The photograph above was taken in the mid-1860s at the London studio of William Walker (1791-1867) and his son Samuel Alexander Walker (1841-1922.) Clearly visible in the picture are the gaiters worn by the bishop. This was standard ecclesiastical dress for bishops and archdeacons until the mid-20th century. Some readers may remember a BBC TV series in the late 1960s, All Gas and Gaiters, with Derek Nimmo, William Mervyn and Robertson Hare playing comical clergyman of St Ogg’s Cathedral.
Henry Philpotts (1778-1869), the redoubtable Bishop of Exeter
Phillpotts was Bishop of Exeter from 1830 until his death and ruled the diocese with an iron hand, imposing order in a region that had long been disorganised and demoralised. He was, however, a pugnacious character who relished conflict and detested compromise. Walker’s portraits capture the bishop’s forceful character – the massive brow, granite features and clenched jaw support Owen Chadwick’s description of him in action: ‘exposing opponents’ follies with consummate ability, a tongue and eyes of flame, an ugly tough face and vehement speech.’ (The Victorian Church Vol.1)
Unsurprisingly, Phillpotts was embroiled in controversy throughout his life. Local conflicts included his long-running feud with Thomas Latimer, editor of Western Times, the Exeter surplice riots (1844-45) – which saw violent mobs protesting in Sidwell Street – and the Gorham case (1847-50), a long-running dispute over the bishop’s refusal to allow the Rev. George Gorham to take up his appointment in Brampford Speke. Philpotts believed Gorham’s views on baptismal regeneration to be out of line with Anglican orthodoxy, but when the bishop’s judgment was overruled by an appeal court, High Churchmen were appalled at the idea of secular authorities overruling the episcopate on matters of religious doctrine.
St Peter’s Church in the quiet village of Brampford Speke, a short distance from my home. It was Phillpotts’ refusal to ordain the Rev. George Gorham as vicar here in 1847 that led to deep unrest within the Church of England.
The Lower Cemetery in Exeter, showing the wall dividing the Anglican graves from those of Nonconformists. Phillpotts consecrated the Anglican side on 24 August 1837 but refused to have anything to do with the ‘dissenters.’
Although it is tempting to dwell on the conflicts and controversies, Phillpotts made many positive contributions to the diocese of Exeter, including restoring part of the cathedral, founding a theological college and library, and working with Lydia Sellon to revive religious communities for women. He didn’t like the city much, however, and preferred to live in Torquay rather than in the episcopal residence attached to the cathedral.
Bishopstowe, Phillpotts’ residence in Torquay and the place where he died on 18 September 1869
Celebrity cards like these were inexpensive to buy – typically between 1/ and 1/6d – and would be sold in stationers shops or other outlets. There was an insatiable market for collecting carte-de-visites of famous people in the 1860s, though one wonders how popular Bishop Phillpotts’ portrait was among collectors, given his unpopularity and fearsome reputation. I remain curious to know more about the person who originally bought this pair of cards. Were they an admirer of the bishop? Did they acquire the cards to go in an album with cdvs of other church dignitaries, or were they collecting cards of local interest to the Exeter area?
Original albums of Victorian cartes-des-visites regularly come up for sale, but often we know little about the way these collections were put together. How often were people buying cards? How much was acquired as part of a clear collecting strategy and how much was picked up on arbitrary impulse, according to what was available or looked appealing? What personal use did the collector make of the images he had acquired? Was the album taken out in the evenings to be pored over as we might do with a glossy ‘coffee-table’ book?
Questions such as these invite comparisons with modern habits of collecting, as well as highlighting the extent to which the meaning and nature of celebrity status has changed over the last 150 years. Some people might be bemused today at the notion of a man like Bishop Phillpotts being regarded as a celebrity, but his contemporaries would be equally baffled, if not more so, at the activities and achievements of those accorded the status of celebrity by the modern media.
The Convent Gate – from an old promotional postcard
To mark today’s screening of Black Narcissus as part of the series of Exeter Screen Talks, I wanted to celebrate twenty films about convent life. The emphasis is on movies that make some serious attempt at portraying religious life, and I have therefore ignored those with fake nuns (A Mule for Sister Sarah (1970) and Più forte sorelle (Renzo Spaziani, 1973) as well as the more lurid examples of the nunsploitation genre (Behind Convent Walls (1978), Sacred Flesh (1999) etc) but at the end of the day the selection is a personal one and is as arbitrary and subjective as can be.
