Who'd have thought the discovery of radium could be so entertaining?
Film biographies have always been standard fare for Hollywood, as recent examples like those of Ray Charles, Cole Porter, Johnny Cash, Alfred Kinsey, Truman Capote, even Queen Elizabeth II continue to prove. MGM's 1943 version of the life of Marie Curie--the scientist who co-discovered the new element radium in 1898, won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1903, and for chemistry in 1911--is not only historical but lush, lavish, romantic, and stirring. Can't beat that.
The movie reunited two of MGM's biggest names, Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, who had starred together previously in "Blossoms in the Dust" and "Mrs. Miniver" and would be paired again in "Mrs. Parkington," "Julia Misbehaves," "That Forsyte Woman," "The Miniver Story," and "Scandal in Scourie." When you've got a good thing going, stick with it. And MGM did that with "Madame Curie," hiring the versatile Mervyn LeRoy to direct ("Little Caesar," "Anthony Adverse," "Random Harvest," "Little Women," "Mister Roberts," "Gypsy") and Paul Osborne, Paul H. Rameau, and Aldous Huxley to write the screenplay from a book by Eve Curie, Marie Curie's daughter. So, the studio got formidable talents involved in the project. And it shows.
Not that I thought "Madame Curie" was entirely without fault, but it is a pretty good motion picture and one of the better biopics I've seen. There are a few slow patches of dialogue, and I could have done without the stultifying closing speech. Otherwise, the film moves along at a healthy pace, with its two stars, Greer Garson as Marie Sklodowska-Curie and Walter Pidgeon as Professor Pierre Curie, dominating the film.
In terms of development, the first third of the story involves the Polish student, Marie Sklodowska, studying at the University Paris and her subsequent courtship with Pierre. Here, we learn that Marie is a brilliant, confident, and determined young woman, one of the only females in her class, and that she has caught the attention of Dr. Curie in more ways than one. The second third revolves around the Curies' experiments with radium and radioactivity. And the final third has to do with triumph, tragedy, and, eventually, uplift. Although the movie does not try to be all-encompassing and leaves out some of the controversy in Marie Curie's life (like an alleged illicit affair that made international headlines), it does a competent job covering the major bases.
More important than simply outlining the highlights of Marie Curie's life, the movie provides a tender and touching love story, that first third of the movie I mentioned being the best part by far. Marie's mentor, Prof. Jean Perot (Albert Bassermann), arranges for his student to study and work with Pierre in his laboratory. Pierre is rather formal, socially awkward, and shy, but as the months go by he becomes, as in "My Fair Lady," accustomed to her face. When Marie graduates with honors and tells Pierre she must now return to Poland to teach, he is shocked. His first impression of her was not so cordial; he thought of her as a distraction because she was a woman--"Women and science are incompatible," he had said initially--but, clearly, their attraction had blossomed since then, if slowly. He can now think of no other way to keep her in Paris but offering to marry her! His proposal comes as much of a shock to him as to her, and it is one of the highlights of the film. In fact, it is hilarious in its understated rigidity.
After their marriage, the couple take up the challenge of radium, but it is still the relationship between Garson and Pidgeon that carries the picture, not just the discovery of the new element or their hardships together over the next half dozen or more years. There is a magic charisma at work between the two actors that lights up the screen, and it is no wonder that Hollywood was anxious to pair them up in so many subsequent films.
However, when the couple's moment of scientific discovery does come, it is like the winning score in one of those underdog sports movies, where we want to stand up and cheer. At least, I did.
I said earlier that the production was lavish, and it is, with grand party scenes, classroom scenes, country scenes, and auditorium scenes. Moreover, it gets some fine supporting work from Dame May Whitty and Henry Travers as Pierre's mother and father; Robert Walker as David Le Gros, Pierre's assistant; C. Aubrey Smith as Lord Kelvin; Van Johnson as a novice newspaper reporter; and novelist James Hilton as the narrator. Yet the movie is mostly about the Curies, and probably ninety percent of the film finds them alone on screen. All for the better.
"Madame Curie" is a movie dependent on characters and dialogue, with the actors, writers, and director coming through splendidly. We dote on every word and look forward to every scene. The movie is not only a tribute to a great pioneer of science, it is a lasting tribute to good filmmaking and a most entertaining motion picture.
Again Warner Bros. obtained a good print and touched it up to look quite handsome. One notices almost no age marks in the film except at the ends of reels where an occasional fleck or line shows up. The black-and-white contrasts are strong in most scenes, the definition is good, and there is very little noticeable grain, what there is popping up mainly in brightly lit areas of the screen.
The sound is unremarkable by today's standards, an ordinary 1.0 monaural, but done up in Dolby Digital reproduction it comes across clearly and distinctly, with virtually no background noise. While the dynamic levels and frequency extremes are understandably limited, the all-important midrange is near perfect.
The disc's first major bonus item is a vintage, 1937, Oscar-nominated Pete Smith specialty short, "Romance of Radium," directed by Jacques Tourneur. For a Pete Smith film, it is unusually serious, and in its ten-minute running time outlines the nature of radium and the history of its discovery. The other major item is a gallery of five Greer Garson movie trailers: "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," "Pride and Prejudice," "Mrs. Miniver," "Random Harvest," and "Madame Curie." Then we have the usual scene selections, twenty-nine of them, English as the only spoken language, and English subtitles.
It had been fifty years since I last saw "Madame Curie" on TV as a boy, and, frankly, I never remembered nor expected it to be so romantic, so touching, or so moving as it is. The Academy nominated the movie for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Actress. Good movies are forever.
"Madame Curie" is another of several "DVD Decision 2006" winners, an initiative co-sponsored by Warner Home Video and Amazon.com. The idea was to give movie fans the opportunity to choose their favorite WB titles for release on DVD, titles that had not previously been available on disc. The ten movies that received the most on-line votes were "Operation Crossbow," "The Illustrated Man," "Presenting Lily Mars," "Up Periscope," and "There Was a Crooked Man," which WB released in December, 2006, and "The Arrangement," "Band of Angels," "Gymkata," "Looker," and "Madame Curie," released in January, 2007.