Friday, September 30, 2016

Nurse Rosalind

We continue our investigation of the view of women in the medical professions with the biography of Sister Kenny (1946).  Elizabeth Kenny (Rosalind Russell) returns from nursing school to her parent's home in Brisbane, Australia, where she begins a career as a bush nurse.  It was a career urged on her by her mentor Dr. Aeneas McDonnell (Alexander Knox) and she finds satisfaction in work, though she intends to continue only until her fiance,  Kevin Connors (Dean Jagger) returns from the military.  Called to the bedside of a seriously ill child, she cables the symptoms to Dr. McDonnell, who responds with a horrible diagnosis - infantile paralysis (polio) and instructions to "treat the symptoms" as no other remedies exist.  Elizabeth does so, and the child fully recovers from the devastating illness - as do five other children likewise afflicted - much to the shock of Dr. McDonnell.  He determines that Elizabeth's treatment must be shared, but when Dr. Charles Brack (Philip Merivale), a leading orthopedist, ridicules and mocks her, Elizabeth determines to begin treating children with her method, regardless of the opinion of the "medical men" who despise her.

While the basic facts presented about Sister Kenny are accurate, by all accounts the story of her "great love," Kevin Connors, was fictitious.  Given all she had to go through to get her work taken seriously, it seems silly that Hollywood felt, that as a woman, she had to give up a man in order for her sacrifice to be truly important.  But, putting that aside, this is a sensitive and  well-acted enactment of work that possibly helped in the efforts to wipe out polio. 
Let's spend a moment talking about infantile paralysis.  When this film was released, it was only 17 months since the death of one of polio's most famous victims - Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Though many Americans were unaware that the disease had left the President in a wheelchair (in the 1930s and 1940s, reporters were willing to help conceal the President's condition), most realized he had been afflicted with the disease years earlier.  Polio, generally a disease of the summer months, affected everyone, regardless of race, creed, income and age,  (children were the primary targets; Roosevelt was 39 when he contracted it in 1921), and there was no way to prevent it.  It wasn't until the Salk and Sabin vaccines of the 1950s that polio could be prevented.  The result: a disease that is virtually unknown in the U.S. today. (I taught a class to junior high school students on doing medical/health research, and I would always ask them about polio. Most had never heard of it.)  For more information on polio, visit the PBS Whatever Happened to Polio? and this New York Times article on polio treatment.  An FYI - both Alan Alda and Martin Sheen, who contracted polio as children, credit the Kenny Method as the reason they can walk today.

Rosalind Russel is magnificent as Kenny, a role that was a labor of love for her.  She became friends with Sister Kenny because of her work with The League for Crippled Children.  Russell's youngster, Lance, was unable to walk, and on a visit to Russell's home, Kenny noted a spastic muscle.  Lance was admitted to the Kenny Institute in Minneapolis, and left able to walk (TCM article).  Sister Kenny was pleased at Rosalind Russell's involvement in the film, and Russell was eager to tell her story.  Though the film did not do well financially, it did earn Russell an Oscar nomination (she lost to Olivia de Havilland in To Each His Own).   Russell would say of Kenny: " If she hadn't gone stamping through the world, stirring people up, we'd have been a whole lot longer getting the Salk vaccine" (Naomi Rogers. Polio Wars: Sister Kenny and the Golden Age of American Medicine, 2013).  One more thing to note: Elizabeth Kenny was not a member of a religious order. In the UK and in Australia, "Sister" is a title given to a nurse manager.  It's a term that may disappear, according to this article in The Telegraph.
An interesting bit of trivia: in a brief hospital scene in the film, Ellen Corby appears as a scrubwoman. The performance is uncredited (but listed in the IMDB).  Years later, when Ms. Corby appeared as Grandma Walton on The Waltons, the Kenny Method is used to treat Olivia Walton (Michael Learned) in the first season episode "An Easter Story".

