Review of Radium Girls
By: Jenna Sparks

History tells us, at one point, how beneficial radium is for us. Put it in your water, slap it on your face, brush your teeth with it. And so, they marketed it and sold it. And people bought it up, believing it was the miracle elixir that'd solve all maladies! One of the most marketable, profitable, and brilliant productions came from the United States Radium Company during the time of war in the 1910s. To assist in the war effort, girls, some in their early teens, lined up to be an artist at the radium studios. It was a revered position, to be a part of this respectable work; with fine-bristled brushes pressed between their lips for perfect points, then dipped methodically into a radium-based paint, and every so thoughtfully, they'd accent the numbers of a dial, the watch's face eventually finding its way onto the wrist of a military-man who could now tell time in the dark! But after a short while of the prestige of working at the studio (where the girls would be dusted with radium powder and glitter like fairies on their way home or paint their eyelids with the stuff to become the popular one at the party), the girls began showing strange symptoms. Baffled, doctors diagnosed them with ailments such as phossy-jaw (phosphorous poisoning) or, most oddly, syphilis (which was a great way to destroy the reputation of someone who may have gotten sick on the job). What resulted was the evidence that the USRC was well aware of the dangers of radium and the dangers of the girls putting the bristles into their mouths (an effort encouraged by the heads of the company), and years of a fight for the lives the girls would never reclaim. Death after death, tumor after tumor, with only a handful of doctors and lawyers in their corners, the girls suffered at the hands of a company wrought with desire to keep radium alive and profitable.

It's a long, unrewarding story that can hardly be summarized in one lengthy paragraph. What went into the painstaking efforts of the Radium Girls against the USRC was not neat and tidy, nor was it fair. USRC continued its efforts well into the 1970's, and while those gross efforts resulted in OSHA protocols and more safety measures for workers, it's a harsh truth of profit over life.

Directors Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler (who was also a writer alongside Brittany Shaw) were brave enough to try to put this heartbreaking story on screen, in just over 100 minutes. The feat is commendable and there is plenty to appreciate about the film, but….

To start, the aesthetic of the film is, in my opinion, the strongest aspect. The styling and the set design is flawless, minus a few minor inaccuracies for its based time period. What's most rewarding is how we see these sets that feel so lived in that give us so much of the stories of our lead characters. It feels as though nothing was accidental. And the wardrobe is another tackled approach that oozes majesty and beauty. It's not the glitzy Gatsby of the 1920's, but the working-class realities of design. Another aspect of said aesthetic is the usage of stock footage. Whether it was to save cost and effort, it was an interesting choice. Throughout the film, the audience is shown montages of 1920s America through the lenses of the era and the resulting feeling, while at first a bit distracting, ultimately leads us to an awareness that these storytellers wanted to make us understand where we are in history.

So with the atmosphere skillfully set, we are presented with a story about two sisters, Bessie (Joey King) and Jo (Abby Quinn) working at the American Radium Company. Bessie is the dreamer of the duo, fantasizing about Hollywood glitz and the desires of becoming an actress, while Jo is the realist, tending to the finances of the family, excluding a deceased older sister who had died of "syphilis." Bessie, it seems, absolutely hates the aftertaste of the radium-infused paint used at the American Radium Company, so she's the only girl of the bunch who seems to avoid lip-pointing (trust me, I side-eyed the TV hard at this point). It's Jo, then, who starts showing symptoms not dissimilar to her dead sister's syphilis diagnosis, and so from there it's up to Bessie to…

Okay, the story is not bad, but the 100 minutes was utilized awkwardly. It almost felt as though it needed to be shorter or much, much longer. So let me try to hammer home how this plot winds though the minutes.

