Cave of Candles
Notre Dame's Grotto / by Dorothy V. Corson

The Song of Bernadette Screenplay

Bob Hohl at the Saint Mary's College library was most interested in the pictorial confirmation of the authentic Lourdes statue Mother Angela had purchased from the French sculptor. He also agreed that the earliest book on Bernadette, by Lasserre, would be the most genuine.

He had been viewing the photographs of the statues in Lourdes Hall when he turned around and faced his computer on the desk beside him. "I just thought of something that might be of interest," he said. He typed something into the computer database, then looked up from the keyboard with a smile: "I thought I'd seen this entry before."

"In our college archives we have the script, with photographs, of the 1943 movie, The Song Of Bernadette. It looks like the screenwriter sent it to one of the Sisters at Saint Mary's," he said. "There's no further explanation here, but it can be viewed in the Saint Mary's College Archives on the lower floor. It also indicates that the scriptwriter was born in South Bend."

If he was born in South Bend, would he have known about the Notre Dame Grotto and would that knowledge have factored into his writing the script of The Song Of Bernadette?

Sister Rosaleen and Sister Monica at the College Archives were surprised to hear about it. They were both curious about how the writer's The Song Of Bernadette screenplay wound up at Saint Mary's. Sister Rosaleen was aware of it, but hadn't paid much attention to it before.

She located it and placed it on nearby table for a closer inspection. There were many glossy photographs of the actors taken on location. The script was inscribed: "To Sister Evangelista: With all good wishes from a South Bend boy." It was signed, George Seaton.

The cover page read, Franz Werfel's, The Song of Bernadette. Screenplay by George Seaton. In the lower right hand corner were the words: "Revised Final, March 8, 1943." Not much to go on there.

Upon returning it to Sister Rosaleen, a piece of paper fluttered to the floor. It must have been clinging to the inside cover. It was a handwritten letter to Sister Evangelista from the scriptwriter, George Seaton. Someone had cut off the address portion at the top, unwittingly taking with it part of the words on the reverse side of it. This is what it said:

I wish I were one of those terribly clever people who, when they write their autobiographies, always say, when I was fifteen months old I distinctly remember my Aunt Fanny saying to me, etc. If I had such a prodigious memory I could honestly say that I remembered you -- for I gather from my sister Ruth that you occasionally visited our home in South Bend when I . . . [the next two or three lines are missing].

Still I feel as if I'd known you all my life because I've heard my sister mention you so many, many times.

I can't tell you how proud I am to know that you asked for a script of "Bernadette" -- I do hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Respectfully yours,

George Seaton.

Who was George Seaton and could it be proven that he had been born in South Bend? There had to be some connection between his sister and Sister Evangelista, but what was it?

Who Was Who, Film Goers Companion, and Film Encyclopedia all had information about George Seaton and all of it was impressive. He was a screenwriter, director and producer whose 40 year Hollywood career included winning two Oscars. He was three times president of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences; president of the Screen Writers Guild; and vice president of the Screen Directors Guild; and also served as vice president of the Motion Picture Relief Fund.

He won an Academy Award for the screenplay, Miracle On 34th Street, in 1947 and again for his adaptation of Clifford Odet's play, The Country Girl, in 1952, which he also directed and which brought an Oscar for best performance by an actress to Grace Kelly. Among countless other movies, including, The Song Of Bernadette, he wrote and directed Airport, the biggest money making movie for Universal Pictures until Jaws. In addition to a number of other awards, he was also the recipient of the Jean Hersholt humanitarian award and was a trustee of Colonial Williamsburg.(236)

The Song of Bernadette lost the Academy Award for best picture to Casablanca, which was pretty tough competition. However, Jennifer Jones won an Academy Award for best actress. It was her first movie. The film also got Academy Awards for Best Cinema Photography, Best Interior Decoration, and Best Score. George Seaton's script was also nominated for best screenplay.

Seaton's Miracle On 34th Street and Capra's It's A Wonderful Life share the distinction of being classic movies that are rerun every Christmas. The Song of Bernadette is also acquiring that same distinction. Capra and Seaton are gone now, but they spent their lives on something that would live after them.

The very fact that such a noted Hollywood personage was born in South Bend, and nobody seemed to know about it, was enough to suggest another side search. It seemed a simple fact to prove. Unfortunately, it was easier said then done.

Dr. George Plain, head of the Health Department, very kindly checked all his records for that name and birth date. They had no birth certificate in that name. On the other end, no one at Saint Mary's who knew Sister Evangelista had ever heard her mention his name, his sister's name, or the movie itself.

They could only recall that she had friends in Hollywood. The father of two sisters in her class was a Hollywood producer and he regularly sent films for their Friday movie nights at the college. There was no connection between these two men. There were also no records of a Ruth Seaton being a student where Sister Evangelista taught school.

The date of his death, July 28, 1979, seemed to be the only clue to learning more about him. Could he have changed his name as many people in the film business had done? A suggestion was made that, if he was well known, his obituary might have been in the New York Times. The NYT index gave the date it appeared. The St. Joseph County Public Library provided a copy of the obituary on microfilm.

His obituary confirmed the name change. He moved from South Bend to Detroit as a child. As a young man he auditioned for Jesse Bonstelle's drama school. She hired him instead for her stock company at $15 a week. The next line provided the answer: "George Stenius, would-be student, became George Seaton, paid actor."

