Moral Maze of Murder: John Barrymore Jr. in ‘While the city sleeps’ (Fritz Lang, 1956)

Although John Barrymore Jr. (1932-2004) – also known as John Drew Barrymore – was the son of John Barrymore and Dolores Costello, his thespian parents did not provide him with an easy start in the acting profession. His mother and father separated when he was only eighteen months old, and Dolores sent him to St John’s Military Academy when he was seventeen, determined to steer him away from acting.

Undeterred, he made his film debut in the western Sundowners (George Templeton, 1950) and took many roles – most of them forgettable – on both stage and screen over the next few years. Of these, only the part of troubled teenager George in The Big Night (Joseph Losey, 1951) stands out. A slightly noirish movie, it contains hints of the simmering yet sympathetic darkness that Barrymore would bring to While the City Sleeps.

Losey was a great director but a comparative newcomer to film in comparison with Lang, who began making silent films just after the end of WWI. After directing classics such as Dr Mabuse, der Spieler (1922), Metropolis (1927), M (1931) and the (possibly) anti-Nazi Das Testament des Dr Mabuse (1933) Lang left Nazi Germany, arriving in Hollywood in 1936. His American output included westerns and a series of superb film noirs including Scarlet Street (1945), The Secret behind the Door (1948) and The Big Heat (1953.) It is interesting to note that in 1951 Joseph Losey made a remake of Lang’s M – a film that provided some of the inspiration for When the City Sleeps. This was Lang’s penultimate American film before he returned to Germany.

In a previous post I explained a little about film noir including how the effect created by the deep shadows and dark fog of classic noir is typically a metaphor for the impaired moral vision of the characters: most of the time they are literally ‘in the dark’ about the wider picture, unable to discern what distinguishes the villains from the victims. While the City Sleeps breaks with this tradition: the film is brightly lit throughout, lacking Lang’s trademark chiaroscuro, and from the outset we know that John Barrymore’s character – John Manners – is the killer. So what, then, is the film about?

 Ostensibly, it is about the hunt to catch a killer who has been murdering women in New York, and who has been dubbed ‘the lipstick killer’ after leaving the words ‘Ask mother’ scrawled in lipstick on the wall at the scene of his first murder. The story was based on a real case – that of William Heirens, who was convicted (perhaps unjustly) of multiple murders in Chicago in 1946. A journalist of that city, Charles Einsten, adapted the story into a novel entitled The Bloody Spur (1953), on which Casey Robinson based his screenplay.

There are many differences between the film and the Heirens murders, but Barrymore’s performance draws heavily on one key element – the cry for help written by Heirens wrote in lipstick on his victim’s mirror: ‘For heaven’s sake, catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself.’

This notion that the killer is driven by an irresistible compulsion that he himself detests, was integral to Lang’s original M, in which Peter Lorre played disturbed child-killer Hans Beckert. Finally cornered by the city’s criminals that have hunted him down, Beckert empties his soul in an astonishing monologue that (thanks to Lorre’s extraordinary performance) actually elicits some sympathy: ‘I can’t help myself, I have no control over this, this evil thing inside of me – the fire, the voices the torment! It’s there all the  time, driving me out to wander the streets, following me silently, but I can feel it there – it’s me, pursuing myself.’ This blurring of moral boundaries between law-breakers and law-enforcers is, of course, a recurring theme in film noir, and While the City Sleeps is no exception, even if Barrymore’s performance fails to match that of Lorre.  

As the above poster reveals, the ‘law-enforcers’ in the film are not the police (again, a common noir trait) but ‘newsmen’ – senior staff of the Kyne Inc. media empire – who have their own motives for hunting down the killer. The film’s original title was The News is Made at Night – a clever phrase that links media activities with deeds done under the cover of darkness. Parallels are constantly drawn between the motives and actions of the killer and the media men, with a strong hint that the latter are even more reprehensible in their morals.  Beckert made the same point when confronted by the criminals who – repelled by his murders and resentful of the extra police attention they had attracted – succeeded in hunting him down to enforce their own form of vigilante justice. His crimes were the result of compulsion, while theirs were choices born of financial greed and laziness.

