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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Will you check out Radium Girls?