Review: Radium Girls — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

Radium Girls is an infuriating and engrossing drama based on the true story of 1920s factory women who endured deadly radiation poisoning.

Scene from the film Radium Girls

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Radium Girls

⭐⭐⭐

Run Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

Stars: Joey King, Abby Quinn

Writers: Ginny Mohler, Brittany Shaw

Directors: Lydia Dean Pilcher, Ginny Mohler

In Theaters and on Streaming Services

Think they treat you badly at work? Consider the subjects of Radium Girls, an infuriating and engrossing drama based on the true story of 1920s factory women who endured deadly radiation poisoning — contracted from the dabs of fluorescent paint they applied to watch faces day after day, year after year.

In history, the U.S. Radium Company employed hundreds of young women at its East Orange, NJ, plant, paying top wages for their painstaking hours tracing luminous radium paint onto the faces of watches and airplane instruments. To keep the paintbrush tips pointy, they were told to lick the brush between each number — the worst possible advice, as the highly radioactive paint was slowly absorbed into their bones and teeth.

“If you swallow any radium, it will make your cheeks rosy,” they were told.

To make matters worse, as one young woman after another fell to jaw cancer, the company doctor assigned them all with the same fictional diagnosis: untreatable syphilis. Of course, rather than face public humiliation, nearly all of them went to their graves quietly, thinking they’d had no one to blame but themselves.

All those lowlights are grimly enumerated here by co-directors Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler (Mohler also co-wrote the script with Brittany Shaw). The name of the offending company is changed to American Radium and the real-life drama’s primary characters are consolidated into two fictional sisters, Bessie and Josephine — heartbreakingly portrayed, respectively, by Joey King (Hulu’s The Act) and Abby Quinn (Little Women). Tentatively asserting their rights in a world where women have been voting for barely a decade, the sisters lean on each other for moral — and at times physical — support. The actresses bring just the right blend of defiance and vulnerability to the roles (although the illusion of living in a bygone era is sometimes thwarted by their decidedly Millennial speech patterns, particularly when they drop “t’s” from words like “but” and “important”).

If you want the full story, by all means read Kate Moore’s exhaustive 506-page account, Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, which teems with colorful, tragic characters and despicable corporate shills. The film, however, is an excellent and soul-stirring primer; a corporate horror story made all the more terrifying because it’s true. Spared the effects of radiation because she instinctively feels licking those brushes isn’t a good idea — and facing constant ridicule at work for that reason — Bessie watches with growing concern as Josephine’s teeth loosen and fall out. Her cheeks seem to suffer from constant sunburn, despite the fact that she’s inside all day. And when the oily company doctor (Neal Huff) arrives at the women’s home late one night with his scandalous diagnosis, they know for sure something is very wrong — Josephine’s never even had a boyfriend.

Plucky in that uniquely cinematic sense, the women get themselves a lawyer and try to enlist their co-workers to join them in a lawsuit against the company. But the money is too good and the work environment is relatively pleasant, so few want anything to do with the suit. In fact, many are openly hostile to the idea.

Eventually Radium Girls winds its way to a climactic courtroom scene. At this point, after having let the story unfold at a satisfying pace, the film hurtles into unrealistic overdrive: Events that in a real court would require months of wrangling unfold here in a matter of days. (In the actual proceedings, company lawyers cruelly dragged the matter out for years in hopes that the plaintiffs would die before they’d have to pay out a single penny.)

Reflecting the real-life resolution of the Radium Girls case, the film ends on a note that is neither stand-up-and-cheer nor shake-your-head-and-cry. For the most part, outrage is the order of the day in Radium Girls; anger that corporate greed could have so callously doomed loyal employees to protracted, painful deaths — and the nagging suspicion that there remain quarters of our world where things have not changed all that much.

Featured image: Still from Radium Girls (Juno Films)

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