Similarly, the Kyne agency’s interest in the murderer has less to do with justice and relates more to the desire for an exclusive story to trump their competitors. Just after the story breaks on the news, Amos Kyne – the elderly head of themedia empire, dies before he can appoint a successor.  (His nurse, by the way, is played by Celia Lovsky, Peter Lorre’s former wife  who was responsible for his casting in M.) This opens the way for a power struggle between three senior executives: Jon Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell), editor of the Sentinel newspaper, Mark Loving (George Sanders) head of news wire service and Harry Kritzer (James Craig) manager of the picture agency. Kyne’s sleazy son Walter – played with relish by Vincent Price – knows nothing about what is required for the job and so offers the post as a prize: the first of the three men to identify the killer will get the coveted job. Like his father, who wanted to sensationalise news reports of the murders in order to ‘scare silly’ every woman in the country – Kyne is interested in the murder story because of its potential for media sales rather than for any concern for moral justice or sympathy for the victims. While Griffith and Loving use all their respective resources to unmask the killer (and sabotage each other’s efforts in the process), Kritzer pursues another strategy.  He has been having an affair with Walter Kyne’s wife Dorothy (Rhonda Fleming) and seeks to use her influence to secure himself the job.


Director Fritz Lang with Rhonda Fleming on the set of ‘While the City Sleeps,’ filmed during the summer of 1955. One of her most memorable performances was as the double-crossing Meta in the classic film noir ‘Out of the Past’ (Jacques Tourneur, 1947.)

So what then of Ed Mobley (Dana Andrews), the anchorman on the Kyne television channel? At first sight he looks likely to be the film’s hero: a Pulitzer Prize-winner, he is engaged to Loving’s secretary, the sweet and wholesome Nancy Liggett (Sally Forrest), and disappoints both Amos and Walter Kyne in refusing to run for the boss’s job because of his apparent lack of ambition. As the movie proceeds, however, it becomes increasingly clear that Mobley and Manners have much in common.

To show the parallels, we must return to the opening scenes when we first see John Barrymore in action. He appears on the screen dressed in a black leather outfit that was evidently inspired by Marlon Brando’s biker garb from The Wild One (László Benedek, 1953.)


Brando in iconic biker’s leathers. ‘

In his guise as a delivery man, Manners gains entrance to the girl’s flat by secretly placing her door on the catch as he hands over the parcel, then returning a few moments later to let himself in.

This same trick is employed by Mobley in an (unsuccessful) attempt to seduce Sally – but it at once alerts the audience to a connection between the two men. This is underlined again when Nancy hears the killer described as ‘a real nut on dames’ and responds ‘this description begins to fit Mobley.’

The truth is that – whatever their motives or justifications – all these men indulge equally in a world of voyeurism, surveillance and misogyny. Manners’ first murder begins (and is possibly provoked) when he spies on his victim in her bathroom. The next sequence introduces us to the glass-walled offices of the Kyne building, where Mobley is spying on Nancy as she resists the advances of her boss. Soon everyone in the office is watching everyone else as the power struggle escalates, and when Kritzer visits his lover Dorothy at her husband’s home, he expresses fears about sliding panels in walls and microphones hidden behind the pictures. Columnist Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino) makes a mockery of the male gaze when she teases Mobley with a slide that she suggests is a nude photograph of her, but is revealed to be a baby portrait (bottom right). Even the viewer becomes complicit in this voyeurism when the shapely Dorothy Kyne is shown in silhouette as she exercises behind a transparent screen (below), and the camera moves – at a tantalising slow speed – around the side of the screen. As the film nears its end, Manners is incited to another attack after he catches sight of Dorothy Kyne’s reflection in a mirror as she hitches up her skirt to adjust a stocking (bottom left). Rather like Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960), this is a film about scopophilia.

If all the characters are equally tainted with voyeurism, then why is only Manners compelled to murder? After a criminologist provides him with some clues about the murderer’s likely profile, Mobley takes a gamble and arranges a television broadcast in which he addresses the killer directly, listing all that he knows: ‘Item 4, You read the so-called comic books…Item 7. You’re a mama’s boy.’ As the broadcast proceeds, we see Manners reading comics in front of the television; he recoils in panic, almost as if the media’s insights into his private world are proof that he is actually being watched through the screen.


