Henry King’s The Song of Bernadette (1943) begins with a premonition to its everlasting appeal; “To those who believe in God no explanation is necessary…to those who do not believe in God, no explanation is possible.” The true innocence of Bernadette Soubirous – later canonized as a saint - never claimed to having seen the Virgin Mary in her grotto, but rather a ‘beautiful lady’ of ‘immaculate conception’ beckoning her to bear witness to the miraculous healing properties of its waters in the most unlikely – and seemingly unworthy - of places; a city dump. But then, isn’t that what miracles are all about; discovering the extraordinary in the everyday?
Author Franz Werfel had been inspired to write his novel after experiencing his own spiritual epiphany in the French town of Lourdes. But the book, a runaway best seller, represented a challenge to filmmakers eager to capitalize on its overnight success in that it never succumbs to such time-honored clichés as stirrings of religious fervor, but instead bears an intellectualism no less striking in its convictions and authority than the Holy Bible. Our heroine, a curiously obtuse girl, sickly and simple of mind, heart and spirit – or so it seems - is a human transmitter to God through her visions of the ‘beautiful lady’ – a blessing initially revealed as almost its antithesis but more deftly exposed later on as a true blessing in disguise.
Yet, despite the many clues that Bernadette has born witness to the divine her most ardent skeptics are those to whom religious faith is a way of life (Father Peyramale - portrayed with tenderly stoic mysticism by Charles Bickford and the monolithically cynical Sister Marie Therese - given to bone-chilling menace by Gladys Cooper). How could these beacons of the church, already preconditioned by their chosen profession to acknowledge the possibility of divine intervention, be so utterly incapable of accepting Bernadette’s claim without proof?
Throughout the 1940s films of faith had become increasingly popular with wartime audiences, perhaps because there seemed to be so little faith on display elsewhere at home or abroad. Most movies about religion,(Going My Way, The Bells of St. Mary’s and The Miracle of the Bells) dealt with the exaltation of the Catholic clergy as benevolent emissaries disseminating God’s law here on earth. Clever and occasionally cloying, such films generated a warm, fuzzy feel good for the precepts of the church but remarkably kept any deeper discussions about faith and God gingerly to themselves.
The Song of Bernadette takes no such precautions. In fact, it shrewdly seeks not only to assess but also to question those precepts as well as those who believe in them and those who do not, pointing its finger of doubt at those least likely to trespass against the rule of God. “Why not me?” Sister Therese asks Bernadette during the last act of the film. The old crone has dedicated her entire life to the sisterhood. Her fingers have bled. Her eyes have stung with bitter tears and sweat. Her body has been racked with the pain of hard work. Yet she is unworthy of seeing visions. Sister Therese’s proof is, of course, revealed to her by way of a malignant tumor on Bernadette’s knee, the most awful sacrifice yet to come, that of Bernadette’s young life. In effect, this finale reinforces the film’s entire reexamination of the strength of faith when all else in the world points us to abject misery and self-destruction. How blindly do we follow the will of God if we cannot understand it, and, what is the remuneration for our devotion to this lifelong suffrage?
In translating the novel to film Twentieth Century-Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck made several fortuitous casting choices, heavily influenced by Monsignor Vincent Sheehan. Although Zanuck considered Loretta Young for the much sought after lead, and later toyed with casting Teresa Wright, Ann Baxter and even Linda Darnell (Zanuck’s love interest at the time), in the end the plum role went to a virtual unknown – Jennifer Jones – already a mother of two and whose marriage to Robert Walker had derailed thanks to a high profile liaison with producer (and mentor) David O. Selznick. Jones had previously appeared in one film for RKO under her real name, Phyllis Isley; a minor creative effort that Zanuck expunged by buying up the negative so that he could officially launch the actress’ career in the credits as ‘introducing Jennifer Jones’.
Meanwhile, George Seaton, who would later reaffirm for audiences a belief of an entirely different sort in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street, began to write his screenplay, again with influences from the church, but achieving near sublime perfection. We open on a dark rainy morn in Lourdes. François Soubirous (Roman Bohnen), an impoverished and unemployed miller lives at the city jail with his wife, Louise (Anne Revere), two sons, Jean (Merrill Rodin),Justin (Nino Pipitone Jr.) and two daughters, Marie (Ermadean Walters) and Bernadette (Jennifer Jones). Each morning he begins his struggles anew to find work, eventually securing the temporary position to haul infectious hospital trash to a dump on the town’s outskirts.
