Thursday, July 10, 2008

“Sister Kenny”: Alternative Health Masterpiece

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Recently Turner Classic Movies showed, as part of their month-long “Star of the Month” tribute to Rosalind Russell, perhaps the most interesting movie she ever made: “Sister Kenny,” a 1946 RKO production in which, under the direction of Dudley Nichols (who also co-wrote the script), she played Nurse Elizabeth Kenny, who worked out a new treatment to save the mobility of patients with polio and in the process ran afoul of the medical orthodoxy she was challenging. I've watched this movie many times over the years and it has a personal meaning for me because as the co-founder and principal organizer of H.E.A.L. [Health, Education, AIDS Liaison]-San Diego, I've identified with her struggle as I as an activist have fought to build awareness of the scientific fact that AIDS is a multi-factorial long-term breakdown of the human immune system and has nothing to do with infection by the so-called Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) or any other single micro-organism.

This film is a vivid reminder that the medical establishment has made big mistakes before and will make big mistakes again, and that the worst mistakes made in medicine or any other branch of science come when scientists forget the basic principle of the scientific method — that there is no such thing as absolute scientific truth; that everything we “believe” in science is merely our best guess based on the available evidence and can and should be discarded if new evidence is discovered that no longer supports it. This is why I get scared when I hear people defend the theory of evolution, the existence of global warming or HIV as the cause of AIDS as if they were tenets of a religion rather than scientific theories subject to test and verification through observation and experimentation. Elizabeth Kenny's real courage was in rejecting what the medical books had to teach her (and her doctor adversaries) about polio and believing the results she got with her own hands, head and heart. And “Sister Kenny" the movie is a tribute to this truly remarkable woman.


I’d told Charles that Sister Kenny was the ultimate alternative-health film of all time, and while I meant that a bit facetiously, I did have very fond memories of this movie from the early 1970’s and had been looking forward to having a chance to see it again. It did not disappoint. My first encounter with this movie was at the 1970 San Francisco Film Festival, at a retrospective featuring its star, Rosalind Russell. Among a smorgasbord of clips from a lot of Russell’s movies — including her film debut in Evelyn Prentice (with William Powell — an MGM programmer so obscure even Turner Classic Movies hasn’t revived it recently!) as well as films I knew well like Auntie Mame and Gypsy — they included two clips from Sister Kenny that stood out in my mind for years: one in which a boy who’s had the conventional immobilization treatment for polio confronts a girl the same age who’s had the Kenny treatment (the boy is hobbling around on crutches while saying his doctors have told him he’s cured, while the girl is doing cartwheels); and another in an operating theatre in which Kenny confronts a room full of orthopedic surgeons and accomplishes little more than venting her rage at their stubbornness and unwillingness to consider the evidence for her treatment. I made a note to myself that whenever I had a chance to watch this film in its entirety, I would — and about two years later I saw it start-to-finish on television, thinking the first half was marvelous but it dragged somewhat towards the end.

This time around, actually, I liked it even better. True, it has its faults — it was directed by Dudley Nichols, a first-rate and quite experienced screenwriter but a novice as a director, and it looks it. For much of the movie, the camera is as immobile as one of those poor people who got the orthodox treatment for polio instead of the Kenny treatment (though many of the scenes are so dramatically written that camera movements and/or “flash” editing would actually have taken away from their impact), and there are too many ellipses in the action where we’d like to see Nurse Kenny in action instead of merely hearing her activities described by one character or another. Also, the movie contains a rather strained long-term love story between Sister Kenny and an Army officer (Dean Jagger) whom she refuses to marry because she’s too dedicated to her work. (This plot element is the most dated thing about this script; in the modern world, in which two-career couples have become the norm, audiences would ask, “Why the hell can’t she marry him and continue her career?”) And second-billed Alexander Knox is almost insufferable in his schticky performance as a country doctor in Australia who speaks with a thick Scottish burr (when he first appeared Charles joked, “I guess this is taking place in New South Scotland”).

The good parts of Sister Kenny are its absolute unflinching commitment to her point of view — she’s shown as an ordinary person who is just trying to help sick people, and the doctors arrayed against her are shown as insufferable egomaniacs out to protect their own turf (that’s what I like about this movie; it’s realistic!) — plus Nichols’ literate script and a magnificent performance by Rosalind Russell in the lead. In a role that could have tempted to melodramatic excess in either direction — someone like Joan Crawford would have made her too saintly and someone like Bette Davis would have made her too bitchy — Russell strikes a perfect balance, creating a believable portrait of a woman who’s definitely dedicated and concerned about people, but also is quick to anger and is considerably less diplomatic in dealing with the medical establishment than she could be. Also, in a film that calls for her to age 25 years during the course of the story, Russell turns in one of the most convincing portraits of advancing age I’ve ever seen; unlike most actors cast in a film that takes place over a similarly long stretch of time, she actually changes her posture, gait and voice when she’s supposed to be older instead of just letting the makeup and hairdressing departments age her visually. (This reminded me of the film Giant, in which Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor didn’t bother to change their mannerisms at all when they were supposed to age in the story, while James Dean actually created a quite effective portrait of middle age with changes in posture, gait or voice — though Dean’s early death deprived us of a really middle-aged Dean with which we could compare his acting here.)

One interesting thing Charles noted about Sister Kenny’s work in general is that her program — which consisted of moist-heat treatment to eliminate the muscle spasms characteristic of polio (which the orthodox “experts” refused to recognize as spasms at all — that’s one of the most heavily-stressed plot points of this film!), followed by elaborate muscle massage to “re-educate” the limbs of polio patients and get them to walk again — involved (at least in the rehabilitative stage) verbal induction as much or more than it did actual physical exercise. He showed me a brief mention of her in a reference book on hypnotherapy which said that, though Sister Kenny herself would probably have denied that her technique was “hypnotic” or psychosomatic in any way, the mental stimuli she provided by how she talked to her patients was probably as much or more responsible for their successes than the actual physical therapy. I got the impression from the film itself that Dudley Nichols probably saw it that way, too; not only does he pay a good deal of attention to showing how Sister Kenny talked to her patients, there’s a scene in which the Alexander Knox character attempts her treatment and gets no result at all because he doesn’t know how to do the verbal induction. Aside from that, I couldn’t help — seeing this movie again after 25 years — but notice all the parallels to the AIDS issue (yes, there’s more than one scene in which some doctor or other, upholding the polio orthodoxy, calls Sister Kenny “dangerous”!), including the arrogance of the “official” practitioners and the long-lasting nature of their campaign against her. Plus ça change, plus ça même chose … — 3/19/98


In the evening I got ready for the H.E.A.L. meeting. I got Delores Dickerson to agree to drive the TV and VCR from Charles’ place over to Craftsmen’s Hall for the showing of the 1946 film Sister Kenny, and we got a surprisingly strong turnout — over 10 people, including Anthony McFarland (whom Charles and I ran into coming home from Record City after one of our walks through the park), Delores, a friend of hers named Tony (a partially deaf Gay man whom I remember seeing before, who apparently was the only one there who did not like the movie), Ron Boe, Simon Stewart, Mark Karwoski and Daniel Spain, a man who’s been on our contact list for some time but has almost never come to meetings because (as he explained at the end) he works most evenings but he had a night off last night and therefore could attend. Ron was particularly emotional about the film because in 1949, three years after its release, he contracted polio himself and experienced, in rapid order, the conventional immobilization treatment and the Kenny treatment. Charles called on him after the film to comment on it and at first he was speechless, but he quickly pulled himself together and spoke movingly about his memories of the excruciating pain he was under during the immobilization, the vivid recollection of just how hot the heat packs were that constituted the first stage of the Kenny treatment, and how he personally felt he owed his life and lack of an enduring disability to the success of the Kenny treatment — which may well have been part of the experience that made him more open-minded than most Queer folk have been to considering the possibility that most of the medical and scientific establishment has been wrong about AIDS as well! — 8/19/98


I ended up watching with John P. and (for the most part) Charles most of one of my all-time favorite films, Sister Kenny, the 1946 vehicle written and directed by Dudley Nichols in which Russell played Nurse Elizabeth Kenny, the Australian who worked out a treatment for polio which involved massaging the muscles of a victim and essentially doing range-of-motion exercises to make sure the victims didn’t stay paralyzed and were eventually able to walk. I remember seeing parts of this movie — the two big scenes, one in which a boy who’s had the conventional treatment and loudly proclaims himself “better” while he’s hobbling around on crutches confronts a girl who’s had the Kenny treatment and is joyously skipping around the room, doing cartwheels and even dancing; and another in which Kenny confronts a room full of doctors who have utterly no use for her treatment or for her cheek in saying that she, a mere bush nurse, knows more about treating polio than they do — and at the end of the scene she chews them out and, referring to the conventional treatment of immobilizing the affected limbs, says, “If you need any braces, splints and other medieval torture devices, you can come to my clinic; I’ve taken many of them off your patients!”

Sister Kenny is the ultimate alternative-health movie; I even showed it as the program at a H.E.A.L. meeting once and Ron Boe, the older man who was active in the Rainbow Congress and in H.E.A.L.-San Diego in its earlier days, said he had had polio as a child, had had the Kenny treatment and was convinced it had saved his life and his mobility. (Interestingly, John P. saw one of the child’s braces in the film and said that he had been ordered to wear one by his doctors in a vain attempt to save his mobility.) At the same time Charles said that he thought the Kenny treatment worked as much by mental induction as by the actual physical manipulation of the limbs — which was probably true; there’s a scene in the film in which Kenny’s lifelong friend Dr. MacDonald (Alexander Knox) screws up the treatment because he doesn’t know what to say to the patient to aid the healing process. Sister Kenny is a film that touches me so deeply on an emotional level — the scenes in which Rosalind Russell fearlessly confronts the ingrained blindness and closed-mindedness of her adversaries in the medical establishment never fail to bring tears to my eyes (I don’t cry at romantic melodramas but I do cry at Sister Kenny!)

I don’t really care that on balance it’s not that good a movie: Kenny ends up too saintly (she’s not a nun — the “Sister” is a title bestowed in Australia on nurses who served in war, as Kenny did in World War I — but she might as well have been; she wears flowing white nurse’s uniforms with headdresses that make them look like habits, and like any other 1930’s or 1940’s movie heroine she’s forced to choose between love and career — although Dean Jagger as her movie boyfriend doesn’t exactly make this too challenging; had her co-star been Clark Gable or Cary Grant it might have been tougher!), Nichols’ direction is serviceable but the film as a whole is way too talky and misses most of its opportunities for atmosphere, and Alexander Knox’s performance is too schticky and Philip Merivale as Kenny’s main enemy among the doctors is just a cardboard villain — but frankly I couldn’t care less: as a long-time alternative health activist I can’t help but respond to a story about a mere nurse taking on the entire medical establishment of her day, and the fact that she’s a woman and her adversaries are all men gives it a feminist frisson that makes it even more appealing. — 7/9/08