From Patty Duke to Dustin Hoffman, Oscar appreciates actors who take on the challenge of playing disabled characters. But few have done so with such poignancy and effortless ease as Jane Wyman in her Oscar-winning role as the deaf-mute Belinda in JOHNNY BELINDA (1948). Belinda lives in a small fishing village on the island of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, with her father (Charles Bickford) and aunt (Aunt Moorehead), and falls in love with the local doctor (Lew Ayres). After she is raped by the local bully (Stephen McNally), she must protect her child from the nosy villagers who think they know what’s “best.”
Jean Negulesco’s direction is light and even-handed, but the film is anchored by Wyman’s touching portrayal. Wyman’s performance made such an impression on me when I first saw it nearly 30 years ago that she was the sole reason I watched the TV sudser FALCON CREST in the mid-80s. (And I don’t regret a minute of it!) Max Steiner provides one of his most beautiful, understated scores.
Much of Steiner’s score was based on music of Scottish origin to convey the mainly Scottish inhabitants of the island, and bassoon drones underscore the Canadian fishing locale. The main titles begin with the soaring love theme in the strings, underscored by harp arpeggios. A simple, halting violin melody represents the tentative character of Belinda. Lighter themes are given to Dr. Richardson (Ayres) and his “housekeeper” Stella (Jan Sterling).
One of the most memorable scenes is the barnyard dance in which Belinda learns to dance by placing her hand on the violin to feel the vibrations. This scene lays the groundwork for Belinda’s rape as Locky (McNally) returns with the violin seduce her, while the earlier violin tune is turned upside down with evil double-stops to portray Locky’s menace. This is followed by a heartbreaking cello solo, played by Eleanor Slatkin. (For more on Slatkin’s work in the Warner Bros. orchestra, and in particular this solo, check out the DVD of THE HOLLYWOOD SOUND.)
A celeste plays the sweet lullaby theme for Belinda’s child, with a tender flute countermelody and a simple two-note motif in the oboe that sounds like a baby’s plaintive cry. The theme is taken over by a solo violin, once an instrument of menace, now the instrument of joy it was earlier in the film.
The film was nominated for 12 Oscars, including Steiner’s lovely score. Steiner once again proves his innate dramatic sense and the score is built on one memorable melody after another. A tender and lovely film matched by one of Steiner’s best.