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

Filming The Song of Bernadette

Seaton and Werfel were both living in Beverly Hills at the time the movie was filmed. Seaton had long talks with him before he started to write. He said he felt Werfel had great confidence in him and that it was a happy association. When he did a sequence, he would go over and read it to him. He spoke very little German and Werfel's English wasn't very good, but he said they managed to get along rather well.

This totally Catholic story was written by Werfel who was Jewish. The screen play was written by George Seaton who was Swedish and non-Catholic. A campus newsletter made this interesting observation in 1958: "The best books on Lourdes have been written by non-Catholics."

Although George Seaton did not explain his own reasons for wanting to do the script, other than the chance way it came about, he did tell this poignant story related to him by Werfel himself. He said Werfel told him that when he was escaping from Germany through the woods in France, he had the manuscript of another novel with him which he had just finished. He knew if they ever got caught and the Germans found his manuscript, they would know who he was and he would be shot. So, one night he dug a hole in the ground in the forest and burned his manuscript page by page. When the town of Lourdes took him in, he vowed if he lived he would sing The Song of Bernadette. When he was safely out of danger, he wrote the book.

Seaton explained that since Werfel was reporting true events within the past nine decades, he could not draw upon his imagination, but followed rather closely the carefully investigated account of Saint Bernadette, in Henri Lasserre's, Our Lady Of Lourdes, which was also written in fulfillment of a vow. Seaton said it was a wonderful experience to work with this man.

He also related how he fought to have the movie filmed objectively, strictly from Bernadette's point of view:

Anytime you put a camera anyplace, it has to be somebody's point of view. By placing the camera behind Bernadette, with Bernadette in the foreground and the virgin in the niche, it becomes somebody else's point of view. Somebody seeing both the Virgin and Bernadette at the same time. And you cannot say that anybody saw the Virgin except Bernadette. It might have been a delusion on her part or it might have been real, but I told them "we have to keep it this way all through the picture. You can't take the position that she does see it because your picture goes right out the window."

Seaton said Zanuck argued this point with him for a long time. But he won the argument and Zanuck finally agreed. "So you never see a shot of Bernadette in the foreground. It's always her eyes and what she sees; but did she see it, or didn't she see it? That's another thing."

When the interviewer asked Seaton if in his own mind he thought she saw the Virgin, Seaton told him he'd have to take the 5th on that. He said after the picture was finished he looked at it and told Zanuck that the critics would tear them apart, because although they leave it up to the audience, they also show all those bits of evidence. He told Zanuck that what the picture needed was a foreword to take the steam out of the critics. Zanuck and Perlberg agreed and Seaton said he wrote a foreword and credited it to a fifteenth century monk. It said: "To those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary, to those who do not believe in God, no explanation is possible."

When the interviewer comments, "But it was really you?" Seaton replies, "Well it worked."

When asked about locations Seaton said:

The director flew his own plane and it was something you only did once with him. We'd be looking locally for a grotto and he'd be flying at 5,000 feet and he'd look down and say, "That looks possible," and he'd go rrrrrrrump and your stomach would be left up at 5,000 feet. He said finally they decided to create a grotto on the back lot. He said they also built the whole village, the Bernadette set, which stayed up for years and they changed it to this and they changed it to that, and now it's Century City.

Seaton explained that Jennifer Jones was chosen to play Bernadette because it was the first thing she had ever done and the part needed someone who had an earthy peasant quality about her. He also explained that the Virgin wasn't matted in, that she was actually standing in the niche. He said it was very tastefully done. When the cameraman got close, it wasn't sharp, he diffused it. It had a wonderful ethereal quality so that very few knew who played the Virgin. It was Linda Darnell.


As noted earlier, it is said no deed done in Our Lady's honor goes unrewarded. After Seaton wrote The Song Of Bernadette his career blossomed. He went on to many successful films including academy award winning Miracle On 34th Street and Country Girl .

He said Miracle On 34th Street was one of the joys of his life. He wrote the original screenplay. He took the same attitude as with The Song Of Bernadette : "you don't say that he is Santa Claus, you just present the facts and let the audience make up its own mind."

He also mentioned the effect Miracle On 34th Street had on Macy's and Gimbels:

The interesting thing about it was that in the film Santa Claus sends customers to other stores. Well, ever since then, they have had at Macy's a Kristeen Kringle who is a comparative shopper. And if she says they haven't got it at Macy's she'll tell you where to go. Gimbels have also done it. They've become more friendly and cooperative, whereas, before the movie they were very competitive. Neiman Marcus in Dallas did the same thing.

In 1994 a news release announced the color remake of 1947 Miracle on 34th Street movie for the coming Christmas season. It was warmly reviewed and a definite compliment to George Seaton that his movie has not only survived as a black and white classic seen every Christmas on television, but has now been remade in color.

