After 15 years of hoofing her way through Warner Bros. films as a chorus girl and the second-fiddle friend of female leads, Jane Wyman finally got her dream part as the sensitive deaf-mute in this screen adaptation of the play by Elmer Harris. Thanks to Jean Negulesco's careful crafting,
the result is admirably restrained, a triumph of atmosphere over potential tearjerking.
As the forlorn Belinda, Wyman is the unwanted daughter of Bickford, a stoic, iron-willed New England farmer who has blames the girl for her mother's having died while giving her birth. Ayres, a kindly doctor practicing in the nearby town, befriends Wyman and teaches her sign language, chastising
all in the community who cruelly refer to her as "The Dummy." Slowly, Wyman's sweet and loving nature emerges and attracts the attention of brutish McNally, the local bully. Drunk one night, he attacks and rapes Wyman. She delivers a child which everyone believes has been fathered by Ayres, a
situation which later forces him to leave the community in disgrace.
Wyman's performance is a marvel of beauty and innocence. Preparing for the most important role of her career thus far, Wyman studied the behavior of the hearing impaired and labored for weeks to capture an "anticipation light," as she called the look of eager curiosity of deaf people who want to
learn and understand. Still Wyman felt an element was absent in her performance, that she was not accurately portraying the world of the deaf. She huddled with director Negulesco, who suggested she stuff her ears with wax. She did so, sealing off all sounds except loud percussions. This induced
deafness made it difficult for her to pick up cue lines from other actors, but the very faltering and groping appearance Wyman projected made her all the more convincing.
Since the story was originally set on the dank and forbidding New England coast, Negulesco, along with the cast and crew, traveled to the rough, jagged coastal area near Mendocino, about 200 miles north of San Francisco. Here cinematographer McCord beautifully captured the deep fog, heavy rain,
and driving winds, all of which further dramatized an already dynamic story. None of the special handling of this film impressed Jack Warner, head of the studio, who objected vociferously to the bills for location shooting, expressing disbelief that anyone would want to see a picture "where the
leading lady doesn't say a word." But the world did want to see this film and Wyman in it; audiences marveled at a performance that thoroughly merited the Oscar it received. Wyman had been strong in THE LOST WEEKEND, but in JOHNNY BELINDA she was exceptional, joining the ranks of Hollywood's
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