Nominated for seven Oscars, Mervyn LeRoy’s Madame Curie offers an involving biography of the Nobel Prize-winning scientists Pierre and Marie Curie with the expected MGM gloss to make the science more palatable to everyday audiences.
The Production: 4/5
After scoring a triumph in 1942’s Mrs. Miniver (which brought her an Oscar and him a nomination), MGM’s first lady and gentleman of the screen Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon next brought the story of the discovery of radium to the screen in Mervyn LeRoy’s Madame Curie. Picturing scientific notation and experiments in the movies can be a tricky business, and in the wrong hands, it could have been handled drily and without wit, but Madame Curie balances its science with more human touches that keep audience interest high and feelings engaged. It doesn’t have the emotional wallop of Mrs. Miniver or Garson and LeRoy’s Random Harvest, but it’s nevertheless an appealing film.
After graduating at the head of her class in physics at the Sorbonne, young Marie Sklodowska (Greer Garson) has every intention of returning to her homeland Poland despite having gotten along famously with business-like Dr. Pierre Curie (Walter Pidgeon) whose laboratory she used for her undergraduate work. When faced with the thought that Marie will no longer grace his lab, Pierre proposes a marriage of their intellects not realizing her fondness for him nor his own romantic feelings for her. As she works on her doctorate, Marie takes a special interest in discovering the source of energy emanating from a rock which she thought only contained uranium and other non-radiating minerals. Over four years of painful and often frustrating experiments which she and Pierre undertake bring them eventually to the discovery of a new element which she dubs “radium.” Despite a Nobel Prize, worldwide acclaim, and a new scientific laboratory for their continued experiments, Pierre and Marie can’t help a feeling of unease that their grand celebrations might come to an end.
In order to smooth continuity and explain carefully to audiences the experiments the Curies had embarked upon, Oscar-winning writer James Hilton was chosen to serve as voiceover narrator though Paul Osborn and Paul Rameau’s screenplay doesn’t exactly make their narrative too complex for understanding. And they certainly insert not only foreshadowing of events to come (Pierre’s absent-minded professor walking though streets obliviously lost in thought; Pierre’s foreboding insights that lead him to discuss with Marie what they’d do if the other one dies) but also let his plain-spoken father (Henry Travers) make sure we know that love is in the air even as the two intellectuals walk circles around it in the early going or that they need to think in terms of children when work pressures become too great. Director Mervyn LeRoy uses montage skillfully at several junctures: during their picturesque honeymoon (after Curie’s amusing proposal of marriage is fashioned more as a chemical formula) and later as the couple struggles through four agonizing years of steps to extract their new element from the minerals where they know it’s present only to come to realize what appeared to be a failure was actually a big success. If the climax with the downhearted Marie bucked up by her old professor (Albert Bassermann) only to make a triumphant return to life is too reminiscent of every version of A Star Is Born ever made, Marie’s parting words which celebrate scientific knowledge as the key to ending all of the world’s ills couldn’t be more prescient today in our world torn apart by the seeming inability of many to discern the difference between deliberate lies and the truth.
While ace cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg does his best (but somewhat in vain) to shave off years from Greer Garson in the early scenes to make her appear a believable college student, the actress eventually comes into her own later on as she struggles stubbornly and valiantly to find her new element. Walter Pidgeon has lots of fun with the brilliantly befuddled Pierre who once couldn’t work in an environment with any noise and who later finds himself whistling through experiments after his deliriously happy discovery of what it’s like to be in love. Henry Travers and Dame May Whitty are the plain-spoken parents of Pierre. C. Aubrey Smith and Reginald Owen pop in and out as important scientists without making much impact, but Albert Bassermann as Sorbonne Professor Jean Perot makes the strongest impression as the teacher who first befriends Marie when she’s a starving student and later brings her and Pierre together for their mutual interests. Robert Walker as a research assistant is rather wasted in a weakly-written role, and look quickly to see Van Johnson in a one-scene part as a reporter who’s unaware he’s interviewing THE Marie Curie and little Margaret O’Brien as the Curie’s daughter Irene.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully rendered in a 1080p transfer utilizing the AVC codec. It’s a beautiful job all around with the image clean, crisp, and appealing (save for glamour close-ups which sacrifice some detail) and an excellent grayscale which has impressive blacks particularly in the deep shadows LeRoy uses to surround the Curies as they complete their experiments in less than ideal laboratory environs. The transfer has been divided into 32 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix is a highly professional endeavor. Dialogue has been recorded beautifully and has been mixed with Herbert Stothart’s Oscar-nominated background score and the many sound effects with great surety. There are no instances of age-related hiss, crackle, pops, or flutter.
Special Features: 1.5/5
Romance of Radium (9:43, SD): 1937 Oscar-nominated Pete Smith short, directed by Jacques Tournier
Theatrical Trailer (2:09, HD)
Nominated for seven Oscars (but up against that year’s equally popular Casablanca, The Song of Bernadette, and For Whom the Bell Tolls which dominated the ceremony that year), Mervyn LeRoy’s Madame Curie offers an involving biography of the Nobel-winning scientists Pierre and Marie Curie with the expected MGM gloss to make the science more palatable to everyday audiences. The Warner Archive Blu-ray release offers a gorgeous picture with a solid soundtrack which fans of the film, its stars, or director will naturally want to upgrade.
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