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Johnny Belinda

Johnny Belinda(1948)

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Crying Boy

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Jane Wyman won an Oscar® for her finely-textured performance as deaf-mute farm girl Belinda McDonald in Johnny Belinda. Belinda has spent her life toiling on the family farm run by her father, Black (Charles Bickford), along with her Aunt Aggie (Agnes Moorehead), in a small farming community off the coast of Nova Scotia.

Things tale a new and interesting change for the McDonalds with the arrival of the town's new doctor, Robert Richardson (Lew Ayers). The McDonalds call for the doctor when their cow begins to give birth, and although it's not exactly in his line of work Richardson does what he can. During the birthing process, Richardson notices that something is not quite right with Belinda: she seems interest but not particularly attenttive. Black confirms that the girl can neither hear nor speak. This is a topic in which Dr. Richardson has shown a growing interest for many years, having seen how lives can be changed by learning even rudimentary sign language. Richardson doesn't waste any time: he introduces Belinda to a few bits of sign language, and she proves to be an alarmingly apt pupil. The doctor shows Black the little bit of communication she's been able to achieve, and Black is so delighted that despite the fact that it takes all of the McDonalds from dawn till dusk to run the farm, Black welcomes the doctors' frequent visits.

Belinda begins to blossom as the doctor helps draw her out of her isolation and into a world where she can communicate at least with those in her household. But there is more than just the lost isolation for Belinda: there is also a personal transformation as she gains confidence, and her inner beauty breaks through to the surface. This new-found beauty does not go unnoticed by town lout Locky McCormick (Stephen McNally). With the doctor away on business, and the other McDonalds equally occupied with farm work, Locky breaks into Belinda's room and rapes her.

After this horrific incident, nothing appears to have changed. Belinda herself wears the same beatific smile: she makes no attempt to communicate with anyone about what has happened. It isn't until Richardson takes Belinda to a colleague to double-check his owns findings on another matter, that he learns the shocking truth. When Black learns of what's been done to his child, he immediately wants to question her, but Richardson explains that she appears to have wiped the incident from her memory – and the best thing they can do is focus on getting Belinda through the pregnancy. Dr. Richardson takes care of her at the McDonald's Farm throughout her pregnancy, and when she finally gives birth it is to a healthy baby boy she names Johnny.

Of course, the moment the townspeople find out about the pregnancy, tongues start wagging about who the expectant father might be, and the town as a whole opts for Dr. Richardson as prime suspect. Richardson isn't bothered by the talk because, as he tells Black, he would like to marry Belinda. But Black feels that that would be a marriage out of generosity rather than love. The situation remains at a stand-off until Locky stops by the McDonald Farm to buy some goods, and sees the baby for the first time. Without thinking, he remarks on the fact that the boy is the spitting image of his father. Black understands immediately what this means, and Locky takes off across the cliffs, with Black in pursuit. Their confrontation ends with Black going over the cliff.

Now that Black is dead, hard decisions have to be made about where Belinda and Johnny will go – but this is something that Richardson happily decides to take care of himself. With Black no longer around to offer objections, Richardson makes his feelings known to Belinda, and then heads off to Toronto to look into the prospects of setting up a medical practice there.

With Richardson in Toronto and Aggie away with distant relatives, the holier-than-thou townspeople once again try to get their own back on the McDonalds. In a hastily assembled town meeting, the Town Officials decide that Johnny shouldn't be left in the care of someone who is mentally deficient (a mis-diagnosis from Belinda's childhood, which has haunted her despite the fact that her problem was deafness/muteness). And the town has already selected the perfect couple to whom the child should be given: Locky McCormick and his new bride, Stella. Armed with the official papers that will allow them to take Johnny, Locky takes Stella and races out to the McDonald Farm to get the baby. Flushed with excitement over his victory, Locky slips up again and tells Stella that he is actually Johnny's father. But his biggest mistake in this fateful enterprise is not taking into account the level of resistance with which he will be met.

Nominated for eleven Academy Awards, Johnny Belinda is an extraordinary film with four flawless central performances, beginning with Wyman, who is unforgettable as Belinda, a role that initially requires her to convey her emotions through her eyes and facial expressions. In the scene where the doctor first tries to show Belinda that is possible for her to communicate, Wyman makes the struggle to understand and the subsequent revelation breathtakingly real. Her performance is one of small nuances and broad strokes, the latter coming when Belinda signs The Lord's Prayer as a group of friends mourning the death of her father recite it. There is something at once balletic and defiant.

Legendary character actor Charles Bickford had one of his meatiest roles as Black McDonald. Bickford seamlessly makes the character a combination of absolute patriarch, warm-hearted father, and fierce family protector. Agnes Moorehead gives another strong performance as the spinster-sister Aggie, who "never had much time for Belinda:" a situation that changes once some lines of communication have been opened. Lew Ayres also gets one of his best roles as Dr. Richardson, the model of a compassionate doctor. All three co-stars were nominated for their performances.

The source material for Warner Bros.' new DVD is in remarkably good shape, with no damage or deterioration, and only a couple of individual shots where the picture is grainy. The image is beautifully contrasted throughout. The audio is also in splendid shape, with rich tone quality and deep bass. Extras include the vintage short The Little Archer, and the film's theatrical trailer.

For more information about Johnny Belinda, visit Warner Video. To order Johnny Belinda, go to TCM Shopping.

by Fred Hunter