In my last article, I promised to review the recently released 2018 docudrama Radium Girls. That’s not a typo. The movie premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018, scheduled for cinematic release in April, 2020. I’m not sure what happened to 2019, but I know what happened in 2020. Thus I saw the film at an outdoor screening in late October . . .
In the opening scene, a carnival barker shills the miracles of radium as a cure-all, using the lovely appellation of “liquid sunshine.” Then it’s time for some stock footage: black and white B-roll of flappers. The filmmakers deployed this “technique” throughout the movie, when Radium Girls had no better way to connect scenes. It reminded me of a Powerpoint presenter who really loves extended wipes.
After the credits, we’re introduced to the Orange, NJ factory of American Radium (AR) circa 1925. Presumably other things happened there, but all we ever see is one room of about two dozen girls painting watch and clock dials, and a quick shot of a smaller room for drying and inspecting timepieces.
Those are the only watches in this movie – vintage watch porn hardly being appropriate, considering the denouement.
The film shows plenty of brush-licking, but never the moment when management gives them explicit instructions to put tongue to radium. This new girl, the first named character, seems to be a one and done, never appearing again.
Radium Girls – The Cavallo Sisters
Younger Bessie, 17, has worked there for two years. She advises against licking the brush, as the the aftertaste can be avoided with the slower method of fingertip brush. Bespectacled and freckled Josephine, Bessie’s older sister, has worked at AR a few years longer. She is a productive brush licker and soon to be recognized for having the highest output for the month.
A dreamy photographer there to shoot the award presentation draws the attention of Bessie. Josephine reads from the Book of the Dead – a rather hamfisted way of tossing in some foreshadowing along with sisterly bonding. I zone out on parts I assume to be irrelevant to the plot, but there was no escaping the overt labeling of Bessie as the goddess of truth and light. She wears some Egyptian necklace throughout the movie too, lest you forget.
There was a third Cavallo sister, Mary, also a dial painter. She fell ill and died somewhere between her sisters’ hirings. The diagnosis was scandalous venereal disease. Dead sister Mary kept a diary when alive. Unsurprisingly, this later becomes a major plot point.
Josephine starts getting achy and displaying jaw bruising so AR sends over a doctor. Bessie is still alive and well, and going to a party with that handsome young photographer, Walt. Spoiler alert: it’s a communist party! There she meets “activists” Etta and Thomas, two buzzkills that unload some revolutionary injustice talking points.
It’s hard not to think that a segregation-era period film needed a couple black characters and voila! Later on Etta shares an abbreviated Tulsa race riot tale as another fight the power story.
The red star crowd are surprisingly up on the toxicity of radium, which is news to our protagonist. Better yet, scruffy Walt conveniently carries the business card of the female head of the state’s Consumer League in his wallet.
The Consumer League knows about the dangers facing the radium girls but can’t quite make the case. They want to prove that AR knew about toxicity, and also need physical evidence that any suspicious dial painter deaths were attributable to it. Long story short, Bessie and Jo and some other radium girls help out on the legal battle.
I can’t say the movie was bad, but it lacked deftness in transitioning between scenes. Exposition was rarely subtle. At one point, half-hearted romantic interest Walt sits next to a sobbing Bessie and flatly declares “I think you’re brave.” End scene. Several plot points or emotional aspects get delivered as blunt declarative statements, plopped in like a brick through a window.
Speaking of which, there’s a brick through a window scene, as well as a first person view of motorist menacing one of the girls on foot. Both were rather crudely inserted, breaking the suspension of disbelief with uninspired cliche scenes that were not built up to and didn’t lead anywhere either.
Watching the trailer, I suspect that they thought up the trailer, then filled in the movie around it.
Radium Girls – To be fair
The movie held my attention and flowed well enough. The morally conflicted people involved got little nuance. This was dumbed down to a few references to people needing jobs. American Radium president Arthur Roede is supposed to be the villain. He’s largely a silent cipher, a man in a suit.
“Radium Girls” does pass the Bechdel Test. Besides period clothing and a minor history lesson, the film certainly has meaningful female characters. Fortunately they were realistic too. There was no implausibly anachronistic girl power chest thumping.
The epilogue admits that radium was still used on clock faces into the 1970’s and includes the claim that a Geiger counter will click over the grave of a radium girl for the next thousand years.
Rare is the docudrama that gets the mix of historical narrative and interesting characters just right to produce a fully informative and entertaining story. Both were a little weak in The Radium Girls, but the balance was enough to deliver a passable if not entirely satisfying film.
NOTE: You can now see Radium Girls via “virtual screening room“