Radium Girls (2018) Expose the Truth

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This film did the film-festival circuit in 2018 and was scheduled to finally open at some art-house theaters in spring 2020, but the pandemic canceled that. Radium Girls is finally available to screen online via its own website.

Inspired by a real story of sisters who worked at a radium watch dial factory, the story focuses on two young women in 1925 New Jersey. Bessie and Jo are quintessential “modern” ’20s gals who’re working factory jobs but have bigger dreams for their lives. Unfortunately, their jobs at the American Radium Factory expose them to toxic radium paint that they ingest as they lick their paint brushes, as instructed by their bosses. Illnesses among the all-female workers lead Bessie to meet with political agitators and the Consumers League, who suspect radium of being harmful. A court battle and protests ensue. In light of today’s industrial deregulation, union-busting, and lack of environmental oversights, the story of these Radium Girls is incredibly relevant.

Women working at the United States Radium Corporation in 1922, via Wikimedia Commons.

Radium Girls (2018)

Recreated in the film.

Radium Girls (2018)

Women were instructed to lick the brushes to create a fine point. Thus, they’d ingest radium paint constantly.

If you’ve seen the recent Radioactive biopic of Marie Curie on Amazon, it’s quite obvious that radium was thought to be harmless at first and even considered a safe, healthy product, even a ‘wonder drug’ used in many household products. These radium watch dial factory cases were crucial in showing the dangers of this chemical element.

Radium Girls (2018)

The girls playfully paint themselves with radium paint.

Radium Girls (2018)

Radium is “healthy” & also “spiritual” — sounds like alternative health quackery that’s spread online today.

Radium Girls (2018)

The women effected by radium poisoning question whether or not to fight the factory, and the economic stress of losing their jobs and possibly closing the factory are a huge concern. It sounds like any current conflict over things like coal jobs, which cause black lung disease and poison the environment, but, sure, folks are employed. Also, the fact that the radium factory had a report showing the toxicity of radium and covered it up is reminiscent of tobacco companies knowing how addictive smoking was. That the radium factory executives and paid doctor call the illness in their female workers “syphilis” adds in a layer of sexism that’s all too predictable. These stories happen over and over again, especially when we don’t pay attention to history.

Radium Girls (2018)

Etta films evidence of social injustice & helps open Bessie’s eyes to what’s going on in the world around her.

Radium Girls (2018)

Thomas is one of the activists who inspire Bessie’s fight against the radium factory. Note the “stop police brutality” poster in the background — perhaps more relevant today than when this was filmed.

A theme of progressive political activism is woven through the film, more in a visual, contextual fashion, much as a theme about the Egyptian Book of the Dead is. Each are done in a way that evokes the 1920s period — the former relating to women’s suffrage, Communism, and Jim Crow oppression; the later with allusions to the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, as well as life, death, truth, and the soul. I found that these concepts worked very well in relating to and fleshing out aspects of the historical era.

Radium Girls (2018)

Given the film makes such a point of infusing itself with the period’s history, it’s not surprising that the costumes are well-done for the time and for the lifestyle of these characters. I couldn’t find anything about costume designer Sylvia Grieser and this appears to be the only period film she’s worked on. But the look is quite pleasing, down to ’20s hair-dos and appropriate accessories all around. The young women working at the radium factory aren’t wealthy so no-one is dressed like a period fashion plate — just ordinary, everyday ’20s garb. Some of the youngest women have bobbed hair, but many have long hair tucked up. Hats and gloves are in abundance, along with slightly saggy stockings that are shown in at least one scene to be accurate gartered hose, not tights.

Radium Girls (2018)

The factory girls, ready for work with coats, hats, gloves, & scarves.

Radium Girls (2018)

Sisters Jo & Bessie.

Radium Girls (2018)

Jo & Bessie with their crotchety Italian grandfather. Jo’s sweater is a similar ’20s pattern to one Lady Mary wore in the final season of Downton Abbey.

Radium Girls (2018)

Aiiieeee!!! I love seeing this — she’s put the front of her hair up in pincurls for the night, with crossed bobby pins, so she gets those ’20s waves in the morning. Such a great period touch.

Radium Girls (2018)

 

Will you check out Radium Girls?

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

7 Responses

  1. Nzie

    Such an important story to tell… but I may have to hold off for now, as I expect it’s quite sad, and I’m not sure that’s what I’m up for right now. The costumes and overall look do seem incredible.

    Reply
  2. Kaite Fink

    I will check it out! And probably cry and be angry, just like I did when I was reading the book. Thanks for posting the link!!!!!!

    Reply
  3. Saraquill

    I’ve read the book, and there’s a lot to digest. I’ll take a while before seeing the film.

    Reply
  4. Heather

    A serious story with seriously authentic costuming and hair. Agreed the themes ring true todaym I’m gonna watch it and thank you for the review.

    Reply

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