Directed by Mervyn LeRoy
Written by Paul Osborn, Paul Rameau, Walter Reisch, and Aldous Huxley (based on the book by Éve Curie)
In 1943, Mervyn LeRoy made his last woman's melodrama of the war years (he would finish up World War II with a man's melodrama about explosions and airplanes and national revenge, which is also pretty cool); it was, likewise, his final (credited) collaboration with Greer Garson for over a decade. This was all an accident: Albert Lewin had been set to direct, only to be fired right before production began, whereupon LeRoy was pulled in at the last minute. I would presume he didn't exactly complain, given that he and Garson had turned out the second-highest-grossing film of 1942 with Random Harvest; but you never know, LeRoy might have scowled at a film that perhaps initially looked as if it would only duplicate his efforts on Blossoms In the Dust, a film I don't think he enjoyed making very much. It too had been a nobility-saturated biopic of a famous woman dedicated to her work, who had been obliged to soldier on, most womanfully, despite personal tragedy—which is to say, the kind of movie that's forgotten as soon as it gets its Oscar nomination.
This film, Madame Curie, had in fact been a long time in the making even before Lewin was attached: Éve Curie's biography of her mother had been purchased for adaptation by Universal all the way back in 1930 (indeed, when her mother, Marie Salomea Sklodowska Curie, co-discoverer of radium and polonium, was still living; she only passed in 1934). Those rights were sold to MGM soon thereafter, where it was poked at from time to time but was not seriously pursued till 1938, and one is obliged to speculate why. Most explanations are necessarily cynical: either they were waiting for the famed scientist to die and present their film as an encomium (in which case they were rather late), or they were waiting for the bad memories of the Curies' most salient contribution to American history—which took the form of hundreds of women poisoned by the Curies' discovery—to fade into the background. (The timeline certainly fits: 1937's cheerfully-nihilistic, borderline-irresponsible, and pretty-great-anyway satire, Nothing Sacred, which is about a so-called "radium girl" a whole lot less than you might think from the synopsis and I'll leave it at that, surely would have signaled that the subject had now become "safe.") But maybe it was due to duller reasons, boiling down merely to an internecine competition of MGM's leading ladies for the title role—evidently, it had a lot to do with Joan Crawford waving goodbye to the studio—or to directors who weren't very invested in it, like George Cukor, who'd been attached even before Lewin was, but gave it up in the days when MGM was still trying to fit the overly-literal Aldous Huxley screenplay they'd commissioned into some kind of movie-shaped box.
Yet if there was any awkwardness or hesitation to LeRoy's takeover of the project in 1943, not one jot of it is visible in the final product. With a rewritten-from-scratch script, it plays to all the director's strengths as a maker of tragic romance. I mean, sure: the similarities to Blossoms In the Dust are hard to ignore, and even if you take the position that two great lady biopics are not inherently similar, and it's sexist to say they are—I'd probably even agree with you in principle—when it brings Walter Pidgeon back as Garson's eternal counterpart in their third film together, anybody would have to admit they look slightly alike. But for all this, Madame Curie came out of the MGM machine completely different in affect, tone, and quality than the schematic great lady biopic LeRoy had wrought two years prior. It beats Blossoms with a stick, frankly. It's in much the same league as LeRoy's other wartime romantic masterpieces, and it many respects it's even more gentle and sweet, one of the gentlest and sweetest romances of its or any other era. It is, in fact, more basically pleasant to watch than either Waterloo Bridge or Random Harvest, for it isn't nearly so firmly committed to emotional sadomasochism—or, at least it isn't until it is. I said it's a Greer Garson movie.
It is, however, also a Walter Pidgeon movie, perhaps more than any of his and Garson's other collaborations (doubtless more than Blossoms or Mrs. Miniver, the first two, where he's almost a supporting actor), and it may be the only one where Pidgeon emerges this clearly as a first among equals. This dovetails fairly neatly into its goals as a romance generally; counter-intuitively, it even meshes with its goals as woman's picture particularly, as it establishes, in scene after scene, what it is that Marie (that's Garson) shall lose—and nope, I won't apologize for spoiling history. You should probably already know that Marie's husband, Pierre Curie (that's Pidgeon), died suddenly, and not because he was playing God in a laboratory, but due to a random and senseless tragedy that the screenplay decides to make a certain kind of bittersweet poetic sense out of anyway, while also foreshadowing it as early as the third scene when the absent-minded professor, thinking about Marie, wanders obliviously out into traffic. Madame Curie is, at heart, barely a "biopic" at all, but a fantasia on the theme of its scientist-lovers, oddly "accurate" in the sense that it gets very little demonstrably wrong, but also shockingly ruthless about discarding the details, even very large details, of each one's lives, while all along (not to get too precious about it) purifying them down to their essences, until ultimately what was left were the archetypes that LeRoy, his writers, and his actors found most amenable to their purposes of making you laugh, then sigh, then weep.
