Celebrate the birthday of Jane Wyman with her Oscar-winning performance in the classic Johnny Belinda.
Belinda (Jane Wyman) lives with her father and aunt on a farm on an island off the coast of Nova Scotia. Her father, Black McDonald, is hard and angry. He resents Belinda because her mother died when she was born, and he treats her like an animal because she is deaf and mute. People in the town refer to her as “the dummy.” Dr. Robert Richardson (Lew Ayres) teaches Belinda to communicate through sign language, and for the first time, her sweet and loving personality emerges. She is raped by Locky McCormick, a drunken brute, and becomes pregnant. The baby is named Johnny Belinda.
Everyone assumes that Robert is the father, and he must leave the comÂ¬munity. Belinda’s father finds out Locky was responsible and confronts him. Locky kills Black, making it look like an accident. When Locky’s wife cannot have children, he wants Belinda’s baby, knowing it is the only child he will ever have. The people in the town believe that Belinda cannot take care of the baby and decide to take it away from her.
Locky goes to Belinda’s house and tries to take the baby, but she thinks he means to harm him. Trying to protect herself and the baby, she kills Locky. She is charged with murder. It looks as though she will be convicted, until Locky’s widow comes forward and tells the truth. The community understands that even though Belinda cannot speak, she is loving, devoted, brave, and intelligent. Robert returns to be with Belinda and her child.
Jane Wyman spoke of trying to achieve an “anticipation light” when she was preparing for this role, the look of interest and attention she saw in deaf people who were trying to understand what hearing people were trying to communicate.
This movie does a good job of showing that learning a little bit can make a person hungry to learn more, and that having even one person believe in someone can make that person feel capable of achieving anything. The key themes of this movie, recognizing the humanity in those who are different and the impact that having that humanity recognized has on people and everyone around them, are well worth discussing.
Some kids may want to know more about rape as well, and this provides an opportunity to discuss it as a crime of power and aggression rather than of sex. Young girls often misunderstand and worry about somehow sending a signal that invites rape. It is important to make sure they understand , as shown in this movie, rapists are not accepting an invitation and , on the contrary, it is the idea of overpowering someone who does not want to consent to sex that is exciting to them.
Parents should know that this movie includes a rape scene that is not explicit, but still disturbing, as well as a violent confrontation that proves fatal.
Family discussion: Why is Belinda’s father so hard on her? How much do you think Belinda understands before she learns sign language? How can you tell? What makes her decide to be more aware of her appearance? Why does Aggie change in the way she treats Belinda? What does she mean when she says their family may fight with each other, but they support each other when any one of them needs it? How is this movie similar to The Miracle Worker? How is it different? See if the kids can recognize this “anticipation light” look and even try to create it themselves. They also may want to wear earplugs, as Wyman did, to help adjust her reactions to those of someone who does not respond to auditory cues and signals.