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SONG OF BERNADETTE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Jennifer Jones, Charles Bickford, Vincent Price, Gladys Cooper, Anne Revere, William Eythe, Lee J. Cobb, Linda Darnell
Director: Henry King
Audio: English stereo, English mono, Spanish mono
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: Black & white, full-screen 1.33:1
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Features: commentary, trailers, Biography on Jennifer Jones, newsreel, restoration featurette
Length: 156 minutes
Release Date: June 3, 2003

"I cannot promise to make you happy in this world, only in the next."

Film *** 1/2

By most accounts, Marie-Bernarde Soubirous seemed to be a simple French peasant girl.  There was nothing particularly remarkable about the child, and since she had little time for proper schooling, she could also neither read nor write.  Moreover, Bernadette, as was her common name, was often sickly, a consequence of having contracted cholera at the age of eleven, and suffered frequently from chronic asthma.  Bernadette was also regularly malnourished, for her family lived in dire poverty and could barely even afford the former prison cell of Lourdes in which they lived.  The parents were often forced to seek whatever meager employment that fate might bestow upon them.  As the eldest child, Bernadette did what she could to help care for her younger siblings and worked at times as a waitress or shepherdess.  However, on February 11, 1858, the 14-year-old Bernadette would have an experience which would forever change her life and would alter the lives of so many people around her.

While gathering firewood with her sister, Bernadette encountered a beautiful lady in a nearby grotto.  The lady was attired in a white veil with a blue girdle around her waist and a golden rose upon each foot.  There was a pleasant friendliness about the lady which warmed and intrigued Bernadette.  An irresistible desire to see the lady once again brought Bernadette back to this same grotto many more times over the following days, and on most occasions, she would receive a visitation from this apparition.  News of Bernadette's vision quickly spread.  The local townspeople began to accompany Bernadette to the grotto on her visits, though only Bernadette was privy to visions of the lady.  On the ninth visitation, the lady asked Bernadette to drink from the spring and to eat of the grasses there.  With no spring visible, Bernadette dug at the ground near the grotto, and water slowly began to flow from the shallow hole.  To some, the appearance of the spring, with its healing waters, was considered a miracle.

On the twelfth visitation, the lady asked Bernadette to request of her priest to build a chapel upon the site of the grotto.  On the sixteenth visitation, when Bernadette summoned the courage to finally ask the lady of her name, the lady's reply was, "I am the Immaculate Conception."

In total, there were eighteen visitations.  By then, news of Bernadette's visions had spread even to the ears of Emperor Napoleon III.  When the grotto was temporarily boarded off by nervous local officials, the Emperor eventually re-opened it to the public in November of that year.  By that time, Bernadette's visions had long ceased, though she would continue to hold a deep affection in her heart for the grotto.

At the age of twenty, Bernadette eventually retired to the Saint Gildard's Convent in Nevers.  Therein, she took her vows with the Sisters of Charity and spent her remaining days in the relative seclusion of the convent until her death on April 16, 1879 at the age of 35.

Bernadette's true story was recounted in the novel The Song Of Bernadette (1942) by Franz Werfel.  The novel was a best seller, and the Fox Studios, seeing in it the potential for a truly inspirational movie, quickly acquired the film rights.  The Song of Bernadette (1943) was to become a major Fox production during the WWII era.  That the film's theme was one of simple yet endearing faith played very well to wartime audiences searching for hope during this rather dark chapter in humanity.  But beyond its uplifting theme, the film had three incredible strengths - a wonderful score by Alfred Newman, brilliant cinematography by Arthur Miller, and a wholesome performance as Bernadette by newcomer, Phyllis Isley.  Phyllis Isley was a protégé of the great Hollywood film producer David O. Selznick (best known for his classic films King Kong and Gone with the Wind).  Selznick had arranged for her to star in The Song of Bernadette, and he also provided her with a more famous screen name - Jennifer Jones.

As an actress, Jennifer Jones had remarkable range.  Her portrayal of the pure and innocent Bernadette was in stark contrast to her later portrayal of the tempestuous and lascivious Pearl in Duel in the Sun, a major Selznick undertaking.  Her other memorable roles included the haunted, mysterious Jennie of Selznick's Portrait of Jennie and the mature, intelligent Eurasian doctor in the tragic romance Love is a Many-Splendored Thing.  But The Song of Bernadette brought Jennifer Jones arguably her best role and her greatest critical acclaim.  Though she was only on-screen perhaps half the running length, her scenes truly elevated the film.  Jennifer Jones was in her mid-twenties during production, yet she was able to portray the younger Bernadette convincingly from her youth in Lourdes until her passage into the convent of Nevers.

