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September 21, 2010

The Song of Bernadette

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Henry King - 1943
20th Century-Fox Region 1 DVD

(Darryl) Zanuck was in the service at the time and was not suppose to participate in business of any kind. But the studio was Zanuck's whole life and soul. He was in the service for a couple of years and came home on leave just as I was finishing Bernadette. I had it the way I wanted it - with no visions. Zanuck came in for a chat and said, "Nobody is suppose to know this, but, as a matter of curiosity, I had to look at your picture last night. What I want to know is, what did the girl see?"

I said, "I'm going to show it no more times than I have to show it. I made it this way purposely."

He said, "I'll tell you what you have to do. You're going to have to put in the vision the first time she sees it and you're going to have to put it at the last. If you don't let the audience see that, they'll throw rocks at you. If anybody else in the world was playing that girl, I wouldn't give a rap. But that girl actually sees something and I found myself leaning over my chair, trying to find out, trying to see what she saw."
- Henry King

Is seeing, believing? And is it necessary to see something to make it true? Henry King's decision to alter his film based on the suggestion of Darryl Zanuck was undoubtedly correct commercially. Yet, in seeing this film again after many years, and reading about King's original intentions, the film as it stands is self-contradictory. On a basic level, The Song of Bernadette is a recounting of the life of a young woman who may, or may not, have seen the Virgin Mary. Arguably, what the film is about on a deeper level is the need of some form of tangible proof to validate faith. Had Henry King made the film without the cutaways to the Virgin Mary, the subject of Bernadette's visions would have been left wide open for the audience to draw their own conclusion.

It is impossible, at least for myself, not to watch any film about faith, any faith, and not think of Paul Schrader and his own theories regarding how faith is, or should be, depicted on film. For Schrader, the austere films of Robert Bresson would successfully represent the transcendent, while the other extreme would be represented by Cecil B. DeMille and what Schrader called "over-abundant means". Henry King thought of himself as an entertainer rather than an artist. Even without Linda Darnell, seen from a distance as "the beautiful lady", one would never think of The Song of Bernadette as Bressonian. Yet the nudges instigated by Zanuck don't quite push the film into DeMille territory either, even with the insistence of Alfred Newman's choral accompanied score. If the film as it stands tilts in DeMille's direction, we are talking about films made by directors of the same generation, with careers that run almost parallel.

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What makes The Song of Bernadette work is both Henry King's sincerity, and something that I've mentioned before, what I call his generosity of spirit. There is a sense of respect for the characters without regard to their points of view. Even though the film was made in such a way that the viewer has to accept Bernadette's version of the truth, as we see what she sees, the other characters are allowed to express themselves, whether they believe or not, without being made to appear foolish. The only exception is near the end when the Mayor of Lourdes tries to ingratiate himself on Bernadette prior to her leaving to live in a convent, claiming that he was the only one to believe her visions. Even Vincent Price, chief among those who wants to dispute any claims attributed to Bernadette, many pointedly not claimed by her, may possibly have a change of heart and mind at the end of the film, It is a change brought about by self-realization that with nothing left to gain or lose in the process, Price has to find out for himself if the spring water will bring about a cure for his physical and spiritual maladies.

When I talked to Henry King in Telluride, he had mentioned that he had converted, and became a Catholic at around the time he made The White Sister. I mention this because King's own faith served as a catalyst in making The Song of Bernadette, and also because one of the most poignant scenes recalls The White Sister. In the silent film, Lillian Gish has already taken her vows to be a nun, and refuses to return to her old life, even when she learns that her finance, Ronald Colman is alive. In The Song of Bernadette, Antoine, the young man who many assume will be the man Bernadette will marry, sees her before she goes to the convent. Antoine states his intention not to marry under the guise of taking care of his aged mother. It is clear that Antoine chooses a presumably celibate life to mirror Bernadette own celibacy imposed by the church. Again, as in some of his other films, Henry King is interested in the characters who either defer or sacrifice the easier or more expected life for the more difficult to attain ideal.

Faith in The Song of Bernadette is something personally realized rather than imposed. In the final half hour of the film, with Bernadette in the convent, there is the suggestion, hinted at in other scenes, that the institution of the church stifles belief even more than it encourages faith. As Henry King has mentioned, Jennifer Jones was cast in the title role because she appeared to be seeing rather than simply looking. It certainly aided the audiences that Jones looks almost plain, and had little hesitation in smearing dirt and mud over herself in one scene. The character of Bernadette is so humble, so plain spoken and without guile, that the distance between Jennifer Jones and the young women who have portrayed Robert Bresson's saintly characters is not all that far.

I have often explored religious themes in my pictures but I've never tried to be preachy or holier-than-thou. I feel that the motion picture is the greatest medium of expression that has ever been in the history of the world or will ever be again. I'm just so sorry that the people making motion pictures today don't recognize that you can change the culture of the world with motion pictures."
- Henry King

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 21, 2010 06:29 AM


Peter - This film is very close to my heart (I reviewed it myself some time ago). Its accuracy about Bernadette's life and testimony gives it a veracity that even the more engineered-holy parts can't dislodge. I think it is one of the best depictions of genuine faith on film, and it never fails to move me.

I loved this piece and the background you gave as to King's intentions. I'm a big fan of Bresson, but his films have such an interiority that it is hard to imagine one could have a religious experience oneself, the way one can with Bernadette.


Posted by: Marilyn at September 21, 2010 10:42 AM