Radium Girls


Where does their skin get that healthy glow? Radium!

(2018) True Life Drama (CineMosaic) Joey King, Abby Quinn, Cara Seymour, Scott Shepherd, Susan Heyward, Neal Huff, Colin Kelly-Sordelet, John Bedford Lloyd, Joe Grifasi, Brandon Gill, Olivia Macklin, Colby Minifie, Greg Hildreth, Veanne Cox, Tom Galantich, Steven Hauck, Carol Cadby, Gina Piersanti, Julianna Sass, Neil Akins, Gemma Schreier. Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler

Most of my readers will be too young to remember but there was a time when watches were painted with radium paint in order to make the dials luminescent. In the 1920s and 1930s, outfits like United States Radium and the Radium Dial Company employed women as young as 11 years old to paint the watch faces using camel hair brushes that the girls would dip into the paint and then paint the face of the watch. The brush would quickly lose its shape and the girls were instructed to use their lips to bring the brush to a point and then resume dipping and painting.

In 1928 the United States Radium Company employed 75 women in their New Jersey plant, including sisters Bessie (King) and Jo (Quinn). A third sister had also worked there but she’d passed away some months earlier. The girls are high-spirited, Bessie more so than Jo – especially after Jo falls ill. Bessie is really worried, particularly since Jo was by far the superior earner of the two (the girls are paid for each watch face they complete and Jo not only paints more of them but is far more meticulous). She asks the boss (Lloyd) if Jo can get seen by the company doctor, which he reluctantly agrees to.

The girls have been told that radium is perfectly safe; the company doctor tells Jo initially it’s just the flu and to drink lots of fluids and rest but Bessie insists on a thorough examination. The diagnosis comes back a syphilis, which is a bit amazing considering that Jo is a virgin. Bessie, never a radical, begins to discern a pattern developing among the girls at the factory who are all beginning to show symptoms of the same illness. Suspecting a rat, she sees a labor organization who helps her get a lawyer – she intends to hit United States Radium in the only place they understand; their wallets.

This is an important story and it deserves to be told. It has appeared on a number of different television shows, including 1,000 Ways to Die and other fact-based television shows. Books have been written around the girls as well as at least one stage play that I’m aware of. Oddly, it hasn’t been the subject of a theatrical feature until now and considering how important the case would become to labor laws in this country it’s almost inconceivable (and yes, I do know what it means). Perhaps because the victims were all women has it not gotten the coverage that’s warranted.

The movie is reasonably well-acted; the cast other than King is pretty much unknown but Pilcher and Mohler manage to get some pretty decent work tells me a lot about them as directors. They also are to be commended for their creative use of archival footage (and black and white recreations that look archival) that is inserted at various points during the film. That’s really imaginatively done and as a history buff I really appreciated it.

The main problem I had with the movie is that it feels too much like a movie of the week. That comes a great deal from the writing which has a kind of melodramatic feel to it. I’m not sure if the writers were trying to go for a period feel here or not but it doesn’t work. The movie is at its best not when it is showing us how horrible the rest of the world was to these women, but when it allows us to get to know who they were as people. Another thing I’m not sure of; I don’t know if the characters here were the actual Radium Girls from the U.S.R. plant in New Jersey or merely based on them. The names I’ve found for the actual litigants in the case were different than the ones given to the characters in the movie.

Also, the filmmakers failed to mention that there were two other groups of Radium Girls, one in Ottawa, Illinois who went through the same ordeal ten years after their New Jersey sisters did. That company, Radium Dial Company, had to have been fully aware of the dangers of radium and yet urged their employees to use the “lip, dip, paint” method anyway. It took eight trials (all of which were won by the litigants) for the Illinois Radium Girls to get the money they needed for medical expenses; it was a case of the company stalling so that the victims would die before they had to pay out anything. That gives you an idea of what monsters were running that company.

The real Radium Girls died real deaths that were terrible, gruesome and absolutely unconscionable. That they were abandoned to their fates by callous employers who saw them as expendable commodities that could easily be replaced only adds to the horror. It would be nice to say that things have changed a great deal since these events happened but sadly, they have not. The fact that the current administration is actively trying to strike down existing worker safety laws is proof enough of that.

REASONS TO SEE: Makes a wonderful use of archival footage.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels too much like a Movie of the Week (in a bad way).
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some mild profanity and a bit of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: If you take a Geiger counter to the graves of the Radium Girls, it still registers as radioactive.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Triangle Factory Fire Scandal
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Girls of the Sun

Clara


Clara with stars in her eyes.

