June 3, 2005

Johnny Belinda (1948)
Grade: 58/100

Director: Jean Negulesco
Stars: Jane Wyman, Lew Ayres, Charles Bickford

What it's about. Beautiful, virginal, obedient, and saintly Belinda (Jane Wyman) is a hard-working farmer's daughter. And she won't talk back to you, because she's also a deaf mute. Also saintly, patient, kindly, hard-working, competent, and young, Doctor Richardson (Lew Ayres) notices Belinda and decides to make her his star pupil. But as the world opens up to her, it then begins to shut, as tragedy and small town small minds threaten a still likely happy ending.

How others will see it. A well made and quickly paced film, Johnny Belinda has aged handsomely, and should charm even those folks who aren't fortunate to feast on a staple of classic films. People will want to see whether grasping bad guy Locky (Stephen McNally) gets his, and whether things will work out for our earth angel, Jane Wyman.

How I felt about it. Anyone who knows anything about Johnny Belinda can tell you that Jane Wyman won Best Actress for her dream role. Playing a handicapped character has been the road to Oscar glory too many times to mention, although Children of a Lesser God (1986) is the closest match, since that character was also a hot looking deaf woman.

But there are times watching Johnny Belinda that I wish it was more like My Left Foot (1989), which was Daniel Day-Lewis' ticket to a Best Actor statuette. The difference between My Left Foot and Johnny Belinda is that Belinda is always so exasperatingly perfect, even when it comes to toting the heavy milk drums when pregnant, upon her strict father's command. But Day-Lewis' Irish artist character was a jerk at times, and God bless him for it. We're all jerks at times, because we're human. Some are more saintly than others, but Belinda is just too good to be true.

As is the good doctor. His obsession with Belinda eventually destroys his career, and her family becomes his only customer. Are they in love, and if so, is it only platonic love? Is such a thing possible between a close and attractive young couple? Well, Johnny Belinda doesn't hesitate to say so. But the story might be more believable if one actually tried to kiss the other on the lips during their zillion hours alone together.

A more interesting but no less exaggerated character is the brawny fishing boat captain, a swaggering Big Man On Campus who believes that the way to get what he wants is to take it, not earn it. As such, he is a perfect fit into any era, especially our own, and we all want to see him fall flat on his face. Except for the idiot town villagers, who pass off his rotten egg behavior as wild oats. Prisons were made for such men.