Wednesday, June 1, 2011

1948 - Johnny Belinda

Last chance to vote on the year that Matt vs. the Academy tackles next. It's still a close race, so make sure you have your input using the poll on the right hand side of the screen.

The final nominee from our look at 1948's Best Picture contenders is...

Johnny Belinda
Jean Negulesco
Irma von Cube and Allen Vincent
(based on the play by Elmer Harris)
Jane Wyman, Lew Ayres, Charles Bickford, Agnes Moorehead, Stephen McNally, Jan Sterling
Academy Awards:
12 nominations
1 win, for Best Actress (Wyman)

A deaf-mute since she was a baby, Belinda McDonald (Wyman) seems content performing menial tasks for her father Black (Bickford) and aunt Aggie (Moorehead) on the family farm in Nova Scotia. Known as "The Dummy" by the less polite members of the community, Belinda is not considered to ever be able to contribute intelligently to society. Not even her own family gives her any credit... Until the new town physician, Dr. Richardson (Ayres), takes it upon himself to teach the outcast sign language. As Belinda learns to communicate with those around her, she and the kindly doctor must deal with the ugly rumour mill and the town bully, Locky McCormick (McNally).

Johnny Belinda is a relatively simple story well told. With its straightforward and engaging narrative, the picture is a generally pleasant movie experience. A solid script with solid performances, it is genuinely difficult to find much fault here beyond a questionable legal precedent and a ridiculously fake performance by the town violinist (repeatedly tapping the bow on the strings is not how you play the violin).

It perhaps falls short of being a brilliant film - although I'd be hard-pressed to explain why - but it is absorbing in exactly the way good movies should be. Perhaps in support of its general appeal is the fact that the film was nominated in almost every category at the 1948 Academy Awards, twelve citations in all. However, its only success was for Jane Wyman's accomplished performance as the amiable deaf girl. While her character's gentle demeanour - with that ever-so-subtle hint of a smile - may seem like a simple portrayal, any actor worth his salt will tell you that listening is of the utmost importance. And Wyman (pictured) places her attention on her surroundings and her fellow actors with acute earnestness. Although, I suppose her task was made easier since she had no lines to remember. Either way, it makes for a captivating performance.

Along with Wyman's Best Actress win, three other cast members received nominations, allowing Johnny Belinda to join an elite group of pictures boasting a nomination in each of the four acting categories. Lew Ayres rightly received a Best Actor nod for his affable turn as the compassionate doctor. And both Charles Bickford and Agnes Moorehead (known to TV audiences as Endora from Bewitched) collected Supporting nominations.

1 comment:

  1. Johnny Belinda was the favorite to win Best Picture going into the Awards. Variety, which had a nearly spotless track record, picked it. So, it must be considered one the bigger disappointments when it ended up winning only one award out of 12 nominations. These things happen, and it certainly was no disgrace. It is a fine film, with great location shots even if California's rugged coastline stood in for Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.

    I will say that I felt the characterizations were too delineated. You had the angelic Belinda and humanistic Doctor who delivered calves and took payment in trout fishing privileges. On the other end was the big bully Locky, who seemed to get away with various capital crimes (at least until he pushed his luck too far). In many ways shrewish Agnes Moorehead (having a field day rolling her 'R's) and Charles Bickford, two of the consummate character actors of the forties, had the choicest roles. Wyman did a very nice job and was the first of quite a few mute characters to win Oscars. I still would have placed her behind sisters Olivia de Havilland and non-nominated Joan Fontaine (A Letter from and Unknown Woman) for the year’s top actress performances.