MADAME CURIE is pretty much forgotten these days, but it was a well-regarded success back in 1943, and makes for a welcome and agreeable surprise if you bother to experiment with your viewing prejudices to discover its subtle and rewarding properties. Fine studio-class production look and quality Old Movie Star performances not only honor a great true story: in our current brain-boiling climate of science-denying idiocy, it recalls an era when, even in the midst of calamity, popular entertainment saw fit to showcase stories of remarkable people who discovered, invented and healed.
Paris, The Sorbonne, the 1890’s. Dedicated scientist, avowed bachelor and socially awkward Pierre Curie (Walter Pidgeon) finds himself developing feelings for the—gadzooks!– woman physicist!– sharing his laboratory space, gifted Polish student Marie Sklowdoska (Greer Garson). Brainpower bests bafflement, decency defeats doltishness and doubt, love’s mysterious elemental power comes to play: together the two proto-geeks share a life of tireless research, climaxing by the end of the film with the discovery and isolation of Radium, rocking the stunned scientific world and changing the face of knowledge.
How to make two quiet researchers and a series of lab tests entertaining as well as informative was the rub, but the $1,938,000 MGM invested matched two sterling stars at the height of the popularity, a solid supporting crew, a hit-churning director in Mervyn LeRoy, and a smartly done screenplay from several able craftsmen.**
The slowly developing intellectual partnership and lasting spiritual soul-mating is handled with wit, charm and restraint. It’s rare in movies to watch two characters light up with the joy of shared ideas, each sparking the others curiosity and excitement. LeRoy made sure the science was not only understandable and easy to follow visually, but suspenseful, and the amazing tenacity required to sustain the pair through years of work that was physically exhausting (ultimately more than that) as well as mentally arduous comes over in fairly fascinating scenes hinting at the daunting logistical scale of their endeavors. You find yourself pulling for them while those darn rocks yield their secrets.
Reviews praised, money flowed into the MGM beakers to the level of $7,360,000, the 23nd most popular film from a strong year. Oscar nominations went up: Best Picture, Actor (Pidgeon), Actress (Garson), Cinematography, Art Direction, Music Score and Sound. Fearsome competition that year shut it out. Pidgeon (he thought this his favorite picture) and Garson would team up five more times. Lifelong friends as well, with Walter gallantly musing “I did eight pictures with that gal and we never had a bad word between us.” From her: “I’ve been offered nymphomaniacs, kleptomaniacs, pyromaniacs, homicidal maniacs and just plain maniacs. I think producers felt that after playing a long series of noble and admirable characters there would be quite a lot of shock value in seeing me play something altogether different. But I prefer upbeat stories that send people out of the theater feeling better than they did coming in. It’s my cup of tea.” Class acts, both.
Author James Hilton narrates. With Henry Travers, the great Albert Bassermann, a sweetly charming May Whitty, Robert Walker (not so earnest this time that you want to punch him), C. Aubrey Smith, Victor Francen, Van Johnson and that little scene-stealer Margaret O’Brien. Good luck picking them out, but in the background are Ray Collins, Gene Lockhart, Lumsden Hare, Alan Napier and Ray Teal. 124 minutes.
“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.”
* A thoughtful observation from Madame Garson on what she hoped film could achieve: “I’m not a keyhole peeper in real life, so why should I go to the cinema to be a keyhole peeper? Producers should have more courage. People will respond to stories with love and courage and happy endings instead of shockers. I think the mirror should be tilted slightly upward when it’s reflecting life — toward the cheerful, the tender, the compassionate, the brave, the funny, the encouraging, all those things — and not tilted down to the gutter part of the time, into the troubled vistas of conflict.”
Today— in Tomorrow-land—with too many of our hyperslick movies overloaded with amazing but empty effects at the expense of a gradually rewarding buildup, and with character sensitivity too often shoved aside in favor of quip-talk, let alone having people do anything like actually discuss, the calming humanity of the old pro acting here, in a touching story of two people who loved and respected each other while doing real work brings back a vanished period and type of picture that, while they usually played havoc with factual accuracy in favor of dramatic license, they least nodded to using brain cells for projects of more benefit to mankind than, say— changing ammo clips while doing back flips off a motorcycle during a gunfight, chased by ugly freaks as the camera shakes like malaria and editing allows maybe one full second between cuts.
Applause, curtsy and tip top hats then to Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, The Story Of Alexander Graham Bell, The Story Of Louis Pasteur, Edison The Man, The Story Of Dr. Wassell.
** The first script (done with Greta Garbo in mind) by Aldous Huxley was rejected, so his input receives no credit; that goes to Paul Osborne, Walter Reisch and Hans Rameau. They omit mention of the irony that when Ms. Curie died, at 66 in 1934, it was from of aplastic anemia brought on by her many years of handling radium. Her daughter and son-in-law continued her research: both died of radiation-spawned illness. Marie Curie’s lab books are kept locked up: more than a century after she and the undaunted Pierre used them they are still irradiated.