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Saturday, April 07, 2007

Metro's Romance with Radium

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, we might expect her in a few film noirs, as even Katharine Hepburn managed with Undercurrent, but Garson brooked not neuroses or anti-social behavior. Her persona expired sure as ration tickets issued through a war for which she exemplified homefront struggle and sacrifice. Once that was over, so was Garson. Nearly all her's afterward lost money (The Miniver Story a horrific $2.3 million in red). 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 is 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, Katharine 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 would cite a Madame Curie in terms of Metro tendency toward over-production and decorative frou-frou. Contract director Clarence Brown spoke of zealous competition among departments eager to promote themselves, Metro a place that would set plush chairs at a breakfast table. Lushness for its own sake perhaps, but how else to convey your department’s enterprise? 

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 are touched on but briefly in Madame Curie. Greer Garson develops a burn on her arm, but it doesn’t hurt so much, and rubber gloves prevent further injury. 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 exponents. 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, 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 ...
Photo Captions
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.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

The one piece of music by Herbert Stothart instantly recognizable to almost everyone is "March of the Winkies" from "Wizard of Oz." It's performed by the Wicked Witch's guards as the TinMan, Lion and Scarecrow arrive at the castle to rescue Dorothy. "Oh ee oh, yo ho. Oh ee oh, yo ho." (Stothard composed the incidental score while Arlen & Harburg wrote the songs.)

1:01 PM  
Blogger J.C. Loophole said...

Excellent article, as always. I just added this film to my queue to see it myself. I think perhaps that with modern (that doesn't always mean younger) audiences used to CSI type science and crime sleuthing, perhaps movies with beakers and old Sherlock Homles-esque microscopes, etc. seem even more dated and perhaps... boring. But who knows. My sons love watching looney tunes, three stooges, Errol Flynn, John Wayne more than they do some more "modern" films, but my wife rolls her eyes if the film "isn't at least in color." I think it has to do with exposure and the patience and willingness on behalf of the parent etc, to explain and keep trying to find films they'll like.
Who knows, maybe my wife will appreciate the romance and drama of Madame Curie. We'll see...
Thanks again, John for a great review.

4:37 PM  
Blogger Grüner said...

I'm impressed with Stothart's work in "The Wizard of Oz." I've associated his compositional credits with operetta adaptations where all the memorable music was by Friml or Romberg or Victor Herbert and I always assumed he was only adapting Arlen's work in that truly outstanding incidental score.

4:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

At the risk of sounding harsh, I have to say that I've never had anything but disdain, even contempt, for Herbert Stothart. To me, he's a mediocre nonentity who used his sinecure at MGM to hang his name on dozens of wonderful movies to which he contributed virtually nothing -- or at least, very little that wasn't composed by somebody else first, sometimes centuries earlier (e.g., the marching theme in Northwest Passage, cribbed from The Beggar's Opera).

The score for The Wizard of Oz is a case in point. Take out what Arlen wrote, plus Moussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain" and Schumann's "The Happy Farmer," and Stothart's contribution pretty much boils down to "The March of the Winkies" and Elvira Gulch on her bicycle. The fact that Stothart got the "original score" Oscar for this, over Max Steiner's truly epic work on Gone With the Wind, is a tribute to the power of studio block voting and one of the most grievous misdeeds in Academy history. For my money, Stothart wasn't fit to light Steiner's cigars, nor to be mentioned in the same breath with Victor Young, Aaron Copland or Alfred Newman -- all of whom also lost to him in 1939.

7:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You undoubtedly know this, John, but for everyone else's information, the short called "The Romance of Radium" was directed by none other than Jacques Tourneur. It was from these shorts in the "John Nesbitt's Passing Parade" and other MGM shorts series that Tourneur's storytelling ability was recognized, enabling him to proceed to directing features, most famously his atmospheric horror films for producer Val Lewton. The Tourneur shorts, of which there are exactly 20, often show as "One Reel Wonders" filler on Turner Classic Movies.

2:02 PM  
Blogger The Siren said...

What a great piece. The Curie flick rather bored me too, I am afraid, but Random Harvest is still a swell piece of romance, and I have an unreasoning preference for the MGM Pride and Prejudice, despite the messing with plot and period. She was zesty and fun in that one, and in Goodbye Mr. Chips as well. Pauline Kael called her "MGM's queen of stately horror" and while I don't think that is fair to her early work it does kind of summarize how she wound up. In real life she seems to have had a lively sense of humor that seldom shone through that great-lady act she was stuck with.

Director Tay Garnett told of how Garson discussed the famous tag line for Adventure (which turned out to be a turkey). First choice: "Gable's back, and Garson's got him!" Second: "Gable puts the arson in Garson." Garson didn't like either one. "They're ungallant," she said. "Why not, 'Garson puts the able in Gable'"?

2:30 PM  

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