Movie Review: “Radium Girls”

If you listen to the wrong kind of politician, you will hear about how regulation kills commerce. You will hear about how all these unnecessary laws stop ingenuity, reduce profits, decrease production, depress the economy. What you will not hear from these same people (and this is what makes them the wrong kind of politician) is that so many regulations exist because companies have shown a complete and total unwillingness to protect the lives of workers and consumers. Companies will sell you things that they know will kill you—that they know will kill their employees—in order to make a buck.

This country’s history is littered with examples of companies doing the wrong thing. It happens across wide swaths of industries, whether it’s selling cancer-causing cigarettes (hiding the research, naturally), tainted peanut butter, or radioactive watches.

Want to read something disgusting? Check out the quote in this article where a lawyer for ConAgra says that since they stopped selling the bad peanut butter they’ve become a good company. That’s akin to saying that sure, they killed some people last week, but they deserve applause for not killing anyone this week.

As for the radioactive watches, that’s a real life story that is used as the basis for the new movie, “Radium Girls.” Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler with a script from Mohler and Brittany Shaw, the movie puts a spotlight on the workers who painted watch dials at American Radium in the 1920s. The women were taught to lick the brushes they were using to paint the radium on, and, as the movie tells it, American Radium had commissioned a study and was well aware of the harm that caused. Of course, the company didn’t inform anyone else, they just hired a Ph.D. to pretend to be an M.D. and tell the women who were sick with radium poisoning that they had syphilis.

At the center of this tale are the Cavallo sisters, Bessie (Joey King) and Josephine (Abby Quinn). While they eventually pull others into their lawsuit, it all begins with Josephine becoming sick. The girls then discover that the sister, Mary, who died a few years earlier, not only had radium poisoning, but that her boss at the factory, Mr. Leech (Scott Shepherd), told her to not lick the brushes because it would make her ill. He was aware of the problem, told her (they had a relationship) and no other employee.

It is a heartbreaking story and one to which, it must be said, the film does not do justice. Rather than drilling down and focusing on the sisters and the story of the radium girls, the movie takes a much more scattershot approach.

Josephine and Bessie live with their grandfather (Joe Grifasi), who may or may not be a drunk, seems to not work, and just kind of exists. Bessie falls in love with a communist, Walt (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), and that’s how her eyes become opened to the problems, but Walt himself is never defined as anything but the cute communist photographer even though he hangs around for the majority of the movie. Bessie attends some communist get togethers and meets Etta (Susan Heyward) at the first of them. Etta’s a camerawoman, shooting documentary footage and while there’s a moment where it looks as though “Radium Girls” might discuss racism (Etta’s family left Tulsa following the Tulsa Massacre), like Walt’s communism, it’s just a feint. It only comes up that once and seemingly only for Etta to tell Bessie it happened and for Bessie to lament.

Everything about the movie screams of the early 21st Century, not the early 20th. Just as one example, when we see newspapers with headlines, the font of those headlines looks disconcertingly modern (and digital) against the rest of the paper. There is some attempt to combat this with the repeated use of black and white footage, some of which appears to be archival and some of which most definitely is not (as it contains the characters in the film). After such footage is used to initially set the stage at the beginning of the movie, rather than keeping the viewer involved and in the time period, it only serves to highlight the present day video look of everything else.

And still, there are flashes of something powerful there. Bessie goes from being a naïve teen at the start of the film to a crusader, but we only see flashes of it. Josephine is struggling with the downward trajectory of her disease, and it’s gruesome, but we’re too rarely there with her as she’s hurting; instead of the emotional bruises, we get the facial ones.

Even the court case at the movie’s center falls flat. We may be told that this is an incredibly powerful company that has hired the best lawyers and can drag the case out forever, but that’s only after the women have been offered a deal that they’re obviously going to take. Up until that point, everything about the case shows that their just-passed-the-bar-lawyer, Henry Berry (Greg Hidreth), is running circles around the opposition. Even some perjury to bolster the American Radium side of the argument doesn’t seem to be a huge blow.

There can be no doubt that “Radium Girls” and the truth at the center of this story is important. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t do that truth justice. There are repeated glimpses at something better, something more powerful, but they do not shine through with any sort consistency.

photo credit: Juno Film

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