And this new version, coincidentally displayed the talents of another "South Bend Boy." Doug Kraner, a production designer on the film, who had a hand in the colorful and exquisite Christmastime decorations, is a native of South Bend. This film also has the distinction of being the only movie known to offer a guarantee of your money back if you don't like it. Twentieth Century Fox obviously had great faith in the premise of Seaton's 1947 version of faith, hope and goodness -- "that Christmas isn't just Christmas, it's a frame of mind. It's having the faith to go on believing when common sense tells you not to."

In 1999 Seaton's Miracle On 34th Street also became the subject of Macy's "Old fashioned Christmas" window displays for the Holidays. Every window was filled with the original, animated, characters depicting memorable scenes from the 1947 movie classic. It was described as 800 hours of perpetual motion, designed to give pleasure to holiday shoppers throughout the Christmas season. Undoubtedly, if Seaton were alive to see it such a beautiful window display celebrating his movie classic would just be more proof that miracles are still happening On 34th Street.

Seaton having left South Bend for Detroit at the age of two at first seemed to rule out any possibility of a connection between the Bernadette script and the Notre Dame Grotto. That is until this last concluding surprise turned up in Seaton's oral history.

He was speaking of his older brother, Arthur (italics mine):

My brother graduated from the University of Notre Dame. As Dr. Arthur Stenius he was head of the Audio Visual Department at Wayne State University in Detroit for ten years until his death in 1955. During that time he made many advancements in film and was considered a pioneer in the audio-visual field.

It was at least a link between Seaton's Bernadette script and the Notre Dame Grotto. Whether or not it factored into his doing the script, it seems probable he would have known about it. He was seventeen when his brother graduated from Notre Dame and still living at home. Undoubtedly, he was there for that occasion, and probably other times as well, and viewed the special places on campus, possibly even during football weekends. It is unlikely he would have missed seeing the Grotto. There may also have been a subliminal memory of it during the writing of the Bernadette script of which even he was unaware.

Pondering all these significant coincidences and timely postscripts associated with Seaton's movie classics, and seemingly destined to be included in this documentation, has brought another to mind. This one, associated with Seaton's Song of Bernadette movie, appeared on campus in the form of a poignant letter.

It arrived in response to a request for Grotto Stories to commemorate the 1996 centenary of the Grotto. This touching story of the writer's vision, her own experience with the "Lady dressed in Light" at the Notre Dame Grotto, and the photograph she included with her letter, are now in the University of Notre Dame Archives. Preserved in a special file for all the original Grotto Stories sent in at the time, and for those that are still arriving.

Her letter and photograph also appeared in Grotto Stories: From the Heart of Notre Dame compiled and published by Mary Pat Dowing in 1996. It's a story tailor-made for this chapter because the writer not only shared a moving experience of her own vision of "Our Lady" associated with the Notre Dame Grotto but she also shares the name of the actress who played the part of Bernadette in The Song of Bernadette film. It's a story that speaks for itself:

No story to enlighten; no miracle to be told. Yet a picture embedded into my mind and soul and heart. That picture became a photo. That photo became my personal icon.

In Henri J. M. Nouwen's book Behold the beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons, he says, "During a hard period of my life in which verbal prayer had become nearly impossible and during which mental and emotional fatigue had made me the easy victim of feelings of despair and fear, this icon became the beginning of my healing. As I sat for long hours in front of Rublev's Trinity, I noticed how gradually my gaze became prayer. This silent prayer slowly made my inner restlessness melt away and lifted me up into the circle of love, a circle that couldn't be broken by the powers of the world. Even as I moved away from the icon and became involved in the many tasks of everyday life, I felt as if I did not have to leave the holy place I had found and could dwell there wherever I went. I knew that the house of love I had entered has no boundaries and embraces everyone who wants to dwell there."

Now, 13 years since graduating from ND, far from the Grotto, I pull out my photo of the statue of Mary, look at it, and it brings me back to the Grotto, to Mary Jo, to within, to beyond, to a place no longer defined -- my icon. I gave the photo as gifts to most of my fellow Badinites and my boyfriend from Sorin. Years later, when I graduated from dental school, I heard that my close friend, Mary Jo Maheney, was in a coma from a car wreck. All I had was memories of her smile, our pizza and coke runs at 11 p.m. and her spirit. Five years later, she died.

During that time, I would write not knowing if she could hear her mother's words. I often think of Mrs. Mahaney. What to do or say? Send the photo. The Grotto became alive with color and passion because once I shared with Mary Jo her love for Notre Dame. "In the world you will have trouble. But be brave: I have conquered the world." JN Bible

-- Jennifer Jones, Class of 1982, Seattle, Washington.

As mentioned earlier, Jennifer Jones is also the name of the actress who won an Academy Award for her performance in The Song of Bernadette, the 1943 movie based on the experiences of Bernadette Soubirous at the Lourdes Grotto in France. It was her first movie. The film also won best cinema photography, best interior decorations and best score. George Seaton's script was nominated for best screenplay.

The Song of Bernadette is now finding a new and appreciative audience, as a black and white classic, often replayed on television. The Miracle of Lourdes lives on in the hearts of those who believe in it.

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