directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler
starring Joey King, Abby Quinn, and Cara Seymour
When radioactivity came along, it mesmerized a public who did not grasp its risk. Radium was touted as an elixir of life and sold to people as a health drink and it soon killed them. But it had another magic property: when mixed with a zinc salt, it glowed a pleasant green color, allowing glow-in-the-dark watches and aircraft instruments. Bessie (King) took a job painting watch faces for a penny each. Her sister Josephine (Quinn) worked for American Radium, and their older sister was already dead from the job.
American Radium Company knew this job was fatal, but in the regulation-free early 20th century they just told people they were dying from syphilis. Why not add insult to murder? Bessie hangs out with dangerous radicals that want fair wages and safe working conditions, and American Radium fought them tooth and nail, and by buying out the injured, it stayed alive for decades after this story.
King exudes the innocence of a small-town girl doing something radical: working in a factory, and not raising a family. Her performance shows her a woman of iron will under her innocence. Her communist companion Etta (Susan Heyward) documents the labor action, while her boss Arthur Roeder (John Bedford Lloyd) continues to genuinely believe radium is harmless. After all, radium shrinks tumors, doesn’t it?
The drama is high and builds slowly, we already know what the cast doesn’t about radioactivity, but we still cheer for the reformers even as are defeated by big money and the fact glow in the dark was just so darned cool. It also shows a very brave woman fighting the system in a day when even for men That Just Wasn’t Done. My personal take away? Who knew an industrial hygiene movie could be this good?
This film was presented as part of the 2019 Florida Film Festival sponsored by the Enzian Theater in Maitland, FL.