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Warner Home Video presents
Johnny Belinda (1948)

"If people would only learn to let each other live, it would be a different world."
- Black McDonald (Charles Bickford)

Review By: David Krauss  
Published: February 08, 2006

Stars: Jane Wyman, Lew Ayres
Other Stars: Charles Bickford, Agnes Moorehead, Stephen McNally, Jan Sterling
Director: Jean Negulesco

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:42m:11s
Release Date: January 31, 2006
UPC: 012569676770
Genre: drama


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A AB+B+ C-

DVD Review

The eyes have it. Whether registering fear, despair, joy, sorrow, resolve, anguish, confusion, or love, Jane Wyman always strikes the perfect expression as deaf-mute Belinda McDonald in Johnny Belinda. She utters not a single syllable in Jean Negulesco's sensitive, moving drama, but conveys more emotion with a tilt of the head or beseeching gaze than pages of dialogue could express. At the Academy Awards ceremony, Wyman quipped that she won her well-deserved Oscar "for keeping my mouth shut for once"—and indeed became the first actress to be so honored for portraying a disabled character—but the subtleties of her performance far outclass (and outlast) more histrionic displays. By resisting the urge to overplay, Wyman etches a natural, affecting portrayal that sets the film's tone, and helps loft it into the top tier of 1940s motion pictures.

Johnny Belinda is not well remembered today, but hopefully its DVD release will spark renewed interest in this exceptional drama. In 1948, it made millions for Warner Bros. and garnered 12 Academy Award nominations (that's right, 12!) for Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Director, Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction, Score, Editing, and Sound Recording. Wyman brought home the only statuette, but the recognition shows the meticulous craftsmanship that permeates the production. Every element fits snugly into the whole, and contributes to the film's beautifully sustained mood. Yes, the "Perry Mason moment" in the climactic courtroom scene goes slightly over the top, but otherwise Johnny Belinda never makes a false move. Its truth resonates, while its emotional purity leaves us with a sizeable lump in the throat.

After a failed romance and difficult war experience, Dr. Robert Richardson (Lew Ayres) seeks a simpler, more tranquil existence on Cape Breton Island on the northeastern tip of Nova Scotia. His quiet country practice provides some solace, but a nagging loneliness remains. One evening, while making a rare veterinary house call on a remote farm, he encounters Belinda, a neglected young woman whose disability has so blinded her loving father (Charles Bickford) and crusty aunt (Agnes Moorehead), they can't see her as anything but a shameful and ignorant "dummy." As a result, they treat her brusquely and saddle her with chores, not so much because they resent her, but because they don't know what else to do with her.

Dr. Richardson, however, senses Belinda's desolation, and seeks to free her from her private prison. With her father's blessing, he teaches her rudimentary sign language and lip-reading. Her quick mind easily grasps the concepts, and, much to everyone's amazement, she soon starts communicating. Almost overnight, her spirit blossoms, and she begins to tentatively explore the outside world. Sadly, though, the exposure attracts the unwanted attention of burly, boozy Locky McCormick (Stephen McNally), the town lothario, who brutally rapes Belinda while she's alone in the family barn. She represses the harrowing ordeal, but a few weeks later, a routine medical exam reveals she's pregnant. The news shocks her family, and incites a wave of gossip and innuendo in the small-minded, puritanical community that eventually erupts into scandal.

Johnny Belinda starts out as a quiet, slice-of-life character study, as Negulesco gently develops the tender relationship between Dr. Richardson and Belinda. Yet as the story progresses, a subtle yet palpable tension infuses the atmosphere, and almost invisibly, the film transforms into an engrossing melodrama. The emotional pitch, however, stays constant throughout—no matter how fraught the situation, the actors always keep their cool, and their nuanced performances allow us to bond with the characters and become invested in their lives.

Wyman studied sign language and lip-reading to prepare for her role, and wore earplugs on the set to more believably impersonate a deaf person. Her marvelous work was justly rewarded, but her co-stars deserve equal praise. Best known for portraying the disillusioned German soldier in All Quiet on the Western Front and honorable Dr. Kildare, Ayres musters considerable compassion and conviction in Johnny Belinda, and his solid yet temperate demeanor keeps the film grounded. Bickford and Moorehead also excel, masterfully balancing their characters' gruff exteriors with hints of heartbreaking sentiment.

Such finely executed understatement defines Johnny Belinda, and makes it both affecting and a refreshing departure from similar-themed stories of the period. It also lends the film a timeless quality, so it plays just as well today as it did almost 60 years ago. Wyman would go on to appear in a number of classic films and contribute several noteworthy performances, but to many of us, she will always be the luminous Belinda. For once seen, that silent, wide-eyed face cannot be easily forgotten.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: The full-frame transfer features fine clarity and contrast, but enough grain remains to underscore the emotional aspects of the plot. The nicely varied gray scale lends texture and depth to both tranquil and stormy scenes, while blacks enjoy a lovely richness. Best of all, only minimal defects dot the high-quality print.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, Frenchyes


Audio Transfer Review: The mono track is pretty standard stuff, although Max Steiner's Oscar-nominated score exhibits a lovely fullness of tone. Occasionally, the actors' accents obscure some of the dialogue, but for the most part, conversations are clear and comprehendible, and any nagging imperfections, such as hiss, pops, and crackles, have been erased.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 27 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, and Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 01h:07m:23s

Extra Extras:
  1. Vintage short, The Little Archer
Extras Review: Not much here, except the original theatrical trailer and a Technicolor vintage short, The Little Archer, which profiles a four-year-old archery prodigy named Melvin, who goes out on a hunting expedition in rural Washington, and comes home with three animal friends—a fawn, baby bear, and young cougar. The eight-minute one-reeler often makes us feel as if we're watching someone else's home movies, but enough charm seeps through to make it a far less painful experience.

Extras Grade: C-

 

Final Comments

A subtle, heartfelt drama, Johnny Belinda deserves to be rediscovered and appreciated anew, and thankfully, Warner's fine DVD release affords us the opportunity to do just that. Jane Wyman, Lew Ayres, and the rest of the stellar cast file memorable performances, while Jean Negulesco's sensitive direction beautifully captures the story's atmosphere and emotion. Even skimpy extras can't dull my fervent enthusiasm for this touching and inspiring classic. Highly recommended.

 


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