Radium Girls tells a story of radical courage

The Radium Girls in the lawyers office

Radium Girls is based on a true story about young women who worked painting radium based paint on watches and clocks in the 1920s. Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler, the film details a fight to get safe working conditions and help for the women who were sickened by the radium. The film is on Netflix.

Radium Girls tells the story of Bessie (Joey King) and her sister Jo (Abby Quinn). Both worked in the radium plant. Their sister Mary, who died 3 years earlier, had worked there, too.

The women working at the radium factory
Dip, lick, paint. Dip, lick, paint.

To do the work, a thin paintbrush was dipped in radium based paint, then licked, and then used to paint. At least it was done this way in the film. In reality it was lick, dip, paint. Either way, the women were ingesting radium.

Bessie took longer to do her work because she didn’t lick the brush. Jo did lick the brush and was more productive. At a penny per clock face, Bessie made far less. In the end, it was what saved her life. Jo’s health declines rapidly during the film.

Slowly, they came to understand that radium was making the women sick. The company denied it and said the girls who died all had syphilis.

Joey King in Radium Girls
Joey King as Bessie

Bessie made friends with Walt (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), who introduced her to a group of radical activists and communists. Among them was a photographer named Etta (Susan Heyward). Etta showed her films of people marching for justice. Women standing up for what was right was a new concept to Bessie. Etta introduced Bessie and Jo to an advocate who suggested they file a lawsuit and found them a lawyer. Their case would affect workers in factories all across the country.

Abby Quinn in Radium Girls
Abby Quinn as Jo

The progress of the lawsuit and the eventual outcome made up the remainder of the film.

I found the film unfocused. There was extraneous material that didn’t seem to make a difference in the story and some symbols meant nothing to me. I thought the use of real archival images and footage was powerful.

The sister relationship between Joey King and Abby Quinn was beautifully acted. I enjoyed watching Bessie progress from a dreamy teen to a strong and powerful woman.

The film was written by Ginny Mohler and Brittany Shaw. Key parts were filled by Cara Seymour, Scott Shepherd, Olivia Macklin, and John Bedford Lloyd.

Radium Girls poster

Take a look at the trailer.

Did you see Radium Girls when it came out in 2018? Are you interested in watching it now?

Author: Virginia DeBolt

After many years as an educator and writer, Virginia retired from working life. She's always loved a good movie or TV show and wants to use her free time to talk about them with you now. She's Old Ain't Dead!

6 thoughts on “Radium Girls tells a story of radical courage”

  1. “Radium Girls” (2018) is a historical drama which is based on true events, but it is very uneven.

    The first part of the drama is very slow, but as the story rolls on it becomes better and quite captivating. It is worth watching this movie all the way to the end.

    The topic is important, but unfortunately the way the story is told is not quite successful.

    This drama about problems with health and safety in the workplace reminds me of a somewhat similar case in Australia where the company James Hardie had workers who worked with the dangerous product asbestos for many years.

    The story about James Hardie and the asbestos workers is the subject of a historical drama which premiered on Australian television in 2012.

    It is a miniseries in two parts. The title is “Devil’s Dust.”

      1. Two books about uranium mining and the Navajo people:

        (1) “The Navajo People and Uranium Mining” edited by Doug Brugge, Timothy Benally and Esther Yazzie-Lewis (2006)

        (2) “Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed” by Judy Pasternak (2010)

        There is a documentary film about this topic: “The Return of Navajo Boy” (2000) (52 minutes).

        1. I’ve read Yellow Dirt but didn’t know about the other one. I’ll look for that documentary, too. Because I live in the southwest, it sometimes makes the news about the health problems the Navajo people have related to America’s war efforts and the next to NOTHING that has been done to help them.

  2. Here is a reference to one more book:

    “Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country” by Traci Brynne Voyles (2015).

    The topic has been covered on television by Democracy Now on at least two occasions:

    (1) “A slow genocide of the people: uranium mining leaves toxic nuclear legacy” 14 March 2014.

    (2) After decades of uranium mining, Navajo nation struggles with devastating legacy of contamination” 11 October 2012.

    Both television reports are available online.

  3. “Radium City” is a documentary film which premiered in 1987. Directed by Carole Langer. Run time 105 minutes.

    This film focuses on the radium factory located in Ottawa, Illinois.

    “Radium City” film is very uneven. Some parts are interesting and informative, while other parts are irrelevant.

    This film feels like a first draft which needs to be edited by a professional filmmaker.

Comments are appreciated!