By Chaz Lipp
Of the three limited edition titles released by Twilight Time in March 2013, the most surprising was The Song of Bernadette (1943). Their other offerings were John Carpenter’s Christine (already sold out) and Brian De Palma’s The Fury. I will be perfectly frank and admit that I approached Bernadette, a religious-themed film I’d never heard of, like a homework assignment. It turned out to be a remarkably engrossing film, full of subtle pleasures and a terrific, uncharacteristic supporting turn by Vincent Price.
Of course, the star of the film is Jennifer Jones. For all practical purposes, this was the somewhat forgotten legend’s debut role (she had previously made brief appearances in the John Wayne western New Frontier and the serial Dick Tracy’s G-Men). Talk about making a splash, Jones won the Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of the title character of The Song of Bernadette. It was one of four Academy Awards the film won out of 12 nominations (including Best Picture, which it lost to Casablanca). The evocative score by Alfred Newman was also victorious, available on Twilight Time’s Blu-ray as an isolated track.
The film tells the story of Bernadette Soubirous, a poverty-stricken teenager who, while residing in Lourdes, France in 1858, is greeted by a vision of a beautiful woman (Linda Darnell). Interpreted by many as the Virgin Mary, though never reported as such by Bernadette, the townspeople are divided in their opinions. Some, primarily the official personnel (including Price as Imperial Prosecutor Vital Dutour), feel Bernadette must certainly be suffering from some form of psychosis. Dr. Dozous (Lee J. Cobb) determines she is of sound mind, though she suffers from numerous physical ailments (not the least of which being tuberculosis of the bone).
The mysterious vision requests Bernadette’s presence at the same dismal grotto location for 15 consecutive days. Even Bernadette’s own parents are skeptical and unsupportive initially. Bernadette manages to comply. Soon there are a possible miracles occurring and people far and wide begin making the pilgrimage to Lourdes. Interestingly, some of the religious authorities are quite cruel to her. The bitter Sister Vauzous (Gladys Cooper) reveals a jealous side as she questions why Bernadette would be “chosen” instead of her.
Besides the top notch production values, lush Newman score, and finely nuanced performances (especially considering the era in which the film was produced), the balanced look at the religious concepts make Bernadette a fascinating viewing experience. While the film clearly comes down on the side of affirming Bernadette’s visions, there’s a surprisingly complex exploration of the philosophical side of what she (and by turn the rest of the town) experiences. Not preachy in the slightest, director Henry King and screenwriter George Seaton seem to have strived for presenting the events (based on actual accounts) as much at face value as possible. It all holds up quite well 70 years later. Even at 156 minutes, the film moves along at something approaching a brisk pace.
On Blu-ray, Arthur C. Miller’s Oscar-winning cinematography looks generally good, though the transfer is uneven overall. There are unfortunately some problems with the source print, including scratches and dirt specs that a full restoration could’ve possibly cleaned up. Still, it just might be the best the film will ever look. There’s a short “Restoration Demonstration” that offers side-by-side comparisons of a 1993 transfer and a 2002 restoration (presented in standard definition, I found this demo to be of little real use). The DTS-HD MA 1.0 mono track is good for its age, offering a clean, clear presentation of dialogue and music. The isolated score track is in DTS-HD MA 2.0 and allows for greater appreciation of the music.
I really appreciated the commentary track (ported over from a previous DVD edition) which features three film historians, all specializing in different areas. Edward Z. Epstein is a Jennifer Jones biographer. Jon Burlingame specializes in analyzing the scores of Alfred Newman. And Donald Spoto is not only a film historian, but also a theologian. Between the three participants, quite a thorough history lesson about The Song of Bernadette is delivered.
For ordering information on this limited-to-3,000 Blu-ray edition, visit Twilight Time’s official distributor, Screen Archives.