That pared-down story opens with a narrator—author James Hilton of all people (perhaps in gratitude to MGM, or Garson herself, for making superhits out of Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Random Harvest, whilst Columbia and Capra made a "where'd-the-money-go?" flop out of Lost Horizon)—and while Hilton shall return to explicate the more abstruse scientific bits, his present scene-setting is concise: in 1891, Maria "Marie" Sklodowska arrived at the Sorbonne, one of its vanishingly few female science students, and here she lived so frugally that one day she passed out in the middle of class. This elicits the sympathy of her professor Jean Perot (Albert Bassermann), who determines to secure the young woman an income, and, in order to do her work, some modest space in the corner of a colleague's laboratory. He acquires the latter from Pierre Curie, who has precipitously agreed to help his friend's student before he meets her and discovers she is a her.
Her identity discomfits him, for Pierre has bad ideas about women, almost all of which are jettisoned within days of actually working alongside the quiet, insular Marie, and he figures out, in a way that goes unstressed and without any great epiphany, that whatever problem women occasion in the laboratory belongs instead to men like his immature, moon-eyed assistant David (Robert Walker), whose felicitations, Pierre realizes, are as annoying to Marie as they are to him, though of course Pierre will prove at least a touch hypocritical. In the meantime, Pierre is confronted with the fact that Marie possesses an intellect (at least) equal to his own, and he begins to bring her along for discussions with his colleagues because she might have something actually insightful to say, for example when Henri Becquerel (Reginald Owen) shows them a photograph he made—the interesting part of this being that he made it without any light. The invisible rays of Becquerel's discovery stick in Marie's mind, though over the next few months, she has other, more pressing concerns, like finishing her master's, and it is to Pierre's great consternation when he belatedly comprehends that when she said she was going back to Poland to teach she meant it. He really quite flips out over this, in part because he loves her and doesn't want her to leave, but, unwilling to make such an irrational feeling the centerpiece of his argument to such a rational woman, when he proposes marriage he emphasizes that her talent would wither in Poland and that, together, they could push science forward far more efficiently than they could apart. And what can she say? He's right.
This brings us slightly less than halfway through the 123 minute film, which then segues into their joint investigation into the phenomenon of radioactivity, and I'm only hesitant to call the first part "the best part" because I don't want to imply the rest isn't almost as good. It is, it's true, less revelatory and joyous, but I'm not even entirely sure that the story downshifts after the marriage, though it must: for a film that breaches two hours in telling a story we already know the outline of, and represents, if not a cradle-to-grave biopic of its titular subject, then a romance-to-grave biopic of her husband, Madame Curie remains a well-paced thing; but that first act is over so quickly you scarcely notice how much time it occupies. The only reason I can think of as to why is that it's so damned unbelievably cute. There is a temptation in biographical pictures of scientists to paint them as weird misfits (look no further than Marjane Satrapi's latterday Curie biopic, the insane mess that is Radioactive), and Madame Curie hardly avoids that temptation—it drives pell-mell directly toward that temptation—but it seems to sidestep it based purely on the great rapport between its performers and the immense charm of one of their performances in particular.
Marie is flattened somewhat in this treatment: there is no consideration of Maria Sklodowska as the reasonably-conventional sexual being who spent years loving and attempting to marry her hot cousin (n.b.: this would've been considered more conventional in the 1880s), and the main narrative shuts down completely before it can get to the xenophobic sexual scandal that struck her household in the years after Pierre's passing; but on the other hand, there's a certain adult capacity to Marie that makes her seem genuinely substantial, and she's presented as a reasonable, even-keeled professional, slightly distant but in no way stunted or unbalanced in her personality. Indeed, Marie depends much upon the basic dimensions of Garson's screen persona to give her a personality at all, which as usual for Garson is a warm friendliness that humanizes an awe-inspiring, mystifying, and slightly-frightening devotion to a cause. (The aforementioned "adult capacity," which is more-or-less a self-knowledge and intimation of experience, is, of course, also part of that persona, albeit one that sometimes goes overlooked when discussions usually conclude with describing Garson as an angel whose feet don't touch the ground.)