Bernadette is a sickly girl. Worse for Sister Vauzous (Gladys Cooper), she seems to suffer from a complete lack of concentration or perhaps even the basic intellect to apply herself in her studies. Vauzous is an ardent task master who conducts her classroom like a prison. The students fear her, but are granted a perverse autonomy to taunt Bernadette for her ignorance. When the school’s Abbé Dominique Peyramale (Charles Bickford) arrives to award his pupils holy cards, Vauzous informs him that Bernadette is unworthy of the gift. Stern, though encouraging, Peyramale tells Bernadette that she must try harder.
Later that same afternoon Marie and a mutual friend Jeanne (Mary Anderson) wade through the river to collect firewood on the outskirts of town. But Bernadette, who suffers from bouts of severe asthma, is ordered to stay behind. Attempting to cross anyway, Bernadette is distracted by a shimmering light and queer stirring of the air from the Massabielle caves near the grotto. There, Bernadette discovers the ‘beautiful lady’ (Linda Darnell); a radiant vision in flowing white robes, clutching her pearl rosary. Afterward, Bernadette confides her discovery to Marie and Jeanne, swearing them to secrecy. Regrettably, the tale is told – repeatedly throughout the town, garnering curiosity and dissention. Bernadette is a liar. No, she is merely a seeking fame. No, she is lonely and telling stories to occupy her free time. Few consider that Bernadette might be telling the truth.
François and Louise are initially skeptical, then utterly ashamed of the notoriety Bernadette’s ‘tall tale’ has garnered in the village. One who is utterly convinced of the girl’s sincerity is Bernadette’s wealthy Aunt Bernarde Casterot (Blanche Yurka). Fearing that Lourdes will become a laughing stock to the outside world the town’s mayor, Lacade (Aubrey Mather) , police officer Jacomet (Charles Dingle) and Prosecutor Vital Dutour (Vincent Price) repeatedly question Bernadette’s story – each time with more obvious threats of prosecution. Bernadette, however, will not be swayed from her recollections and continues to defy authorities by returning to the grotto to pray.
The ‘beautiful lady’ instructs Bernadette to wash in a spring that does not exist. Ever vigilant, Bernadette scratches at the ground, applying the moist earth and mud to her skin as the bewildered town’s folk look on. Many laugh and shrug off the incident as that of a simpleton girl having become confused. But no one laughs when the spot where Bernadette has scratched the ground begins to fill with water containing miraculous healing properties. At this point the ‘beautiful lady’ positively identifies herself to Bernadette as ‘the Immaculate Conception’ – a confidence that lands Bernadette in hot water with the civil authorities who try and have her declared legally insane. Abbé Peyramale rallies to Bernadette’s defense. But before anything can be done the grotto is closed by Dutour; the Bishop of Tarbes (Charles Waldron) declaring that unless the Emperor Louis Napoleon III (Jerome Cowan) orders it reopened there will be no investigation by the church.
A short while later the Emperor’s infant son falls ill with a fever that the court physicians seem unable to break. Having heard of the grotto’s reputation the Empress Eugenie (Patricia Morrison) sends the child’s nanny, Croisine Bouhouhorts (Edith Barrett) to collect a sample of the Holy water for her son to drink. This act having been forbidden by Dutour, Jacomet arrests Croisine, who appears in court and reveals her true identity. Paying her fine and returning to the palace with the water, Croisine gives it to the Empress who makes her son drink of it. The child’s recovers almost immediately and the Empress implores her husband to order the grotto reopened, thereby forcing the church to launch into its own investigation of Bernadette’s claim.
More interrogations follow, but Bernadette remains steadfast and true to her story. The years pass. Dutour develops tuberculosis and goes to the grotto, still disbelieving, but desperately seeking a cure. The church reaches its conclusion that Bernadette has been telling the truth. However, her canonization comes at a terrible price. Peyramale explains that she can no longer hide in a corner of the world – something Bernadette also insists she does not want to do. Therefore she must forsake her family and Antoine Nicolau (William Eythe) – the man she once thought to marry – in order to enter the convent of the Sisters of Nevers where her extraordinary gifts may best serve the will of God.
Bernadette is placed in the care of Sister Vauzous, still bitter and not believing in Bernadette’s fantastic story. Bernadette is subjected to menial work – scrubbing floors on her hands and knees and cleaning soiled laundry and dishes – all in Vauzous attempt to break Bernadette of her faith. But this she cannot do. Thus, in a moment of frustration Vauzous confronts Bernadette with her doubts, demanding that she show her ‘a sign’ that she has truly been chosen by heaven. Unable to provide Vauzous with her proof, Bernadette instead reveals to the nun the growth of a large tumor on her knee. The doctor’s diagnosis is certain and ominous: tuberculosis of the bone – long standing and that ought to have caused Bernadette intense pain.
