Sometimes the worst horrors are the ones that actually happen. Such is the case with Radium Girls. Little bit of backstory, there’s also a two-act play of the same name by DW Gregory. I know that because a number of years ago I did a stage reading with a handfulla other folks. I love doing stage readings, and the exposure to/outrage at this subject plus a recommend from My Favorite Colleague led me to check the movie out.
Anyway, Radium Girls tells the story of the girls (and they were almost all young girls) who worked for American Radium. It opens with a snakeoil salesman hawking radium water and saying how it’s guaranteed to make your skin glow (another candidate, it turns out, for Great Moments In Foreshadowing).
From there we go right to the factory where the girls’ job is to paint numbers on watch faces using radium paint. For this they get 1¢ per face. Okay it’s 1¢ in the 1920s so that penny was worth holy fuck that was 100 years ago! Sorry. So yeah that penny is worth about 14¢ today. The fastest girls can do about 200 faces a day—$2, roughly $26 or $3.25 an hour today.
The brushes are very fine, and the girls are instructed/encouraged to lick the brush tips to keep the hairs together to make the paint job crisper. Bessie Cavallo (a distractingly Rory Gilmore looking) refuses and uses her finger tips resulting in slower work that’s not as clean. She often gets her pay docked for this. It also saves her from radium poisoning.
Of particular focus is Bessie’s sister Jo who becomes Bessie’s impetus for calling out American Radium. Jo is not the first victim, but American Radium’s playbook never varies. They send out a phony doctor (who it turns out has neither a license to practice medicine nor even a medical degree) to examine a sick employee. He in turn diagnoses the patient with syphillis with the assumption that its stigma will shut the victim up.
So where’s the horror? Well certainly there’s an almost Cronenberg level of body horror in terms of the radium necrosis. At one point, Bessie and Jo agree to have their sister’s body exhumed (she was an earlier victim who was also diagnosed with syphillis). They find out her bones contained 1000 times the normal level of radiation. Later, a chunk of Jo’s jawbone just falls right the hell out of her mouth.
Of course there’s also the idea of how much the situation was ignored and exacerbated by greedy, misogynistic, profits before people white male corporate evil. Obviously this is well before powerful unions, workman’s comp, OSHA, and stuff like that, but the case of the Radium Girls helped to start changing that.
I gotta admit movies like this aren’t generally my thing, and it this one does drag its feet a bit here and there. The Radium Girls are mainly likeable, the corporate heads and their lawyers are predictably arrogant and aggravating, and that’s about it.
Still, it’s always fun to watch some corporate scumbags get taken down. A federal judge (himself a stockholder in American Radium) brokers a deal that snags each woman $10,000 and shuts down the factory. We find out on a pre-credit graphic that he was in fact a share holder. A graphic before the credits roll states that “if you place a Geiger counter over the grave of a Radium Girl, it will click for more than a thousand years.”
But knowing what we know now, the squirmiest part of the movie by far becomes watching the girls lick those damn brushes. It made me flinch every single time. Not enough to carry the movie, but it’s still a disturbing thought and an equally (albeit quietly) disturbing image.
BODIES- Really none
Rent- Google Play, Prime, Vudu, YouTube