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By the late 1940's, Jane Wyman had been under contract at Warner Brothers for a dozen years. She'd served her apprenticeship playing working girls, chorines, and heroines' pals in "A" films, and leads in "B" pictures like the Torchy Blaine series. It took loan-outs to give her a chance at roles with some substance -- to Paramount in The Lost Weekend (1945), followed by her Oscar-nominated performance as a stern farm wife in The Yearling (1946) at MGM.
Meanwhile, back at Warners, producer Jerry Wald was trying to persuade studio boss Jack Warner to buy Johnny Belinda, a hit play about a deaf-mute country girl whose bleak existence is improved when she is befriended by a doctor. A brutal attack leads to joy, then tragedy, setting off the story's climax. Warner complained that Johnny Belinda had no commercial appeal. "Who wants to see a picture where the leading lady doesn't say a word?" But Wald was one of the studio's top producers, and had successfully guided Joan Crawford to an Oscar® in Mildred Pierce (1945). So Warner grudgingly agreed to let Wald make the film version of Johnny Belinda (1948). None of the studio's big stars were right for the role of Belinda. Teresa Wright would have been perfect, but she was under contract to Goldwyn, and the loan-out fee would be expensive. Although Jane Wyman was not a top-tier star, and was too old for the part, Wald decided she could handle it.
Wyman needed some good news -- her personal life was in turmoil. Married since 1940 to Ronald Reagan, she had recently given birth prematurely, and the baby died. She and Reagan were also having marital problems. While her career was on the upswing, his was in the doldrums. As president of the Screen Actors' Guild, Reagan was deeply involved in union and national politics, which bored her to tears. Wyman was glad to set aside her problems and get involved in a challenging project.
Johnny Belinda also came at a good time for director Jean Negulesco, and for Lew Ayres, who would play the doctor. Negulesco had just been fired from The Adventures of Don Juan (1949) because he and star Errol Flynn didn't agree on how the character should be played. Johnny Belinda was a project Negulesco much preferred. Ayres had been a conscientious objector during World War II, and distributors had boycotted his films until MGM dropped his contract. Ayres served in non-combatant duty during the war, but had a hard time rebuilding his career afterwards.
To prepare for Johnny Belinda, a consultant was hired to teach Wyman and Ayres sign language, and Wyman also learned lip reading. Wyman spent time observing a young girl who had been born deaf. But even with all the preparation, there was still something missing from Wyman's performance. She realized that because she could hear, a certain realism was lacking in her expression. So a doctor devised wax earplugs for her to wear which blotted out noise.
The story was set in Nova Scotia, and Johnny Belinda was shot on location in Fort Bragg, a small town on the rugged coast of northern California. Back in Hollywood, Jack Warner was not happy with the footage he was seeing. "They're up there shooting fog and a bunch of damned seagulls!" he exclaimed. In fact, Negulesco claimed that Warner hated the film so much that he fired Negulesco. And Warner let the film sit on the shelf for nearly a year before releasing it.
By that time, Jane Wyman had filed for divorce from Ronald Reagan. But the acclaim she received for her performance helped ease the pain. Archer Winsten's review in the New York Post was typical: "Jane Wyman gives a performance surpassingly beautiful in its slow, luminous awakening of joy and understanding." At Oscar® time, Johnny Belinda received twelve nominations, including Wyman as Best Actress, as well as Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Supporting nominations for Charles Bickford and Agnes Moorehead. Producer Jerry Wald received the Irving Thalberg memorial award for the high quality of his productions, due in part to the acclaim Johnny Belinda had received. Wyman won the film's only competitive Oscar®, and her acceptance speech was brief and to the point: "I accept this award very gratefully - for keeping my mouth shut. I think I'll do it again!"
Director: Jean Negulesco
Producer: Jerry Wald
Screenplay: Irmgard von Cube, Allen Vincent, based on the play by Elmer Harris
Cinematography: Ted McCord
Editor: David Weisbart
Costume Design: Milo Anderson
Art Direction: Robert Haas, set designer William Wallace
Music: Max Steiner
Principal Cast: Jane Wyman (Belinda McDonald), Lew Ayres (Dr. Robert Richardson), Charles Bickford (Black McDonald), Agnes Moorehead (Aggie McDonald), Stephen McNally (Locky McCormick), Jan Sterling (Stella McCormick).
BW-103m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri