Monday, January 10, 2011
When I was reporter working at newspapers in Pennsylvania and Connecticut, I would come back to Brooklyn most weekends and stay at my parents’ house.
I wanted to see my folks, escape the small towns I was working in, and enjoy New York like a tourist.
We had this little routine where, on the night before I had to back to work, we’d rent a movie from a local video store and watch it after dinner. Since I was the guest I had the honor of picking the flick.
One day I took out an old movie called Johnny Belinda. I can’t say why I happened to chose this 1948 film. I had heard of the movie, but I didn’t know much about it besides the title. But I like old movies, as did my parents, so I thought it would be a good choice.
When I got home from the video store and announced this week’s movie, my mother immediately turned to my dad and gave him a sharp look.
“Do you know this movie?” she demanded.
“Yes,” my father said quickly, “yes, I do.”
It turns out that my parents had seen Johnny Belinda on their first date. And luckily for him, my father remembered this important little detail.
Of all the movies I could have picked to watch, I chose the one that had helped bring my parents together. I guess you could say my siblings and I are here largely because of this picture.
Based on a stage play by Elmer Harris, Johnny Belinda takes place in a fishing village on Cape Breton Island, which is located off the coast of Nova Scotia.
Lew Ayers plays a doctor who has recently moved to the island and Jane Wyman, who won an Oscar for her performance, stars as Belinda, a deaf mute girl whom everybody, her family included, assume is stupid. Her own father refers to her as “the Dummy.”
The doctor sees that Belinda is anything but stupid. He points out to the father that his daughter pretty much runs the family mill, but the old man still doesn’t think anyone can help this young woman. The father, portrayed by Charles Bickford, is actually a decent man, but he’s gone through some tough times.
The doctor begins teaching Belinda sign language and she learns to communicate. There’s a heart-breaking scene when Belinda faces her dad and signs the word for “father.” The look of shock on the old man’s face is priceless.
“That’s the first time she’s ever called me that,” he says in amazement.
It brought tears to my eyes, which probably isn’t saying much since I cry at movies all the time, but there you are.
The story is deceptively simple and while it does eventually slide into a courtroom melodrama towards the end, it has many good scenes and, as with all these old movies, a talented cast.
The black and white photography is beautiful and it allowed the filmmakers to shoot in Monterey, Pebble Beach and other locations in California instead of Nova Scotia.
I never really thought about the movie much until a few years ago, after my mother had died and my father was suffering from dementia. I asked him about taking my mom to Johnny Belinda on their first date.
But this time my father shook his head vigorously and said no, that was not true. Maybe I got it wrong, but I don’t think so. My aunt suggested that perhaps it was too painful for my dad to think about my mother, so he just rejected the memory entirely.
I don’t know if there’s anyone around who can set me straight on this. But until I hear otherwise, I’ll go on believing that I owe a lot to Johnny Belinda.