The comic found at the murder scene (left) and read by Manners as he watches Mobley’s broadcast (right.)

This anxiety about the harmful effect of comic books was much in the air at the time, following the recent publication of The Seduction of the Innocent (1954) by Dr Frederick Wertham, which argued that EC crime comics such as Vault of Horror, Crime Suspense and Tales from the Crypt were a factor in rising juvenile delinquency. Wertham’s study was hugely influential at this time, resulting in widespread suspicion of comic book culture. Einstein’s novel predated this hysteria and hints instead at religious fanaticism being the driving force behind the killer’s actions. The film’s portrayal of a killer with a mother fixation anticipated Psycho by four years, but had already been explored in the character of Bruno Anthony in Strangers in a Train (Hitchcock, 1950)

Kyne’s media men have no real interest in Manners’ motives of course, and only seek his capture to better their own position. The lack of moral integrity on the part of vigilantes is a theme that Lang explored in his westerns The Return of Frank James (1940) and Rancho Notorious (1952) where victims of crime struggle to reconcile their desire for revenge with the qualities of justice and mercy. In fact a great deal of Lang’s movies portray muddied distinctions between criminals, victims and the representatives of institutional justice – from The Woman in the Window (1944) in which Edward G Robinson kills someone by accident then sinks deeper into deceit trying to conceal the death – to The Big Heat (1953) which shows detective Glenn Ford struggling to stay within the law after leaving the police force to pursue his wife’s killer.

In all these films there comes a point when the protagonist’s actions reveal their true nature, and perhaps the pivotal moment in this movie is when we realise that Mobley is essentially using his fiancée Nancy as bait to catch the killer. Having goaded Manners by taunting him about his comic books and domineering mother, Mobley then announces his engagement on television, suspecting (quite correctly) that the killer will seek revenge by attacking Nancy. All they have to do is watch her closely, and the ‘lipstick killer’ will fall into the trap.

This is a fairly despicable way to treat one’s fiancée, and is made worse by the fact that we have seen Mobley’s drunken pursuit of Mildred, the seductive and highly desirable columnist who presents such a contrast to the prim and virginal Nancy. As viewers were warned earlier, Mobley and Manners – like Guy and Bruno in Strangers in a Strain – are really two peas in a pod, with one man acting as an alter ego, carrying out real crimes that represent the repressed desires of the other.


Read all about it! In Lang’s portrayal of the complex relationship between the murderer and the media, no one is innocent.
The net begins to close however, and the film climaxes in a hectic subterranean chase as Manners is pursued through subway tunnels. Although most of the film has used brightly-lit daytime interiors, this sequence returns to the dark, noirish feel of the movie’s opening frames.


In scenes reminiscent of the pursuit of Harry Lime in ‘The Third Man’, the viewer can hardly help feel sympathy for Barrymore’s character as he is hunted down like a rat

Barrymore changed his name to John Drew Barrymore in 1958 and the following year divorced his first wife, Cara Williams, by whom he had a son, the actor John Blyth Barrymore (born 1954.) He married his second wife, Italian actress Gabriella Palazzoli, in 1960, ushering in a period making historical films in Italy such as The Night They Killed Rasputin (1960), The Trojan Horse (1961) and Arms of the Avenger (1963). He returned to America in 1964 but his marriage ended in 1970. His third wife Jaid was the mother of Drew Barrymore, born in 1975, by which time his acting career had ended, his talent ruined by excessive drinking and drug-taking. While the City Sleeps remains one of his best performances, and a frustrating hint of a potential that was never fully realised. 


John Barrymore with his daughter Drew
This post is part of the Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, celebrating the ‘royal family’ of Hollywood. Details of all the other posts in the blogathon can be found here

LEAVES from a commonplace book

Some of the items in my collection are what one might call high-end artefacts – beautifully-crafted and formally-produced, such as limited edition fine prints or bound volumes. However elegant and precious these might be, I often find myself far more attracted to – and excited by – the odd little vernacular trinkets found at the other end of the scale: hand-written postcards, personal ephemera, amateur photographic montages or scrapbook compilations. Objects such as these were created without any interest in commercial value or posterity, and in addition to their sense of honesty and charm, they often provide a window into how our ancestors amused themselves in private. 

