ON DVD & BLU-RAY
The Song of Bernadette (1943) Blu Ray (Eureka!)
A miracle in Lourdes
This adaptation of Franz Werfel’s novel of the same name tells the story of Bernadette Soubirous, a young woman who was canonised as Saint Bernadette after discovering a spring of holy water at Lourdes in France. The story begins in 1858 when the town is in a state of dire poverty. Bernadette (Jennifer Jones) is an asthmatic adolescent girl who struggles to learn even the basic tenets of Catholicism at her local school. When she arrives back home, she is greeted by her mother Louise (Anne Revere), father François (Roman Bohnen), sister Marie (Ermadean Walters) and friend Jeanne (Mary Anderson), who lament the lack of both food and firewood. With that, Bernadette decides to go out and find some wood with the help of Marie and Jeanne.
They spot some trees on the far side of a river and Marie and Jeanne go across. However, they dissuade Bernadette from doing the same over fears that it might be dangerous for her ill health. When she is left behind, Bernadette is surprised by a vision she sees in a nearby grotto. It is that of a woman who looks just like the Virgin Mary. She goes back again and this figure reveals to her that she must return for fifteen days in succession. After a while, her sheer sense of belief in this vision attracts a group of followers who attend her daily commitment with her.
However, the school dean Father Peyramale (Charles Bickford) becomes angry because he suspects her of blasphemy. Meanwhile, the town mayor Lacade (Aubrey Mather) dislikes the derisive publicity that this girl’s behaviour is bringing to the town and asks the local prosecutor Vital Dutour (Vincent Price) to indict her via any means available, be it for fraud or for insanity.
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Preaching to the converted?
At its heart, The Song of Bernadette is very much a film which subscribes to the Catholic Christian faith and, as such, will doubtless be greeted with some measure of cynicism by certain viewers. Nonetheless, as a non-religious person myself, I found it to be a lot more interesting than I had initially anticipated. While it’s a tad overlong and has its supposedly French characters speaking with a variety of accents ranging from mock-French to Deep South United States, it remains a touching and thoughtful work.
There’s a genuine sense of wonder here both in Jennifer Jones’s wide-eyed, Oscar-winning performance and in Henry King’s imaginative direction. The scene of the central miracle (the discovery of the healing spring) achieves a lot with little: a beautiful piece of “Mary’s eye” camerawork and a slight, barely perceptible rustle of branches, all accompanied by Alfred Newman’s stirring score. Later on, we see a huge torch-lit procession which has a haunting, almost expressionistic atmosphere about it.
For a supposed religious tract, it is also surprisingly critical of strict adherence to religious dogma. Bernadette herself is shown to be an inept student of the faith but, at the same time, is far more genuinely attuned to the spiritual world than either of the two main officious religious figures here: Father Peyramale (Charles Bickford) and Sister Vauzous (Gladys Cooper). At the same time, there’s also a streak of cynicism in the shape of major Lacade, who is most interested in milking the miraculous discovery as a cash cow, and Dutour, an arrogant jobsworth who functions as the film’s main antagonist.
Of course, all of these will, by the intractable rules of inspirational cinema, be won over before the end credits roll. Nonetheless, the cast’s committed performances ensure that this inevitability doesn’t feel too cloyingly contrived. Vincent Price, in particular, is as great as ever with his inimitable, authoritative drawl dominating every scene that he appears in.
The Song of Bernadette holds up well as a classic piece of Hollywood cinema even if, on the surface, the subject matter might not be to everyone’s taste.
Runtime: 158 mins
Dir: Henry King
Script: George Seaton, based on a novel by Franz Werfel
Starring: Jennifer Jones, Charles Bickford, Vincent Price, Lee J. Cobb, Gladys Cooper, Anne Revere, Roman Bohnen, Mary Anderson, Patricia Morison, Aubrey Mather, Ermadean Walters, Linda Darnell
Blu Ray Audio Visual
The black and white image quality is outstanding with fine contrast and detail. However, there’s some distortion in the soundtrack during its louder moments.
The commentary track here is provided by Edward Z. Epstein (author of Portrait of Jennifer: A Biography of Jennifer Jones), John Burlingame (biographer of composer Alfred Newman) and biographer-historian Donald Spoto. Together, they give an informative, if somewhat over-earnest, overview of the film’s leading actress, its composer and various other details of the production.
The film was quite a grand affair for the era with a 4-month shooting schedule, a $2 million budget (which was a lot at that time, especially for a black-and-white film) and a runtime of nearly 3 hours (which was considerably longer than usual for a Hollywood release of this era). Newman was given $100,000 (not including his salary) and two months to create the music score, during which he shut himself in a bungalow on the Fox lot and worked closely with his regular orchestrator Edward B. Powell.
Epstein also has a lot of interest to say about actress Jennifer Jones, whose career success owed a lot to producer David O. Selznick. While a number of already popular performers were mooted for the role of Bernadette - Linda Darnell (who ultimately got cast in the uncredited role of The Virgin Mary), Gene Tierney, Anne Baxter and Theresa Wright - Selznick begged the filmmakers to cast an unknown and make her into a star instead. They eventually did just that after finding Jones through an extensive casting process. While the character of Bernadette was 14 at the time, Jones herself was 24 as well as being married with two children. However, with the help of director Henry King (who spent a long time getting her into character on set) and some low-angle camera trickery, she became utterly convincing at playing a character much younger than her true age. Selznick continued to manage her over the years and, after their respective marriages disintegrated, they fell in love and became wedded in 1949.
The other extras here include a collector’s booklet, a trailer and the option to play the film with an overture.
The Song of Bernadette is a classic piece of Hollywood filmmaking magic. It would have been nice if the extras were more extensive but the commentary track does nonetheless add some interest.