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The Song of Bernadette: Fox Studio Classics

This reverent but tedious and romanticized melodrama, adapted by George Seaton from Franz Werfel's best-selling book, Hollywoodizes the life of St. Bernadette of Lourdes. As a teenaged peasant girl in 1858 France, Bernadette is visited repeatedly by the Virgin Mary near the village garbage dump. Her daily pilgrimages to the site inspire followers, especially after the vision tells her that the spring beneath a nearby grotto will bestow miraculous healings.

24-year-old Jennifer Jones (Love is a Many-Splendored Thing) gained the 1943 Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Bernadette Soubirous, the modest and sickly yet stalwart young woman who heralds a miracle and then must grow up standing tall against the skeptical, political, and ecclesiastical storm that whips around her. The townspeople are divided between the swelling ranks of believers and the authorities who work to condemn and discredit Bernadette. On one side, Anne Revere plays her careworn, devoted mother. On the other, Vincent Price is the stony-hearted Imperial Prosecutor out to commit Bernadette to an asylum. In between is Lee J. Cobb's agnostic physician. Charles Bickford is an initially skeptical priest who pressures Bernadette into a convent, where Gladys Cooper is memorably intense as a vitriolic Mistress of Novices jealous of the favor God has bestowed upon Bernadette instead of herself. Bernadette's faith never wavers, and the new fountain bubbling forth in the Lourdes grotto displays the predicted curative powers. Dying after years of suffering painful illness with quiet dignity (the Lourdes healing waters are meant for others), she is eventually validated by the Catholic Church, which canonized her in 1933. Linda Darnell, a controversial choice, goes unbilled as the glowing Blessed Virgin. The Marian visions are presented with unambiguous literalness, although the "beautiful lady's" visitations resemble traditional Church paintings and pageants more than Soubirous's legendary account.

Jones is lovely in her soulful-eyed earnestness. But if your spiritual tuning fork doesn't already hum to The Song of Bernadette's sentimental religiosity, this is an overlong (156 minutes), overpious, and often kitschy hagiography. For the devout, its respectful approach buttresses a good-looking, old-fashioned story of steadfastness triumphant. Thanks to sensitive direction by Henry King (Twelve O' Clock High) and superior cinematography, the production values are polished like sacramental silver and the emotional machinery is so controlled that the movie's manipulativeness feels engineered with micrometer precision to lift hearts and box office grosses alike. And indeed this was one of the home-front's biggest hits in war-weary and inspiration-hungry '43.

Along with Jones's Oscar, the film took three other Academy Awards for its black-and-white cinematography, interior art direction, and Alfred Newman's unsubtle orchestral score. Its twelve nominations also included Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Bickford), and Best Supporting Actress nods for both Cooper and Revere. It took home three Golden Globes (Best Picture, Actress, and Director), and two New York Film Critics Circle awards (Actress and Director).

*          *          *

This DVD, part of Fox's "Studio Classics" imprint, delivers an excellent, though not pristine, restoration. Likewise, the DD 2.0 stereo audio is quite good despite some minor wear. Extras start with a full-length audio commentary by Edward Z. Epstein (Jones's biographer), John Burlingame (Alfred Newman's biographer), and prolific biographer/historian Donald Spoto. Also here are the A&E Biography episode on Jones, a Movietone Newsreel (American GIs laud Jones), a Restoration Comparison, and the 1958 re-release theatrical trailer. With a Spanish language track and subtitles in English and Spanish. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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