I don’t suppose Greer Garson will ever come back into vogue. Her kind of movie’s as gone as the pharaohs. Working through the forties, you’d at least expect her to have turned up in a few film noirs, as even Katherine Hepburn was able to manage with Undercurrent, but Garson brooked no allowance for neuroses or anti-social behavior. Her screen persona expired as certainly as ration tickets issued during a war for which she exemplified homefront struggle and sacrifice. Once it was over, so was Garson. Nearly all her post-conflict MGM shows lost money (The Miniver Story had a horrific 2.3 million deficit). Warners quietly released 1943’s Madame Curie on DVD a few months ago, having been among winners (according to WB) in a buyer’s poll of most wanted discs. So how many of us ordered? Surely not so many as stood on line when it played Radio City Music Hall from late 1943 into Spring 1944. Those patrons needed a Greer Garson. Our diminished interest shouldn't reflect on an actress who rallied spirits and faced uncertainty alongside her audience. She may have had a short run, but who since connected so intensely with viewers in a shared crisis? Eyewitnesses, and I’m referring to those who experienced Mrs. Miniver, Random Harvest, and Madame Curie first-run, are fast taking leave of us. Soon there’ll be but bemused generations to look upon these time capsules and wonder (if not doubt) how any of them could have been so wildly popular. I’d like to think there’s still some entertainment life left in Madame Curie before it’s buried among similar artifacts.
MGM had explored The Romance Of Radium in a 1937 short released a year before Eve Curie’s published biography of her famous parents. Dramatic potential was recognized and development underway before Metro acquired rights in the book. Radium was considered an exotic, if dangerous, healer, like something Flash Gordon might bring home from the planet Mongo. It glowed in the dark and there were but tiny fragments so far harvested. This was science that would play like science fiction, and the Curies promised a love story to remove the stigma of test tubes and laboratories. Greta Garbo, Katherine Hepburn, and Ann Harding were each announced for the lead. Ironic that real-life inventor Hedy Lamarr wasn’t considered, for even as Madame Curie was in pre-production, she and composer George Antheil developed a classified communication system that led eventually to our modern cellular phones, receiving their patent before the picture was released. As it is, Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon were well cast. Eve Curie provided family photos and costumes were scrupulously duplicated, as was the spartan workshop where radium was discovered. Latter-day critics cite shows like Madame Curie as evidence of MGM’s bent toward over-decorative production and needless frou-frou. Contract director Clarence Brown confirmed zealous competition that went on among departments anxious to call attention to themselves. Metro was the sort of outfit that would set plush chairs at a breakfast table. Decoration for its own sake at times, but how else to impress the front office with your department’s enterprise? Period and costume subjects were best served by said opulence. Who needed European locations with resources so grand as these?
It helps to know a little science if you’re going to watch Madame Curie. I didn’t, though Metro writers saw me through by way of accessible dialogue and a Physics For Dummies approach much appreciated by this habitual underachiever (my summer school "C" in chemistry was tendered in exchange for my promise to attend class each day and not otherwise annoy the instructor). The real Marie Curie treated her radioactive isotopes like pet rocks and enjoyed watching them shimmer in unlighted rooms. You have to wonder how she lived long as she did carrying the things around in her pocket as though they were Hershey Kisses. First cousin to radium poisoning Aplastic anemia finally killed her in 1934. Hazards of such discomfiting sort are touched on but briefly in Madame Curie. Greer Garson develops a burn on her arm, but it doesn’t hurt so much, and that pair of rubber gloves she henceforth wears provides stout resistance to further encroachment. A compromise with realism, perhaps, but imagine a 1943 exploration of physical and psychic horrors associated with radiation poisoning --- directed by Von Stroheim, with Martin Kosleck (anticipating his own The Flesh Eaters by twenty years) as Pierre. Would Madame Curie have realized its eventual million-dollar profit under those circumstances? Metro was cited at the time for its sober adherence to fact over romantic embroidery. Side issues are avoided in favor of the radium drama, and suspense along these lines is nicely maintained despite a 124 minute running time. Walter Pidgeon was never a conventional romantic lead. He was mature before stardom came and so could play thoughtful types. I enjoyed his give-and-take dialogue with Garson as they searched for the elusive element. Imagine a mainstream release today with major stars discussing scientific theory and exclaiming over the content of petri dishes …
There’s a vanishing ink quality about Herbert Stothart’s music. Always there, but you never really hear it. Would these scores play better isolated? A few have been released on CD, but I’ve not listened. There were segments of Madame Curie when I concentrated, with some effort, on Stothart, but within moments, my attention drifted. If film music is indeed most effective when unobtrusive, then Stothart must truly be one of its great practitioners. His cadence matches that of many MGM features he scored. Relaxed, measured, unassuming. Modern viewers might choose less charitable words. Ann walked in the room during my screening of Madame Curie, looked at the picture but a few seconds, said This Looks Boring, and left. In an increasingly corporatized world, perhaps viewers sense modern chokeholds to come in Metro forties output --- they're very much like studio product today. No company was so stripped of individual voices. After Thalberg’s death in 1936, creative decisions were sifted through committees. Everyone was second-guessed --- a real-life parallel to The Fountainhead with the Howard Roarks out and the Ellsworth Tooheys firmly in command. Movies were beautifully polished, but often at the loss of their soul. Compare the latter four Thin Man mysteries with the first two … consider Tarzan after 1934. Laurel and Hardy at Metro was their nadir, and what of The Marx Brothers there? We either make peace with company policy of the time, or leave their pictures alone. Disney in the forties ran along similar tracks. Were the same efficiency experts servicing both lots? Based on filmic evidence, it seems you could work at Warners or RKO without finding pods under your bed, though just when you’re ready to dismiss Metro generally, there’s a Minnelli (The Clock --- seen recently, and great), some Clarence Browns, and yes, Madame Curie, which I might never have revisited but for Warner’s consideration. Maybe it’s time someone took up the gauntlet and reexamined more MGM product, even if that means watching Air Raid Wardens again!
Note justifiably proud studio artisans showing off their handiwork to up-and-coming star Robert Walker, and later Walter Pidgeon, on the set. That's the real Curies on bicycles alongside screen counterparts, and again, check out similarities in respective portraits of same. Verisimilitude is also maintained by way of Metro's art department recreation of the Curie laboratory, as both shown here demonstrate. Finally, that's Madame Curie director Mervyn LeRoy and producer Sidney Franklin conferring with Greer Garson during shooting.