Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Song of Bernadette, The (1943)

Director: Henry King


In times of great national conflict it occasionally appears that people on a grander whole lean more towards religion as a guiding light of morals and uplifting of spirits than in times of peace and prosperity. Perhaps this is the case as to why The Song of Bernadette was one of the most honored American motion pictures during World War II, but quickly faded into the background of American cinema in the following decades. A biographical motion picture about a respected figure in the Catholic Church this film made some audiences want to believe in divine intervention, while reinforcing the beliefs of those of the faith.

The Song of Bernadette is a biographical dramatization of Saint Bernadette (Bernadette Soubirous), her multiple visions of the Virgin Mary, and how her experience touched people’s lives. Bernadette was the youngest daughter of a poor French family, prone to illness when one day at an unlikely grotto near an old trash sight she has a vision of the lady in white, who later is believed to be the Virgin Mary (Linda Darnell). News of Bernadette’s visions brings curious, spiritually-starved onlookers to the grotto where inexplicable miracles begin to occur. Despite opposition from both church and civil authorities on Bernadette’s claims and the results they are having on the community, Bernadette remains steadfast in within her faith. Her ability to withstand great emotional abuse while quietly suffering from tuberculosis which prematurely takes her life opens the eyes of the church officials that had originally persecuted her, recognizing her saintliness.

It can be said that this picture is perhaps most targeted for the Catholic audience, as they may best understand the story and most likely be drawn into the understanding of the motion picture. But in considering that the United States, as well as the western world at large, was Christian-centered with Catholicism as one of the most predominant religions in the world, a motion picture like The Song of Bernadette would not be so farfetched of an idea to produce for a profit during World War II. The film itself is a rather slow moving, flat story that revolves around the tale of Bernadette where most change occurs to those that surround her. Looking back it is a dull and preachy picture, but we will keep in mind the time and audience to which it was released.

The film was inspired by the tale of Saint Bernadette, her visions, and the miracles that surrounded her life. What made 20th Century-Fox want to produce this movie was the 1941 novel by Franz Werfel that spent 13 consecutive weeks as the top selling book. For any motion picture studio it would be a major risk to attempt a dramatization of a canonized saint’s tale, but producers saw the opportunity within a market much in want of a hope and faith as saw this successfully test tale.

To star as the titular character was a new name on the Hollywood scene, Jennifer Jones. The truth is Jones was not new in the movie business. In fact Jones was 24 year-old radio voice actress and part time model Phylis Isley who years prior had failed to find much success in the movies. Under contract of producer David O. Selznick she was repackaged as Jennifer Jones and groomed to be the next big star in the business utilizing this picture with the credit of “introducing  Jennifer Jones” as her big reveal.

A young Vincent Price scolds Bernadette (Jones)
Jones’ performance was soft and meek, or in more appropriate terms, “saintly.” She does not necessarily take charge of the picture with her holy character, remaining the consistent image of the highly respected figure she is portraying. Rather it is her supporting cast of character actors which the film relies upon for the most transformative performances.

Charles Bickford portrays the minister that greatly questions the sincerity of Bernadette’s supposed visions, but comes to belive in her by the conclusion. A young Vincent Price plays a civil prosecutor that attempts to hinder the Bernadette’s character and stop the horde of believers from making pilgrimages to the grotto for his own political gain. Gladys Cooper gives an emotional performance of a nun that persecutes Bernadette out of jealousy that a humble, uneducated girl was used by God and not her, a long suffering servant. So we see that Bernadette is simply used as the object by which all these other performances revolve around. But if it was not for Jones’ humble performance all would fall apart.

The most controversial casting came in the casting of the Virgin Mary. Linda Darnell, who went uncredited in the picture, portrayed the holiest of female figures in the Catholic faith. Only 22 at the time of the release she had seen a good number of starring roles in adventure/romance pictures alongside Tyrone Power with the aid of her sultry, yet innocent look. Darnell had become increasingly professionally concerned for being used simply for her good looks and took on finding more prestigious roles, such as the much esteemed role of Mary, to help legitimize herself. Despite not being named in the credits a number religious viewers objected to the casting of this usually sexualized actress in the role of the Holy Mother, but complaints quickly faded.

For World War II The Song of Bernadette was a great success finically and was nearly universally praised by critics. The film was nominated for twelve Academy Awards, winning four, most notably Jennifer Jones for Best Actress. She would also take home the first Golden Globe for the same category, as the film taking home top honors at the inaugural ceremony as Best Picture, as well as a Best Director win for Henry King, a veteran of period piece films.

As time would pass on The Song of Bernadette would appear to slowly fade into the background of the motion picture history as the art of cinema continued to evolve and become more colorful and exciting, leaving this conservative religious picture behind. In the early days of television when movie studios turned their noses up to the new medium The Song of Bernadette became one of the first motion pictures to be broadcasted regularly. This would usually be thought of as an insult to the picture as studios would not give away their best material to this technology that was thought to possibly threaten their business. However with very few channels airing at that time the movie played rather well and often, gaining new attention to the film, a fact shared with a now beloved classic, The Wizard of Oz. To early baby boomers The Song of Bernadette become a nostalgic reminder of early television, which also kept the motion picture relevant in the minds of a new generation of audiences.

Since then the movie once again appears to be rather forgotten as many movies are with the passage of time. However The Song of Bernadette remains as one of the highest praised films of 1943, and the answer to the trivia question of which movie won the first Golden Globe for Best Picture?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The (1947)

20 th Century-Fox Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz Starring: Gene Tierney , Rex Harrison , George Sanders Honors: #73 on A...