Biography 23.1 (2000) 71-89
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Glowing Dishes: Radium, Marie Curie, and Hollywood
T. Hugh Crawford
In an episode from the Andy Griffith Show, that embodiment of middle American agrarian utopic yearning, Aunt Bee is asked about other careers she might have followed. Looking out toward the horizon, she allows she would have studied chemistry, like that Madame Curie. Andy is startled. After all, Bee is the archetypal American homemaker, and chemistry and physics are fields that seem quite a distance from Meyers Lake, Floyd's Barber Shop, and the Taylors' well-kept home. Bee's dream, however, is not fired by personal experience of laboratory life. Instead, she is thinking of Greer Garson in Mervyn LeRoy's film Madame Curie. Though in a sense, this scene is trivial, Aunt Bee's response to the film offers a glimpse into the cultural power of images of science and scientists produced by popular cinema--and in this instance, reflexively perpetuated by television--and at the same time provides some startling insights into the relationship between the cinematic construction of biography, gender, and scientific truth.
In 1943, at the height of American involvement in World War II--and a time when scientists were pressed into service on an unprecedented scale--Mervyn LeRoy enlisted the image of Marie Curie to further the cause of the Allies. Given its historical moment, Madame Curie is clearly intended to celebrate scientific progress. Marie not only serves as a model of the scientist's pursuit of truth, she is also the paradigm of the determined, competent woman--a well-educated Rosie the Riveter. Consequently, the film can be regarded as something of a feminist document. Mary Ann Doane has argued that the 1940s were a time of the "woman's film" (22-37), but unlike the victims of heterosexual, monogamous family values this genre usually depicts, Marie succeeds in a world traditionally marked as masculine, and at the end of the film delivers a triumphant hymn to science while standing in what had been the exclusive haunts of male scientists. By taking a woman as his hero, LeRoy not only confronts the traditional [End Page 71] Hollywood regime of signification, which lacks the resources to depict women as unproblematic active agents, but also gropes with a set of highly gendered tropes traditionally used to describe the idealized value-neutral activity of scientific practice. His choice of hero is not the only part of the film that reveals representational conflicts. The object of the Curies' research produces a similar instability. The radioactivity of radium--its eventual decay--directly parallels the place constructed for Marie as a woman, wife, mother, scientist, and intellectual equal of her male peers. Neither element nor woman fit easily into a chemical or social periodic table.
In Madame Curie LeRoy develops themes familiar from such similar films of the period as William Dieterle's The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) and Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet (1940)--films which depict laboratory life, celebrate the insight of great scientists, teach the general public about science, and dramatize the inexorable march of scientific progress. What is troubling in LeRoy's film is the way he treats his double subject--Marie and radium. While clearly a competent scientist, Marie is also something of a poet. When, for instance, she first sees the effect of pitchblende on a photographic plate, she responds, "it is as if there were a piece of the sun locked up in here." This trait (and others) marks her as feminine. In LeRoy's version, she must look to Pierre for direction, and would not have been able to complete her work without his strong, methodical presence. To a degree, biographical evidence supports this characterization. Pierre was well-known for his ability to design, modify, and manipulate laboratory instrumentation (see Pflaum). Nevertheless, LeRoy clearly exploits such stereotypes to build his traditional love story, even though his strategy subverts his science story.
In Pasteur and Ehrlich, Dieterle could show microscope slides containing live microbes, but LeRoy cannot directly represent radium. Instead, he shows us Marie...