Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ginny Mohler, Lydia Dean Pilcher
Writer: Ginny Mohler, Brittany Shaw
Cast: Joey King, Abby Quinn, Cara Seymour, Scott Shepherd, Susan Heyward, Neal Huff, Collin Kelly-Sordelet
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/28/20
Opens: October 23, 2020
Pity executives in our poor corporations. You guys make nice products for us Americans, and for that we are grateful. You’ve learned how to put tobacco plants into cigarettes. You can’t go to the tobacco fields and smoke, can you? And the gasoline for our cars. You guys found a way to get the oil from the ground, get it to the local gas station, and off we go. So what happens? You guys get sued. They say you pollute the water, you destroy the air, you cause cancer, you gouge the customers, you destroy the Amazon rain forests. Maybe you corporate guys, especially the founders should have stayed in bed.
Look at radium. We honor Marie Curie for isolating it on April 20, 1902. Radium is used for calibrators and other medical equipment, lighting rods, luminous paints. But pessimists were right. When radium was used for painting the hands of watches to allow you to read time in the dark, big problems arose that continued until radium ceased being used for watches in 1970. “Radium Girls” is a disease-of-the-week-type movie to show the heroism of one teen-aged girl who in 1925 was busy with a group of others, all women, in painting the hands of watches with radium. They were told to lick the radium-soaked brushes to give them a fine tip, and then some used it to paint their fingernails, faces, teeth. The bosses at the American Radium Company told the women that there was nothing wrong with doing this, and that it was even healthy. People drank radioactive water for health and generally, Americans believed that radium had no bad side effects.
But here is the key point. The owners of American Radium knew that dipping brushes on tongues could cause serious, even fatal illnesses, but they hid that information; just as the American tobacco lobby knew well in advance that cigarettes cause cancer but did not inform the rest of the country about this.
This brings us to “Radium Girls,” based on the true story involving the women working in the factories painting watch hands eight hours a day, piecemeal work that awarded them twelve cents for each watch. In today’s money that would be about $1.78. The film does not go into how much time one watch would take so we cannot calculate what a woman’s wage would be today, but it’s not enough to live on then or now.
Bessie Cavallo (Joey King) and her sister Jo (Abby Quinn) live with their grandfather in a New Jersey dump. Bessie somehow avoids licking the camel’s hair brush, but Jo does, and as a result succeeds in being employee of the month. The seventeen-year-old Bessie becomes worried when Jo falls ill, particularly since she is the better breadwinner, is somewhat less anxious when she is diagnosed by the company doctor with flu. A short time later, the doctor reports that she has syphilis, not an easy thing to get if you’re a virgin like Jo. Other girls show symptoms—dizziness and the like. Jo goes to a labor organization under Wiley Stephen (Cara Seymour) to find help in getting a lawyer, but in her spare time she begins a relationship with Walt (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), who introduces her to an integrated group of progressives that includes Etta (Susan Heyward), who would feel at ease protesting today in Portland or Minneapolis.
The company tries to buy off the two girls but instead the case goes to trial and gets worldwide attention. Once again: it’s not that radium is dangerous, but that the company knew it was toxic and did nothing. The rest of the film goes by predictably albeit with one major twist involving the testimony of a one Mr. Leech (Scott Shepherd), an exec with American Radiuim.
In the co-director’s seat, Lydia Dean Pilcher has shown her interest in women’s issues, as her “A Call to Spy” finds Churchill looking to dig up a women’s spy group. This is Ginny Mohler’s first film as co-director. They include archival films, each on screen for seconds, including women with signs urging everyone to join the Communist party, a fashionable choice during the Depression.
Needless to say the war against well-heeled corporations who know things but don’t tell (nicotine is addicting, guns kill, alcohol causes auto accidents, fracking ruins property, animal diets cause obesity and cancer and destroy the rain forests). Not mentioned in this film, which is acted with passion especially by Joey King in the star role as Bessie and edited chronologically, is that the real radium girls died miserably thanks to Big Corporate’s treatment of their employees as wage slaves depending on their jobs and willing to continue licking the brushes even after hearing of the dangers.
103 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+