Friday, February 20, 2015

"Johnny Belinda" with Jane Wyman and Lew Ayres (1948)

I hadn’t seen this film in over 30 years; until I watched it again last night. It still retains the ability to unsettle the viewer. Jane Wyman; who plays the role of Belinda; won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of a young woman whose mother died during her birth and was also left “deaf and dumb”; which was the term at the time for being born with the inability to speak or hear.

The film was originally a Broadway play of the same name in 1940 by Elmer Blaney Harris. It was rewritten; though not too much; for the screen by Allen Vincent and Irma von CubeIn addition to the Ocsar for Best Actress Award in the film version for Ms. Wyman, this film garnered 11 other Academy nominations; including Best Actor and Actress Awards for all 3 of the co-stars, as well as one for the Director Jean Negulesco.

The film was a groundbreaking one; one of the first to call attention to not only rape, but to people born with disabilities and the misunderstanding of those afflictions. Prior to this film these subjects had been off limits to film makers since the 1930’s and the advent of the Motion Picture Production Code, started by the industry to police itself in the wake of the Fatty Arbuckle scandal.

The film stars Jane Wyman as Belinda McDonald; Charles Bickford as her father, Black MacDonald, and Agnes Moorehead   as his sister, Aggie MacDonald. Lew Ayres plays Dr. Robert Richardson, a kindly physician who has had some heartbreak in his life and comes to a small fishing village on Cape Breton Island off the east coast of Canada to reassess his own life.

There he meets Black McDonald when he is summoned to the farm to help with the birth of a calf. While there he meets Belinda and sees that she is deaf and unable to speak. He approached her father about trying to teach her but the old man can’t really see any purpose to it. But he does get the old man’s permission to use the pond on the farm to fish as payment for delivering the calf. This brings him into further contact with Belinda; whom everyone calls “The Dummy.” He is determined to change that. Introducing Belinda to sign language she is able to learn how to lip read. Her father is so astonished that he agrees to let the Doctor continue with his efforts.

The doctor has an assistant in his office, Stella, who is in love with the doctor, who is not interested in anything but being a doctor. She is engaged to the town’s braggart, Locky McCormick; played by Stephen McNally. When he sees the doctor teaching Belinda to dance he is aroused by her beauty; which he has never noticed before. When the dance is over he sneaks back and rapes her. She tells no one of the attack.

As her condition becomes obvious the townsfolk begin to talk. When Belinda gives birth to a healthy boy she names Johnny, the town begins to act on their suspicions and shun the doctor, who they believe to be the father. The Doctor realizes the shame which will forever surround the girl and her child and so he offers to marry her. Her father, thinking the offer is made out of pity, declines to let him.

Locky goes to the farm to make a purchase of some grain and Blacky hears him talking to the baby and admitting that he is the father. The old man follows Locky off the farm with the intent of conflict and is killed by the other man to hide the secret.

Shortly after the murder of Blacky; as the 2 women struggle to keep the farm solvent; the local Morals Committee decides that Belinda and Aggie are not fit to care for the child without Blacky around. Further, they decide that the baby must be taken from Belinda, and then she is to be driven from the town she has shamed. Stella and Locky; who have by this time married; offer to adopt the baby and the Committee agree s to this.

It is while attempting to take the baby away from Belinda that Stella realizes the immorality of separating a mother from her child. When she tells Locky of her change of heart he admits to her that the child is his. She is horrified but remains silent. When Locky goes back inside to take the baby Belinda is waiting with a shotgun and kills him.

The ensuing trial pits the morality of the town against the reality of the actions of Locky. When he attacked and raped Belinda he relinquished the bonds which bound him to civilized society. The jury finds Belinda innocent and she is given back her child.

One of the more interesting things about the film is that is based on an actual case which took place by the author’s summer home in Fortune Bridge, Prince Edward Island. The real life Belinda was a woman named life Lydia Dingwell of Dingwells Mills, Prince Edward Island.

Whether your tastes run to drama, history, fiction, religion or law; this film will rivet you to the screen as you watch it unfold. More than that, you will find yourself thinking about Belinda; and the plight of those like her; long after the last frame has shown on your screen. I think that was the intent. This is a film with much to say.

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