Radium Girls (Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler, 2018) takes its inspiration from the infuriating history of watch-dial painters of the 1910s-1930s who were poisoned and then abandoned by the radium industry.
Discovered in 1898 by the Curies, radium was all the rage in the early decades of the 20th century. Thought to be a magical cure-all, you could find it in tonics and pills sold widely to people looking for renewed vitality. Radium also had a luminescent quality, making it popular for glow-in-the-dark consumer goods like watches and clocks.
Dial-painting, then, was big business. Radium companies recruited young women in their teens and twenties to paint the glowing numbers on watch-faces, many of which were used by soldiers in the World Wars. The method of painting? Lick the paint brush to create a fine point in the bristles, dip in the radium paint, and paint a letter. Lip-dip-paint, as the method was called. These young women ingested the radioactive substance, having no idea for years that radium was eating their bones inside out.
Radium Girls dives into this history, fictionalizing its lead protagonists, but including many historical figures among its characters. Like a real group of dial painters from Orange, New Jersey, the young women that lead this film — Bessie (Joey King), Josephine (Abby Quinn), Doris (Colby Minifie), and Paula (Olivia Macklin) — battle the company that sentenced them to death through its negligence and deceit.
Before watching this film, I was curious how the filmmakers would handle the gruesomeness of radium necrosis — the disease experienced by many dial painters, where radium poisoning would literally rot their jaws. Pilcher and Mohler nod to it in a few ways. We see Josephine lose a tooth and later a piece of her jaw, and Doris (who has a more advanced case) clearly possesses rotting teeth. However, overall they chose to handle it delicately, preferring not to depict more disfiguring stages of the disease.
The punch of the film, in many ways, comes from the broad historical contextualization of the women’s struggle for compensation from their employer. Instead of merely individualizing the American Radium Company and its executives as bad actors in an otherwise just system, the filmmakers show that the radium girls were one piece in a larger fight for workers’ rights and safety.
Radium Girls does this by incorporating the radicalist movement into its plot — Bessie’s boyfriend is a member of the Communist Party and has friends who appear to be involved in an organization like the Worker’s Film and Photo League (WFPL), which documented the lives and struggles of working people. Pilcher and Mohler also montage historical footage into the main narrative, including footage that could very well have been shot by WFPL documentarists, and early cinema enthusiasts will recognize shots from dada films Anemic Cinema and Ballet Mechanique.
Screenwriters Ginny Mohler and Brittany Shaw wrote these archival inserts into the script. Ginny Mohler was working for a documentary production on the Manhattan Project, and the research she did for that production sparked the idea for the Radium Girls script. “As Brittany and I were writing the screenplay,” Mohler comments during the post-screening panel at the film’s Tribeca premiere, “we were still working as archival researchers.” As they came across footage they might want for the Radium Girls film, they bookmarked it for later.
The story of the dial painters, at its core, is a story of the devastation wrought by unchecked, unregulated capitalism, and the poisoned women’s fight fits well into the parallel story of American radicalism.
After you watch Radium Girls, if you’d like to learn more about the real women who brought suit against the United States Radium Corporation in New Jersey and the Radium Dial Company in Illinois, I recommend picking up Kate Moore’s book, The Radium Girls, published just before Pilcher and Mohler’s film premiered at Tribeca.
Radium Girls is now showing in the IU Cinema Virtual Screening Room as part of the International Arthouse and Science on Screen series. It will be available to rent through December 2, with a percentage of the proceeds directly supporting IU Cinema.
Laura Ivins loves stop motion, home movies, imperfect films, nature hikes, and Stephen Crane’s poetry. She has a PhD from Indiana University and an MFA from Boston University. In addition to watching and writing about movies, sometimes she also makes them.