Compiling commonplace books was a popular pasttime well into the 20th century, and one might argue that contemporary online practices such as blogging and website such as Pinterest are a continuation of the same impulse. Commonplace books are compilations of quotations, useful passages from books, epigrams and so on, copied out into one’s own notebook and often organised thematically or by the addition of an index or other keys, They developed from the medieval florilegium or ‘gathering of flowers’, in which the scribe would select what he regarded as the wisest texts from earlier writers – just as a bee extracts nectar from the most attractive flowers – and arranged them under thematic headings. Although there was always this tradition of serious, intellectual self-improvement – the philosopher John Locke published his A New Method of Making Common-Place Books in 1706 – there was also a more light-hearted approach that saw compilers decorate their favourite quotes with colourful illustrations, cartoons or floral emblems. Sometimes others would be invited to write their own texts or verses onto the pages, producing some overlap with autograph and visitors’ books. Such books might well be compiled as someone was about to get married or leave the country: it would be an opportunity for friends and family to choose appropriate words of wisdom or poetry, to which they could add their own messages.  

This, I suspect, was the background to this particular commonplace book, which I picked up for a pittance in a second hand bookshop last autumn. 


An extract from William Cowper’s poem ‘The Task’ (1785)
The above verse – An Adventure, sometimes referred to as An Adventure on Wheels – seems to have started appearing in American newspapers in 1900 and clearly held popular appeal.


This exquisite watercolour appears to be the work of Edward Rimbault Dibdin (1853-1941), art critic and curator of the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.


These lines are from a hymn, ‘Kind Words Can Never Die’, adapted from an old Gospel song and made popular in America after it was set to music by Abby Hutchinson Patton (1829-92)


Sketch of Stonehenge, made on the occasion of a drive with Mrs Wilkins and her daughter, from Salisbury to Stonehenge and back, August 1878.


George Morland’s oil painting ‘Inside of a Stable’ was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1791 and is now in London’s National Gallery.


The first line of the Latin prayer (trans. O Jesus, living in Mary, come and live in your servant also…’) It originated with the 17th century mystic Charles de Condren and also provided the inspiration for one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poems.


A postcard of Lacock Village by Joseph Pike
Given my interest in Joseph Pike, I was especially delighted to find this postcard of Lacock as the final image pasted into the book, doubly so as Lacock was of course the home of pioneer photographer Henry Talbot. My commonplace book certainly contains an eclectic mix of words and images, which raises the intriguing question – if you were to get family or friends to contribute some personal lines or favourite pictures to a similar project in 2015, what would it look like? 

Stones of evil: Stonehenge through the ages

A couple of days ago I finished reading Bryan Cooper’s novel Stones of Evil (1974), which follows the experiences of a stone worker, Haril, in ancient Britain five thousand years ago. A skilled craftsman with expertise in working with flint, he finds himself among the workmen constructing Stonehenge under the direction of high priest Vardon. Initially impressed by the scale of the project and the quality of the stone, he becomes troubled at Vardon’s cruelty, especially after the priest switches his allegiance from the Sun God to the Dark One….

It’s not the sort of novel I tend to read, but I came across it in a junk shop and was intrigued by the idea of a horror tale being set in ancient Britain. Along the way, Haril meets a variety of individuals and tribes, including families from the dark ‘forest people’, groups of roaming hunters, and a religious caste that might be the precursor of the druids. The story itself provides yet another theory regarding the origins of Stonehenge, and Haril’s concluding thoughts are certainly true: ‘For the rest of time perhaps, people would come and stare silently at the ruins, wondering what had led men to build it in the first place.’


‘Stonhing’ in a print from 1575


William Stukeley’s ‘Stonehenge, a Temple Restor’d to the British Druids’ (London, 1740) recognised that Stonehenge was built in alignment with celestial bodies


Stonehenge as imagined in Francis Grose, ‘Antiquities of England and Wales’ (1773-6.)
Theories connecting the stone circle to Arthurian legend (above top, 1575) and Druidic practices (above, 1776) continue to the present day, alongside fanciful suggestions about UFO landing strips, sacred energy transmitters, ancient racecourses, healing temples or the tomb of Boadicea.


John Britton, ‘The Beauties of Wiltshire’ (1801-25)
John Britton – who worked with Pugin – was one of the first to publish sober and accurate delineations of antiquities.


