When I was a little girl, my family always had a copy of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide on hand. This was in the days before IMDb, and we liked to look up people who looked familiar in movies to figure out what other movies they had been in. In the back of the books was a list of the Oscar winners for best picture, actor, actress, and director for every year. Johnny Belinda was on that list because of Jane Wyman’s win, but that was all I knew about the movie before I saw it. I had a vague idea it was about a boxer; I’m not sure why. It most definitely is not. It’s a beautiful and moving story about people in a small town.
So what’s the story? Dr. Robert Richardson is the new doctor in a small fishing village in Nova Scotia. He goes out to the mill to help the mill owner and his sister deliver a calf. There he meets Belinda, the owner’s daughter, who is a deaf-mute. Because she can’t communicate, everyone in town assumes she is mentally incapable, but the doctor recognizes her intelligence and teaches her lip-reading and sign language. Belinda begins to blossom under his tutelage, but when she is raped and becomes pregnant, the town turns on her and the doctor.
The Good: Johnny Belinda was deservedly nominated in all four acting categories. Jane Wyman plays Belinda with sensitivity and tact, never over-acting. It’s a fabulous performance. Lew Ayres is the outsider doctor who ties to a more modern society allow him to help a woman who would have been stuck in her own world for her entire life. Belinda’s father is played by Charles Bickford. He grows from an impatient, rather uncaring father to a man who is proud of his smart, beautiful daughter. Agnes Moorehead, perhaps best known for her role of Endora in Bewitched is Belinda’s aunt Aggie. Aggie isn’t impressed with Belinda’s progress and is unkind to Belinda until Belinda becomes pregnant. At that point, Aggie becomes protective and loving. It’s a quick turnaround, but it’s very realistic. All of those performances were fantastic. And they weren’t the only ones. Stephen McNally is nicely creepy as the cocky Locky McCormick (and yes, his name is Locky, not Lucky; it’s short for Laughlin, apparently), and Jan Sterling plays the vain, pettish Stella perfectly. The whole movie is very well-cast.
The screenplay was also excellent. The story is sad, yes, but there were moments of humor, because that’s life. I loved the part where Dr. Richardson takes Belinda into a bigger city to see a doctor about her deafness. She looks into the window of a store and sees a brassiere for the first time. She has no idea what it is, and asks Dr. Richardson to explain it to her. He has no words for her, and the look on his face is priceless. Moments like that keep the movie from being too depressing. The subject matter is not easy, but the screenplay treats it sensitively. It’s very well done.
The music underscores the movie well. It helps plot Belinda’s moods and her growth as she becomes more a part of her world. The cinematography helped with that, too. Both elements added a lot to the movie.
The Bad: I had a hard time figuring out what time period the movie was set in. The townspeople didn’t look particularly modern, but the doctor’s clothes were completely 1940s. But then I thought about my grandma. She grew up in a small cabin in backwoods Tennessee in the 40s. Her family didn’t have electricity until after World War II. I’m sure her family wasn’t wearing the latest fashions, either. So although it took me awhile, I don’t have a major beef with it. If you’re aware that it’s contemporary to the time that the movie was made, it shouldn’t bother you at all.
The narration at the beginning bothered me, but I can’t think of another way they could have established some of the background without a lot of conversation that would have seemed kind of stilted and pointless, so I guess I can’t really complain.
The Ugly: I have never seen a more obvious stunt dummy than in this movie. I know this movie was made in the 1940s, but still. Real bodies don’t move like that. It makes a high-tension moment a little less dramatic.
Oscar Won: Best actress in a leading role (Jane Wyman).
Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a leading role (Lew Ayres); best actor in a supporting role (Charles Bickford); best actress in a supporting role (Agnes Moorehead); best director; best writing, screenplay; best cinematography, black-and-white; best sound, recording; best film editing; best music, scoring of a dramatic or comedy picture.