Kendall and I went to one of those only-in-L.A. screenings at the Motion Picture Academy last night. They’re having this series every Monday called “Great to Be Nominated” in which they show pristine prints of films that were nominated for Best Picture Oscars but didn’t win. They also screen rare Oscar-nominated shorts and cartoons from that year—it’s a real old-fashioned night at the movies complete with stars of the film in attendance (if any are still around). Last night we saw the 1943 religious epic “The Song of Bernadette” about the French peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous who, on February 11, 1858, had a vision of the Virgin Mary in the city dump of Lourdes. A spring appeared in the grotto there which quickly became known as a source of healing waters. Thousands still flock to Lourdes every year and some of the reported cases of medical healings are pretty amazing. The Church actually has very strict procedures for classifying true “miracles” and since Bernadette’s time there have been only 66 official proclamations of healing miracles at Lourdes. I’m sure skeptics can explain away the so-called miracles but at the very least they’d have to take a serious look at the recuperative powers of the waters. The Catholic dogma that permeates “The Song of Bernadette” is a bit much to take but the film does give nods to those that question the “truth” of Bernadette’s visions. Even her own mother questions her at first. A title card in the opening credits states a line that is uttered later in the film by one of the people who come to accept Bernadette’s stories of the Lady in the Grotto: “To those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. To those who do not believe in God, no explanation is possible.”
I found it so interesting that this film should play on the very day that a spirited discussion about religion and faith sprang up on the blogs that I read regularly. It started with Tamar’s post about an interview with Richard Dawkins which she said validated her beliefs about her own atheism. A rash of comments appeared on Tamar’s site responding to Dawkins’ writings. Some of these comments were longer than Tamar’s original post and it was interesting to see the intense emotions this topic brings up. The blogging Gottliebs offered some fascinating and provocative thoughts on their True Ancestor and AmbivaBlog sites and these issues continue to generate lots of discussion. In a comment on AmbivaBlog, Tamar talked about what it felt like to come out of the closet as an atheist (stressing that she is still searching but doesn’t feel “lost”) and how many of her close friends have been “begging her to see the light.” I’m hoping that I’m not one of those people but I think back to the many jokes I’ve made with her over the years about her atheism, as if she’s really a closet believer and just can’t admit it. I know that if someone leveled that “I know you better than you know yourself” notion at me, even in fun, I’d take offense, so I admire Tamar’s tolerance of my tongue-in-cheek references. Maybe I just don’t have the skill to discuss these issues without sounding like I’m trying to convert someone to my point of view even if I don’t believe that’s where I’m coming from. I guess that’s why I so frequently revert to the only language I DO understand—old movies!
I love “The Song of Bernadette” as high-class melodrama but there are parts of the film that make me want to run screaming out of the theatre and straight to Pope Benedict for some answers. One of the main tensions in the film is between Jennifer Jones’ innocent and somewhat “backward” Bernadette and the devout but ambitious head nun, Sister Vauzous, played by Gladys Cooper (better known as Henry Higgins’ mum in “My Fair Lady”). Even when the rest of the skeptical townspeople start believing Bernadette’s story of the Beautiful Lady she saw at the grotto, Sister Vauzous is a hold-out. She torments Bernadette as an attention-seeking lunatic and bitterly wonders why this young girl, who has never suffered a day in her life, should be chosen to receive the apparition of the Holy Mother, when she, Sister Vauzous, is not chosen despite the fact that she works herself to the bone, her gnarled hands, tortured body, and aching eyes serving as testaments to her undying faith. It is only at the end of Bernadette’s young life, when the nun discovers that the girl has been silently suffering from unimaginable pain for many years due to bone cancer, that she finally believes the girl is worthy of the heavenly vision. My Catholic friends concur that this message that terrible suffering is a necessary step to divine salvation was drummed into their heads at every turn, thus creating many lifelong issues of worthiness. Thank God Jews don’t subscribe to that brand of programming—the guilt trips we already experience are bad enough. And there are no extra credit points given to Jews who suffer great pain in silence. Au contraire—kvetching is practically a religious rite.
