I was privileged to watch this timeless movie on Turner Classic Movies. It is based on the book of the same name written by Eve Curie, the daughter of Pierre and Marie Curie, who are the subjects of the book and movie. The time period is the turn of the century and the scenery and clothing reflect this era.
Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon were often cast together which is understandable when we watch their performances in Madame Curie. It was interesting also to see the cameo appearances of longtime favorites who were bit actors at the time – Robert Walker, Van Johnson and Margaret O’Brien.
The movie describes the work of the Curies with pitchblende which involved isolating all of its elements until they had two elements left – barium and an unknown element which Marie Curie called radium.
The difficulty developed when they were unable to separate the radium from the barium. They had used eight tons of pitchblende before they came to this point. After over 5000 tests over a period of four years, their last effort to crystallize the radium left only a stain in the saucer. Pierre and Marie were devastated since they expected to see what amounted to at least a pinch of salt as their isolated radium. A few days later, it occurred to them that the stain itself could be the radium. They dashed back to their laboratory one evening and could see through the window that the radium was giving off rays – proof that it was the result they sought.
They had achieved their success without the aid of the scientific community except for the offer of a dilapidated shed for their work. A state-of-the-art laboratory was one of their gifts upon the realization by the world that a new element had been discovered. The couple shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 for their achievement. Marie was also awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry three years later.
A larger issue that came to light in the movie was of course the love story between Pierre and Marie. Marie had intended to return to Poland when she obtained her college degree. Pierre, a confirmed bachelor, found that he could not live without his lab assistant, Marie, and begged her to stay in Paris. He convinced her to come for a weekend to his parents’ house in the suburbs where he proposed marriage to her. Of course, she accepted.
The Curies had two daughters, Irene and Eve, who were shown briefly in the movie, but the couple did not seem to spend a great deal of time with the children. The family lived with Pierre’s parents who, it appears, took over the parental duties while Pierre and Marie worked long hours on their project. The love between the two scientists was apparent however, and the two little girls knew they were loved also.
Pierre’s untimely death occurred when he was hit by a horse-drawn carriage when he was shopping for a pair of earrings for Marie to wear at a gala which was being held in her honor. Marie had a challenging time adjusting to her loss, but went on alone with her work with radium which has benefitted the world in countless ways.
I loved the movie and felt that I received a semester of Physics 101 for the knowledge that was clarified in easily understood terms.
Movie: Madame Curie (1943)