Stonehenge as it appeared when I visited in September 2013


A fanciful image of Avebury stone circle, about 25 miles north of Stonehenge, from the spooky TV series ‘Children of the Stones’ (1977)
Although it was set in Avebury rather than Stonehenge, the seven episode HTV series Children of the Stones made use of many theories that had been applied to Stonehenge: Druidic rites, folk magic and advanced astronomy were fused with a plot about time-loops, supernovas and psychic control.


Perhaps the threat posed by the ancient stones might actually be more mundane
Today is the summer solstice, the longest day of summer, and traditionally attracts tens of thousands of visitors to Stonehenge to witness the sunrise.

Early Birds: Du Maurier’s Precursors

The terrifying concept of wild birds turning upon humans was presented to cinema audiences in 1963 with the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s screen adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story, The Birds, first published in 1952. The idea was not entirely new, however, and in today’s post I’m going to focus on two earlier novels: Melville Davisson Post’s The Revolt of the Birds (1927)  and Frank Baker’s The Birds (1936.)


Dust jacket of the first edition


The binding, blind-stamped with gilt images of birds in flight

West Virginian lawyer and author Melville Davisson Post (1871-1930) is perhaps best remembered now as a crime writer, and the creator of such brilliant detectives as Uncle Abner, Randolph Mason, Colonel Braxton and Sir Henry Marquis of Scotland Yard. A qualified lawyer, he had travelled in Europe and beyond, and his prolific output reflects both his wide experiences and love of the great outdoors. The Revolt of the Birds was published in New York by Appleton in 1927, three years before Post died following a fall from his horse. 

The Revolt of the Birds is set in the China Sea, and – rather like an M.R. James ghost story – is relayed through an anonymous narrator as he listens to Bennett, a seaman with the notorious Wu Fan Shipping Company. The two men are seated in a warehouse bar in Hong Kong. Bennett, an Englishman, has a copy of The Times and The Passing of Arthur which shows ‘quaint pictures of the three queens, who came in the legend, in a mystic barge to take Arthur to Avalon.’ When they start discussing whether or not such a thing could ever happen, the conversation shifts to strange happenings in the Orient and Bennett begins to tell his tale – about Arthur Hudson, his unhappy affair with an English girl, his dreams of a mysterious ‘slender, dark-haired girl’ who always appears with a flock of birds around her or beside her, and his quest to find this girl in the islands of the China Sea….  The Revolt of the Birds differs from Du Maurier’s story in one very significant point – the intention of the birds towards the humans – but it introduced the idea of a large number of birds acting together in concert against the laws of nature.

There had been some precedents for this idea – Arthur Machen’s The Terror (1917), for example, features sustained attacks on Cornish folk from an array of wild animals, including birds and moths. The disturbing suggestion that individual birds might work together in order to carry out an organised mass attack also appeared in Philip Macdonald’s short-story ‘Our Feathered Friends’ which was published in Lady Cynthia Asquith’s anthology When Churchyards Yawn (London: Hutchinson, 1931.) Macdonald actually worked as a screenwriter on Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) – also an adaptation of a Du Maurier story – and ‘Our Feathered Friends’ was reprinted in the anthology
Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories for Late at Night (New York: Random House, 1961.)Five years after Macdonald’s story, author Frank Baker (1908-82) published his full-length novel The Birds, exploring the possibility of birds carrying out a sustained war of terror against mankind.