The Convent Gate (Wilfrid Noy, 1913)
Straightaway I’m cheating by writing about a film that I haven’t seen. It’s been estimated that between 75-90% of silent films were destroyed or disappeared, and sadly The Convent Gate was one of them. My interest was piqued when I came across this postcard at a flea market some years ago, and I wrote a little bit about it in a previous post.
The White Sister (Henry King, 1923) Ten years later Lilian Gish starred in this adaptation of F. Marion Crawford’s 1909 novel The White Sister. It had been filmed already in 1915 with Viola Allen in the title role, as star-crossed Italian lover Angela Chiaromonte who enters religious life after a series of tragic events, plotting and misunderstandings. Ronald Colman played her lover, Captain Giovanni Severini.
Lilian Gish in ‘The White Sister’ (1923)
Helen Hayes as Angela Chiaromonte in ‘The White Sister’ (Victor Fleming, 1933)
The story is set in Italy and ends with the climactic eruption of Vesuvius. While in Sorrento five years ago I came across a street named after Crawford – he moved here in the 1880s and knew the area well.
The White Sister (Victor Fleming, 1933) In the third screen adaptation of Crawford’s novel Angela was played by Helen Hayes, who was about to make her name playing Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Victoria on Broadway. Colman’s role was taken here by Clark Gable.
I’ll skip quickly over The Song of Bernadette (Henry King, 1943) as it was the subject of a recent post which you can read here.
Les Anges du Péché (Robert Bresson, 1943)Comparisons are often drawn between the work of Bresson and Bill Douglas, both of whom excelled in the use of poetic imagery with minimal dialogue. Bresson was still finding his style with Les Anges du Péché, his first feature film, made in wartime France in collaboration with Dominican friar Fr. Raymond Bruckberger O.P. and playwright Jean Giraudoux. ‘Angels of Sin’ follows events in a religious community dedicated to rehabilitating women prisoners, but it is easy to see the German occupation of France as influencing the themes of incarceration and vengeance killing.
Les Anges du Péché
This may be early Bresson, but it is well worth a watch: as Oliver Assayas has said of Bresson, ‘He is what keeps me faithful to what cinema can achieve. In moments of discouragement, he reminds me how great films can be.’
Bells of Saint Mary’s (Leo McCarey, 1945)
Ingrid Bergman and Bing Crosby star in this drama as Sister Mary Benedict and Father Charles O’ Malley, fighting to save their city school from closure. Both of them get to sing in the movie of course, Bergman singing the traditional Swedish folksong Varvindar Friska (Spring Breezes) and Crosby crooning the title song (along with a choir of nuns) and others. The movie is used in the film The Magdalene Sisters (Peter Mullan, 2002) with bitter irony – the sweet nuns of the 1945 film contrasting harshly with the cruel, somewhat cartoonish villains of Mullan’s tale.
Ingrid Bergman as Sister Mary Benedict in Bells of Saint Mary’s (Leo McCarey, 1945) with Bing Crosby
Black Narcissus (Powell & Pressburger, 1947) One of my favourite films of all time, and my strongest recommendation of all those listed here, Black Narcissus is based on Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel and tells the story of a community of nuns opening a convent in the Indian Himalayas. As with so much of Powell and Pressburger’s work, the film is imbued with a strong sense of place and an awareness of the effect of location on human behaviour: the lush sensuality of the landscape (filmed in vibrant Technicolor by Jack Cardiff) and the erotic history of the convent building (a former seraglio) seem to draw out the emotional tensions and desires of the nuns – in particular Sister Ruth (below.)
Those eyes, that mouth…. Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh in ‘Black Narcissus’
The Himalayan landscape was suggested through the use of magnificent matte paintings, as the above pictures reveal
The magnificent cast also includes Deborah Kerr, Flora Robson, Jean Simmons, Esmond Knight and a surly, swaggering David Farrar.
Come to the Stable (Henry Koster, 1949) Another tale of nuns moving into an unfamiliar location, but very different in tone, Come to the Stable starred Loretta Young and Celeste Holm as two French nuns trying to establish a foundation in Bethlehem, Connecticut. Unlike the plot of The Bells of St Mary’s the nuns don’t resort to trickery to achieve their goals…
Sister Scholastica (left, Celeste Holm) and Sister Margaret (right, Loretta Young) in a scene from ‘Come to the Stable’
Sister Josephine (Connie Gilchrist) and Sister Mary (Claudette Colbert)
Thunder on the Hill (Douglas Sirk, 1951)
This who-dunnit is set in a storm-lashed Norfolk convent, where convicted murderess Valerie Carns (Ann Blythe) gets marooned by the weather while en route to the gallows. (Ruth Ellis, the last woman hanged in Britain, died four years later, in 1955.) Claudette Colbert plays Sister Mary, a young nun who begins to have doubts about Valerie’s guilt – setting her on course to clash with the Mother Superior (Gladys Cooper.)
Corporal Allison (MItchum) and Sister Angela (Kerr)
Heaven Knows, Mr Allison (John Huston, 1957)
Having played the Sister Superior in Black Narcissus, Deborah Kerr was demoted to the status of a novice in this film, in which she is stranded together with US marine Robert Mitchum on a Pacific island during WWII. They have to deal with lack of food, fever, Japanese soldiers and – of course – each other, while waiting to be rescued. Both stars give tremendous performances, while the exotic location (much of it was filmed in Tobago) provides a lush backdrop to the poignancy and drama of their situation.
The Nun’s Story (Fred Zinnemann, 1959)
Based on Kathryn Hulme’s 1956 novel, The Nun’s Story follows Sister Luke (Audrey Hepburn) as she struggles to deal with inner conflict as a medical nun working in Africa. As with The White Sister and Black Narcissus, there are hints of an unresolved romance haunting her decision to enter the convent, but Sister Luke also has to deal with issues regarding obedience and her duties towards her family and homeland after the Nazis invade Belgium while she is working in Africa. It’s one of the best films for a serious exploration of the real issues involved in taking the veil.
Sister Luke (Audrey Hepburn) and friend
Le Dialogue des Carmelites (Philippe Agostini, 1960) This was another wartime project of Fr Bruckberger O.P., based on Gertrud le Fort’s novel about a community of Carmelite nuns who were martyred at Compiegne in 1789 during the French Revolution. George Bernanos wrote additional dialogue – much of which was later dropped – and stage and opera versions were produced before the screenplay finally made it to the screen. Jeanne Moreau played Mère Marie de l’Incarnation.
Mother Joan of the Angels (Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1961) Based on the same story about the possessed nuns of Loudun that inspired Ken Russell’s film ten years later, Mother Joan of the Angels is much less well known: this is a shame, as it’s an absolute masterpiece, subtle in all the places where Russell is extravagant, yet containing a wealth of stark, stunning imagery and poetic visuals.
Le Dialogue des Carmelites (1960)
A scene from Matka Joanna od Aniolow (Mother Joan of the Angels)
Lilies of the Field (Ralph Nelson, 1963)
This film provided Sidney Poitier with his first Oscar, playing wandering handyman Homer Smith who finds work (but no wages) helping out a struggling community of nuns from German and Eastern Europe. The title of the film is taken from Matthew 6:28-30, which Mother Maria (Lilia Skala) quotes in response to Homer’s request to be paid.
The nuns get excited about a phonograph in ‘Lilies of the Field.’
The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965) Maria von Trapp’s memoir The Story of the Trapp Family Singers provided the basis for a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical which was in turn adapted for the screen by 20th Century Fox. Julie Andrews played Maria, a novice nun who leaves the convent for a while to work as a governess to an Austrian family of seven children, and ends up leaving religious life and marrying their widowed father. Some of the exterior scenes were shot at the convent of Nonnberg in Salzburg.
Maria…not ‘an asset to the abbey’? A scene from ‘The Sound of Music’
The Nun (Jacques Rivette, 1966)
Denis Diderot’s novel La Religieuse, published in 1796, offers a profound critique not only of religious life and Catholicism but also of the constraints placed upon women in 18th century society. Diderot’s simple tale recounts the sufferings of a young girl, Suzanne Simonin, who is forced into the convent by her family. French New Wave director Jacques Rivette adapted the novel for the stage before revising it for the screen, in both versions casting Jean Luc Godard’s then-wife Anna Karina as Suzanne. It remains quite stagey, with its slow pace and unadorned style, but it’s deeply moving and heartbreaking in its depiction of Suzanne’s ordeals as she experiences religious life under three Mother Superiors – the kindly Madame de Moni (Micheline Presle), cruel Sister Sainte-Christine (Francine Berge) and the ardent Madame de Chelles (Liselotte Pulver.) The film was remade by Guillaume Nicloux in 2013 with Isabelle Huppert playing Suzanne.
Sister Suzanne (Anna Karina, on left) falls foul of the new regime in ‘La Religieuse’ (1966)
The Trouble with Angels (Ida Lupino, 1966)
Returning to the present day and a lighter vein, The Trouble with Angels was set in an American convent school where rebellious pupils Hayley Mills and June Harding try to outwit the Mother Superior (Rosalind Russell), only to find that they underestimate the nun’s wisdom and wiles. The success of the film inspired a rather lacklustre sequel, Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows (James Neilson, 1968.)
Mary (Mills) and Rachel (Harding) meet their match
The Singing Nun (Henry Koster, 1966)
Debbie Reynolds as Sister Ann in ‘The Singing Nun’
Lobby card of a scene from ‘The Singing Nun’
‘The Singing Nun’ was the popular name given to Sister Luc-Gabrielle O.P., also known as Jeanne Deckers (1933-85), a Dominican nun from Belgium who released several records including the No.1 single ‘Dominique’ (1963.) The movie is a sweetly fictionalised portrait of Deckers, whose life subsequently took a tragic dive downwards into depression, drug abuse and suicide.
Change of Habit (William Graham, 1969)
Sister Michelle (Mary Tyler Moore) and Doctor John Carpenter (Elvis Presley) in ‘Change of Habit’
Elvis Presley’s final fictional movie role saw him play a doctor in a run-down area who is unaware that three co-workers – Michelle Gallagher (Mary Tyler Moore), Irene (Barbara McNair) and Barbara (Jane Elliott) are in fact nuns who have shed their habits in order to gain the trust of the parishioners they are trying to help. The movie, as one would expect, contains romantic entanglements and lots of Elvis songs.
As a by-the-by, it is perhaps worth mentioning that another of Elvis Presley’s co-stars, Dolores Hart – who played opposite ‘The King’ in Lovin’ You (1957) and King Creole (1958) – entered a real-life convent in 1963 and later became the Prioress of Regina Laudis Priory in Connecticut.
The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971)
It’s been over forty years since the release of The Devils but Ken Russell’s extraordinary and disturbing work has retained its reputation as one of the most shocking movies ever made in Britain. The scenes of orgiastic violence are graphic and unrelenting, but shot with the high command of visual aesthetics that one would expect from production designer Derek Jarman. Although Vanessa Redgrave played Mother Jeanne of the Angels, the role had been originally offered to Glenda Jackson. However, after playing the female leads in Russell’s Women in Love (1969) and The Music Lovers (1970), a third erotically-charged performance might have been excessive (even for them.) As a representation of convent life The Devils cannot evade the charge of sensationalism – it’s a orgy of Grand Guignol grotesquerie and Gothic horror – but it explores aspects of religious psychology and the interior life that are barely touched by the other films listed here. Go there if you dare.
Nasty Habits (Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977)
It wasn’t long Jackson got another chance at playing a nun, and this time she accepted the offer: Nasty Habits is based on Muriel Spark’s novel The Abbess of Crewe: A Modern Morality Tale (1974), which took the then highly-topical story of the Watergate scandal (1972-74) and transposed its component parts into a Benedictine convent where a power-hungry nun is plotting to fix her election as abbess. The film version shifts the setting from Crewe to Philadelphia and assembled a star-studded cast that included Edith Evans as the old Abbess Hildegard whose death leaves a power-vacuum, Glenda Jackson as the ambitious Sister Alexandra (i.e. Nixon) and Geraldine Page and Anne Jackson as her accomplices Sisters Walburga and Mildred, who break into the sewing basket of her rival Sister Felicity (Susan Penhaligon) in order to steal a cache of love letters. Allegations of bugging and bribery lead to Vatican involvement, and those familiar with the Watergate story will enjoy identifying the characters and events being parodied.
Pre-election skulduggery in ‘Nasty Habits’ (1977) – a topical note on which to end this week’s blog!
Following on from last week’s post, during our stay in Fife I was surprised (but why?) to find that the council-run Kirkcaldy Galleries was hosting an exhibition of the work of photographer Diane Arbus (1923-71.) It reminded me of my visit to the island of Capri five years ago, when I stumbled across an exhibition of original Leni Riefenstahl prints in a small room tucked away in a cobbled alleyway behind a church. It had the added bonus of being free, as is the one in Kirkcaldy.
Exhibition poster. The photograph shown is Arbus’ ‘A Young Man and his Pregnant Wife in Washington Square Park, New York City’
Born into a wealthy Jewish family of the name Nemerov, Diane began using a camera in partnership with her husband Alan Arbus, running a fashion photography business. From making images of conventional beauty and desirable opulence, she gradually moved away to concentrate on those at the opposite end of the social spectrum – those on the margins of society, including circus performers, transvestites and people with physical deformities – including the sort of human zoo pictures that I wrote about in an earlier post. In the last two years of her life, she was allowed access to mental institutions where she produced a series of images – both poignant and disturbing – of the mentally impaired inmates.
‘A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y’
‘Jack Dracula’, photographed in New London, Connecticut, in 1961
A Child Crying, New Jersey 1967
The image above, like the majority of Arbus portraits, is taken face-on, so that the viewer has a direct confrontation with the subject of the photograph. It is this aspect of her work, as much as the content matter, that is so unsettling. There is no opportunity to avert the eye, to focus on another portion of the image and try to alter the perspective. Unlike her early fashion shoots, these are not contrived studio sessions but are taken in the sitters’ own homes, institutions or workplaces, so that it is we who find ourselves in unfamiliar settings, alienated, confronted with people and places that may make us uncomfortable. The fact that many of her sitters appear quite at ease with their physical or mental awkwardness, or even proud of their disfigurements, challenges us to identify who it is that has the real problem.
However, not all the sitters appear comfortable with being photographed, and in the case of those with severe mental disabilities it is evident that their consent was never – and could never – be obtained. The photographer’s troubled life – after several bouts of depression Arbus committed suicide at the age of 48 – invites connections with these images of loneliness, marginalisation and suffering. Does evidence of her own unhappiness demonstrate a degree of affinity or sympathy with those she photographed? There is an honesty about her photography that undermines accusations of voyeurism or exploitation, although such charges have been made. Influential critic Susan Sontag expressed her unease about Arbus’s work in her 1973 New York Review of Books article ‘Freak Show’, which was later revised to form the central essay in On Photography (1977.) Surprisingly, for such a respected writer, Sontag never really strikes home with any critical insight about Arbus’s work. The essay is effective in articulating Sontag’s negative response, but reveals little about the photographs themselves. Her main charge – that of a lack of compassion – has ‘stuck’ nonetheless, and it is no simple matter to dismiss.
One might argue that developing a ‘lack of compassion’ is an occupational hazard for any photographer working in the documentary tradition, particularly those commissioned to record scenes of suffering in war zones or disaster areas. Maintaining a high degree of detachment is essential for professional standards: but where does one draw the line? And does the practice of enforcing such discipline not run a risk of psychological self-harm? The story of Kevin Carter (1960-94) remains a salutary warning; the life, work and death of the South African photographer was dramatised in the film The Bang-Bang Club (Steven Silver, 2010) and inspired Alfredo Jaar’s unbearably moving art-installation The Sound of Silence(2006.)
Diane Arbus’s life has also been depicted on the big screen, providing the inspiration for the film Fur (2006) directed by Steven Shainberg. Like his earlier Secretary (2002) it is an audacious portrayal of a woman’s unorthodox desires, but as a portrait of Arbus it is unsatisfactory. Those wanting to know more about her should begin by studying her photographs – and for anyone in the region of Kirkcaldy, their exhibition remains open for another month, until the end of May.
Nicole Kidman as Diane Arbus in ‘Fur’ (Steven Shainberg, 2006)
The real Diane Arbus
For those interested in seeing more of Diane’s images, along with information about gallery exhibitions and sales of her work, check out this Diane Arbus page on the Artsy website.
Continuing on the Scottish theme, this week’s cdv comes from the Edinburgh studios of James Ross (1815-95) and Thomas Pringle (died 1895), who were in partnership from 1867 until 1883.
