The Good* The Mad* The Lonely* Movie Scientist Blogathon: 1944’s Madame Curie

MGM, in 1944, put forth their movie tribute to the life of one of the most famous female scientists to have ever lived, Marie Curie, or as she was known during her times, Madame Curie.  I saw that Turner Classic was going to feature this movie on their chosen day in August to celebrate the career of actress Greer Garson, so I was sure to dvr the film.  I had viewed the movie quite a while ago, so it was good to view it again, with my eye tuned in to new observations for this new blogathon, looking at Scientists in Classic Films.  My part is a contribution to the “good scientists.”

If you don’t know who Madame Curie was, here is a link to explain all of that, as well as her husband and co-scientist, Pierre, ably portrayed by Walter Pidgeon, who was often cast as Garson’s husband in quite a few movies.(Warning! The link contains spoilers about the Curies’ lives.)

 

In the beginning of the film,  we see Marie(Greer Garson) sitting in a lecture hall and it’s pretty obvious she is  the  only female in the class.  She is listening intently to the professor but faints due to hunger.  Her male classmates and the professor show genuine concern for her and the professor insists on treating her to lunch.  At the lunch we find out that Marie is from Poland, and once she has her degrees from the Sorbonne, she plans on returning to Poland to help her father with his teaching and probably becoming a mathematics or physics teacher herself.  The professor, Dr. Perot(Alfred Basserman) realizes Marie needs money to continue her studies so he asks if she would be willing to do some research for the French steel industry?  He had been approached recently by this group, asking that experiments be done on the magnetism of differing types of steel and he asks Marie if she’d be willing to do these experiments for a stipend?  Marie agrees and Dr. Perot tells her he will find a lab for her to conduct the experiments.  He invites her to his home for a tea party for the following Sunday afternoon.  It is at this tea party where she meets Pierre Curie, and it is at this tea party that Dr. Perot asks Pierre if a student can use space in his lab to conduct some experiments for the steel industry.  Pierre politely agrees to Dr. Perot’s request, but when he is then told that the student is a female? Pierre’s reaction is one of shock!

It is now Monday, and Pierre tells his lab assistant David(Robert Walker) that a calamity will soon be hitting their lab.  A woman scientist will be invading their territory to conduct experiments! Women and science don’t mix, protests Pierre loudly! Women scientists, David adds, are usually ugly!!  Let’s hope she’s not noisy, talkative, or whistles, declares Pierre!  You’d think a monster was about to enter their realm from all of their silly comments about women scientists!!   When Marie arrives, they are both struck speechless at her beauty, her politeness, and her quiet ways.  David almost knocks over some lab equipment in his eagerness to assist this new colleague and Pierre likes her presence so much, he begins to whistle as he works!

David and Pierre don’t think women and science can mix!

Pierre begins to think that maybe a woman scientist isn’t such a bad creature!

After several months of working in the same lab, David, Pierre, and Marie have become friends.  Pierre is truly horrified when Marie informs him that her experiments are finished, and that when she graduates in May, she will be returning to Poland to be a teacher, working with her father.  Pierre is adamant that Marie, with her keen scientific mind, must not be a teacher but stay on at the Sorbonne and work as a scientist.  Pidgeon does a wonderful job at conveying the complex mind and behavior of a man who had dedicated his life to science to suddenly discovering that he is in love.  We sense Pierre’s fears, sadness, and watch his weird way of proposing to Marie to be his bride, his lab partner for life, as it were!  Happily, Marie can overlook Pierre’s quirks and admits she loves him too and they are soon married.  Dame May Whitty has a small part as Pierre’s mother, but she does a lot with that part.  Henry Travers is loud and opinionated as Pierre’s father, not at all like Clarence the Angel, in It’s a Wonderful Life, his most famous role.  It is at the Curie’s home in the country where Pierre tells Marie he can’t live without her.  I must add that Van Johnson had his first role in a film, in a tiny part as a journalist trying to interview the famous Madame Curie.  Great character actor C. Aubrey Smith has a fun part as British scientist, Lord Kelvin, asking to meet the Curies while he is in Paris.

Mrs. Curie, intrigued by this young lady who has captured her son’s heart.

Partners in life and in the lab.

After the courtship and marriage have occurred, the film gets down to the nitty gritty of just what a great scientific discovery the Curies’ made, in isolating radium from pitchblende.  It took them several years for their discovery to happen and to prove their theory, that there was a new element in the pitchblende that exuded radioactivity.  They were able to find radium and another new element, polonium, both elements giving off radiation.   For this contribution to the world, they and Dr. Henri Becquerel(who first discovered radioactivity) were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1903.

Pierre concerned about the burns on Marie’s fingertips, from the radiation that they were exposed to from all of their experiments.

I don’t want to go into anymore of the plot of this great film so let me say that Garson and Pidgeon give wonderful performances as two dedicated scientists who wanted to better mankind via their discoveries.  Their steadfastness, despite being so very tired at times, is awe-inspiring.

