Director John Sturges's most famous films - Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Great Escape, Bad Day at Black Rock, The Old Man and the Sea - are quintessentially masculine films about violence, prejudice, the bonds formed by men in confined spaces with each other and with nature, and dogged heroism in the face of despair. It's thus quite a surprise to see his name in inky curlicues scroll by in the credits of The Girl in White, a biopic of one of the first women surgeons in America, Emily Dunning Barringer. The film's steadfast and clear-eyed condemnation of the facilely paternalistic chauvinism that Emily experienced only heightens the surprise.
June Allyson is perfectly cast as Emily, anchoring the film emotionally without a single one of her famous crying scenes, and she is supported by Arthur Kennedy as her colleague and love interest and Mildred Dunnock as the female doctor who acts as her mentor. Based on Emily Dunning Barringer's more prosaically entitled memoirs, Bowery to Bellevue: The Story of New York's First Woman Ambulance Surgeon, the film is a textbook example of the Hollywood biopic, dutifully showing us a formative inspirational experience, a series of successes and setbacks, and, of course, a romance, repeating the formulas that earned Madame Curie, starring Greer Garson, seven Oscar nominations a decade earlier.
There's no question that The Girl in White lacks significant conflict, with a plot that can boast predictability more than anything else, but this isn't a film that attempts to draw the viewer in with suspense, thrills, or theatrics. Instead, it's a quiet, unassuming, but staunchly focused chronicle of one woman refusing to back down before sexism. Emily's superior phlegmatically explains to her that women shouldn't be doctors since they tend to mix up emotions and facts, her lover complains as he proposes marriage that he doesn't want to come home to find out his wife is out on a house call, a colleague insists that for three thousand years, the only medicine any woman has ever practiced is midwifery. This sort of casual, soberly expressed sexism doesn't make for stirring drama, but it does enforce a sense of how deeply ingrained assumptions about women's capabilities and duties were at the beginning of the twentieth-century. The locus of the film is its emotionally calibrated dissection of the barriers that women doctors faced and this alone renders it an unusual, and precious, document of feminist history, however romantically interpreted.
That feminism, however, hearkens back to the feminism of the narrative's time, the suffragette movement that would ultimately win the vote for women in 1920. This was the movement that campaigned for women to have the right to divorce their husbands without losing custody of their children, to attend universities and earn advanced degrees, and to control their own earnings. The Girl in White is all but free of the common markers of twenty-first century feminism. Emily's victories are painstakingly and gradually earned as she proves herself a surgeon as capable as her male colleagues. The highs are not so very high, and the lows are not terribly low, but The Girl in White manages to be an uplifting experience without turning the world on its head, as though sexism could be defeated by one woman doctor's rescue of a dying patient. It is a sentimental film, in the very best sense of the word. I can think of few films of this period that offer a similarly wholesome, cleanly romantic pleasure, though it certainly has much to offer to happy readers of Anne of Green Gables and its sequels, My Brilliant Career, or Louisa May Alcott's Work. Today, we may not blink an eye at the idea of a woman doctor - after all, even the conservative Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer could make a film in 1952 that insists on the absurdity of barring women from medicine - and that fact ought to guarantee The Girl in White a place, if a minor one, in the cultural record of the victories that feminism has won.
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