The Song of Bernadette
Directed by Henry King
Written by George Seaton based on the novel by Franz Werfel
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
Bernadette: The spring is not for me.
Jennifer Jones won the Academy Award but the tons of great character actors steal the show in this first-rate production.
This is a somewhat fictionalized account of the life of Bernadette Subirous, a poor and uneducated teenager whose visions of a “beautiful lady” near the village of Lourdes shook all of France. Bernadette’s father (the excellent Roman Bohnen) is a complainer who barely supports his family on odd jobs and the money her mother (Ann Revere) brings in doing laundry. The mother, in particular, is a God-fearing woman. The sickly Bernadette is frequently absent from school and she considers herself to be “stupid”, an opinion which Sister Marie Therese (Gladys Cooper), the nun who is teaching her catechism, shares.
One day, she and two other girls go out to collect firewood. Bernadette is left behind waiting on one side of the river near the city dump due to her asthma. That is when a beautiful lady dressed in white, with a blue girdle, and golden roses on her feet appears to her. Reports of this only cause her parents to forbid her to go back to the site. But Bernadette’s distress finally causes her relatives to join and before long there is a crowd of peasants praying at the site. The town fathers – Imperial Prosecutor Vital Detour (Vincent Price), the Mayor, the Chief of Police (Charles Dingle) and the local doctor (Lee J. Cobb) – and Father Peyramale (Charles Bickford), the dean of the local parish, all believe Bernadette is a fraud. Wary of bad publicity, each man wants somebody else to close the site. When Bernadette visits Father Peyramale to tell him the lady has asked that a chapel be built at the site and pilgrimages organized, he says that if the lady is real she should be able to prove it by making wild roses bloom in February.
The lady does something else. She tells Bernadette to go and eat plants near a spring. But there is no spring. Bernadette starts stuffing leaves into her mouth and washing her hands in the dirt. All present now think she is insane. But just as the crowd reaches the top of the hill, water springs from the ground. The first miraculous healing follows immediately.
The authorities try everything in their power to get Bernadette to recant her story including threatening her with jail and commitment to an insane asylum. Bernadette’s story is unshakeable. Finally, she gains a champion in Father Peyramale. Then the authorities decide the village can cash in on the hordes of people visiting the site. Although Bernadette would like nothing better to marry and have children, she ends up having to go into a convent. Unluckily, Sister Marie Therese is the supervisor of the novices and she is convinced that Bernadette is nothing more than a publicity hog who cannot possibly have seen the Virgin Mary because she “has not suffered”. Bernadette had suffered though and would suffer far more before her life was through. With Linda Darnell (!!) as “the lady”. (We see her only briefly and flooded with light.)
Jennifer Jones plays Bernadette with a simplicity and wide-eyed innocence that suits her character. The real stars are in the outstanding supporting cast who each do themselves proud. The film has an almost neo-realist feeling and is beautifully staged. The filmmakers rather tip their hand on the side of Bernadette’s story but the movie is open enough to the possibility that she could have been deluded that it should be enjoyable even by non-believers. The one weakness is that the film is 2 1/2 hours long. It could have been trimmed by 30 minutes with no harm to the story.
The Song of Bernadette won Academy Awards in the categories of: Best Actress; Best Cinematography, Black-and-White (Arthur C. Miller); Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Black-and-White; and Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture. It was nominated for the following awards: Best Picture; Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Bickford); Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Cooper); Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Revere); Best Director; Best Writing, Screenplay; Best Sound, Recording; and Best Film Editing.