If there is one downside to the film, it is the fact that there are really no grey areas - Elizabeth Kenny is "good" and right, the most of doctors, like Brack are "bad" and wrong.  But as this biography of Elizabeth Kenny points out, two years after she established her first clinic in Townsville, more Kenny clinics opened in Brisbane.  While the more conservative medical community did not support her, there were physicians who did, and much earlier than we are led to believe in the film.  That "deliberate manufacture of emotional blacks and whites" is the main criticism of this New York Times review.
But, to our minds, what the Times saw as a major failing, we see as a quibble.  As the story of a notable woman, who dedicated her life to a cause she saw as important, we found this an excellent and moving film.  It makes you want to learn more about Sister Kenny and about the cause she was espousing.  As time has progressed, her therapeutic methods became the norm; thankfully, in the U.S., her clinics are no longer needed for the treatment of polio victims.  Today, the Kenny Clinic still exists, as the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute, treating people with injuries and disabilities.

We'll leave you with a scene from the film, in which Sister Kenny faces down Dr. Brack. 

Friday, September 23, 2016

Jennifer Seeks the Goblin King

I rarely discuss recent films in this venue, but quite frankly (despite some of the discussion I've seen about banning films after 1960 from TCM) 30 years ago is not all that recent.  So I'm going to look at Labyrinth (1986), which had a Fathom Events celebration for its 30th Anniversary.  I will confess right now, I'd not seen the film before, and am not really familiar with David Bowie (The Goblin King).  My husband, however, assured me I would enjoy it, and indeed I did.

The plot is straight out of Joseph Campbell, involving a hero's (in this case, heroine's) quest, which is also a journey to maturity.  Sarah, a teen with a vivid imagination, spends her days imaging a fantasy world in which she confronts The Goblin King.  It's her real world that to her mind is a horror. She has to deal with her stepmother (Shelley Thompson) and a new baby brother, Toby (Toby Froud), who seemingly never stops crying (it doesn't help that Sarah is either yelling at him or ignoring him).  In anger, she curses little Toby: may he taken away by The Goblin King, an action she quickly repents her actions.  But it is too late - the Goblin King appears,  informing her that she has 16 hours to traverse the labyrinth that surrounds The Goblin King's castle, or Toby will be turned into a goblin forever.
I love the Muppets, but was unsure how I would react to these very un-Muppet characters.   However, as he does with the Muppets, director Jim Henson gives us a cadre of characters that we can relate to, even if they aren't "real".  They work within the concept of the epic nature of the story and provide an accessibility for both adults and children.  The other plus is the interaction of both Ms. Connelly and Mr. Bowie with the puppets.  They make you believe that these other characters are real.

We are all familiar with Ms. Connelly's work as an adult - especially her Academy Award winning performance in A Beautiful Mind (2002).  Her talent is already evident here: both in her ease with the puppet characters, as well as her scenes with Mr. Bowie.  She's 15 years old, to his 38.  But both are able to create a chemistry that is ageless (and also not icky).  Especially in the dream scene where they dance together, the pair are fascinating to watch. 
Mr. Bowie's death earlier this year makes it impossible to not stop to say a few more words about his performance.  Again, I was not really familiar with him, either as an actor or singer - certainly, I'd heard of him, could identify a photo of him, and knew that much of his film work had been favorably received.  But I'd not seen any of it, and thought the hype about him might be just that.  I was wrong.  He is remarkable here, giving The Goblin King a sexiness and appeal that are undeniable.  He needs to be scary and attractive at the same time, and he does that very successfully.  I'm hoping now to locate a few more of his films.  In the meantime, I'm going to recommend this New York Times article that appeared shortly after his death.

As is often the case with Fathom Events, there was a preliminary film that discussed the history of Labyrinth.  Included was a section on the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, GA, which is now the home of the puppets from this movie.  The Henson Family, who had kept the puppets after Jim Henson's untimely death in 1990, donated the puppets to the Center, where they are being restored and displayed for the film's anniversary.  It was sad to learn that, in order to preserve them, the puppets are no longer usable as performance tools, but nice to know that they will have a home where generations can view them in the context of the film.

I'm going to close with this trailer from Labyrinth.  I heartily recommend the film for the next time you want a bit of fantasy in your life.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Student Nurse Florence

My fascination with in women in medicine extends to way nurses are portrayed in classic cinema.  So, this week, our group watched the 1939 film Four Girls in White. The film follows four young women who enter a three year nursing program, each for her own reasons:  Gertie Robbins (Una Merkel) wants a job which will give her three (or more) meals a day; Mary Forbes (Mary Howard) wants to be a district nurse so she can better support her small daughter; Patricia Page (Ann Rutherford) is there because her sister, Norma (Florence Rice) has entered the program.  And Norma? Norma's decided the hospital is the route to a rich husband. 

This is an interesting film, which combines humor, drama, engaging characters, and a good script.  It's a story which provides a (somewhat glorified) view of nursing education, as well as a nice bunch of stories - some romantic, some comic, some tragic.  But it really is never boring and is often surprising.  It does a excellent job introducing us to our lead character - realizing she and her sister will be late for their school orientation, Norma puts in a phony call for an ambulance, then begs a ride to the school from the answering physician, Stephen Melford (Alan Marshal).  No fool, Dr. Melford quickly figures out their ruse and exacts a punishment (he could, of course, turn her and her sister into the police, but that's never discussed).  Norma, of course, is smitten, primarily because he is a young, handsome, and unmarried physician.

We were especially impressed with Alan Marshall's portrayal of Dr. Melford.  The movie presents him as another physician of the Hollywood hero mode: a doctor who wants to work in the hospital at lower pay because there he treats people who truly need him, takes ambulance duty because a colleague needed assistance, and is a researcher trying to better mankind   It could be a tricky role, because Melford is so innately "good", but Marshall gives him a sense of humor; Melford's discussions with Norma concerning his career choices are sincere without being saccharine. At one point, according to this AFI Catalog article, Gene Raymond was set for the role. We think Marshall was a much better choice. 

An engaging actor, Marshall appeared in 24 films between 1936 and 1959 (he died in 1961, at the age of 51).  An Australian citizen, he was unable to join the US Military during World War II, and acquiesced to his wife's request that he not attempt to return to Australia to enlist (quite frankly, it would have been very dangerous just to travel TO Australia).  Instead, he did numerous bond tours, receiving the The United States Treasury Award for his work.  By 1944, he pulled back from film work - he had always disliked Hollywood, and his film work and bond tours had exhausted him.  He would return to films and to television in the 1950s, and worked steadily - often with friends like Vincent Price (in The House on Haunted Hill).  For more information on Mr. Marshall, visit this webpage that is dedicated to him.  He also worked onstage - his final role was in play of Sextette, starring Mae West.  He was appearing in Chicago in that play (along with his son, Kit), when he suffered a heart attack.

We liked Florence Rice in the role of Norma.  This TCM article is rather critical of her (as well as Ann Harding - who has nothing to do with this movie. We like Ann Harding), but we feel unfairly so.   One isn't supposed to really LIKE Norma - she's an opportunist, and the audience is never clear if her interest in Melford is because he is a doctor, with a potential for wealth, or because she really has a regard for him.  Rice is not afraid to play her as selfish and a bit unpleasant.  Her only saving grace is her loving relationship with her sister (it seems evident that the girls are alone in the world. No other family is mentioned) - that is what gives one hope that her character will eventually grow up.  We were intrigued with the use of a statue of Florence Nightingale in the story.  It serves as a barometer for Norma's growth as a person - she complains to it when her selfishness is the most egregious; it also signals her reform later in the film. It's an interesting way to heroize the character of The Nurse.

Ms. Rice had a decent career, mostly in second leads.  She was still working fairly steadily when she retired in 1943.  She married her third husband, Fred Butler in 1946, a marriage that would last until her death in 1974. 
One character in the film is a bit of a mystery.  Mary Forbes, who has been forced to put her child into a foster  home (on a farm), while she completes the three year nursing program in the city.  Though it is never stated outright, there are hints that Mary is an unwed mother.  She never mentions a husband, never says she is widowed, but she is clearly the sole support of the child.  And the character is, as is often the case for unwed mothers during the "Code" period, punished for her "sins".  It's an interesting plot point, that we suspect would have been evident to the contemporary audience. 

A number of interesting character actors appear in the film, notably Jessie Ralph as the nursing instructor, Miss Tobias, Sara Haden as Miss Bennett,  Kent Taylor as millionaire Robert Maitland, and Buddy Ebsen as orderly Express.  The relationship between Ebsen and Una Merkel provide most of the humor to the film (some of it on the silly side). 

We will leave you with this clip from the film.  As fans of the Cherry Ames books, we found the film an enjoyable look at the start of a career.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Dorothy Flirts

Celia Faraday (Dorothy Mackaill) has had it.  She's 26 and unmarried, and her younger sister Evelyn (Leila Hyams) is trying to set her up with a marriage to the idiotic Raleigh Raleigh (William Austin).  It seems their father Sir William Farady (Claude Gillingwater) will not permit Evelyn to marry until Celia is safely in wedded bliss.  Celia had already been forced to be the green stocking when her other younger sister married, and Sir William will not see it happen again - it's too embarrassing (for him).  Celia, on the other hand, could care less; she's not all that interested in marriage and doesn't care if her sisters want to have husbands.  So, she makes up a fiance who's been shipped to India.  But, when her sister steals and mails one of Celia's fake letters to her "beloved" Colonel John "Wabbles" Smith, the letter is delivered to the very puzzled Colonel John S. Smith (Basil Rathbone) in India, who determines to meet his unknown "lover". Thus begins The Flirting Widow (1930)

The beauty of this slight little film is the interplay between Basil Rathbone and Dorothy Mackaill.  Until he arrives at her doorstep, the film is rather banal, but once they begin to interact, the chemistry is palpable.  As always, Dorothy Mackaill is wonderful in the film; the addition of Rathbone gives her someone whom she can really bounce off.  Added to that, he is quite dashing and amusing as the bemused fiance of a woman he's never actually met. 

For a precode film, this one is rather tame.  My colleague at points out a scene in which a watch gets dropped down Celia's front (with the very interested Colonel Smith watching her retrieve it. You can see a photo of the scene on his website, above).  There is also the character of Raleigh Raleigh - though not stated outright, the film hints that he is gay.  Aunt Ida's drunk scene also might give later censors a bit of a shudder (this is, after all, still the era of prohibition. Sure, it's set in England, but when would that stop a censor?)  But by and large, this is a subdued precode film, which just skirts around the borders of naughtiness.
We did find the character of Celia to be very interesting.  She has an almost masculine way about her when we first meet her - a severe slicked back hairstyle, a tie and sweater;  but later, once she's not being harassed to marry, her clothing and hair are soft and more traditionally feminine.  Much like the film Devotion, which we earlier discussed (and would be released the following year), this is a woman who is rather abused by a family that considers her to be more of a servant than a daughter or sister.  But Celia is released from her servitude by her declaration of an engagement.  Only as the appendage of  a man (even a fictitious one) is she permitted the independence she craves. 

In their review of the film, the New York Times also commented on the slight nature of the film.  However, they too agreed that the chemistry between Rathbone and Mackaill was outstanding.  Though not an earthshattering film, it's a pleasant enough way to spend 72 minutes, if only to see Dorothy Mackaill with an actor who is her equal.


Thursday, September 8, 2016

Deborah Sings (with Marni's Voice)

Another TCM Presents, this time The King and I (1956) starring Deborah Kerr, (Anna Leonowens) and Yul Brynner (King Mongkut).  Based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, The English Governess and the Siamese Court (published in 1870) told the story - from her point of view, of course - of her years as royal governess to the wives and children of King Mongkut of Siam. It's been made three times as a film - first as the drama with Irene Dunne (who, ironicaly, had a magnificent singing voice in a non-musical role) Anna and the King of Siam (1946), then, this version, with the wonderful Deborah Kerr (who couldn't sing, and had the equally magnificent Marnie Nixon dubbing for her).  Finally, the 1999 Anna and the King, with Jodie Foster in the role of Anna.  All three films, and the book, are banned in Thailand, because of the portrayal of King Mongkut.  This discussion from the New York Review of Books goes into some details about their antipathy to the story (the King is made to look ridiculous, Anna seems to get preeminence in billing and advertising). But, as they point out in the article, this is HOLLYWOOD history, not real history.