Realizing the error of her judgment, Vauzous races to the chapel to pray for forgiveness from God. In turn she pledges her earthly service to care for Bernadette. Knowing that she will die soon Bernadette sends for Peyramale, confiding her feelings of unworthiness and her fear that she will never see her ‘beautiful lady’ again. Instead the lady appears to Bernadette, beckoning her with extended arms. Faintly whispering “I love you! I love you! Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for me”, Bernadette dies, leaving Peyramale to utter a final prayer, “You are now in Heaven and on earth. Your life begins, O Bernadette.”
The Song of Bernadette is an emotional movie. Indeed, I don’t mind admitting that it is quite impossible for me to get through it without shedding at least a few tears. Jennifer Jones tender performance is startlingly free of ‘acting’. She exudes a strange ethereal quality so essential to sell the story as the Gospel. We believe her implicitly as the innocent besought by Holy visions and wait with baited breath to experience the next act in her progression from ridiculed waif to canonized saint. The rest of the cast is equally superb, particularly Charles Bickford, Gladys Cooper and Blanche Yurka – the latter all but forgotten by today’s audiences, but an actress who frequently appeared as imposing matriarchs or terrifying gargoyles. She is a force to be reckoned with.
A super production, The Song of Bernadette’s visual design by James Basevi and William Darling is all the more impressive when one considers its extended streets and byways were built at the height of wartime rationing of building materials. An entire village has risen on the Fox back lot, complete with cobblestone courtyards and quaint turreted homes and shops, a candlelit grotto and footbridge. In the years to follow Fox would utilize this spectacular series of buildings over and over again, arguably never to better effect than herein. George Seaton's screenplay exercises the utmost reverence. But it must be stated that The Song of Bernadette’s greatest blessing is unequivocally Jennifer Jones; mesmerizing as the innocent whose faith in visions belies everyone else’s need for more concrete proof of the divine. This exceptional – and Oscar-winning - ‘debut’ remains a marvel to behold; restrained and affecting in the most life-affirming way.
Even more astonishing is the penultimate moment of exaltation gifted to audiences in light of the film’s more concrete tragedy at having lost our heroine. Yes, Bernadette Soubirous dies. But as Peyramale astutely concurs, her journey has just begun. In reality, Peyramale died two years before Bernadette, so the film has fudged its timeline for the sake of preserving a grander artistic sentiment within its own continuity. But artistic license aside, The Song of Bernadette endures as an extraordinary entertainment. For those who do not believe in its precepts, the film plays as pure and most satisfying entertainment – an ecclesiastical fantasy concocted by the faithful. But to those who do believe, The Song of Bernadette remains quite simply the most hopeful, awe-inspiring and influential religious experience that the motion picture has ever deigned to create. It is a perfect movie and an extraordinary treasure perennially renewed for audiences, particularly on this pending Easter weekend.
I regret to inform that the limited edition Blu-ray mastered by Fox Home Video and released exclusively through Screen Archives Twilight Time could have been better. Personally, I had been expecting the sort of immaculate mastering effort Fox lavished on John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley. Instead, we get a 1080p offering to which minimal cleanup has been applied. Age related artifacts persist throughout this transfer, including a hair caught in the gate of the projector and dangling dead center throughout the opening credits. Nothing has been done to stabilize the image. A slight but persistent flicker, with film grain appearing heavier than normal at times while occasionally vanishing altogether during other scenes is what the viewer is in store for. Mercifully, we do not have to entertain undue DNR. Fine detail is accurately reproduced. Arthur C. Miller’s deep focus cinematography also occasionally suffers from boosted contrast levels. Infrequently then we lose the mid-register of tonality in the gray scale – particularly in scenes shot outdoors.
The DTS audio exhibits a marked improvement, considerably noticed during Alfred Newman’s lush and evocative underscoring. Extras are a curiosity. Twilight Time has restored the film’s overture and presented the entire underscore as an isolated audio track – much appreciated. We also get the rather meandering audio commentary from historians Jon Burlingame, Edward Z Epstein and Donald Spoto that was part of Fox’s DVD release as a studio classics title back in 2004. But we lose the Biography Special on Jennifer Jones and stills gallery that came with the DVD – a genuine pity. Bottom line: there are marked improvements in this1080 transfer over the DVD; the image tightens up and fine details are more obviously realized. But there are still major shortcomings that ought to have been corrected but regrettably have not. I’m going to recommend a repurchase anyway, though I would strongly advise that those who already own the DVD hang onto it for the Jones’ biography. Enough said. Enjoy and a very Happy Easter to all!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)