There are very few films that have literally brought tears to my eyes. They must be films of uncompromising emotional power. Films like Magnolia, The Passion of the Christ, and now Johnny Belinda.
It is the story of a deaf and dumb young woman named Belinda. Treated as an unintelligent workhorse all her years, Belinda's life changes forever when a lonely new doctor moves into her small coastal Nova Scotian port town. He takes an immediate liking to her and, proving to her family that she is not the "dummy" they think, he teaches her to read lips. But after a drunken sexual assault leaves her pregnant, rumors begin to fly throughout the small town, and both Belinda and her loved ones must fight for what's right.
The performances are wonderful. Of course, Jane Wyman simply steals the show in her Oscar-winning performance. She brings an incredible heart, warmth, and emotional resonance to the character of Belinda, and she does it without ever saying a word. The rest of the cast is marvelous as well, especially Charles Bickford, who lovingly portrays Belinda's father, and Stephen McNally, who turns Belinda's attacker into one of the most easy to loathe characters ever put on celluloid - yet the film still brilliantly keeps him at the level of a realistic personality - no one is a caricature.
Director Jean Negulesco brings an understated visual beauty to the film reminiscent of the silent ages, when one had to use aesthetics to make up for the lack of aural stimulus. Every shot is a perfectly composed work of art, turning every moment of Belinda into a masterwork of lighting and raw, majestic nature. The seaside settings are utilized so well that they put Johnny Belinda in league with such legendary jaw-droppers as L'Avventura and Black Narcissus.
But this film is much more than just visual appeal. It is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, often simultaneously. There are so many thought-provoking themes to gnaw on in Johnny Belinda - the way people view the handicapped, the bonds of parenthood, the power of rumors, the justification of violence as self-defense, and overall morality and humanity. Even the film's setting could be considered an allegory on Belinda - the brutal waves of the ocean constantly pounding against the serene shores.
The film is also, as I mentioned before, emotionally overwhelming. While it certainly has a focused narrative, Belinda is foremost a progression of feelings, and they are so well conveyed that I was simply overcome with joy, pain, heartbreak, and hope. While the film is often described as a melodrama, it is far from a soap opera. There are no miraculous moments of sudden verbal triumph for Belinda, no ridiculously overacted moments of teary-eyed abandon - Johnny Belinda is a terribly real experience. There are aspects of the story that remain unresolved - not loose ends, but difficult problems that would most likely also remain unresolved in reality.
However, I don't want to give the impression that Johnny Belinda is depressing. I felt uplifted and rapturous just as often as I felt overcome by grief and fear. I felt so much for these characters and I wanted so sorely for things to turn out a certain way - but I won't reveal whether they do or not. I will say that the film ends on a note of nearly unbearable poignancy, and this is the moment that massaged my tear ducts.
My only complaint concerning the film is Max Steiner's score. He is perfectly suited for epic films like King Kong and Gone With The Wind, but here it feels somewhat overdramatic and occasionally awkward. He tends to play up the melodramatic angle and spot score in a ubiquitous manner, which simply doesn't fit with a film like Johnny Belinda. Still, it tends to work more often than not, and it is not a major enough problem to work seriously to the film's detriment.
This picture is a true gem. It has been unavailable for years, but thanks to Warner Brothers, it finally has a DVD release, and the restoration is simply glorious - it more than does justice to this cinematic treasure. Do yourself a favor and see Johnny Belinda.