There are a number of differences between the 1946 and 1956 films - most, perhaps to soften the musical a bit.  In Anna and the King of Siam, the break between Anna and King Mongkut (Rex Harrison) occurs when the King burns Tuptim (Linda Darnell) and her lover to death at the stake, whereas in The King and I, Anna becomes infuriated when the King threatens to whip (but is unable to do so) Tuptim (Rita Moreno).  The drama ends with Anna remaining in Siam after the death of her son, whereas the musical ends with both mother and son remaining to support young Chulalongkorn (Patrick Adiarte).  Historically, Anna's on, Louis Leonowens eventually returned to Siam to become a Captain in the Royal Cavalry (commissioned by his schoolfellow, the royal prince Chulalongkorn. married twice and had two children.  He lived to age 63 (he and his wife died in the 1919 flu pandemic).

This TCM article provides some background about the Broadway musical, and the introduction of Yul Brynner into the role that would make him a star.  Brynner had no illusions about Broadway or film stardom - he was planning on being a director, as he assumed his rather exotic appearance would not make him a conventional leading man.  In a sense, he was right, but he became so ingrained in this role (for which he won the Tony) that there was no question that he would be included in the film version - at least on the studio's part.  He wanted to direct it (and star Marlon Brando as the King).  However, some hard negotiations landed him the role, script approval, and a tidy sum of money - and an Oscar.  It also led to him being seen AS a leading man, albeit an unconventional one, in such films as The Magnificent Seven (1960), Anastasia (1956), and Solomon and Sheba (1959).  Nor was the film the end of Mr. Brynner's association with The King and I.  He played the King in the 1978 and 1985 revivals of the play.  He died four months after the second revival closed.

Unfortunately, we were not to see his illustrious co-star Gertrude Lawrence in the film.  Though Ms. Lawrence had first refusal on any film version of the play, she died of cancer in 1954 (3 weeks after her final appearance as Anna).  Supportive of her co-star, one of her last acts before her death was to arrange that Mr. Brynner's name appear on the theatre marquee (her name had been the only one listed).  With the exception of the vocal issues, however, Ms. Kerr is a worthy successor, an actress who can do more with a raised eyebrow than most can do with their whole body.  And with a wardrobe of enormous period dresses, Ms. Kerr WEARS them - they never overwhelm her or her character.

A few days after we saw this film, we were at a Disney concert (the Wolf Trap orchestra performing to clips of  Disney films), and my husband was struck by the similarities between the ballroom scene in Beauty and the Beast and the Shall We Dance number in The King and I.  Below are two screen shots.  Note the dresses - the same wide skirt, the same off the shoulder top, and both are shades of gold. Even the rooms bear a resemblance to one another. Coincidence? I bet not!

This July, we lost the wonderful Marnie Nixon at age 86.  I was lucky enough to see her perform (in a non-singing role) on Broadway in James Joyce's The Dead.  Ms. Nixon was a gifted actress and singer, not just a voice behind the curtain, subbing for Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood, and Audrey Hepburn.  She did eventually get to sing in front of the camera - as Sister Sophia in The Sound of Music (she obviously did NOT need to ghost sing for the lead in THAT film!)  Ms. Nixon sings the line: "She waltzes on her way to mass and whistles on the stair."  While we often see the illustrious actresses listed above when we think of these films, when we hum the songs from The King and I or West Side Story, it is Marnie Nixon's voice that we hear in our head.  It's fitting, I think to close with Ms. Nixon singing the Shall We Dance number.