The story of the so-called radium girls, a group of female factory workers whose severe exposure to radiation poisoning via their work in detailing watch dials with self-luminous paint led to their tragic deaths, is one of the most abhorrent cases of workplace violations in modern American history. These women — young, typically working-class, committed to long hours of painting for 1 cent per dial — started out as symbols of a new age. They were the modern women of the 1910s and ’20s, an era of silent movie stars, the Charleston, and burgeoning activist movements. Who was luckier in the early 20th century than the radium girls, the literally glowing faces of a radical new world of science, nature, and commerce? Of course, we all know how it ended.
The tragedy of the radium girls and their fight for justice has been the stuff of books, plays, and many a true-crime podcast. Films, however, have typically avoided the story, most likely because it’s one of such biological horror that few people would have the stomach to see it (there was, however, a 1937 screwball comedy starring Carole Lombard where she played a former dial painter supposedly dying of radium poisoning. You know, for laughs!) Radium Girls, directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler, is a conventionally told take on this period of history but one full of political zeal that we could always use more of in American cinema.
Joey King (The Kissing Booth and The Act) and Abby Quinn play Bessie and Josephine, two sisters who live with their grandfather and work at American Radium (they were most likely inspired by the real-life Maggia sisters.) Each day, they are instructed to paint as many dials as possible using a special radium paint that will make the numbers glow. supervisors encourage them to point the brushes with their tongues to keep the shape pointed. Lip, dip, and paint. Over and over again. It’s solid work until Josie starts to fall ill. Teeth come loose. A rash covers her face. Her joints ache to the point where walking becomes near impossible. The company doctor says she’s as fit as a horse, but Bessie’s hot communist boyfriend is skeptical. The sisters are eventually told the deadly secret of radium, one that their employers have kept hidden from them and hundreds of other women, and the only way to stop this havoc from continuing is to take American Radium to court.
The movie opens with the optimism of the age. Street sellers praise the all-healing powers of radiation water as a montage of the era intersperses the growing artistic and business freedoms of (white) women with the radium craze. Yes, you really could get radium make-up, chocolate, curing waters, and toothpaste, to name but a few of the products that filled shelves after the Curies made history (a period documented not especially well in Radioactive, starring Rosamund Pike.) Bessie is a wannabe Louise Brooks while Josie is happy to immerse herself in the worlds of ancient Egypt after work. It seems as though they have the world at their feet until Josie’s body begins to literally crumble. King and Quinn have warm sisterly chemistry and King makes particularly effective use of her naturally youthful appearance to help drive home the true horror of what happened to these girls (many of whom were legally minors.)
This is as much a story of misogyny as it is an expose of labor abuses. These women were given death sentences by companies that knew the dangers of radium, even as they lied about its toxic properties, then sought to silence and shame them once they fell ill, even after they died. Josie is eventually given a diagnosis of syphilis, the perfect way for American Radium to keep her quiet from telling the truth. One of the great positives of Radium Girls, even as it stridently sticks to the conventional biopic narrative, is that it’s proudly left-wing in its intention. It’s been a while since we saw a story like this proudly yell its pro-union stance from the rooftops. Hell, when was the last time you saw an American film feature so many communists who are depicted as the good guys, while the industrious suit-wearing businessmen are the undeniable villains?
Perhaps it’s for the best that Radium Girls is somewhat tentative when it comes to the physical degradation of women like Josie and her colleagues. We see a bloody loose tooth on the side of the bathtub, a worrying blush across her jawline that is well past rosacea, and at one point, a chunk of said jaw clattering across the sink. These moments are still eerily effective in conveying the true pain of the radium girls, although it’s easy to imagine a more forceful director descending into full-on Cronenbergian body horror (seriously, one of the real women from this case had to keep pieces of her jaw in a box!)
The movie focuses almost exclusively on the sisters, distilling the real case of a much larger group of women spread across three states and several years into a neater narrative. The issue with streamlining this story in such a conventionally Hollywood manner is that a lot of the trickier details and context are reduced to exposition via these two women. This leads to some of the more hackneyed moments in an otherwise sturdy script.
Radium Girls doesn’t break the mold but it does exactly what it sets out to do. This is a political drama about a real-life injustice that does not beat around the bush regarding how abhorrent this series of events was for these women. It’s also a movie about the intersections of politics and womanhood, and boy could we afford a lot more of those these days. If you’re unfamiliar with the story of the radium girls and what they went through, this movie is an effective introduction to the case, even though its characters are fictionalized. I would also heartily recommend the book The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore.
Radium Girls will premiere in select theaters and on VOD on October 23.
Epidemiologists do not think it’s safe yet to go to theaters even with social distancing and safety measures in place. This review of a theatrical release is not an endorsement or suggestion otherwise. This film was reviewed via a screening link.
Header Image Source: Juno Films