(2018) Science Fiction (Screen Media) Patrick J. Adams, Troian Bellisario, Kristin Hager, Ennis Esmer, Jennifer Dale, Will Bowes, R.H. Thomson, Dwight Ireland, Bethanie Ho, Samuel A. Harding, Jillian Katsis, Tammie Sutherland, Pierre Simpson, Gabrielle Graham. Directed by Akash Sherman

For the moment, humanity is all alone in the cosmos. It might be teeming with life out there but we have no way of knowing it…yet. As it turns out, NASA is very keen on answering the question “Are we alone?” and is sending up into space a pair of telescopes that stand a good chance of finding extraterrestrial intelligence.

Equally obsessed is astrophysicist Isaac Bruno (Adams). He teaches a course in the subject at Cal Tech and also works with a scientist who is looking at exoplanets. However, the prickly Bruno – who when confronted by a student regarding the importance of love delivers one of the nastiest scientific debunking of love ever recorded – is far too impatient for his own good and when he hijacks a telescope he was supposed to be using for his boss’ research, he is suspended from the university and denied access to the laboratories in which he was chasing his dream.

Far too driven to be bitter about it, he decides to carry on his research from home with the somewhat tentative encouragement of his pal and fellow scientist Dr. Charles Durant (Esmer), he advertises for an unpaid assistant and the only respondent he gets is Clara (Bellisario), who has no experience with science other than painting a mural of a black hole in the lobby of the Space Sciences building and has nothing other than a few items of clothing and a dog named Eve.

At first Isaac is almost insulted by her lack of experience and expertise but after allowing the dog inside his home for a drink of water, he relents and gives the girl the position which is paid only with room and board. It turns out that Clara has a knack for sifting through data and finding promising exoplanets that might be worth a closer look by the James Webb Telescope which is going to be launched shortly and has the ability to determine if life is present on a planet.

Isaac is also soon smitten by his new lab assistant but both of them are hiding devastating secrets. Can Isaac see the life that’s right in front of him or will his obsession for life elsewhere take precedence in his life?

Readers of science fiction have for years complained about science fiction in the movies and television as being dumbed down space operas and to a real extent they are right, although there has been some very thought-provoking sci-fi in theaters and on TV as of late. Sherman, a second time feature filmmaker whose previous outing The Rocket List was also of a similar bent, is apparently very passionate about the science. There is a good deal of dialogue in which the scientists converse that is going to go pretty much above everyone’s head that isn’t an astrophysicist. While authentic sounding – I don’t have the expertise to really judge if it is or isn’t and I’m afraid I’m fresh out of acquaintances who are also astrophysicists – it can be challenging for the average layman to make heads or tails out of any of it.

The heart of any story should be the human heart and there appears to be at least an attempt on the part of Sherman to look at love versus science as a thematic exercise but sadly he really drops the ball. Adams and Bellisario have plenty of chemistry – they are married in real life, after all – but Isaac is so myopic, so involved with his own obsession that he fails to acknowledge what’s going on inside himself. Yes, Isaac has a very good reason to be so clinical and so unfeeling (and no points if you figure it out before the big reveal) but it doesn’t make for compelling viewing. The title character is vivacious and free-spirited but that’s a currency that’s all too common cinematically speaking these days so Clara ends up not really standing out as much as she might.

The ending is a bit florid for my taste but the rest of the film that precedes it at least has the courage to allow itself to be thoughtful. A lot of films tend to focus thoroughly on the heart and none on the brain to the point that you feel like you’ve lost ten or twelve IQ points after having seen them; you won’t have that problem here. In fact, your IQ might actually go up a little if you are willing to learn. Clara is a very flawed film for sure but it’s at least smart enough to know that it will attract a niche audience of science geeks, academics and cinephiles. If only it’s heart was as well developed.

REASONS TO SEE: Smart, savvy sci-fi that doesn’t apologize for being cerebral.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a bit overwrought and the love story is given short shrift.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes, some sensuality and minor profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bellisario is the daughter of noted television producer Donald Bellisario whose Belisarius Productions were responsible for, among others, Quantum Leap, Airwolf, Jag and NCIS.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Fandango Now,  iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews: Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dark Matter
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Radium Girls