Does the classic 1943 film hold up?

The Song of Bernadette (1946 poster).jpg

We think so, at least as an example of how secular classic Hollywood, particularly 20th Century Fox magnate Darryl F. Zanuck, approached and executed films of deep religious significance.

The biopic is based on a popular 1941 novel of the same title published in German by Czech-born Franz Werfel about a peasant girl in Lourdes, France who had visions of the Virgin Mary. The fictionalized account was based on a true story of Bernadette Soubirous, who said she had 18 visitations of the Blessed Virgin Mary from February to July of 1858.

The real incidents underpin Roman Catholic dogma to the extent that Soubirous was canonized in 1933, a complicated process that verifies before it classifies.

All well and good, but does the subject matter assure a film that is regarded today as favorably comparable to the hugely popular original release — in addition to a substantial box office hit, it won a total of eight Oscars including a best actress award to then newcomer Jennifer Jones.

In other words, does The Song of Bernadette hold up?

At first glance ‘The Song of Bernadette’ seems as wholesome — and outdated — as the clink of the morning milk delivery, wrote Eve Tushnet in her essay about the movie for America, a Jesuit review.

It’s filmed in black and white, its score is plangent and heavy on the strings, and Jennifer Jones plays the saint at its center with a sweetness and softness that played big to wartime audiences but which, to me, is a little too spun-sugar….The final frame even includes an advertisement: Buy war bonds.!

Well, to classic movie fans, B&W cinematography is no crime. The wartime boosterism can be glossed over given the times. And in our cynical times, sweetness and softness are rare virtues.

It turns out that The Song of Bernadette may have been saved from itself by the intervention of Zanuck who had been on active Army duty when the picture was filmed. After screening the finished film, he declared it a mess.

The problem was the length, wrote biographer Mel Gussow, quoting Zanuck. They had literally taken the book. There were hours of her (Bernadette) scrubbing the floor. She had blisters on her knees.

According to Gussow, Zanuck took the film into the cutting room, and in two days, tore it apart, for one thing cut down on the scrubbing, put it back together, and made it work. ‘Bernadette’ turned out to be quite a good picture.

Then and now.

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