The story of a deaf woman being raped sounds like a bad Helen Keller joke. Now that we’ve cleared that air, let’s not go there.
Johnny Belinda takes place in a peaceful fishing town in Nova Scocia. It’s your typical small town, where everyone knows everyone and newcomers, like Dr. Robert Richardson (Lew Ayres) are subject to idle gossip. Right away we see he’s a kind and generous man, who even makes a house-call in the middle of the night to help birth a baby cow, for the McDonald family, who his secretary warns, might not be able to pay. He discovers Mr. McDonald’s deaf-mute daughter, Belinda (Jane Wyman) and takes immediate interest. He teaches her sign language and it turns out she’s a quick learner. Before long, she’s able to read her family’s lips and communicate like never before. How happily life changing.
Just because she’s learning, doesn’t mean she’s free from ridicule. She’s referred to as “the dummy”, pitied and laughed at by most. She becomes a lewd interest of the town’s good ol’ brute, Locky. His girlfriend, Stella warns him to leave her alone, not realizing the extent of his ill intentions. After getting drunk at a town party, Locky stumbles over to the McDonald residence and rapes poor Belinda. It all would’ve gone unnoticed and quiet, but she ends up pregnant with his child. Once this scandalous news hits the village, rumors arise about who they suspect the father is. The whole family is avoided like lepers and business drops mixing financial struggles to their heartbreaks.
Jane Wyman won the Oscar for best leading actress, without saying a word. She stares with big innocent eyes that light up with understanding and unforeseen intelligence. She doesn’t try to overcompensate for lack of words, like a silent film star. Her sign language isn’t flamboyant either, she’s calm, obedient, and understanding. The only time we ever see fear or conflict is just before her attack and in the more climactic action.
I was surprised to see such daring themes of rape and disability vs intelligence in the forties. I don’t mean to generalize, but this seemed to be the time period for rallying war films, sweeping romances and giddy comedies. Hard subjects like this must’ve averted quite a few eyes. But those daring the trip to the theater must’ve been enthralled. Many times today we still question if a disabled person can take care of a child, and that comes up in the later part of the film. I’ll let you witness the debate with fresh eyes.
This isn’t one of those great classics everyone talks about, but it is good. If you’re interested in deaf issues, this is a great example with many edges. If you’re looking for a lighter film, skip it.
“There’s only one shame, failing a human being who needs you.”