Judge Dennis Prince never thought science could be so fascinating...and romantic!
Romance can bloom in the most unlikely places—even a physics laboratory.
Within the first ten minutes of viewing 1943's Madame Curie, you'll likely admit Hollywood just doesn't make them like this anymore. No, this isn't a set up for a sucker-punch of a snarky jab, because this film is quite engrossing in a way you may not expect. After all, just how compelling can the story of the discover of radium be? Unless you're a proud member of your local science club, it would be expected that you'd quickly pass over a film with this as a plotline. More so, you'd certainly scoff at the notion that such a biopic could be seriously presented as a story of romance and the unerring commitment between a man and a woman. Well, it is, and Madame Curie makes good on its promise in a way that pulls you into the heady proceedings and actually cajoles you to root for the principals' success in discovering the as-yet undiscovered active element circa 1899.
Marie Sklodowska (Greer Garson, Mrs. Miniver) is an apt pupil, a young student who has migrated from her native Poland to study at the Sorbonne of Paris. Fainting from hunger during a lecture, the attending Professor Jean Perot (Albert Bassermann, Foreign Correspondent) provides her a meal, proclaims his admiration for her apt qualities, and arranges to introduce her to the well-regarded Pierre Curie (Walter Pidgeon, Mrs. Miniver). Knowing Curie's aversion to women in matters of scientific research, Perot dupes the usually reclusive researcher into sharing his private laboratory with Marie. And although he is at first skeptical of her potential, Pierre quickly finds himself fascinated and even enraptured by the insightful Marie. Unexpected even to himself, Pierre asks Marie to wed and halts his own researches to help her unlock the mystery within the strange pitchblende, a coal-like rock that somehow contains a "piece of the Sun" deep within its core.
If you ever thought to wonder how such an arguably dry premise could buoy a two-hour romance drama, well here it is. Done up with all the usual naive charm of MGM, the film immediately establishes itself as a compelling character drama beginning with the lovable performance by Albert Bassermann as Perot. While the hunger-stricken Marie is drawn and rather despondent, Perot bubbles with enthusiasm for her studies, her determination, and her suitability to Pierre Curie. Walter Pidgeon as Pierre is introduced as a socially averse intellectual who prefers to think rather than to talk, and who certainly has little desire to become diverted by a woman. However, Pidgeon plays a perfect turnabout as he is suddenly smitten by Marie's intelligence and beauty. After Marie graduates from Sorbonne as first in physics, Pidgeon's Curie stumbles and stammers his way through a proclamation of adoration in a best effort to prevent his newfound fancy from returning to Poland to become a "mere teacher." And, in one of the screen's most unusual wedding proposals, Pidgeon delivers a perfectly pitched entreaty that the two should be joined in a mutually beneficial marital collaboration. Of course, after having spent six months working at Curie's laboratory, Marie, too, has softened toward the man, and mixes emotion with intellectual potential as she quickly considers and accepts Pierre's proposition. Greer Garson brings perfect chemistry to the role and the interplay between she and Pidgeon, maintaining a stalwart dedication to her studies fueled by an unquenchable desire to break through the scientific "truths" of the period at the perpetual encouragement of the adoring yet adroit Pierre. Garson maintains a careful balance between the romantic and scientific elements of her role and delivers a performance that chides us to feel her enthusiasm, bear the pain of her disappointment, and, most of all, enjoy the rapture of her love for Pierre.
Who would have believed it could happen if not for the magic of the movies?
But, the film isn't without its flaws, most notably being the artistic license on display that clearly fictionalizes much of the interaction between Marie and Pierre, this for the sake of delivering on the romantic element. In addition, you won't hear many accents, nor the slightest hint of dialects indigenous to France or Poland. Instead, we're provided sanitized English accents, unapologetically, for the duration. Now, given the research the Curies embarked upon as they sought to isolate radium from the tons of pitchblende they processed, the film utilizes a rather ambitious voice-over narration that spans years of work over the course of a minute or less. As this occurs significantly in a couple of places in the film, you'll no doubt feel compelled to hold onto your hat as you sense you're being whisked forward in order to hasten us to the next key milestone. Lastly, although the film does reveal the effects the radium elements are having upon Marie's skin—her fingers exhibit strange burns—it lightly glosses over the cancerous effects this had upon the real Marie Curie, who died in 1934 from aplastic anemia brought on by her work.
Despite its shortcomings, the film is surprisingly engaging and will immediately coax viewers into accepting its narrative thanks to the superb acting on hand. Nominated for seven Academy Awards in 1943, including Best Picture, Madame Curie is now available on DVD in an equally impressive transfer. The image quality is really quite excellent, smooth, stable, and remarkably restored. The black-and-white tones are quite silky, even supple, as the gray scale provides a gradient nuance that is among the best available on disc today. The source print, although obviously well restored, does exhibit some infrequent speckles and only one sequence of somewhat distracting grain. Overall, the picture retains an original film grain that provides texture that is quite suitable in this 4:3 Academy Ratio presentation. The audio is rather confined in the Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono track yet it's balanced well enough that it never becomes muddled or otherwise maligned.
While you wouldn't expect much in the way of extras for a picture like this (that stated in reference to the celebration of current-day films that are often bloated with superfluous bonus features), you'll be pleasantly surprised to find a vintage short subject, Jacques Tourneur's Romance of Radium, running a trim 10 minutes while providing a historical look at Madame Curie's Nobel Prize-winning work. A Greer Garson trailer gallery is also included to herald the feature film as well as Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Random Harvest, Pride and Prejudice, and, of course, Mrs. Miniver.
While its certainly not a top-shelf title these days, Warner Brothers Home Video is applauded for digging into its catalog to deliver Madame Curie. It's likely a picture you'd never consider viewing, yet it might surprise you how well it casts its spell on you in classic Hollywood style.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Short: Romance of Radium
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