A few days ago, one of the last surviving members of Hollywood’s pantheon of classic stars, Jennifer Jones, turned 87. Miss Jones—and I couldn’t dream of calling this angelic-looking actress anything else—has always held a special place in my heart because she was the star of The Song of Bernadette. Every year, I’d go to the home of my Orthodox Jewish aunt for Passover and watch this life of a Catholic saint on TV—programming for the Easter crowd. I’m a little surprised that my traditional aunt would allow this film to play in her house, but at 153 minutes (it never seemed that long), it did keep me quiet and out of the way. If she had known it also inspired me to walk around with a towel on my head, practicing to be a nun, she might have rethought her decision.
This film, the first in which Phyllis Isley was billed as Jennifer Jones and one of the first she ever made, tells the life of Bernadette Soubirous, an asthmatic teenager living in Lourdes, France, who saw the Virgin Mary standing in a grotto in the city dump and brought forth a spring whose waters are said to perform miraculous cures. It would have been easy to create a sentimental view of this girl and her surroundings, but the film takes the story seriously and chooses to keep its editorializing to a minimum. In so doing, it becomes one of the best biopics ever made.
Director Henry King begins his tale surveying the hovel in which reside the impoverished Soubirous family. He fixes on the worried face of François Soubirous (Roman Bohnen), then shifts to his equally worried wife Louise (Anne Revere). Pere Soubirous must make the rounds of town to see if he can pick up some day work. The year is 1858, and times are hard. The only work he can find is carting medical waste from the hospital to the dump in Massabielle.
Switch to the convent school that Bernadette and her sisters attend. Several girls, including Bernadette, are being quizzed in front of the class on their catechism by the severe Sister Marie Therese (Gladys Cooper). Bernadette does not know what the Holy Trinity is. When asked by the nun if she is pert or merely stupid, Bernadette admits that she is stupid, though she was, in fact, sick the day the class learned this lesson. Father Peyramale (Charles Bickford) visits the class and hands out holy cards to the girls the sister has been quizzing. Bernadette gets a brief glimpse of the manger scene on her card before Sister Marie Therese confiscates it, saying she did not earn it because she did not know her catechism. Father Peyramale good-heartedly tells Bernadette that the possibility of getting a holy card can be more incentive to her to learn her catechism.
In these two scenes, important characters and themes are laid out indelibly for us. We grasp the situation the Soubirous family is in and get our first glimpse of the filthy location where the miracle takes place. We understand Bernadette to be a sickly, simple girl who isn’t given to making excuses for herself. We see Sister Marie Therese as a hard and bitter woman predisposed to disbelieve her. And Father Peyramale shows Bernadette the image that will dominate her life.
The film is in no hurry to wow us with the miracle. King recreates the events of the day just as they are in the actual church records, right down to Bernadette removing her shoes and socks to wade across a stream to join her sister and friend in gathering firewood. When Bernadette actually sees “the lady,” a glow of light becomes rapture on the expressive face of Jennifer Jones. She got the part, it is said, because she saw when the other hopefuls only looked.
The furor over the sighting sets both local government and church officials against “little Soubirous.” The mayor of Lourdes (Aubrey Mather) and the high prosecutor (Vincent Price, in his best role) look for any means they can to put a stop to the growing horde of believers who follow Bernadette to the grotto each day to see the lady. The railroad has been planning to construct a depot in Lourdes, and neither the mayor nor the prosecutor want the town to be known as a gathering place for religious fanatics. Father Peyramale holds to the official church line to ignore the supposed visions. It seems that the Enlightenment has turned even religious leaders into skeptics. Of course, when Bernadette brings forth the miraculous spring, in a scene of moving intensity, by scratching in the dirt and eating weeds, there’s no way for anyone to suppress Our Lady of Lourdes anymore. Bernadette’s future moves swiftly toward the nunnery and immortality.
Several scenes stand out for me. The confrontation in the convent between Bernadette, who is now Sister Marie Bernard, and Sister Marie Therese about the older nun’s disbelief in the miracle because Bernadette has never suffered as she has. When faced with the fact that Bernadette has been suffering silently with a horrible leg tumor and tuberculosis of the bone, Sister Marie Therese runs to the chapel and begs forgiveness for her envy: “I know now we cannot storm the gates of heaven. We must be chosen.” While this scene seems to reinforce the need for worldly suffering to reach the kingdom of heaven, in fact, it does just the opposite. Rather it asserts the church’s dogma that Jesus Christ and his saints are the ones who suffer for humanity’s sins, and that the suffering Sister Marie Therese put herself through to be worthy of divine grace is neither desired nor required.
Another scene I like, which was meant to startle skeptics in 1943 but which has much truth and relevance today, is when Vincent Price’s character warns of the danger of religious fanaticism to a properly governed world. It takes only a look at the holy wars occurring around the world and on American soil today to see that he was right to be worried. I can only applaud the authorities depicted in this movie for demanding confirmation of the miracle to the fullest extent possible to discourage the kind of fanaticism that quickly hardens into prejudice.
I am always moved by Bernadette’s deathbed vision of the lady. Throughout the film, Miss Jones gives indications why this girl was chosen as a divine emissary. Her truthfulness, simplicity, and untarnished heart glow through in every scene. She has common sense and normal instincts, such as wanting to be romanced by a boy she likes and running away from a policeman who is harassing her. She’s not one of the monumental, larger-than-life figures we’ve seen in other religious films. She is a figure in whom belief is irresistible and unshakable. “I did see her. I did!” she repeats over and over.
For this amazing performance, Miss Jones received the Best Actress Oscar. St. Bernadette was well served by Miss Jones and the entire cast and crew of The Song of Bernadette. This is a great and timeless film.
Here’s a good one for trivia buffs: The Virgin Mary was played by future “bad girl” Linda Darnell!