Silence in Sound: The Power of Johnny Belinda and The Miracle Worker

When the silent era finally gave way to talkies in 1927, an art form was lost–the art of meaningful expression without words. When we look at the films of the great silent stars, for example those of Clara Bow, Norma Talmadge, or Lillian Gish, we see a wholly separate kind of film, one where actors are comfortable using their bodies to convey meaning and their eyes to show emotion, rather than relying on words. The filmmakers of the silent era were masters of “show rather than tell,” and as soon as the talking era came in, all that was lost in the novelty of sound onscreen.

In 1948, another noteworthy silent role came along–that of Belinda in Johnny Belinda, Jean Negulesco’s masterpiece about a deaf-mute farm girl coping with the difficulties of life in an ignorant, rural community. The title refers to Belinda’s son, conceived through a rape by a prominent member of the town who later comes to retrieve the baby, only to be shot by Belinda in defense of her son. Co-starring Lew Ayres as the kindly doctor who befriends Belinda and teaches her to communicate, Johnny Belinda was the winner of the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1948, going to Jane Wyman for the title role, and is regarded as one of the finest pictures to come out of the 1940’s.

The emotional power of the film comes from many sources, but the majority of the power comes from the character of Belinda, who despite her situation retains a lovely heart of gold. Jane Wyman, whose apple cheeks and sparkling eyes always make her look like she’s smiling, was perfect for the role, and for her work she garnered the first Academy Award given to an actress for a non-speaking role since the silent era.

There are so many compelling scenes in this movie, but the one that moved me the most was when Belinda, having been coached by her teacher, signs the Lord’s Prayer at her father’s deathbed. Please start the video at 4:45 to watch the scene.

Wyman redefined what it meant to act onscreen, relying solely on expressions and nonverbal interactions with her environment. It’s a really brilliant performance, and she deserved the many accolades she received from it.

14 years later, another young actress lit up the screen in a role not dissimilar to Belinda. Portrayed by the 16-year-old Patty Duke, the childhood of Helen Keller came to life in The Miracle Worker, and provided yet another chance to revive the lost art of wordless expression onscreen. The story concerns itself primarily with the relationship between Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan, and how Sullivan broke into Helen’s chaotic world and taught her that “everything has a name,” opening her eyes to the world around her. The film has become a true classic, and the climactic “water” scene is one of the most famous in film history.

The similarities between these two characters are obvious, but the main difference between them is, I think, the fact that Belinda possesses a soft, gentle nature–not wanting to harm anyone or anything. She is calm, almost angelically serene in all her actions, and her character is clear from her first scene–as she bends down to gently pet a newborn calf, we see that this is gentle soul. This scene serves to characterize her right from the start, and also foreshadows the love and tenderness Belinda will show her future son.

Helen, by contrast, is a wild child–untrained and primitive in her actions. She is frustrated by her world, her lack of limits, and the fact that she is essentially alone in the darkness without anyone to show her the way. She often acts out in a way that makes her seem more like a wild animal than a child, due to her lack of knowledge of her world. Patty Duke is absolutely magnificent in this role, and the scene where Annie teaches Helen how to eat breakfast shows especially well the frustrated and angry character of Helen.

Another interesting thing to analyze about these two films is the role of the teacher in each. Fittingly, the kind doctor who teaches Belinda how to communicate has a far easier time than Annie Sullivan does with Helen. Belinda is eager to learn, learns quickly, and has a wonderful relationship with her teacher. Helen is stubborn, obstinate, and refuses to do what she is told.  She hates Annie at first, locking her in her room and hitting her, sticking her with pins, and ruining her things. It takes Helen the entire movie to learn to communicate, while Belinda learns in 15 minutes! This is in keeping with the tone of each film, with Johnny Belinda being a docile, graceful story, and The Miracle Worker being a raw character examination of two strong-willed people.

In all, Johnny Belinda focuses more on the telling of the story rather than the inner emotions of the characters, while The Miracle Worker is more character-driven, with very little actual progression in the plot. A lot happens in Johnny Belinda, there are numerous plot twists and many characters to keep track of, and it is a film that moves along at a steady pace. The Miracle Worker has very few characters–in fact Helen and Annie are the only ones that really matter, and there is very little plot to speak of, the film focuses entirely on one event–Annie getting Helen to communicate.

Johnny Belinda and The Miracle Worker both received a multitude of Academy Award nominations. Johnny Belinda received a whopping 12 Oscar nominations, with Jane Wyman winning as the Best Actress of 1948.

The Miracle Worker was nominated for 5 Oscars, including Best Actress (Anne Bancroft) and Best Supporting Actress (Patty Duke), both of whom won for their portrayals of Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller.

Patty Duke winning Best Supporting Actress for The Miracle Worker.

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4 responses to “Silence in Sound: The Power of Johnny Belinda and The Miracle Worker

  1. This is a really interesting essay. I’d never thought about how much the invention of speaking films changed the medium, and this is a really interesting comparison of the two characters. Another powerful portrayal using not much speech is Emmanuelle Beart’s Manon in Manon des Sources — even though she isn’t disabled and can speak, she speaks very rarely and her mostly non-verbal performance is very powerful too.

    By the way did you know Helen Keller was a socialist? That’s pretty awesome 🙂

  2. Very interesting piece. Even in films with articulate dialogue, which I love, there is an elegance, a grace about scenes in which very little is said. These two films you’ve cleverly chosen to compare are tops.

  3. Nice analysis of these two films about non-verbal performances – You make a salient point about the gentleness of Johnny Belinda and the wildness of The Miracle Worker. Both Jane Wyman and Patty Duke did brilliant, physical acting, in very different ways, to convey their characters’ thoughts and feelings.

  4. Thanks!! Yes, it really did, in so many ways. If you watch a silent film, the actors use their whole bodies to convey meaning, which wouldn’t have worked in the sound era–it would be “overacting.” But these two characters hark back to that era, as they have to use that same technique to get meaning across. I was thinking of just doing Johnny Belinda, but then I kept finding myself comparing it to The Miracle Worker, so I changed direction 🙂

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