Now, it's still a performance from Garson, in that she's playing a character: she gets that this screenplay's Marie is still a huge nerd. But in this respect she is outshone at all times by the unrelenting nerd supernova that is Pidgeon's Pierre. He goes for it completely, offering his handsome-but-less-than-dashing romantic lead as a stammering collection of explicit social anxiety, goofball malapropisms, and a sympathy-inducing tendency to raise his voice when he fears he can't make himself understood, rather than simply using scary words that might properly identify his feelings. It is probably entirely devoid of any historical basis and it is, nevertheless, the most charming thing imaginable. He's so lacking in suavity that it comes back 'round—my favorite little thing in the movie is when he and Marie are off on their honeymoon, and Pierre's mother (May Whitty) snatches away the textbooks he'd planned on bringing, he feigns compliance only to snatch them right back, just before he and his bride cycle off into the countryside to fuck and read. (Pidgeon's Pierre is, somehow, endearing in the same way that any latterday equivalent would almost necessarily be unbearably irritating; the same nerdface performance, moved forward into the 21st century, would never shut up about comic books and science fiction long enough to do any actual science, and you'd doubtless feel a great urge to stuff him back into the locker from whence he sprang.)
Well, Pidgeon and Garson were always an effortlessly-credible pairing, the kind of low-key screen couple you're just happy to see exist in the same room with each other because of the gentle chemistry they generate (even in an otherwise terrible movie, like Mrs. Parkington); but Madame Curie really invests that with the details of a legitimate relationship. It's romantic by definition, in that it involves huge feelings that at least one of its participants has no idea how to properly express, but it's possibly also the most plausible opposite-sex friendship of the Golden Age of cinema and, ironically, the marriage that feels the most modern, revolving as it does around a preoccupation so fully shared that they don't even notice when they break their mutual promises to spend more time doing normal person stuff and head right back to their lab together. Perhaps this is how Madame Curie feels less jarring than it could when it finally gets down to its biopic brass tacks, and arrives upon the business of the Curies' agonizing and years-long work to isolate radium, for this feat feels like nothing but an inevitable extension of their beings, and the most natural expression of their love.
It's not even jarring when Hilton pipes back up to narrate the montage of how they built their lab in an abandoned dissection shed (Cedric Gibbons and Paul Groesse, et al, do a fantastic job of detailed recreation), where they processed tons and tons of pitchblende to find their mystery element. In fact, the "science" second act of Madame Curie is potentially where LeRoy had the most fun as a filmmaker, with arcane apparatus hulking in the corners of darkened rooms and compositions that suggest mad science as much as regular, workaday science. Here, Joseph Ruttenberg's expressionistic cinematography and the methodical storytelling from LeRoy and editor Harold Kress borders on the qualities of a silent film; it captures the science, the seeming alchemy, and (especially) the grueling manual labor that went into the Curies' laying of the foundation for the future. Madame Curie, though a very big hit, was frequently cut for runtime in re-releases; obviously these would be the scenes first to go.
I can understand the impulse but it draws a frown, because they're fine little expositions of scientific process, evoking a sensation of entering a great unknown. And for all I love it, it is, still, the weakest aspect of the film—not because of the filmmaking, nor even the subject matter of a repetitive, sisyphean process, but because the script felt a need to punch up that process with some fake tension, despite this film's science tale having one of the most foregone conclusions conceivable. ("Will Marie and Pierre succeed in isolating radium?" asked literally nobody.) I admire how LeRoy, Garson, and Pidgeon present science as less a function of inspired genius than obsessive hard work, yet one could live without the bits that make the Curies come off obtuse and stupid, most disagreeably when the Curies fail to recognize that "the stain" on the bottom of a bowl is radium until it starts glowing at them. Which is annoying regardless: the glow of radium was—obviously—visible for years before they got to a "pure" radium salt, and trying to get surprise out of this story, rather than awed wonder, is the film's most ungainly and illiterate misstep. For that matter, I know it was well out-of-fashion by 1943 to drop a Technicolor sequence into an otherwise black-and-white film, but I know of very few places where the arrival of Technicolor would've been more forceful than in a room suddenly filled at nightfall with the blue glow from a thousand bowls of radium salt. You could even make it green, if you must.
This concludes the "notes" phase of the review, and it's back to things that are effectively perfect, which is to say, everything else that has to do with Marie and Pierre, and Garson and Pidgeon; the latter finds the film's truest character arc, and that's a precious treasure in any biopic. It tracks his romance with Marie as it evolves over the course of a decade, until at last, in middle age, the film begins to suggest that, with the work of radium done (it was not done, but let's not let that bother us), their lives were only now beginning. Pidgeon and the script tease out the most curious idea, that he has loved his wife so much that it is only in the most recent days that he's even noticed she's beautiful. There's more that Madame Curie still has in store—a very, very, very long take of Garson, which is devastating and which LeRoy allows to play out for as long as it must, as Marie only quivers, physically wrestling back emotion or any expression at all beyond Garson's own cocked eyebrow (practically etched in stone), while a colleague tries to hector her back to life—but as a tragic romance, the real knife to the heart comes when Pierre goes to a jeweler. He has never bought Marie jewelry before, and he is invited to describe what Marie looks like, and Pidgeon stumbles slightly, as if it's truly the very first time Pierre's ever thought about it at all. That's love rarer than radium; and fuck this movie, I'm crying right now.