no longer ignore. Her pregnancy gives their growing relationship a level of conflict and complication that is rarely seen in films, and the outcome is not at all what I expected. It handles a number of serious issues as well, and doesn't shy away from the horrible reality of what happens to Belinda.
Unfortunately, the whole film doesn't hold together with the same level of nuance and depth. The portrayal of Cape Breton is a bit funny, and not developed well enough. The harsh realities of small fishing and farming communities are present, but none of the characters really struggle with anything but money squabbles. The inhabitants of this small town are all cardboard cut-outs, one-note stereotypes that emphasize how remarkable the leads really are. The shallowness of their surroundings means that Johnny Belinda can only go so deep, though. More convincing surroundings would have done so much to hold the story together.
As well, there are a number of plot points that are far too convenient. After being treated like a simpleton for well over 20 years, Belinda suddenly learns to communicate fully in a matter of months. That doesn't mean I'm looking for absolute scientific accuracy in my films, but for a movie that wants to explore the triumph of science in even the most distant corners of the world, it doesn't have much to offer. Also, Belinda isn't able to report on what happened to her because she blocked it from her memory. It's one of the oldest movie excuses in the book, and it fails even worse in a drama than it does in a thriller. Still, these are small offenses in an overall fine film, which has aged far better than many of its contemporaries. Even an overlong final act can't diminish the impact of Jane Wyman's powerful performance.
This is yet another jewel from the Warner vault that has been polished to perfection. The video transfer is stark and clean, with strong contrast and great detail for a film nearly 60 years old. The audio transfer is great too, with clear dialogue mixed well in the original mono track. There aren't many special features on the disc, but Warner has included a short entitled "The Little Archer," which has nothing to do with Johnny Belinda whatsoever. It's obnoxious but harmless tripe about a young archer and his animal companions.
Nominated for 11 Academy awards, Johnny Belinda still packs a strong emotional punch and contains several groundbreaking performances. Some other aspects haven't held up as well, but it remains a film worth watching. This is one of Hollywood's first attempts at seeking justice for people with disabilities. If only they had done the same for people from Cape Breton.
Holding Belinda after all this time would be a crime in itself. Everyone involved is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Vintage Short: The Little Archer
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