I guess that title is misleadingly provocative, but both the movie star and the concentration camp were on my mind all weekend. The Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Jones died on Friday at the age of 90. On the same day, the famous iron sign reading “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Shall Make You Free”) was stolen from the gates of Auschwitz. I was repulsed that anyone would steal this sign and flabbergasted that it was possible to do so since this is one of the most (in)famous sites on the planet and the thieves had to cut through rows and rows of barbed wire and metal bars to make off with the heavy iron. Worldwide condemnation was immediate.
The chairman of Yad Vashem called the act “an attack on the memory of the Holocaust and an escalation from those elements that would like to return us to darker days.” Authorities dispatched police and search dogs into the surrounding forests to look for the thieves. Sound familiar? Except 65 years ago they weren’t looking for a sign in those Polish forests. Dreamed up by the Nazi masterminds of the Final Solution, “Arbeit Macht Frei” represents one of the biggest lies told to the million Jews (and many Poles, homosexuals, and Gypsies) who were murdered at Auschwitz. Yet some people today, especially a growing number of young people in Europe, believe that Auschwitz was primarily a work camp. It may be grossly unfair to make this comparison but I wish government officials around the world back then were one-tenth as concerned about what was happening behind those gates as they now seem to be about the stupid sign. But never fear—after a weekend-long search, the sign (cut into three pieces) was found and the five thieves apprehended in a snowy forest about 400 kilometers from Auschwitz. Wow, where there’s a will…
The United States had aerial reconnaissance photos of Auschwitz as early as April 1944 along with firsthand reports about activities in the death camp. But despite urgent entreaties by many to bomb the tracks to prevent more cattle cars full of human cargo from entering the camps, the Roosevelt administration refused, always offering the excuse that the priority was simply to win the war.
Two months after American spy planes had flown over Auschwitz, the film “Since You Went Away,” starring Jennifer Jones, premiered in Los Angeles. This is one of my favorite wartime films, focusing exclusively on the travails of those left behind on the homefront. Co-starring Claudette Colbert, Joseph Cotten, a teenaged Shirley Temple, and Jennifer’s real-life husband Robert Walker, this David O. Selznick extravaganza presented a warm and cozy view of all the values that our boys were supposedly fighting for. While pure propaganda, it is a charming film that gets me every time, and I think Jennifer Jones gives one of her best performances. Jones and Walker play young lovers in the film, even though their rocky marriage was crumbling and Jones would soon marry producer Selznick. No matter that he was actively courting her, he still instructed the PR folks to present Jones and Walker as the perfect Hollywood couple, raising their two young boys in total bliss. It was good for the film.
A year earlier, Jones was forced to keep her family on the down-low since the studio was trying to project a different image for her. I wrote about Jones’ Oscar-winning performance in “The Song of Bernadette” several years ago after attending a special screening at the Motion Picture Academy. Jones was supposed to attend but fell ill at the last moment and sent a note instead.
The film depicts the story of a French peasant girl named 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 engulfs “The Song of Bernadette” is a bit much to take but the film does give a nod to those who question the “truth” of Bernadette’s visions. 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.”
As melodramatic as it is, I always loved “The Song of Bernadette,” particularly Jennifer Jones’ ethereal performance as the peasant girl. Sure, whe was 24 playing 14, but so what? She succeeds in coming off as a true innocent even though the studio couldn’t resist adding a bit of mascara and rouge to the pure visage of her impoverished character. Selznick had lobbied for his discovery to get the part and she beat out many much 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 Robert Walker and their two children in the publicity campaign.
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. 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). I’m glad that Jews don’t subscribe to that particular creed. In our religion, there are no extra credit points given for suffering great pain in silence. Au contraire—kvetching is practically a religious rite.
Perhaps 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.
It was only a few weeks ago that I included Jennifer Jones on a list of the remaining stars from the Golden Era. I fear that the actress is largely forgotten today but she made some truly memorable films. In addition to the two I mentioned, I thought she was perfect for MGM’s take on “Madame Bovary” and I was always haunted by her portrayal of Jennie Appleton in the unusual film “Portrait of Jennie.”
I was less enamored with (but always watch when it’s on TV) “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing” in which Jones plays Dr. Han Suyin and feels compelled to tell everyone who will listen, “I’m Eurasian, you know.” Her role as “half-breed” Pearl Chavez in David O. Selznick’s “Duel in the Sun” remains a camp classic. Selznick was at his meddling worst during the overblown production of this film. In one famous exchange with the film’s composer, Dimitri Tiomkin, Selznick told him, “You don’t understand, I want real fucking music!” Tionkin angrily replied, “You fuck your way, I fuck my way. Fuck you—I quit!” The two eventually made up and Tiomkin’s music was used in the final film.
Throughout her career, Jennifer Jones somehow managed to keep the Hollywood gossip hounds at bay. This was a remarkable feat considering how big she was and the fact that all three of her husbands—Robert Walker, David O. Selznick, and art collector Norton Simon—were famous in their own right. In her later years, she was on the board of the Norton Simon Museum and worked to promote mental health issues, especially after her daughter Mary Selznick committed suicide. Her decision to stay out of the limelight played a role in her largely forgotten status today but she seemed to prefer it that way. “My mother told me never explain, never complain. Even as a young actress, I determined I would never give personal interviews, since they made me so uncomfortable…I respect everyone's right to privacy, and I feel mine should be respected, too.”