Page To Screen: The Song of Bernadette


1943’s The Song Of Bernadette turned Jennifer Jones into an Oscar winner. She was twenty-five at the time and it was her first starring role.

How this film came about is a story in and of itself, of course. A Czech Jew named Franz Werfel, who was fleeing the Nazis, sheltered for a time in the small village of Lourdes, France, where he heard about Bernadette Soubirous, or “the Seer of Lourdes.” A writer and playwright by trade, Werfel was immediately inspired to find out more about her, and via documents and testimony obtained from the village’s older residents, he was able to craft The Song of Bernadette. The nonfiction novel was first published in German in 1941 and then translated into English in 1942.

Franz Werfel and his wife, Alma, in an undated photo. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

So who was Bernadette? She was born in 1844, one of nine children of a poor miller, François Soubirous and his wife, Louise, who were so poor they lived in a former jail. Bernadette was sickly for much of her life, having had cholera as a very young child and then asthma, so she missed a lot of school.

At the age of 14, Bernadette saw visions of the Virgin Mary in a grotto at Massabielle, the junkyard on the edge of town. At first people were understandably skeptical, but Bernadette and the small Pyranees village became famous, attracting thousands of pilgrims. It’s still a top pilgrimage and tourism spot, only the numbers that pass through Lourdes are now in the millions.

Mystics of the Church

When she was twenty-two, Bernadette joined the convent at Nevers, where she was given a good education. She took being famous in stride, but when it came down to it, she was a simple, modest person and really didn’t like being the center of attention. Bernadette died in the convent in 1879 at the age of thirty-five from tuberculosis of the bone. She is interred in a glass reliquary inside the Nevers chapel, and her body is said to be incorruptible. The Vatican canonized her in 1933.

When it came to the book and film, Twentieth Century Fox bought the rights to The Song of Bernadette, and after supposedly auditioning 2,000 hopefuls for the title role (A then-49 year old Lillian Gish was apparently and briefly a contender), Jennifer Jones was cast as Bernadette. What set her apart from the other candidates was her reaction during the screen test when Jones was told to imagine seeing the Virgin Mary. Director Henry King said it “looked as if she saw a vision.”

The vision itself, however, caused a little more controversy. Devout Catholic Loretta Young was considered and then passed on because Twentieth Century Fox chief Darryl Zanuck wanted his mistress, Linda Darnell in the movie and wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Yep. As the Virgin Mary. Darnell was pregnant at the time, too. Werfel was so horrified at the idea of Darnell playing the mother of God that the producers lied to him about the casting to get him to stay with the project.

The film follows Werfel’s novel fairly closely, except that the action is much faster. A lot of it zeroes in on people doubting Bernadette’s word, especially Lourdes prosecutor Dutour (Vincent Price) a languid atheist, along with Jacomet, the police commissioner and a jerk, and Bernadette’s teacher, Sister Marie Therese Vauzous (Gladys Cooper). These people bully and harass Bernadette to the point that it’s a relief when she gains allies in Abbé Peyramale, played by Charles Bickford, and Aunt Bernarde, played by Blanche Yurka. Plus Bernadette starts dating Antoine Nikolau (William Eythe) a nice young guy in town. It might be temporary, but it’s cute. It also provides a little bit of romantic sadness when Bernadette leaves Lourdes to become a nun.

Bernadette is filmed in utmost seriousness, with every scene in deep focus as if King was going for a Citizen Kane kind of gravity. It worked, too: Catholics far and wide loved The Song of Bernadette and the film won four Academy Awards, including Jennifer Jones’s Best Actress Oscar.

Just like any retelling, Bernadette does differ from the historical record. The real Bernadette always referred to the Lady as “Aquero,” or “It,” at least initially. Later on, the Lady called herself ” The Immaculate Conception,” which Abbé Peyramale explained to Bernadette afterwards.

The way the other local authorities responded to her was changed for dramatic effect as well. Dutour was not an atheist; he was actually a faithful Catholic who accepted what Bernadette said as fact. Jacomet, on the other hand, was skeptical. There were a lot of young girls during that time claiming to have seen Mary, generating lots of buzz, and then being shown up as frauds. Jacomet, understandably, didn’t want anyone in Lourdes to look like idiots, so he and his colleagues challenged Bernadette and tried to vet her as much as possible. Bernadette stood her ground, never once changing her story or currying favor.

She also didn’t have a romance with Antoine Nikolau, but the movie correctly portrays Antoine and his mother helping Bernadette when she seemed to fall unconscious during a vision. Antoine was one of the reasons Bernadette’s story started gaining some notoriety in the first place, as he matter-of-factly talked around town about what he saw. He was also fourteen years older than Bernadette, so it’s unlikely they would have been anything but acquaintances or friends.

Also, Bernadette’s story is not as deadly serious as the movie makes out. She was not at all opposed to entering the Nevers convent and they were delighted to have her join them. Plus, Bernadette had a famously sharp wit and a ready sense of humor. When she was in the novitiate at Nevers, she found out that pictures of her were being sold for ten centimes to tourists at Lourdes, at which she laughed and quipped, “Is that all I’m worth?”

Bernadette’s house in Lourdes. (Yahoo! News)

Still, The Song of Bernadette film gets the point of the Lourdes visions across nicely, and Werfel’s book is well worth a read, too. His prose has a nice, light touch and he kept things moving along. Sadly, he didn’t live much beyond the film’s premiere, dying of heart failure in Los Angeles in 1945.

Even though I’m not Catholic, I’ve always had an affinity for Bernadette. What she dealt with was way beyond what I’ve experienced, but I do know what it’s like to be bullied and have one’s motives misconstrued.

The Grotto at Massabielle where Bernadette saw her apparitions. The statue was made to her specifications. (France Today)

And anyway, regardless whether one believes in Bernadette’s apparitions or not, the plumbline of The Song of Bernadette is always this:

For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not, no explanation will suffice.

The Fourth Broadway Bound Blogathon is Friday, all. FRIDAY. Two days left. Hope to see you then. Thanks for reading…

The Song of Bernadette (DVD and the original novel) is available from Amazon.

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Laurentine, René. Bernadette Speaks: A Life Of Bernadette Soubirous In Her Own Words. Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 2000.

Werfel, Franz. The Song of Bernadette. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006 (reprint)

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