After Jo gets sick, Bessie decides to become her sister's biggest advocate, charging into her workplace and screaming at the employees that they're being poisoned. At some point, she meets a young, handsome Marxist named Walt (Collin Kelly-Sordelet) who hangs with those ostracized from society and encourages Bessie to become more aware of the capitalist system in which only few succeed. During her time with Walt, Bessie is exposed to major problems across the United States, one of which is the racial injustices and inequality faced daily by people of color. In particular, it is Etta, an aspiring documentarian, who shows Bessie the reality of the classist and racist world. Bessie also meets Wiley Stephens (Cara Seymor, the character so named in reference to Katherine Wiley, one of the first radium girls to seek council) who encourages Bessie to raise hell in for the sake of her sister….s. Because, Wiley explains, they ought to exhume Bessie and Jo's sister and test for radium! "But it was SYPHILIS!" Bessie and Jo argue, but ultimately, they exhume their sister and discover her sister never had syphilis, but radium poisoning! Que "Doctor" Flint (Neal Huff plays this very real person who was absolutely one of the vilest people involved in the USRC) announcing that Jo has syphilis, too! Eventually, Bessie and Jo meet Doris (Colby Minifie) who is in the throes of her radium poisoning, and together with Paula (Olivia Macklin), another radium girl who experiences mild symptoms, they partner with Wiley Stephens and Dr. Katherine Drinker and seek help from literally the only doctor and lawyer who will help them, Henry Berry and Dr. Marland (another two very real people who genuinely worked their butts off for the real radium girls to find justice). Are you still with me? Okay. So, in the end, the girls win and hurrah! They settle out of court and all is merry and bright! Sort of.

Did I lie when I expressed how vast a story this is to tell? And in reality, this is only a very small portion of the real story. There was so much that went into the girls finding a lawyer and doctor who would even attempt to take on their case and treat them, and there was so much of a fight put up with the USRC (or ARC in the film) that made it near impossible for the girls to receive any kind of justice. The largest obstacle they faced, and not touched upon in the film, was the statute of limitations. Because of that, the company had a loophole that wound up absolutely devastating the girls' days in court before they were pressured to settle for the barest minimum. What's more, the USRC mainly banked on the imminent deaths of the girls working in their favor and keeping them from paying out.

What's more, the USRC continued operations, this time in Ottawa, Illinois, with a whole other set of radium girls fighting their lives and rights. None of this was touched upon in the film. The reason I push to mirror so much of the truth against this film is to reiterate my point that the film gave us so little of the full story, and that's its greatest downfall. While the film is an entertaining ride that touches on the truths, there's so much left out that hinders the whole story and makes its viewer reluctant to follow along the fictionalized version. While I commend the writers for daring to evoke the realities of an unjust America with major issues we're still dealing with today, it does so unfairly. We get the whispers of civil, women's, and worker's rights while only skidding across the surface of capitalist greed. It's a sordid tale with no happy ending, and perhaps that's what failed the writers from delivering the story in its fullness. How many women died at the hands of the USRC? How many endured awful, painful existences after being bullied and harassed by not only the company from which they were knowingly harmed, but from the townspeople who also profited off the existence of the factories? How many doctors told these women they were crazy when chunks of their jawbone broke out of their gums or the sarcomas were too large for them to comfortably wear dresses or have their arms amputated or be put in back braces because their spines were giving out on them? There's no way to glamourize that story and give any character a happy ending. And yet, because of the women who stepped forward and put all their efforts into seeking justice for themselves and women across the country who were being abused by the USRC, we now have safety measures in place, but, as we see on the daily, especially in today's Covid-laced world, we know how little major corporations care for their workers.

This movie was worth the shot. Much like this review, it was tedious and a bit underwhelming, but it also dazzled me with its beauty and enchantments. Again, I applaud this film for striving to tell this huge story while maintaining the truths in how this country has treated its people and I absolutely believe its worth a watch. Just know you're absolutely, unfortunately, only getting a small fraction of the story. Overall, I'd give it 2.5 stars.

You can rent or buy to stream Radium Girls via Amazon Prime.

Let The Contributor Know What You Think!

HTML Comment Box is loading comments...