The film itself commences in Lourdes with Bernadette's family upon that fateful day of February 11, 1858.  The first seven minutes alone, though essentially dialogue-free, create an extremely expressive atmosphere conveying the poverty and despair of the Soubirous family.  The cinematography during these early scenes is, honestly, quite mesmerizing, from its establishing shots of the Soubirous prison cell home to the dreariness of the father's occupation.  The Song of Bernadette easily won an Oscar for best cinematography, and right from the start, it's easy to see why.

Bernadette, the film soon reveals, is a shy and not entirely well-learned girl.  She frequently misses school due to her asthma and as a result is scolded in class for her insufficient knowledge of the catechism.  Yet, Bernadette shoulders her weaknesses and sufferings well.  As the film progresses, it becomes obvious that the character of Bernadette is a pure-hearted and honest one.  Her physical ailments do not hinder her from attempting to lead a simple and good life.

Later, on the same day, Bernadette receives her first visitation in one of the classic moments in cinema history.  The combination of Alfred Newman's whirling flutes and strings and choral arrangements, the deeply evocative cinematography, and Jennifer Jones' expressive acting during this scene make it truly unforgettable and certainly one of the highlights of the film.  The remainder of the visitations closely follow the accepted account of Bernadette's experience.

The Song of Bernadette can be considered a film of three acts.  The first part concerns Bernadette's visitations, whereas the middle portion details the repercussions of those events and the reactions of various people to them.  The final portion focuses once again on Bernadette, her acceptance into a convent, and her final days.  It is in the beginning and final portions of the film that Bernadette is featured most prominently, and consequently, it is in these scenes that Jennifer Jones shines most brightly.  Jennifer Jones is so good (and gets even better as the film progresses) that she transcends the material and brings a true aura of magic to the screen.  The film may be based upon an actual miracle that occurred in nineteenth-century France, but the miracle of this picture is Jennifer Jones' performance, which earned her a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar.

In a sense, The Song of Bernadette may be a historical film, yet believe it or not, it is not a religious propaganda film.  In reality, the Roman Catholic Church had actually refused to recognize Bernadette's visions as a miracle and had remained neutral on the entire matter for a very long time, a historical fact which is bravely reflected in the film.  In fact, a great portion of the film is remarkably faithful to the actual events, although the scenes are presented with a somewhat melodramatic flair, a trait fairly common to these old Hollywood films.

At 156 minutes however, this is a long film (and was once intended to be 3 hours in length!).  At times, the middle portion can drag a bit, mainly because this section focuses more on peripheral characters such as politicians or regional ministry and less so on Bernadette.  Much of the film's middle portion, pertaining to these local civil authorities, seems slightly contrived in order to generate an antagonistic force to Bernadette's sincerity.  Vincent Price as the Imperial Prosecutor, Aubrey Mather as the opportunistic town Mayor, and Charles Dingle as Jacomet, the chief of police, are all decent in their roles (which have a basis in historical context), but they seem to exist in the film more for the sake of dramatic conflict than for any true significance to the story.  Furthermore, the inclusion of good-hearted Antoine (William Eythe) as a potential (and thankfully unfulfilled) love interest is somewhat unnecessary considering the nature of the film, but such invented love interests were common practice for films in those days.  To some degree, perhaps the filmmakers felt that Bernadette was so angelic that they needed to introduce other flawed, emotional characters so as to balance the story.  On the other hand, Charles Bickford is excellent as the crusty town priest who initially dismisses Bernadette but eventually believes in her, and Dame Gladys Cooper is beyond amazing as Sister Marie-Thérèse, the conflicted nun who formerly served as Bernadette's school teacher and who later doubts the word of a child she knew to be poorly schooled in religion.  Both actors were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances.

