Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Madame Curie (MGM, 1943)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Madame Curie, made by MGM in 1943 and starring Greer Garson as Marie Salomea Sklodowska Curie, who when the film begins is a young, aspiring physics student at the Sorbonne in Paris whose plan is to get the equivalent of a master’s degree and then return to her native Poland to teach. Only, working out an assignment for the Parisian steel industry which her mentor and advisor, Professor Jean Perot (Albert Bassermann, who became a frequent character actor even though he was a refugee from Nazi Germany and never learned more than the most basic English; he learned his parts phonetically and relied on either German directors like Fritz Lang, German-speaking directors like Alfred Hitchcock, or German actors like Conrad Veidt to interpret his directors’ directions for him; one wonders how he got on in this film since there were no other Germans in the cast and I doubt if the film’s director, Mervyn LeRoy, spoke German), has arranged for her so she can make enough money to stay in school (in the film’s opening scene she collapses during one of Professor Perot’s lectures out of hunger-driven exhaustion), she finds she has to share a workroom with Pierre Curie (Walter Pidgeon) and his assistant, David Le Gros (Robert Walker, wasted once again in a nothing role that was virtually a comic-relief part; one of Walker’s friends told his biographer, Beverly Linet, that it wasn’t until his next-to-last film, Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, that he finally got a movie role he was genuinely proud of — he did make one film for a great director before that, Vincente Minnelli’s The Clock, but aside from that it was mostly the usual dreck). David gets the hots for the young blonde immediately, but of course it’s Pierre whom she finally hooks up with, professionally and personally. (In real life Marie Curie actually had an affair with Pierre’s lab assistant even after she was already married to Pierre, and Aldous Huxley, the writer originally assigned to do the script, discovered this in back files of the Paris newspapers of the time — and got fired from the film when he wanted to include the affair in his screenplay.)

Marie gets her degree and she’s about to leave for Poland when Pierre crashes the room where she lives and gives one of the least romantic, most stiff-upper-lip marriage proposals in film history; as Charles put it, “I proposed to you by phone, and I was more romantic than this!” (Actually, as I recall it, I called Charles with the news that the California Supreme Court had just overturned the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, and Charles’ immediate response to that news was, “Will you marry me?” Of course I said yes instantly!) Anyway, Pierre and Marie get hitched and on their honeymoon their main topic of conversation is what Marie is going to work on to get her Ph.D. Just before they left they visited Prof. Henri Becquerel (Reginald Owen, almost unrecognizable with the huge mutton-chop whiskers plastered onto his face), who told them about his discovery that even without having first been exposed to the sun, pitchblende emits rays that can expose photographic plates through black-paper coverings and leave behind an image of anything (in this case, a small key) between the pitchblende and the plate. Marie tells Pierre in front of a process screen of Lake Como (the real one — the only shot in this movie that took its makers outside the MGM studio) that she’s dissatisfied with Becquerel’s explanation for the phenomenon and feels that there’s a mysterious source of light and energy inside pitchblende that will put humankind that much closer to the stars. The Curies plead with their colleagues at the Sorbonne for money to research this, but all they get is an old, leaky shed formerly used as a dissection room by the school’s medical students, uninsulated so it’s swelteringly hot in the summer and ice-cold in the winter. Pierre protests but the more level-headed Marie accepts the shed, and there they start refining pitchblende and find that only two known elements within it, uranium and thorium, give off radioactivity (a name for the phenomenon the real Marie Curie coined). Then they find that their pitchblende sample is giving off more energy than can be explained by just the uranium and thorium within it, so they decide that there must be another, as yet unknown element in the ore and if they refine enough pitchblende they will ultimately uncover it.

In fact the Curies discovered two new elements in the course of their research, polonium (which Marie named after her native Poland in hopes it would build European support for Polish independence — in the 19th century Poland had been split up between Russia, Prussia — the precursor state of Germany — and Austria in a series of “partitions” and Marie Curie had actually been born in the Russian zone, but like another Pole who had relocated to France, Frédéric Chopin, Curie hoped to use whatever fame she gained to build support for independence for her native land) and radium, but the script by Paul Osborn and Paul Hans Rameau ignores polonium and concentrates the story on the search for radium. Since there was so little radium in the pitchblende originally, the Curies have to buy enormous amounts of the ore from the mine in Bohemia (the modern-day Czech Republic) that supplied it, then essentially turn themselves into steelworkers (the sight of Walter Pidgeon having to drop enough of his usual sang-froid to be shown stirring a huge pot of molten ore with a slag paddle is one of the most entertaining shots in the movie) and illustrate, better than Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracy did in MGM’s two films about Thomas A. Edison, the truth of Edison’s famous remark, “Genius is two percent inspiration and 98 percent perspiration.” They literally spend four years on the project, finally reaching a point where all they have left in their sample tubes are radium and barium dissolved in water — then they get stuck when they can’t for the life of them figure out how to get rid of the barium so they can isolate pure radium. They finally hit on the idea of taking the barium out little by little, putting the solution in evaporation bowls and crystallizing it (a rather queeny-voiced narrator — Lost Horizon, Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Random Harvest author James Hilton — explains to us what’s going on, and only Hilton’s high-pitched British tones instead of the stentorian announcers that usually recorded audio-visual movies keeps this from suddenly turning into an “educational” movie in the worst way), until on New Year’s Eve 1899 they see nothing but a residue in the last bowl. Thinking all four years’ work has been wasted and they’ve failed, they go to a New Year’s party — and when they return to their lab they fall asleep in each other’s arms in their lab chair, only when they wake up they see the bowl is glowing and realize the residue is their long-sought radium.

The Curies are hailed throughout the scientific world, they win the Nobel Prize (along with Becquerel, though the film doesn’t mention that) for the discovery of radioactivity (Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel for anything, though according to the Wikipedia page on her she was denied election to the French Academy of Sciences by one vote because of her sex, and no woman was elected to the French Academy of Sciences until 1962!), and they’re rewarded by being offered a whole new state-of-the-art lab at the Sorbonne and a large budget for assistants to staff it with them — only on the very day they’re supposed to be presented with this honor at a gala celebration (for which Marie has ordered a spectacular new gown — the only time we’ve seen her fashionably dressed in the entire film — and Pierre has gone out to get her earrings that will match it), Pierre is run down by a horse-drawn cart and killed. The film doesn’t mention what Marie did after that — though there’s a great scene in which Marie manages to keep control of her grief, keeping a stone face in public only to cry her eyes out once she’s alone (I couldn’t help but praise Garson’s acting in this sequence, a far cry from the frenzied weeping and gesturing with which Norma Shearer responded to the guillotining of her husband in Marie Antoinette) — instead it cuts to a speech she gives at the Sorbonne to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the discovery of radium. The MGM makeup men slathered Garson with ground-up rice powder and an unattractive white wig that made her look almost like a vampire — though that could have been explained as a precursor of the radiation-related aplastic anemia from which she ultimately died in 1934 (her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie and son-in-law Frédéric Joliot-Curie — like John and Yoko Ono Lennon two generations later, they each took the other’s name — continued her researches and also died of radiation-related illnesses, and both and Wikipedia state that Marie Curie’s original research notes are still so contaminated with radiation they have to be stored in lead-lined boxes and scientists who want to consult them have to wear special radiation-resistant clothing to do so) — as she delivers a big inspirational speech about the responsibility of science and scientists that must have struck a chord with viewers watching this film during the middle of World War II:

Even now, after twenty-five years of intensive research, we feel there is a great deal still to be done. We have made many discoveries. Pierre Curie and the suggestions we have found in his notes, and his thoughts he expressed to me have helped to guide us to them. But no one of us can do much. Yet, each of us, perhaps, can catch some gleam of knowledge which, modest and insufficient of itself, may add to man’s dream of truth. It is by these small candles in our darkness that we see before us, little by little, the dim outline of that great plan that shapes the universe. And I am among those who think that for this reason, science has great beauty and, with its great spiritual strength, will in time cleanse this world of its evils, its ignorance, its poverty, diseases, wars, and heartaches. Look for the clear light of truth. Look for unknown, new roads. Even when man’s sight is keener far than now, divine wonder will never fail him. Every age has its own dreams. Leave, then, the dreams of yesterday. Youth, take the torch of knowledge and build the palace of the future.

Madame Curie had a star-crossed history as a screen project. It was based on the memoir of her mother by Eve Curie, Pierre’s and Marie’s younger daughter and one of the few people in the family who did not take up science as a career, and it was originally bought by Universal in 1935 as a vehicle for Irene Dunne. But the financial problems that afflicted Universal the next year and cost Carl Laemmle and his son control of the company the older Laemmle had founded led to what amounted to a fire sale of key Universal story properties to MGM. Among them were remake rights to Waterloo Bridge and Show Boat and two stories Universal hadn’t made yet, The Great Ziegfeld and Madame Curie. MGM put The Great Ziegfeld into production immediately but Madame Curie ended up in what today would be called “development hell.” First, when MGM bought it they originally announced Greta Garbo for Marie and Spencer Tracy for Pierre — but Eve Curie, whose original contract with Universal had given her approval rights over the casting of her mom, declared that she thought Garbo “too glamorous” for the part and insisted that Greer Garson be cast. Then the “suits” at MGM got the bright idea of assigning Aldous Huxley to write the script, probably due to his association with scientific stories from the success of his 1932 novel Brave New World, and when he got stuck on the project they assigned F. Scott Fitzgerald, of all people, to collaborate with him. Huxley researched the Paris newspapers of the period, learned about the affair between Marie and Pierre’s lab assistant, and wanted to put that into the movie. Instead both Huxley and Fitzgerald got fired from the film, though Aaron Latham’s Crazy Sundays, his book on Fitzgerald’s Hollywood years, included a few scenes the two wrote that would have been quite interesting inclusions. Huxley had wanted the film to start with Marie’s childhood in Poland, with her hearing about the story that the ancient Spartans made their sons put wolf cubs in between their clothes and their bodies to make sure they would be tough enough not to cry out in pain. Marie expresses the wish that she could undergo this test, and when one of her parents asks, “Then you would want to be a Spartan?,” she replies, “I wouldn’t want to be a cry-baby.” Fitzgerald’s most interesting unused contribution was to have been a scene at the point where Marie is about to return to Poland; he wanted to have a fellow Polish expat, pianist Ignace Jan Paderewski, living in the same building and heard practicing Chopin’s Waltz in C-sharp minor, highlighting Marie’s should-I-stay-or-should-I-go dilemma without the arbitrary emotion-guying of a conventional film score. Producer Sidney Franklin platooned writers on the project for the next five years, complaining that none of them were getting the balance between the scientific story and the love story the way he wanted it, until he finally green-lighted the Osborn-Rameau script.

He also had to deal with the technical adviser he’d hired for the film, Professor Rudolph Langer, who became nicknamed “I-Don’t-Like-It Dr. Langer” around the studio because he kept vetoing the various ideas. He didn’t want Pierre and Marie behaving too passionately with each other because, he said, “Scientists don’t behave like that.” He also — blessedly — was able to talk the filmmakers out of using Jacob’s ladders and the other Kenneth Strickfaden paraphernalia from the Frankenstein movies in the Curies’ lab, and MGM actually built a fully equipped lab on the lot to reproduce the Curies’ isolation of radium. After O.K.-ing the script Franklin decided he was dissatisfied with the way his chosen director, Albert Lewin, was shooting it, so he fired Lewin, scrapped his footage and put the movie on hold until Mervyn LeRoy could take over. What emerged was a movie that, while all too much in the Hollywood mold — Osborn and Rameau stud their script with premonitions, like the clash between Pierre and a horsecart in an early sequence that foreshadows his end; the gimmick that the Curies finally isolate radium at the end of the 19th century but don’t realize they’ve succeeded until the first day of the 20th (the new century, the new era — get it?); and that horrible ending in which Pierre dies just as his and Marie’s contributions to science are about to be acknowledged publicly by the Sorbonne bureaucracy; and composer Herbert Stothart Mickey Mouse’s the movie with music that clings to the plot like barnacles — the film actually works for what it is. The understated performances of Garson and Pidgeon (in his case foreshadowing his work in Forbidden Planet and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea — when one of the other characters in Voyage said Pidgeon had “no scientific experience,” I joked that he’d come back, “What do you mean, ‘no scientific experience’? Greer Garson and I discovered radium!”) and the overall unhurried pace make this film surprisingly effective as a portrait of scientists in action, and producer Franklin got the balance he wanted and created a modern-seeming movie about a man and a woman who were professional and personal partners, people who found each other over intellectual pursuits and could have been happy with no other sort of mate.