“The Song Of Bernadette” won four Academy Awards for Best Actress Jennifer Jones, Best Cinematography, Best Music and Best Art Direction. It was nominated for eight other key categories.
When producer David O. Selznick made "Gone With The Wind" in 1939, he proved audiences were more than willing to watch long movies - provided they were of the highest caliber. Made at the height of WW2, "The Song of Bernadette" was based on the best-selling book by Franz Werfel, a German fleeing his homeland via France and Spain, ultimately settling in California, where he wrote the novel that continues to remain in print. Though set in the 'healing' resort of Lourdes - a small town close to the Spanish border - George Seaton's adaptation resulted in a two and a half hour film, which amazingly, feels like a standard two hours.
Beautifully paced, the $2 million production marked the introduction of Jennifer Jones as Bernadette. Though she had appeared in a pair of Republic films (under her real name, Phyllis Islely) before "Bernadette," Jones, then in her early twenties, fully immersed herself into the role; employing youthful, physical nuances and a range of emotions that reflected innocence, naivete, and dignity. It's still a moving, engrossing performance and under Henry King's assured direction, is largely responsible for the film's continuing impact.
As with previous editions in the Studio Classics series, 20th Century Fox has gathered and edited a thoughtful commentary track featuring Edward Z. Epstein (author of "Portrait of Jennifer: A Biography of Jennifer Jones"), John Burlingame (UCLA film music professor and writer for Daily Variety and the L.A. Times), and Donald Spoto.
Energetic (and sometimes a wee bit melodramatic), Spoto is best-known for his biography of Alfred Hitchcock, though his contribution to this disc is as an engaging historian and theologian - having studied theology before establishing himself with several high-profile biographies. Brimming with wit and plenty of opinions, Spoto nevertheless delivers insightful comments regarding the studio's above average efforts to retain religious accuracy, and like Epstein, places the film in its proper historical context.
During the war's peak, "Bernadette" offered a mix of positives that audiences could draw from: the immense faith of the young girl, as well as the townspeople and local priest who eventually come to celebrate her strength and powerful faith; the sense of community within the township that never results in bloodshed and barbarism; and to a lesser degree, the almost blasé attitude towards mixed cultures, such as Bernadette's Spanish neighbours, and her celibate admirer.
While Spoto delivers accessible theological opinions, Epstein gives us a strong perspective of Jones' career - at this juncture, the film became a platform to a meteoric rise - and the numerous A-list personnel in the film; including good background material on director King, actors Vincent Price, Charles Bickford, and Gladys Cooper (who delivers an exceptional supporting performance).
Burlingame, currently involved with a biography of the Newman dynasty, offers a detailed portrait of the film's composer, who received his third Oscar Award for his benchmark orchestral score. Though music director of Twentieth century-Fox, Alfred Newman spent four months finding inspiration from Werfel's text, and wrote a moving, extensive score - about ninety minutes of material - that's still noted for its unique, incredibly high string passages. The film's original mono mix (and pseudo-stereo remix) offer a clear presentation of the score, which has appeared several times on LP and CD.
Though Spoto's comments tend to dominate the final section of the film, the commentary track overall balances the voices, and there's minimal duplication of material; each contributor knows his stuff, and truly loves this film; their excitement is quite infectious.
For a more visual aid to this mini-Jennifer Jones tribute, Fox has included an episode of "Biography" (without indexed chapters), and happily it's one of the better installments, with generous interviews - including Dominic Dunne and biographer Epstein - and many rare film clips. A good overview of her lengthy career, the best moments come from son Robert Walker, Jr., who recalls the struggles of his parents to establish and maintain hot careers while caring for two children, and the tragic death of Robert Walker. Sr. (best known today for his eerie role as Bruno, the killer in Alfred Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train"). Also on hand is son Daniel Selznick, who offers good insight into the relationship between Jones, and producer David O. Selznick - who conducted an affair with Jones before ultimately marrying her, later in the decade.
There's been a recent spate of DVD releases for Selznick's films - the Hitchcock films from Criterion being the most exhaustive in their archival materials - and Fox' DVD offers another chapter in the legendary, and visionary producer's career, and his impact on the film industry.
Also on the disc is a Movietone newsreel extract, with Jones - maturely attired, with a deeper voice than her cinematic counterpart - accepting a "G.I. Award," with a grinning Milton Berle standing near the microphone.
The film's trailer touts the Oscar Award connection, and shows clips from the film, as 'presented by special permission'; a rather amusing ploy at highbrow ballyhoo, since the studio owned a large chain of theatres during the years of total vertical movie exploitation.
As with other discs in this series, there's a brief Restoration Comparison, using a split screen to show the differences between the antiquated video masters (which aren't all that old), major changes in colour stability, and subtle noise filters employed to retain some measure of grain from the film stock without adding distracting textures.
Having grown up watching these gems on an old TV, it's good to see the classics getting their due on DVD; viewers will no doubt be impressed by the exquisite black and white cinematography that glows in these new transfers.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan