Winner of four Academy Awards: Best Actress (Jennifer Jones), Best Cinematography (Arthur C. Miller), Best Music (Alfred Newman), and Best Art Direction.
When David O. Selznick produced 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 German refugee Franz Werfel,written after the author had settled in California. The screen adaptation by George Seaton (Miracle on 34th Street ) precisely structures all the vital melodramatic beats, and manages to make a lengthy story (without an intermission) feel like a 2 hour film.
Although she had previously appeared in a pair of Republic films (under her real name, Phyllis Islely), this beautifully paced, $2 million production marked the formal debut of Jennifer Jones. Then in her early twenties, Jones fully immersed herself into the role and employed youthful, physical nuances and a range of emotions that reflected the innocence, naivete, and dignity of a girl marginalized by her own naivete and physical ailments before a spiritual vision in the town dump boosts her self-confidence, and unleashes a surprisingly sharp wit.
It's a moving, engrossing performance, and Jones was surrounded by Fox' top acting talent, several of whom appear in much smaller roles.
Vincent Price (Leave Her to Heaven [M]) plays the sly prosecutor Dutour whose intent on destroying Bernadette seeds in himself a major streak of self-hatred; Charles Bickford (A Star is Born) gives surprising majesty while underplaying the priest who slowly suspects Bernadette may not be delusional; and sullen Gladys Cooper (Rebecca, My Fair Lady) is exceptional as the unsympathetic nun Sister Marie Therese Vauzous who pretty much detests Bernadette for being lazy, and uses her position of power to mete out taunting and exhausting tasks once the girl moves out of the primordial media spotlight and enters a convent.
Lee J. Cobb
(Captain from Castile, The Exorcist [M]) has a small role as a doctor who neither believes nor dislbelieves the miracles of the water spring found by Bernadette, Charles Dingle is colourful as the pouty town police chief who favours scare tactics and underestimates Bernadette's sharp mind, and Chales Napier (TV's Batman) again takes on an uncredited role as a manipulative psychiatrist.
An old-fashioned, melodramatic yet moving film, Bernadette remains surprisngly contemporary for its balance, and viewing Bernadette's experiences from the sidelines. While we see glimpses of her spiritual encounter (played by an unbilled Linda Darnell), equal time is given to her family, conflicted by love and embarrassment; the media, who ridicule her rising popularity among common folks; and of the opportuniststs who craft ways of making a quick buck from masses of pilgrims.
In the film's final third when Bernadette is separated from the secular world and becomes a nun, Jones' subtle performance style brings us back to the more intimate drama of a young girl thrust into an unwanted spotlight, and her slight misgivings of losing contact with her family, and the chance to marry a local boy and raise a family.
Cooper's vindictive nun also returns to the drama, and her most powerful exchange - an admission of jealousy in Bernadatte's involves 'cell' - is a briliiant piece of acting, lighting, and direction.
When Sister Vauzous realizes Bernadette has indeed been suffering through her 'enlightened period', the film doesn't transform the older nemesis into a fully loyal supporter; there's still a sense Vauzous has confessed her selfishness ways and chosen to become Bernadette's main aide because it's her only recourse in regaining a pious pathway to Heaven, and to remain within the sisterhood's college.
As much as the film celebrates faith and the nobility of suffering, there's a palpable cynical streak which isn't smothered by the melodrama, and it's not a stretch to view the film as a discrete little critique of religion. As the opening and closing slogan states, those who already believe in miracles need not be convinced; and those who disbelieve can't be convinced. The subject of Bernadette, being a saintly girl who experienced a spiritual contact, remains moot, and ensures the film appeals to cynics and the faithful.
The Video Releases and Extras
Twilight Time's Blu-ray presents a clean HD transfer of the film with only a few odd shots affected by the print's occasionally high contrast incidents. This is likely the best surviving print in Fox' archives, and while in very good shape, there's a sense's it's a slightly tweaked version of the HD master used for the 2003 DVD edition. TT's BR includes the film's original mono sound mix, and in place of the bullshit stereo re-mix we have an uncompressed isolated music track which presents Alfred Newman's brilliant (and arguably his best) score in what the composer termed 'fat mono'.
The DVD's thoughtful audio commentary's with 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 has been retained.
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.
While Spoto delivers accessible theological opinions, Epstein gives us a strong perspective of Jones' career and the numerous A-list personnel in the film, including good background material on prolific (and largely fogotten) director Henry King, actors Vincent Price, Charles Bickford, and the underrated Gladys Cooper.
Spoto tend to dominate the final section of the audio commentary, but the edited track overall balances the collective opinions, and there's minimal duplication of material; each contributor knows his stuff, and truly loves this film.
Burlingame, who in 2003 was writing a biography of the Newman dynasty, also offers a detailed portrait of composer Alfred Newman who received his third Oscar Award for his benchmark orchestral score. Both a composer and Fox' music director, 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.
TT's release also retains the film's theatrical trailer and the short restoration comparison present on the first wave of Fox' Studio Classics series, but there are a handful of extras that remain unique to the 2003 disc.
An episode of A&E's Biography (without indexed chapters) focuses on Jennifer Jones, and is filled with generous interviews (including Dominic Dunne and biographer Epstein) and many rare film clips. A good overview of her lengthy career, the doc's best moments come from son Robert Walker, Jr. who recalls his parents' stuggles to establish and maintain their 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 courting and eventual marriage of Jones and producer David O. Selznick.
Also unique to the DVD 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.
© 2003, revised 2013 Mark R. Hasan