Thursday 25 January 2024

The Song of Bernadette (1943)

Director: Henry King
Writer: George Seaton, from the novel by Franz Werfel
Stars: William Eythe, Charles Bickford, Vincent Price, Lee J. Cobb, Gladys Cooper and Jennifer Jones

Index: The First Thirty.

After eight pictures in just over three years, Vincent Price took a break from the big screen to bring a play, Gas Light, to Broadway as Angel Street, playing the lead for three years in what was a surprisingly long run for a non-musical.

If not following up with a part in the seven times Oscar nominated American film version in 1944 might seem like a lost opportunity, it’s fair to say that he did pretty well returning in this film, which landed eight nominations and three wins, including Best Actress for a very deserving Jennifer Jones.

It’s another historical film, this one an epic hagiography that lasted two and a half hours, all the better to underline how well Jones was able to endow the lead character with holiness and innocence. It’s very Hollywood innocence, but Jones bolstered the pale and beautiful waif trope with quiet and consistent strength. It’s a bravado performance and it’s easy to buy into what she’s selling.

What she’s selling, of course, is Christianity, in particular, Roman Catholicism, a persistent enemy of Hollywood. The National Legion of Decency, a powerful Catholic lobbyist group, famously warned churchgoers away from long lists of morally depraved films. This is exactly the sort of picture they hoped would be made after the imposition of the Production Code.

It’s the true story of Bernadette Soubirous, the young French peasant girl who saw visions of the Immaculate Conception in the grotto at Massabielle, outside the town of Lourdes, and followed her instructions, one of which was to wash herself in a non-existent spring, which promptly bubbled into existence and proved to have healing powers.

The picture opens soon before these visions began, so we’re in 1858, around the same time as The House of Seven Gables and Brigham Young. Bernadette is a poor student, partly due to her suffering from asthma—the film doesn’t touch on her cholera or the fact that she was merely 4’7” tall as a result. She’s studying at a convent school and preparing for her first communion, but apparently doesn’t even know of the Holy Trinity, which prompts Sister Marie-Therese to remove that opportunity.

It’s a stretch, but it does help to make her subsequent stories about the lady she sees at the grotto more believable. She’s simply not a bright enough girl to be able to make up such stories, especially once certain telling details creep in. She also never names the lady, even when pushed to do so to prove blasphemy.

One surprising choice of the filmmakers was to show the lady and on her first appearance too. Throughout the movie, as the audience at Bernadette’s trips to the grotto grows, nobody else sees her, so we would be left to make up our own minds as to what she saw, if anything, except for the fact that the film chooses sides and shows her to us too. That seems to defeat the purpose of the opening line, a quote from the town’s doctor that “For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe in God, no explanation is possible.” Clearly, the film is in the first camp.

Bernadette had fifteen visions and it would be easy for us to expect that the film would be over with the last of them, but instead we find ourselves only at the halfway mark. That gives the film two separate opportunities to explore important subplots that took over for me.

The first is the reaction of the authorities to these visions, whether those authorities be the civic leaders there in Lourdes or the religious leaders there and further up the chain. While Bernadette wins over the people, especially as the miracles begin, the authorities see her as a clear and present danger, to their town, their way of thinking and their control over others.

Here’s where Vincent Price comes in, as he’s Vital Dutour, the Imperial Prosecutor, one of the most important local authorities. As the railway is coming to Lourdes, he doesn’t want some local peasant girl to throw a spanner in the works. There’s a wonderful verbal chess match of a scene in which he pits experience and education against her innocence and fails.

Mayor Lacade doesn’t fare any better when he tries to outwit Bernadette, though Aubrey Mather plays him as a buffoon in comparison to Price’s cynical and incisive prosecutor. The two plot and scheme and pass the buck and do everything they can, without having any real effect on the people. There’s metaphor there.

The other important local authority is AbbĂ© Dominique Peyramale, parish priest and dean of the convent school. Initially, he sides with his secular counterparts, but gradually finds himself convinced by Bernadette and presses his bishop to open a commission. He’s subtly played by Charles Bickford, who has the most complex role in the film.

His only competitor is Sister Marie Therese, in the capable form of Gladys Cooper, who sets up the second subplot. She was a harsh nun in class and is harsher as the mistress of novices at the Sisters of Charity of Nevers convent which Bernadette joins, as someone who saw the Immaculate Conception surely had to do. Eventually we realise that she’s merely jealous that Bernadette got the visions instead of her, who had suffered so much, but the girl has an answer for that too, like everything else.

That’s a less satisfying subplot than the one that has Price, Mather and others consistently fail in their every attempt to stop what they’re convinced is a hoax from spinning wildly out of control, but it’s a worthy one and it’s why a film that could easily have ended after eighty minutes runs on for as many again.

This is what it is. It’s a story about faith but it’s not confident enough to let that suffice. It feels that it has to show us proof, as much by making us see the lady too as through various miracles worked. It’s better at showing us the faith of the various characters, some of whom believe immediately, some are persuaded over time and some which never do.

It’s Jones’s movie, pure and simple. She was relatively new but couldn’t have been better. Bickford and Cooper both deserved their Oscar nods for fulfilling a pair of deep roles, but it’s Price, as a dedicated skeptic, who receives the best final scene, suffering from throat cancer and finding himself at the grotto.

So sure, this is Christian propaganda, but it sits as close to an enjoyable textbook for that as Hollywood has made, whether we buy into the religion or not.

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