Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The White Angel (Warner Bros. as “First National,” 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” turned out to be a quite remarkable movie I’d recorded earlier in the day off TCM: The White Angel, a 1936 Warner Bros. (in “First National” drag) biopic of Florence Nightingale. I’d seen it once before in the 1980’s and had loved the movie for its direction (William Dieterle), writing (Mordaunt Shairp — Lillian Hellman, who worked with him on the script for the sound version of The Dark Angel — interesting title coincidence — had so little good to say about him in her various autobiographies she didn’t even deign to mention his name, but judging from his work here Shairp had real talent) and cinematography (Tony Gaudio), but had spent much of it wishing that Warners would have borrowed Katharine Hepburn from RKO to play Nightingale instead of Kay Francis. This time around Francis’s performance seemed much better — certainly quieter than how Hepburn or Warners’ own Bette Davis (who was in the middle of her contract walkout and ensuing litigation when this was filmed — according to the American Film Institute Catalog, the now-forgotten Josephine Hutchinson was the only other actress actually considered) would have played it, but as the film develops Francis’s understatement makes the film a powerful feminist statement in its own right: her Nightingale takes the sexist objections against her and the whole idea of women nurses in stride and answers them with a steely implacability instead of Hepburn’s ferocity or Davis’s rage.

Florence Nightingale is depicted as the younger daughter of an upper-class couple in early Victorian England who seems to have it all — money, social position and a nice, hunky boyfriend, Charles Cooper (Donald Woods), who wants to marry her and give her a perfectly acceptable Victorian woman’s life of home and children, though being a diplomat (as is Nightingale’s father, played by Charles Croker-King), a lot of travel is part of the bargain. But Our Florence couldn’t be less interested in all that: both an intertitle (there are quite a few intertitles for a sound film made as late into the talkie era as 1936) and Florence’s own dialogue lament that the only woman in the realm whose independence is respected and who can make her own decisions is Queen Victoria herself. She sees her chance to be an independent woman and make her own contribution to the world when a drunken nurse named Mrs. Waters collapses in the street, and the incident provokes a government investigation of the public hospitals in London. Nightingale’s father receives reports on these investigations, and Florence reads them, is horrified and is determined to do something to improve the quality of nursing care and build nursing into a recognized profession with quality standards and a sense of commitment. Accordingly she seeks out a nursing school in Germany that’s the only place in the world giving nurses anything like the quality of training she thinks they need — only to find, when she gets back, that no hospital in England will hire her. She gets her chance when the Crimean War breaks out and a series of dispatches from London Times correspondent Fuller (Ian Hunter) exposes how shoddily the wounded soldiers are being treated at the field hospital in Scutari, Turkey.

Florence recruits a company of 34 nurses and trains them herself, then takes them to the front (it’s not stressed in the movie, but she took full advantage of her family’s money to finance the cause when she needed to) and demands they be used. In a recurring pattern throughout the movie, she meets resistance from a male authority figure, Dr. Hunt (Donald Crisp), who’s bound and determined to sabotage Florence’s efforts at every turn no matter what the cost to the wounded men Dr. Hunt and his colleagues are supposedly there to care for. Hunt even sends Florence’s one supporter on the medical staff, Dr. Scott (Henry O’Neill), to the front to run the field hospital for the wounded at Balaclava (and since Warners shot this film the same year they made The Charge of the Light Brigade they had excellent footage reconstructing the battle available for this project). Nonetheless, Florence manages to turn the hospital at Scutari into a fit care facility and reduces the casualty rate among British soldiers from 56 to 6 percent. Then she hears of a cholera epidemic at the hospital in Balaclava and determines to go there — and not even the fears of the other nurses of catching cholera (which the people in this movie seem to believe is casually transmissible instead of water-borne) or the orders from Dr. Hunt that Florence not be let in the doors of the Balaclava hospital — to which she responds by staging a one-woman sit-in in cold weather until Lord Raglin (Halliwell Hobbes), the commander in chief of British forces in the war, countermands Dr. Hunt’s ridiculous order — can stop her. Neither can catching cholera herself and having to interrupt her nursing care to recover from the disease — though, true to form, she goes back to work even before she’s fully recovered and returns to Scutari, where Dr. Hunt has put the field hospital nursing staff under the direction of silly socialite Ella Stephens (Ara Gerald), whose definition of “nursing” seems to be “partying 24/7.” Once she gets back to Scutari, Florence — armed with Lord Raglin’s support — sends Ella home and takes over the nursing department, imposing strict discipline and getting the nurses Ella brought in to follow her program — and she’s fêted and honored in the media back home (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow writes his poem “The Lady with the Lamp” about her, and it’s an instant sensation) and her supporters want to give her a heroine’s welcome when the war ends and she returns.

Only, true to form, she says she wants no celebration — instead she returns to England in an ordinary ship under a pseudonym — and instead wants the money contributed to her triumph instead to be used to start a school for nurses which she will head. She still has one more stupid, sexist authority figure to overcome — undersecretary of war Mr. Bullock (Montagu Love) — and the only person in the entire British government who can overrule his ban on female nurses is Queen Victoria herself. In an intriguing final scene, Florence is scheduled for an audience with the Queen right after Bullock, and scared at having to follow him after he’s already presumably poisoned the monarch’s mind against her, she rehearses her speech in front of a portrait of Victoria — and the Queen sneaks into the room and overhears her. The portrayal of Queen Victoria as dea ex machina is so carefully done that all we see of her is an arm handing Florence a broach with a slogan, “Blessed Are the Merciful,” which fills the screen as Kay Francis’s voice intones the real nurses’ creed Florence Nightingale wrote on the soundtrack. The End. The White Angel is a mightily impressive movie, in the mold of the Warners’ biopics of the time (most of them directed by Dieterle, whose German expat credentials gave him cachet and no doubt helped him get the assignments to direct most of Warners’ big “A”-list pictures in the mid-1930’s) but with the feminist aspects of the story faced honestly and in some ways brought forth more effectively by Dieterle’s somber direction, Shairp’s literate writing (both Lytton Strachey and Michael Jacoby claimed he had drawn upon their biographies of Nightingale for his script, but the Motion Picture Academy ruled he hadn’t and he’d written a truly original script based on his own research) and above all by Francis’s subtle, nuanced performance. She played an independent woman again in Wings and the Woman, and The White Angel certainly suggests she had potential for a far rangier career than the dreary series of soap operas that constituted most of her Warners’ output.