Jennifer Jones hits the right ethereal notes in her portrayal of Bernadette even though she’s playing 14 at age 24 and the studio couldn’t resist adding a bit of mascara and rouge to the pure visage of her impoverished character. Jennifer’s Svengali/future husband David O. Selznick lobbied for his discovery to get the part and she beat out many bigger actresses for the role. In the screen test she had to look at a stick behind the camera and act as if it were the Virgin Mary. According to director Henry King, the other actresses just looked, but Jennifer saw! While she had made several earlier films under the name Phyllis Isley (it was Selznick who came up with Jennifer Jones), 20th-Century-Fox touted “The Song of Bernadette” as her first film and conveniently left out any mention of her ex-husband (actor Robert Walker) or their two young children in the publicity campaign. Other notable cast members included Charles Bickford, Vincent Price, Lee J. Cobb, and the fantastic Anne Revere as Bernadette’s fierce but devoted mother. Jennifer Jones, still head of the Board of Directors of her third husband’s Norton Simon Museum, sent a note that was read at the screening, but Patricia Morrison, who had a small role as the Empress Eugenie, was in attendance. She is now 90 years old , delightful, and as stunning as ever. Her biggest claim to fame, which she spoke about at length, was creating the role of Lilli Vanessi in “Kiss Me Kate” on Broadway as well as taking over for Gertrude Lawrence (after her sudden death) in the original “The King and I.”
Probably the most controversial casting in the film was sultry screen siren Linda Darnell as the Virgin Mary. Oy, wouldn’t it have made more sense to have Bernadette’s visions appear as a light on Jones’ awestruck face instead of using sexy pinup girl Darnell, already known for several high profile scandals? To top it off, Darnell was pregnant during the filming! Novelist Franz Werfel wrote the book on which the film was based. He was an Austrian Jew whose books were burned by the Nazis, and when he escaped to France after the Anschluss and found refuge at the Catholic sanctuary in Lourdes, he vowed to one day to “sing the song of Bernadette.” His book was an immediate bestseller with the wartime population desperate for stories that provided inspiration and relief. Werfel sold the story to Hollywood and came out here with his wife, Alma, the renowned former spouse of Gustav Mahler. During the making of the film, Franz Werfel was so horrified to learn about Darnell’s appearance as the Blessed Mother that he threatened to take his name of the picture. But producer Darryl F. Zanuck wouldn’t budge. He just removed Darnell’s name from the credits and lied to Werfel that they were using an unknown actress in the role. Poor Linda Darnell. I always thought she was underrated as an actress. She died in a fire at the age of 41 while watching one of her old movies on TV.
I loved watching this movie as a kid. It was shown on TV every Easter and I truly did feel inspired by the earnest tale. (If my orthodox Jewish relatives knew what I was watching they would have confiscated every TV in our home!) My thought after seeing the film again last night is that Bernadette Soubirous was having some kind of religious delusion. But so what? In this context, I don’t see such a delusion as any less real or valid. If Berny believed she saw Mary, who am I to say that she didn’t, even if it were possible to diagnose her with a bona fide mental disorder? And if her delusion led to people being healed in the waters of Lourdes, more power to her! I left the theatre wondering how many other deeply religious films about Christianity were written by Jews. Plenty, I’m guessing, including the prestigious “King of Kings” starring blue-eyed Jeffrey Hunter in the title role. Hunter, who was married to our friend Barbara Rush at the time, was such a youthful hunk in the role that reporters of the day dubbed the film “I was a Teenage Jesus.”
Is it wrong to call a film about a Divine vision a chick flick? I hate that term but I’m man enough to admit that these are often the films I most prefer—films that delve into the emotions of the characters rather than relying on heavy-duty action sequences or car chases. Another chick flick I saw this weekend was “Ladies in Lavender” starring Dames Maggie Smith and Judi Dench. That awful title is so chick flick-oriented that even I had a hard time uttering it at the box office. But whatever you do, don’t miss the chance to see these two amazing women in action.
The film takes place in a small town in pre-World War II England. Smith and Dench are elderly sisters who one day find a Polish violinist washed up on the shore near their home. He was badly injured in a shipwreck and the ladies decide to nurse him back to health. There are many poignant moments involving the sisters and this young man, and these brilliant actresses convey way more than was on the page about their lives, loves, and regrets. Not too much happens in the film compared to most American fare, but, as one reviewer stated, “put Judi Dench and Maggie Smith together to read their grocery lists and you'd be halfway to a decent film!” Smith and Dench appear without any makeup or glamour treatment but I thought every wrinkle, age spot, and strand of gray hair showed so much more beauty than the cookie cutter looks of the latest twentysomething starlets being shoved down our throats. There’s not an ad campaign in sight for “Ladies in Lavendar” yet the entire city is blanketed with billboards for atrocities like the upcoming “House of Wax” starring acting heavyweights Chad Michael Murray and Paris Hilton. Honestly, is there a person on this planet who would prefer to watch Paris Hilton acting in a film over the likes of Maggie Smith and Judi Dench? If so, please make yourself known—I’d like to start a collection to send you to the healing waters of Lourdes.