Jean Negulesco’s Johnny Belinda (1948) is a decidedly frank little film from Warner Brothers that provides a very compelling portrait of deaf mute, Belinda MacDonald played with uncharacteristic charm and depth by Jane Wyman.
Perceived by the town’s folk as a social outcast, Belinda has lived her life in complete silence on a remote farm off the coast of Nova Scotia, along with her gruff – though understanding father, (Charles Bickford) and his sister Aggie (Agnes Moorehead). But things begin to improve for all concerned with the arrival of Dr. Robert Richardson (Lew Ayres, doing a variation on his ‘Young Dr. Kildare’ persona that made him a star).
Dr. Richardson begins to understand Belinda’s isolation, teaches her sign language, and invests himself in restoring her to the community at large. However, all his hard work is seemingly shattered when Belinda becomes pregnant. The town’s folk – already a bunch of hypocrites – assume the doctor has taken advantage and boycott the two socially. Little does anyone suspect that boorish fisherman, Locky McCormack (Stephen McNally) is the culprit – having raped Belinda one evening in the grist mill.
Unable to speak her mind, Belinda accepts her lot, bears the child and begins to raise him on the farm. But the town’s folk have already decided that she is an unfit mother, and more to the point, that Locky and his new wife, Stella (Jan Sterling) should be the one’s to adopt Belinda’s son.
Attempting to take what he feels is his, Locky murders Belinda’s father by throwing him off a cliff, before charging the house. He is killed in an act of defense by Belinda, who is shortly thereafter put on trial for his murder. However, Stella – it seems – has had a change of heart. She confesses the unholy surprise to a packed court room.
The ending is more or less a forgone conclusion – not very cathartic and rather disappointing, considering the depth of character and narrative tension that director, Negulesco has infused up until that moment. Nevertheless, the film certainly commands a second look – primarily for Wyman’s masterful rendering of the spectrum of human emotions without ever uttering a single word.
Warner Home Video’s transfer on Johnny Belinda is very solid. Occasionally, a hint of edge enhancement crops up but nothing that will distract from the otherwise near pristine black and white picture. Grain is prevalent throughout. The image is sharp with fine detail available even during the darkest sequences. Whites are generally clean. Blacks are solid and deep. The audio has been cleaned up and is presented at an adequate listening level. Extras boil down to two short subjects and a trailer. Ho-hum.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)