Movie Magazine International

So Bright The Flame

USA - 1952

Movie Review By Monica Sullivan

Few reviewers love the movies as deeply as Leonard Maltin, but most of his emotional responses to film narratives appear to have crystallized by the age of fourteen. The other night on the Turner Classic Movies channel, I caught a 1952 M.G.M. picture directed by John ("The Magnificent Seven", "The Great Escape") Sturges & starring June Allyson. I expected to read another typically dismissive reaction by Maltin. In just eighteen words, I got it: Humdrum biography of Emily Dunning, the first woman to work as a doctor in a N.Y.C. hospital." HUMDRUM! GRRR! Although the picture was good rather than great, it was better than many of the 40 features released by the once-mighty studio that year. It had, in fact, much of the bite & grit of another fine Sturges film of 1952: "Jeopardy" starring Barbara Stanwyck. At 45, Stanwyck was too mature to play a young woman training to be a doctor, so June Allyson at 35 represented a compromise choice. After all, she'd played Josephine March in "Little Women" just three years earlier & her casting might not have seemed as eccentric in the middle of the 20th century as it does in the 21st.

Emily Dunning's autobiography, "Bowery To Bellevue: The Story Of New York's First Woman Ambulance Surgeon" was retitled "The Girl In White" in America & "So Bright The Flame" in England. The U.S. title trivialized the point of the story, since the life's work of Emily Dunning was nothing short of inspirational. In real life, Dunning decided to become a doctor after hearing a lecture by Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi: In the film, she helps Dr. Marie Yeomans (beautifully played by Mildred Dunnock) deliver a baby. Dunning catches her glowing face, as well as her future, in the mirror after the delivery. The 93m. screenplay by Irma von Cube, Allen Vincent & Philip Stevenson pulls no punches as it shows how Dunning was confronted with bigotry & sexism at every stage of her academic & professional career. Even after graduating 2nd in the Class of 1901 (at age 25) at Cornell University Medical School, Dunning was rejected on purely sexist grounds when she applied for a position at New York's Governeur Hospital. After assisting her mentor for a period, Dunning reapplied & was finally accepted in 1903, though her fellow interns circulated a petition demanding her dismissal. The petition failed, as did the hostile environment the male interns created in order to intimidate Dunning into resigning voluntarily.

After two years as an ambulance surgeon, Dunning became the 1st woman to become a hospital staff surgeon in New York City. One of the best sequences shows Dr. Dunning saving the life of a poisoned patient who's been given up for dead by one of her most vocal male opponents. All the female nurses on the ward help her bring the guy back to life & one of them tips off the press. The strong feminist tone of the story is reinforced by the no-nonsense direction of Sturges, by the fine acting of Arthur Kennedy as Dr. Ben Barringer, Dunning's future husband, &, frankly, by the conviction of Allyson's performance. Dr. Dunning was still alive when "The Girl In White"/"So Bright the Flame" was released & she lived on nine more years until her death in 1961 at the age of 65. This one isn't on video yet but it deserves to be.

© 2000 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 1/26/00

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