A few weeks ago, I had some major downtime in the way of a hurt back and had begrudgingly relegated myself to the recliner. Now, let me just be clear that I don’t mind vegetating in front of the TV one bit, it was just that this particular day I had A LOT to do. So while I was moaning about my plight to anyone who would listen (not that my children ever would) I came across a title on the DirectTV guide called Johnny Belinda. I stopped immediately-mainly because it had my name in it and you just don’t see it that often in print. Having liked what I read in the description and seeing that it was about to start, I typed in the numbers for the TCM channel and settled farther into the chair.
For the next 103 minutes, I don’t believe I spoke, breathed, or moved. It was that good.
With a battered seaside village in Nova Scotia serving as the backdrop, the film opens with the new doctor in town (played wonderfully by Lew Ayres) being called out to the farm of Black McDonald (played here by Charles Bickford) to help deliver a breech calf since there are no veterinarians. While there, Dr. Richardson (Ayres) discovers that McDonald’s daughter, Belinda (played by Jane Wyman), is a nineteen-year-old deaf mute. He goes on to learn that Belinda’s mother died giving birth to her and as sad as the situation is, Black McDonald does not have time to deal with a “dumb” daughter; he has a farm to run, and with only Belinda and his indifferent sister (Agnes Moorehead) to help him, he’s barely making ends meet.
Belinda spends a lonely existence working on the farm, finding simple pleasure in her chores and doing what her father needs her to do by watching his hurried and gruff hand gestures.
A few days later, Dr. Richardson returns with a book on sign language that he gives to Belinda. Over the next few weeks, he pays many, many visits to the farm, helping Belinda learn the signs. When Richardson gives her father a demonstration of what she’s learned, he’s astounded by the fact that Belinda can understand at all, let alone communicate with them. Crusty Black McDonald nearly breaks into tears when she signs the word for father to him.
The lessons continue, and over the course of time, you can start to see Belinda’s unspoken affection she carries for Dr. Richardson, the man who changed her life.
Then, one evening, things suddenly take a violent turn for the worse as Belinda is brutally attacked by a drunken Locky McCormick, and her resulting pregnancy causes a scandal to erupt placing Dr. Richardson’s job in jeopardy.
I’m going to stop right there, because the rest of what happens needs to be seen by you, the viewer, and not dictated by me.
Johnny Belinda was released by Warner Bros. in 1948 and was directed by Jean Negulesco. Early on, the studio was worried how a movie could be made in which the main character does not speak. Regretting their decision, Warner Bros. let Johnny Belinda sit on the shelf for nearly a year after production wrapped. When it was finally released, it opened to rave reviews and critical praise; cashing in at the box office with earnings of over 4 million, it became the fifth highest grossing movie for that year. Jane Wyman, who was thirty and in the throes of marital turmoil with husband Ronald Reagan while filming, is absolutely brilliant in her portrayal of Belinda. She conveys Belinda’s plight with a sensitivity and a subtlety that is unmatched, and her performance won her the Oscar for Best Actress.
Johnny Belinda is a timeless classic; it’s a movie that stirs all of one’s emotions: pity, happiness, outrage, tears…it’s all there. And when the credits rolled, I found myself wanting to watch it again…and I did.
*Trivia fact* – Because Wyman didn’t have a problem with her hearing, she felt that she was lacking a certain realism in her expression, so she wore wax ear plugs to blot out the noise.
Belinda G. Buchanan is a writer of Women’s Fiction & Mystery . Her books include, After All Is Said And Done: a Novel of Infidelity, Healing, & Forgiveness, Seasons of Darkness, The Monster of Silver Creek, and the recently released, Tragedy at Silver Creek. Married for twenty-five years to her soulmate, she is the mother of two sons, (one who loves her unconditionally, and one who loves her only when not in public), and a menagerie of animals.