A return call to Dr. George Plain produced the evidence. Ten minutes after receiving the new name he called back with good news. He had found it! The George Stenius birth certificate revealed he was the youngest of three children. It also indicated his father was 40 and his mother 39 when he was born, so his sister Ruth could have been several years older. The birth certificate listed both parents as immigrating from Stockholm, Sweden. Were they Catholic? "It was possible but not likely," he said. However, he did mention that when he lived in Minnesota, they did have a church there called the St. Olaf's Catholic Church.

This information led to the city directory which listed the family as living in South Bend, on William Street, in 1911 and 1912. Records at the convent, showed that Sister Evangelista had been a teacher at St. Joseph Academy during those years. Being close by, it was the most likely place his older sister would have gone to school at the time. Although their records did not go back that far, the evidence suggested that Sister Evengelista was her teacher. That's how they met, and they kept in touch when the family moved to Detroit. It was not an uncommon practice for a separated student and teacher.

The All Saints Parish Church, in Beverly Hills, was listed as having conducted George Seaton's funeral service. Their letterhead indicated it was an an Episcopal Church, which answered one question, he was not Catholic. They confirmed the service, but they had no records of family, then or now, to offer. Subsequent inquiries revealed that after his death his wife became mayor of Beverly Hills, CA, but even they had no clues to the whereabouts of any surviving family members.

Interlibrary Loan at the St. Joseph County Public Library checked their countrywide computer database to see if any books had been written about this man. Within a week, a book they ordered arrived from Brigham Young University Library in Utah. Only it wasn't a book. It was a roll of microfilm.

An Oral History on Seaton

At the top of the screen was the heading, New York Times Oral History Program.. (237) The last thing expected, and the perfect way to obtain information about his background.

It was dated 1977. He died in 1979. It contained not only the answer to how it wound up in the Saint Mary's College archives, but also an interesting detailed background on the filming of the Song of Bernadette movie.

His interviewer, David Cherichetti, did a masterful job of asking the right questions. The only one left unanswered was his possible link to the Notre Dame Grotto in connection with The Song Of Bernadette movie.

George Seaton's father was a rather famous chef. He followed Oscar at the Waldorf many years before George was born. At the time Seaton was born, in South Bend, Indiana, his father was running the Oliver Hotel. His mother's father was also a very famous critic in Stockholm. When he was about two years old they moved to Detroit. This would explain why he didn't remember Sister Evangelista.

George Seaton became "one of the most consistently successful writer-directors in the history of Hollywood." He got his start in Detroit acting in stock companies and on radio where he was the original Lone Ranger. Quite a distinction for a "South Bend Boy," and apparently nothing has ever been written locally about him.

Stenius was a very hard name to pronounce. He was writing pulp fiction at the time and got a rejection notice under the name of Stenius, so he tore off the title page and sent the story in with "George Seaton" on it.

He chose the name George Seaton because he had gone to see Philip Barry's, Holiday, and the family name in the play was Seton. He also had a belt buckle with the initials GS, so he didn't want to change his initials. With the new name, his story was accepted. He felt it was a talisman and kept the name. He put the "a" in the name Seton because he said he didn't want to be a complete thief.

Shortly afterward, he went to Hollywood under personal contract to Bill Perlberg. He was getting tired of making mostly comedies. After yet another one, he told Perlberg, "I'll do it under one condition, that if you ever get something serious to do, I hope I get a crack at it." Perlberg gave him his word. Many years and many comedies went by before he was to get his chance.

Even his sister Ruth factored into his Hollywood experience. His sister was teaching English to foreign-born students in public schools in Detroit. She had a great knack for it. When Ingrid Bergman came to this country his sister became her coach, taught her English, and "she's been with her ever since. Anytime Ingrid does a play or a film, my sister is with her, not just for the language, but for the interpretation of the part."

Ingrid Bergman's biography, Ingrid Bergman, My Story,(238) speaks of Ruth Roberts. Ingrid tells about her first arrival in the United States from Sweden. "It was strange that within those first few weeks I'd met the women who were to become three of the main pillars of my life: Kay Brown, Irene Selznick, and Ruth Roberts." Of those three women, Ruth Roberts' name comes up most often. In the index, forty some entries are noted of personal letters sent to Ruth by Ingrid.

His sister Ruth, who would have been about eleven years old when they left South Bend, must have kept in touch with her favorite teacher, Sister Evangelista, throughout her life, as she later did with Ingrid Bergman.

In hearing of Ruth's and George's Hollywood activities, Sister Evangelista must have learned of the movie, The Song Of Bernadette, being filmed and requested a copy of the script for the Saint Mary's College Library. Ruth then passed the request on to her brother and he went all out with it. The script was handsomely bound in leather, inscribed in gold on the cover, and contained not only a personal inscription, but also a personal handwritten letter from George Seaton.

Gradually, the oral history interview moved into the background of the filming of The Song Of Bernadette, and the Lourdes Grotto experience. George describes how Bill Perlberg acted upon his promise to allow him to script a more serious film. He said a book by Franz Werfel came along called The Song Of Bernadette.

He read it and raced into Perlberg's office. He told him that this was what he wanted to do and that he was sure it could be a successful film. Perlberg read it and agreed and he went in to Zanuck. When they bought the property Bill Perlberg told Zanuck he wanted Seaton to write it. Zanuck said, "You're out of your mind. He's nothing but a gag writer. He's done all these musicals. We'll have to get someone like Ben Hecht." Seaton said he felt blessed because Perlberg told Zanuck, "Unless George does it, I will not produce it. I promised him and I'm going to stick by my word." They wanted Perlberg to produce it, so Zanuck agreed.

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