It's Not Condescending If You Learn a Valuable Lesson
We all know how this works. You could get away with all sorts of things which were against the Code provided you approached them with a certain amount of moral outrage. Oh, there were a few things you still couldn't touch, but even there, it helped if your story was Based on a Shocking True Story. (Though nobody seems inclined to give me any details other than that it was on Prince Edward Island, not Cape Breton.) There are still limits, of course. One still rather wonders how they got the whole thing past Joe Breen. The evildoers do come to a bad end, but it's not an evil which can be much wiped out. Well, except in the Victorian fashion of even more deaths.
Doctor Robert Richardson (Lew Ayres) has come to a tiny fishing village to find his surcease after the War. (Which war is left unsaid; since the woman whose life it's based on was born in 1852, it's probably modernized to World War II.) Of course, the locals don't trust him; the locals never trust the New Man. But one night, Aggie MacDonald (Agnes Moorehead) calls him down to her brother's farm to doctor the cow. She says Black (Charles Bickford) would never go to the expense himself, but it's needed. While there, he meets Black's daughter, the deaf-mute Belinda (Jane Wyman), generally just called "the Dummy." Only the doctor realizes that Belinda isn't stupid, and he starts to teach her all sorts of things, most importantly sign language. She comes out of her shell, and she catches the eye of Locky McCormick (Stephen McNally). Who rapes and impregnates her.
Jane Wyman won the Best Actress Oscar for this, given the Academy's fondness for awarding people for playing the disabled. However, as is often the case in that sort of movie, it isn't really about her. It's about the Brave and Noble Doctor Who Overcomes Local Prejudice to Help the Poor Disabled Girl. He's willing to Take in the Child of Her Shame, even calling him "our little son." Yes, she's a major aspect of the Dramatic Climax, but he rescues her from it. And so forth. She doesn't overcome obstacles on her own. She doesn't find out about sign language on her own. She doesn't teach herself to read or write. She just follows what the hearing person teaches her to do--and the great relief is that her deafness isn't hereditary, so her child will be born normal. Though all things considered, it doesn't seem likely he would have been deaf, given no one but Belinda is in the situation.
Locky is just irredeemably evil. That's all there is to it. That's all there's supposed to be to it. He rapes Belinda basically just because he can. To spite Stella (Jan Sterling), possibly. It's definitely true that he makes her jealous by showing attention to "the Dummy" at a dance. Of course, she's really involved with him because she can't get the doctor. But it really seems just as likely that he's doing it because she can't complain. The movie even gives her some sort of silly amnesia so that she has to be told she's pregnant. Though one supposes no one's ever bothered to tell her how sex works both because they think she's stupid and because they don't think she'll ever have it. Still, you'd hope they'd explain it to her after they knew she was having a baby, and she never accuses anyone. She must know that something caused it. But no--let's pretend she can't or that she doesn't remember or something.
So yeah, I don't know. I don't think it's some classic of Western cinema, more a sort of curiosity. A movie that dodged the Code. A movie based on a true story no one really seems to know about. Lydia Dingwell doesn't even have a Wikipedia page, and the page for [i]Johnny Belinda[/i] doesn't have a section about the real story, just a glossing over in the lead paragraph. It's on one of the thousand movies lists I have, I don't remember which one, and I find it vaguely irritating that some spots are filled with movies like this while excellent ones go a-begging. It's not quite bad enough that I want to go scrounging through films made in 1948 to find a woman more deserving of that Oscar, but I have to tell you, I don't have high hopes of finding one regardless. It's quite often harder to find quality women's roles in any given year anyway.