Pringle – an assistant in the firm for many years – became Ross’s business partner following the retiral of John Thomson (born 1808/9) – not to be confused with another Edinburgh photographer named John Thomson (1837-1921) who became famous for his views of China and London street life.
James Ross was working with the calotype process when he went into partnership in 1848 with Thomson, a skilled daguerreotypist. They were appointed photographers to Queen Victoria in 1849, and later switched to using glass negatives following the introduction of collodion in the early 1850s.
James Ross has been in the news recently because of the hypothesis – advanced by American researcher Patrick Feaster – that he may have been the first photographer to produce a sequence of moving images, preceding the man usually accorded that honour – Eadweard Muybridge – by two years. Feaster’s theory is based on a reference in The British Journal of Photography, 14 July 1876, which describes a sequence of three photographs taken:
by Mr. Ross, of Edinburgh, in one of which a girl on a swing is caught just at the instant when the rope had reached the highest elevation; in another a girl is skipping, the picture showing the rope passing under her feet; while a third is that of a boy jumping over a large stone. The last is peculiarly interesting, as it was stated to be taken with a camera fitted with a number of medallion lenses, placed in threes, one above another. The exposures were made by causing a sheet of metal with a hole in it to fall so that the aperture was for an instant brought successively in front of each lens. To the lower end of the sheet was attached a heavy weight, and it was held up in such a position that the three lenses were all covered. At the proper moment the suspending thread was severed, and, although the time between the passing of the opening in the sheet from one lens to another must have been almost inappreciable, the plate showed the three pictures in very different positions.
It would appear from this passage that Ross used a single camera, but one that was specially-constructed with three lenses, allowing him to take three photographs of a moving person, animal or object in rapid succession. Muybridge used a line-up of twelve cameras to photograph a running horse in California in June 1878, with each camera activated by a trip wire as the horse passed by. His experiment was carried out to settle debate over whether a galloping horse ever had all four hooves in the air at the same time. He was able to carry out a series of trials using an array of equipment thanks to the financial support of Leland Stanford, a wealthy horse-owner and businessman. James Ross appears to have funded his own, more modest, experiments himself. For a fuller version of Feaster’s theory, see his article here.
This attractive little family group sat for their portrait around the time that Ross was working on his motion photographs, as a handwritten note on the back gives the date as July 1875 – shortly before Ross and Pringle moved from 114 George Street to 103 Princes Street. The studio was at the west end of George Street, close to Charlotte Square. The mother and her young children may have lived in the west end, but studios with a good reputation such as Ross and Pringle could attract clients from quite a distance. The only clue to their identity lies in the scribbled names and initials at the foot of the card.
Today is the feast day of Saint Bernadette Soubirous, whose name is inseparable from Lourdes, the French town in which she claimed to have seen a series of apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1858. Almost immediately, crowds of the devout and the curious began assembling at the spot in the hope of seeing something themselves, and after Bernadette unearthed a hidden spring, it was not long before the healing waters of Lourdes became an international site of pilgrimage. She herself left Lourdes and became a nun, joining the community of the Sisters of Charity of Nevers hundreds of miles to the north. As Sister Marie-Bernarde, she died at the convent of Saint Gildard in Nevers on this day in 1879, aged only 35.
Bernadette’s story has inspired countless books and works of art but today I wanted to write a short post about the film The Song of Bernadette (Henry King, 1943), starring Jennifer Jones as the young visionary.
The film was based on a book, Das Lied von Bernadette, by Franz Werfel (1890-1945), an Austrian Jew who had taken refuge in Lourdes for several weeks while fleeing from the Nazis in 1940. During his time there he heard firsthand tales of the apparitions from older inhabitants of the town, and determined to write about Bernadette if he escaped. True to his word, he completed the novel not long after he and his wife found safety in America. The book was published in German in 1941 (the title page of the first edition is dated Los Angeles, May 1941), followed by an English edition – translated by Ludwig Lewisohn – the following year. It was enormously popular, topping the New York Times bestseller list for weeks on end, and Hollywood producers were not slow to see the potential. The rights were snapped up by 20th Century Fox and workmen began constructing a mock French village on the back lot of the studio. Filming began in March 1943.
