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Johnny Belinda (1948)


Lew Ayres and Jane Wyman
Lew Ayres and Jane Wyman

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'Johnny Belinda' is a dramatic movie made in 1948, directed by Jean Negulesco and starring Jane Wyman and Lew Ayres, with Charles Bickford, Agnes Moorehead and Stephen McNally. It is a most unusual creation, fast-paced, engrossing and still well worth watching today.

'Johnny Belinda' was the first movie to involve the subject of rape, previously prohibited by the Motion Picture Production Code. The movie was a great critical success and was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Lew Ayres, Best Picture and Best Director. Jane Wyman won the Best Actress Oscar, the first performer in the sound era to win an Oscar without saying a word. She also made the shortest Best Actress Oscar acceptance speech when she said: "I won this award by keeping my mouth shut and I think I'll do it again." Also nominated was the cinematographer Ted McCord for his breathtaking coastal images.

The movie was remade for television twice in the 1960's and again in 1982. None of the remakes bear comparison to the magnificent original.

Plot

The story takes place in the area of Cape Breton Island in far eastern Canada, at the end of the nineteenth century. Jane Wyman plays Belinda McDonald, a deaf and dumb girl who, because of her disability, is considered stupid by the community and even by her father, Black McDonald and aunt, Aggie McDonald, played by Agnes Moorehead.

Everything changes when a new doctor, Dr. Richardson, arrives in town and, realising Belinda's intelligence, teaches her sign language and lip reading. His efforts are challenged when Belinda is raped and made pregnant by a thuggish local fisherman, Locky McCormick, played by Stephen McNally. When McCormick tries to take the baby away, the traumatised girl shoots him. She stands trial for murder, leading to the film's climax.

Production

The movie is based on the play of the same name by Elmer Harris, which was a big hit on Broadway in 1940. Harris based his storyline on an actual event in the life of Lydia Dingwell, of Dingwells Mills, Prince Edward Island.

Although initially concerned about the commercial appeal of a movie whose leading lady does not speak, Warner Bros. paid over $50,000 for the film rights to Elmer Harris' play, due mainly to the support which top Warners producer, Jerry Wald gave to the project.

The role of Belinda McDonald was crucial and none of the main actresses under contract to Warner Brothers was right for the part. Jane Wyman had been with the studio for over 12 years with her only starring roles coming when she was loaned out to other studios - to Paramount for 'The Lost Weekend' in 1945 and to MGM the following year for 'The Yearling'. At 30 she was technically too old for the part but Jerry Wald saw a quality in her which would touch a chord with the audience. He was right and Wyman gave a brilliantly understated performance, the highlight of her career.

Wyman spent six months intently studying the behaviour of the deaf. On set she played the part with her ears blocked to better respond as a deaf person would. This caused her to miss some of her cues and a system of signals was used on set to communicate her cues to her. Lew Ayres had made his name in the early anti-war Talkie 'All Quiet on the Western Front'. He had been a conscientious objector during World War II, serving in a non-combatant role, and MGM had dropped his contract. In 1948 he was rebuilding his career and 'Johnny Belinda' came at a good time for him. He plays the difficult role of the saintly doctor with great warmth and dignity.

Location

Although the story takes place in Nova Scotia, shooting took place in Fort Bragg, a similarly rugged coastline, in north California.

Main Cast

The acting is uniformly superb and is one of the factors which makes the movie unforgettable.
Jane Wyman ... Belinda McDonald
Lew Ayres ... Dr. Robert Richardson
Charles Bickford ... Black MacDonald
Agnes Moorehead ... Aggie MacDonald
Stephen McNally ... Locky McCormick
Jan Sterling ... Stella McCormick
Rosalind Ivan ... Mrs. Poggety
Dan Seymour ... Pacquet - Storekeeper
Mabel Paige ... Mrs. Lutz
Ida Moore ... Mrs. McKee
Alan Napier ... Defense Attorney
Holmes Herbert ... Judge (uncredited)
'Snub' Pollard ... Man on Jury (uncredited)

Credits

Director ... Jean Negulesco
Producer ... Jerry Wald
Screenplay ... Irma von Cube, Allen Vincent
Music ... Max Steiner
Cinematography ... Ted D. McCord
Distribution Company ... Warner Bros.
Release date ... September 14, 1948
Running time ... 96 minutes

Academy Awards

One Win:
Best Actress ... Jane Wyman
Eleven Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Picture ... Warner Brothers
Best Director ... Jean Negulesco
Best Actor ... Lew Ayres
Best Supporting Actor ... Charles Bickford
Best Supporting Actress ... Agnes Moorhead
Best Writing, Screenplay ... Irma von Cube, Allen Vincent
Best Cinematography, Black-and-White ... Ted D. McCord
Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White ... Robert M. Haas, William Wallace
Best Sound, Recording
Best Film Editing ... David Weisbart
Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture ... Max Steiner