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Blu-ray Review

DVD cover

The Song of Bernadette (1943)


Starring: Jennifer Jones, William Eythe, Charles Bickford, Vincent Price, Lee J. Cobb and Gladys Cooper
Distributor: Eureka Entertainment
RRP: £16.99
Certificate: U
Release Date: 08 April 2019

It is 1943. World War II rages on every continent except Antarctica and maybe even there too. Hollywood is not only in the business of making inspirational war movies but also inspirational domestic films – uhhh, translate that as movies about transcendent feminine movers and shakers. Who could be more feminine and spiritually heroic than Bernadette of Lourdes? – a humble 19th century country girl who experienced epiphanies from no less than the Virgin Mary. As female gunslingers go, that’s The Guns of Nazarene. (Forgive me, or don’t; much of this review will probably require forgiveness from secularists.)

The true story of sociological upheaval and controversy that ensued was a best selling historical novel by Franz Werfel so audience presale and word of mouth was assured. A movie was a natural outcome. Twentieth Century Fox Studios took it on and the picture made surprisingly good moolah bringing in audiences who didn’t always patronize movies – much the same way Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ (2004) would do in these years of no Lord. People may have sniffed and snorted at Gibson’s subject matter but they broke the tenth commandment coveting the nearly billion dollar gross worldwide. Only masquerades and fairy tales get to do that.

The marketing heroes and heroines at Eureka are quick to qualify its brilliant 1080p Blu-ray with the phrase: ‘no matter what one’s personal beliefs’… which is code, of course, for viewers who find no value in traditional religion or ‘God talk’ in favour of Satan-in-underpants epics. Easier today to sell characters who epiphanise into alter egos with telekinetic powers or strength enough to roll over cars and bash bullies. After all, The Trinity is a hell of a lot less sexy than The Fantastic Four. Standard old guard cathedral window epiphany is, as they say in marketing, a tough sell, Sydney. But fashionista faith is an indication that the quest for power to escape powerlessness – or simply ennui after a sugar high – is still in the mass noggin. Whether it’s warmed over pagan mystery religion or gnostic knockoffs, the powerless public is hungry to imagine there is more to this life than, well, this life.

It wasn’t that different in 1943. Fox knew to get an audience it would have to honestly render the ridicule heaped on young humble Bernadette or identification wouldn’t be realistic for the popcorn munchers whether they were devout or not. The same problem of identifying with ridicule is a perennial. Remember (or don’t) the pitch for the first Christopher Reeves Superman (1978) – ‘You will believe a man can fly!’ The Fox filmmakers took the assignment and gave screenwriting maestro George Seaton carte blanche. Seaton had been brought to Fox in 1941 under the wing of producer William Perlberg. Noted first as a gag writer, Seaton’s rise had begun with the Marx Brothers’ ‘A Night at the Opera’ (1935) following that with their biggest box-office success, A Day at the Races (1937). Bernadette was not going to be a gag picture but for it to work a structuralist was needed who could hone character and dialogue as well as coax audiences into identifying. Seaton’s script did not disappoint. He made the ineffable accessible. Very important for the popcorn munchers.

Next was Bernadette herself. David O. Selznick had a starlet under his contractual wing for whom he would later leave his wife, marry and devote the rest of his life showcasing her in his wobbly productions: an actress named Phylis Isley who had only appeared in a C-grade oater and an A-grade Republic Serial, which is to say, in the Calcutta-like studio caste system of the day, the gutter. (see Dick Tracy’s G-Men, [1939] ) Her name was changed to Jennifer Jones and Selznick gets special screen credit for loaning her to Fox. His fee is unknown but probably available in his compendium of memos, Memo for a Movie.