The Birds (London: Peter Davies, 1936) dust jacket
There is no reason to doubt the claim of Daphne du Maurier that she was completely unaware of the existence of Baker’s novel when she came to write her own story with the same title. Apart from the basic concept, the two texts have little in common, and she actually drew her inspiration from something she witnessed near her Cornish home at Menabilly House. near Fowey. She was able to rent Menabilly from 1943 until 1969 because of the success of the book and film Rebecca, but she had known the area since the late 1920s when the family began taking holidays there, and was friendly with many of the locals. One day, while walking across to Menabilly Barton farm from her house, she saw a farmer named Tommy Dunn out ploughing in his field above Polridmouth Beach. Above his head, seagulls were swooping and diving, and she began to wonder what might happen if they suddenly began to attack….
She went home and began to develop this idea, turning Tommy Dunn into Nat Hocken, and suggesting that the birds become aggressive after a harsh winter with little food. Seagulls are the first to start attacking, but they are soon joined by birds of prey and finally even small birds. The setting is clearly rural, the characters are limited to Nat’s family and neighbours, and the atmosphere is reminiscent of wartime Britain with its fears about coastal invasion and German air raids.The story was first published in Good Housekeeping magazine in October 1952, with the text broken up into fragments and printed between pages 54 and 132, interspersed with sections of other short stories and juxtaposed with dozens of housekeeping tips and adverts: “Bread stays good longer when protected with ‘Mycoban,'” “Childcraft: America’s Famous (14-volume) Child Guidance Plan” or “Jell-O Salads: Like to add a touch of glamour to dinner tonight?” This homely material seems incongruous with the grim subject matter of Du Maurier’s story, which the editors clearly regarded as potentially unpalatable – the tagline proclaimed: ‘The Editors present this, not as the most popular, but perhaps as the Most Distinguished Short Story of the Year.’
Reading the story within the context of ‘good housekeeping’ tips does, however, draw attention to the prominence of domestic and familial concerns.  Nat is a former soldier who was injured during the war and receives a disability pension, but works part time on local farms doing light work in order to provide for his wife and two young children, Jill and Johnny. When the bird attacks begin, he uses his handyman skills to protect his family, boarding up windows and setting up barbed wire barriers, while his (unnamed) wife deals with the housekeeping matters: ‘It’s shopping day tomorrow, you know that. I don’t keep uncooked food about. Butcher doesn’t call till the day after.’ (Fridges were still a rarity in Britain in the early 1960s.) To distract the children from the horror, she makes them an early supper: ‘Something for a treat – toasted cheese, eh? Something we all like?’ Little details such as the need to stock up on candles, or heating up left-overs for the children, would resonate with the magazine’s readers, perhaps prompting them to think about how well they would cope in such circumstances.


1952 artwork by Seymour Mednick
The story was reprinted in Du Maurier’s collection, The Apple Tree: a short novel and several long stories (London: Victor Gollancz, 1952.) Editions of the anthology published after the movie were issued under the title of The Birds to capitalize on the publicity.


Comparison of the 1952 and 1963 covers
Hitchcock – who had made film adaptations of Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn (1939) and Rebecca (1940) – spotted the story and included it in his anthology Alfred Hitchcock Presents: my Favorites in Suspense (New York: Random House, 1959) as well as securing the film rights. He was reminded of the story after reading newspaper reports of bird attacks in the Californian press in April 1960 and August 1961 and within a few weeks had commissioned Evan Hunter to write a screenplay – but one that retained only the title and basic concept of Du Maurier’s story.  Apart from the obvious switch from Cornwall to California, the changes are too numerous to mention; it is only really in the siege scenes in the house where Du Maurier’s story can be recognised, although here and there little echoes of phrases and events recur. Other elements – such as the attack on a woman in a telephone booth, and the intrusion of an unusual female into the relationship between the male hero and his widowed mother – can be traced back to Baker’s novel.
In 1962, when Baker heard that a film was being made of The Birds without any apparent reference to his story, he wrote to both Hitchcock and Du Maurier to protest.  The director never replied, but Du Maurier responded with great sympathy; anyone who has read her letters will be aware of the tender solicitude she often showed towards her correspondents, answering questions in detail and almost acting as an ”agony aunt’ towards many of the lonely souls who contacted her. 


In the wake of the film, Frank Baker’s novel was reissued in 1964 as a Panther paperback

Baker heavily revised the text of his novel for the 1964 edition but only a fraction of these changes were implemented by Panther.

A new edition was published by Valancourt Press in 2013 which incorporates all of Baker’s original revisions, and comes with a nine page introduction by Ken Mogg, who runs ‘The MacGuffin’ webpage devoted to Hitchcock scholarship. Those wishing to know more about Baker’s life should read Paul Newman’s biography, The Man Who Unleashed The Birds: Frank Baker and his Circle (Abraxas Editions, 2010.)

The Song of Bernadette

Jennifer Jones in ‘The Song of Bernadette’ (1943)

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.)