Given the popularity of the book, there was intense anticipation as to who would play the part of Bernadette. Gene Tierney, Anne Baxter and Linda Darnell were among those who did screen tests, but the coveted role was given to newcomer Jennifer Jones, whose only screen performances to date had been minor parts in the John Wayne western New Frontier (George Sherman, 1939) and the serial Dick Tracy’s G-Men (John English & William Whitney.1939), both under her real name of Phyllis Isley. At the age of 24 and possessing a youthful fresh-faced beauty, she gave a convincing performance in portraying the fourteen year old Bernadette.
The Virgin Mary was played by Linda Darnell, soon to appear in the racy Forever Amber, and at that time engaged in a scandalous affair with 20th Century Fox boss Darryl F Zanuck.
Linda Darnell as the Virgin Mary
Sadly, Jones’s married life was far from happy at this time. While still in her teens in 1939 she had married actor Robert Walker, with whom she had two young sons. Both actors were struggling until they came to the attention of MGM producer David Selznick, who gave Walker a contract, changed his wife’s name to Jennifer Jones and set her on a course for movie stardom. His plans for her were not disinterested, however, and their affair led to her separation from Walker in November 1943, a few weeks before Song of Bernadette was released in time for Christmas.
Jones and Selznick
Srs. Marie-Bernarde (Jones) and Marie-Therese (Gladys Cooper) in a poignant scene
On 2 March 1944, her 25th birthday, Jones was awarded an Oscar for her performance, winning out against Ingrid Bergman in For Whom the Bell Tolls. The Swedish actress was gracious in defeat, and the following year Jones was able to hand Bergman the Oscar for Best Actress in honour of her role in Gaslight (1944), MGM’s remake of the Anton Walbrook masterpiece of 1940.
Jennifer with her 1944 Oscar – her only one, despite being nominated on four subsequent occasions
Jennifer’s Oscar should not eclipse excellent performances given by other members of the cast, such as Gladys Cooper as Sister Marie-Therese Vazous and Vincent Price (below) as Prosecutor Vital Dutour, whose hostility towards Bernadette’s piety drives him to interrogate her without mercy in the hope of revealing her to be a fraud – although he is nowhere near as cruel an Inquisitor as Matthew Hopkins, whom Price would play in Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves, 1968.)
Vincent Price as Vital Dutour
In reality, Dutour was as much a Catholic as Bernadette, and the portrayal of Dutour as irreligious is just on example of the way that the film follows Werfel’s fictional embellishments. The novel is a thick tome of almost 600 pages, and the author used the story to explore related themes about religious experience, attitudes to the supernatural and the nature of miracles, weaving these into a multi-layered narratives of events that took place at the shrine long after the apparitions. One of the film’s flaws is the inclusion of too much of this material, which slows the pace and drags its length out to almost two and a half hours.
Other characters include the parish priest of Lourdes, Abbé Dominique Peyramale, played by Christopher Bickson who would reprise the role in a 1954 radio version. Bickson’s untimely death in 1967 so distressed Jennifer Jones that she attempted suicide. Selznick, whom she had married in 1949, had died in 1965 and their daughter Mary committed suicide in 1976. The third act of The Song of Bernadette depicts the saint’s suffering under humiliation and terminal illness, exploring the possibility that her trials may have been redemptive in nature; one can only wonder if the actress found any such meaning in the troubled years of her later life. Lee J. Cobb (Doctor Dozous) is perhaps better known now for his role as Lieutenant Kinderman in The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1971), which is one of the very few other Hollywood movies to take the supernatural aspects of religion seriously.
The subtle, almost understated handling of religion in The Song of Bernadette works in the film’s favour, keeping the human drama to the fore; it would have been so easy to sink on the one hand into saccharine sentimentality and on the other into strident piety repellent to a large part of the potential audience. Jennifer Jones’s performance brought out the elements of innocent dignity and strong-willed simplicity Bernadette’s contemporaries saw in the girl, although it is another weakness of the film that the more complex and ambiguous elements of her story are omitted. Those who wish to learn more about the discordant notes in ‘the song of Bernadette’ might like to read Ruth Harris, Lourdes: Body and Spirit in a Secular Age (Allen Lane, 1999) or Therese Taylor, Bernadette of Lourdes: Her life, death and visions (Burnes & Oates, 2006.)