Henry King would direct. An honoured artisan since silent days, King was a sure hand for this delicate task: delivering a $2 million roadshow about spontaneous Christian epiphany. A cinematic classicist, (Stella Dallas [1925]; The Winning of Barbara Worth [1926]; Lloyds of London [1936]; In Old Chicago [1938]; Seventh Heaven [1939]) Henry was no stranger to pictures with strong women. With Oscar winning cinematographer, Arthur Miller, managing intimacy, heart and passion of character in the mammoth Fox backlot factory was tactically and strategically corporate genius. The studio art: epiphany realized. Everything you see of 19th century France, (all but a few landscapes), and, of course, interiors, many with partial ceilings, are manifested on that lot. In the days of Bernadette the lot is so big it embraces a lake named after Tyrone Power and had roads trailing off where Henry Fonda’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) walked over the horizon of destiny for John Ford and where later, Richard Burton and Deborah Kerr could march sublimely into the Roman Coliseum to become lion snacks in The Robe (1953) the first Cinemascope movie ever. All of this bordered by Pico and Century Boulevards in Century City – and yes that municipality was named after Twentieth Century Fox. But alas, today its behemoth backlot is reduced to a bare peninsula. Acreage sold off for condominium and office towers. And now that the monster mouse has purchased it, the remnant of the studio may disappear, digested in the rodent’s alimentary canal.

Why all this history? Song of Bernadette deserves cinematic contemplation – for no other reason than to behold the epiphany of Fox’s glory days.

King is an effortless visualist. Seamless, flawless, silken in choreography of technical and human instruments. He is psychologically astute in midwifery of the most important thing an actor can do: be believable. The cast is superb. Charles Bickford, Lee J. Cobb, Gladys Cooper, Anne Revere, Roman Bohnen… but it is the immortal Vincent Price who almost steals the show from Jennifer Jones, Mother Mary and everybody else. God wisely stays off screen.

Who but Vincent Price to be the chief ridiculer as beatific Bernadette’s chief prosecutor. All ye atheists have a good solicitor in your dock. Price’s arguments against the simple girl are better spoken than yours. Price’s character arc is profound, he is the only character who gets a voice over at the denouement. Let’s be clear. For Price to work his dramatic sorcery, he has to play off the miraculous Jennifer Jones. Beatific is hard. Especially in Benzedrine, coke-head, pedophilic Hollywood. But she brings it off with a benign majesty of innocence.

So when the miraculous healings start happening at the Lourdes spring, we can’t be too surprised. Jennifer Jones told us so. When the little dying baby is healed by a bath in the soundstage waters, we’re in high Hollywood karma. The Fox choir goes elegiac. When this was shot, I’m sure traffic out on Pico Boulevard felt spontaneous tears and didn’t know why.

Bernadette’s own understanding is that this is about love. It is a message older than Johannine Gnostics who embraced it so strongly it had to be included grudgingly in the New Testament. Every culture, old and young, theist and non-theist dialogues with this transcendence. It hangs around in the collective consciousness.

The creators at Fox knew they had to come up with something for a diverse audience, transcendence that would sell. With what was coming out of the death camps in Europe – that pretended not to be known but was; David O. Selznick knew it in 1939, it’s in his memos; and with all the other genocides suppressed in hagiographic jingo history – transcendent love would be a hard pitch at the box-office. But they did it and that’s the success of The Song of Bernadette.

It is also a woman’s rights story. Meat for Leonard Shlain’s classic bestseller The Alphabet Versus The Goddess (Penguin Group, 1998). Male dominated culture pervades the minds of the women of Bernadette’s world. For all of you who have been hurt by nuns, Gladys Hill plays one of the coldest ogres of that species to ever scowl before a camera. Her character arc is delicious. But back to Price who out-arcs Hill. He alone is worth the Blu-ray retail price. And the genius casting of Bernadette. Jennifer Jones’s goodness of heart is all the more remarkable when we remember her sexy temptress in John Huston’s Beat the Devil (1953) which, if you haven’t seen, you should and, dear Reader, consider it my epiphanic gift to you. Goodness of heart to goodness of tart. That’s the other trait of great acting: range.

Bring all your doubts and dialectics to this fine old studio gem and let it sparkle.


John Huff

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