 

This post has been for the blogathon look at scientists in classic movies.  Be sure to visit the hostesses sites in order to read more posts by other bloggers on this topic: Ruth at Silver Screenings

and Christina.

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19 responses to this post.

  1. This is a fine, interesting article. I enjoyed reading it, and I look forward to reading more of your articles in the future.

    By the way, I would like to invite you to join my blogathon, “The Great Breening Blogathon:” https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2017/09/07/extra-the-great-breening-blogathon/. It is celebrating the life and work of Joseph Breen, the enforcer of the Motion Picture Production Code between 1934 and 1954. As we honor his birthday, which is on October 14, we will be discussing and analyzing the Code era, breening films from other eras, and writing about our own ideas for classic movies. One doesn’t have to agree with the Code and Mr. Breen to enjoy that! I hope you will do me the honor of joining. We could really use your talent!

    Yours Hopefully,

    Tiffany Brannan

    Reply

    • Thank you for the invite. I’ll participate, may write about the silent Ben Hur vs the one from the 1950s. I saw the silent version on TCM a couple years ago, and was surprised by the nudity of the bystanders in a crowd scene-women’s togas that were loosely draped upon them falling down to their waists! Blink and miss scene, for sure, but it still surprised me! I will also look at the timeline as to when Hollywood felt they had to give in and adopt censoring orders.

      Reply

      • Dear Jenni,

        Thank you so much for joining! I really appreciate your desire to join. Your choice of topic sounds very interesting. The silent film is obviously a pre-Code film, and the second one is what I call a Shurlock era film, meaning it was made during the period after Joseph Breen’s departure and before the installation of the rating system. You see, in 1930, Hollywood officially adopted the Code, but it was not enforced. Early talkies, called “pre-Code films.” were notoriously against the Code. In 1934, due to financial failure, pressure from the Catholic Legion of Decency, and the threat of government censorship, the movie industries adopted a new policy. All films had to be reviewed from the beginning of production to the final product by the Production Code Administration. They could only be distributed after they received the official seal. Joseph I. Breen was the head of the Production Code Administration; we are celebrating his birthday with this blogathon. He enforced the Code from 1934 to 1954. In late 1954, his assistant, Geoffrey Shurlock, became the head of the PCA, and the Code quickly died. Within a few years, Hollywood had returned to its pre-Code standards of looseness. By 1968, the Code was replaced with the modern rating system, and the Golden Era of film was over.

        I hope I haven’t been rambling too much, but I want to be sure that you have all the information you need. I have written a lot about the Code and its era in earlier posts, so you can read those. You article will come in the first category of the blogathon, breening, which is what Mr. Breen called his self-regulation; he didn’t like to be called a censor, since he really wasn’t one. In your article, you will be comparing the pre-Code and post-Code versions of Ben Hur from a breening standpoint. If you want to learn how to breen, you may read my article on it: https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2017/09/21/how-to-breen/.

        Again, thank you so much for joining, Jenni.

        Yours Hopefully,

        Tiffany Brannan

  2. Wow, I didn’t remember seeing Robert Walker in this film! It was a very good film, indeed, and probably the first I watched with Greer Garson. You did it justice with your great review.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Cheers!
    Le
    http://www.criticaretro.blogspot.com

    Reply

  3. Not one my library has. But I’ll keep a eye out for it. Good review.

    Reply

  4. I really liked this movie. It’s a well-done, even absorbing bio-pic. Garson and Pidgeon are pretty great here.

    Reply

  5. How is it that I’ve not seen this yet? I’m always going on about movies not focusing on notable women, and here’s a movie about a remarkable woman I’ve not yet seen. I will remedy that soon.

    Anyhoo, I really enjoyed your review, especially the way you wrote about the male scientists’ reactions when they heard a woman would be working in the lab! You gave me a good chuckle there.

    Thank you for joining the blogathon, and for bringing Madame Curie to the party! 🙂

    Reply

    • You are most welcome. When I watched the movie on TCM, host Ben Mankiewicz said that Greer Garson did a lot of research to play Madame Curie and she was nominated for a Best Actress oscar for her effort.

      Reply

  6. I love this movie. Both Carson and Pidgeon are just terrific. My favorite part is their bicycle honeymoon — well supplied with chemistry books!

    Reply

  7. […] Portraitsbyjenni writes about Greer Garson in Madame Curie […]

    Reply

  8. MGM always took great care with their properties for Garson and Pidgeon, and the team always rose to the occasion. I think this movie features some of their finest work, and the script keeps the audience engrossed in what could be such mundane work.

    Reply

  9. Great review! I was really surprised, when I saw this, at how much I enjoyed it, how interesting the science itself was, and so agree about what an excellent job Walter Pidgeon did in the role. It’s hard to find better movie scientists then they were.

    So very glad you could join us!

    Reply

  10. Very interesting, and a great entry to this blogathon. I am looking forward to watching it.

    Reply

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