In the end, The Song of Bernadette is an extremely good film and wonderful to behold.  I have always felt that black & white photography is far superior to color in bringing out the true artistry of film images.  The Song of Bernadette offers a resounding case in point.  Arthur Miller's Oscar-winning cinematography is subtle but quite breath-taking and many of the scenes at the grotto and the Soubirous home are simply so luminous that they deserve to be re-watched several times.  Yet, as lovely as those scenes appear, the final sequences at the Saint Gildard's Convent are even better.  True, the film is over fifty years old, so some of the conventions of filmmaking and acting may seem dated to modern viewers, but the beauty of the film is beyond doubt.

On a final note, the real spring of Bernadette still exists.  It regularly receives a huge number of pilgrimages to Lourdes each year and is purported to have mysterious, curative properties unexplainable by modern medicine.  Bernadette was herself canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1933.  Her body was exhumed for an Ecclesiastical Inquiry in 1909 and twice thereafter.  Each time, remarkably, the body was found to be perfectly intact, as though she were merely asleep.  After the third exhumation, Bernadette was enshrined in the chapel of Saint Gildard's Convent for public veneration.  She remains there to this day, miraculously and perfectly incorrupt, more than a century after her death.

Video *** 1/2

The Song of Bernadette is presented in a black & white, full-frame format.  The film's original nitrate negative no longer exists, but an original era nitrate composite dupe negative was still available.  A copy was made from this negative and was used to create the fine grain master print that is the source for this DVD's transfer.

And wow.  Where did they find that dupe negative for the film?  The image quality is simply incredible.  The black & white photography is very sharp and crystal clear, and the contrast level is very deep and quite excellent.  This film looks fantastic.  A restoration featurette provided on the DVD shows just how much care was given to restoring this wonderful film into a new-pristine shape.  The restoration segment clearly shows the improvement between the film's image quality in a decent 1993 print to the current excellent print (with and without digital clean-up of dust and debris).  While there are still a few dust marks here and there, the presentation of The Song of Bernadette on this DVD is as good as you'll ever see the film.

Audio ***

The Song of Bernadette can be listened to in either English stereo, English mono, or Spanish mono.  For a change with the Fox Classics series, the stereo and mono tracks are not too different from one another.  I prefer the mono track, being somewhat of a purist, but either English track is quite agreeable.  Just keep in mind that this is an old film, so the sound can be a little thin or reedy at times, and the subwoofer will not get much of a work-out here.

Nonetheless, the film sounds just fine, all the better with which to hear Alfred Newman's great score!  Newman's specialty was his soaring violins, and he used them wisely with choral arrangements in this film to set a reverent tone for the proceedings.  The Song of Bernadette was nominated for twelve Academy Awards and won quite a handful, one of them a well-deserved nod for Newman's score.

Features ***

As with all the Fox Studio Classic DVDs, this DVD has a number of goodies.  Among the smaller features are a short newsreel in which Jennifer Jones accepts an award from American GIs, a restoration featurette in which before-and-after shots are shown of the film's restoration, and a wealth of trailers (eight in all) for all the currently available DVDs in the Fox Studio Classics collection.

The main feature is a segment from the regular A & E show Biography.  This hour-long segment focuses upon Jennifer Jones and provides a good overview of her early life and her career.  Viewers who are unfamiliar with the star may be surprised to learn the degree of influence that legendary producer David O. Selznick provided for much of her career.  He recognized a certain luminous quality about her, which is startlingly clear in an early screen-test of her (included in this feature).  In truth, Selznick almost single-handedly made Jennifer Jones into a Hollywood star.

Lastly, there is a commentary track.  The narrative duties are shared by three commentators: Edward Epstein, an author of a biography on Jennifer Jones; John Burlingame, a biographer on the great film composer Alfred Newman; and Donald Spoto, a film historian and theologist. Together, they have a great deal to say about the film.  Of the three, Burlingame is the most vocal.  He also makes no secret of his opinion that Alfred Newman's score is one of the finest in all of film history and is of incalculable importance in creating the film's atmosphere and lasting ability to move audiences.  Epstein, of course, offers much insight into Jennifer Jones' public and private life while Spoto discusses the film's spirituality and commendable faithfulness to the actual historical events.

Summary:

I honestly did not know at first how much I would like The Song of Bernadette, but I am now a convert.  This film is a lovely drama done in the classic Hollywood tradition and features many impressive performances.  Fans of the old Hollywood style may undoubtedly want to check out The Song of Bernadette, though I can also recommend any of the other Fox Studio Classics, too!  They are all truly great classic films!