Saturday, February 3, 2007

MADAME CURIE (MGM 1943) Warner Home Video

Mervyn LeRoy’s Madame Curie (1943) is the rather articulate and sumptuously mounted, though somewhat boring, biography of the woman who discovered radium. While attending a class by Prof. Jean Perot (Albert Basserman), Polish student, Marie (Greer Garson) faints from hunger. Recognizing her unique and extraordinary scientific mind, the benevolent Perot takes her out to dinner and introduces her to the young Prof. Pierre Curie (Walter Pigeon).

Fearing that a woman will be a distraction to his laboratory, Pierre slowly begins to fall in love with his new protégée. The two eventually marry and set about conducting their experiments in a shed on the university campus. But success comes with a price.

The first third of this soppy melodrama is vintage MGM treacle, masterfully produced and performed by one of the screen's most enduring and endearing teams - Pigeon and Garson. As Curie’s well-meaning parents, Dame May Whitty and Henry Travers are delightful; ditto for Robert Walker’s brief stint as another of Curie’s pupils, David Le Gros. 

But then we come to the dramatic impasse – the lengthy experimentation sequence that leads to Curie’s discovery of radium. Though artfully shot, there’s just not a lot of tension or excitement to be derived from two scientific minds peering down their microscopes. Layering montages in rapid succession also tends to retard the melodrama.

Director LeRoy is clearly working with a stellar cast and a proven formula – Garson and Pigeon were by now regarded as an idyllic portrait of resilient, if restrained, love. To be sure, their chemistry is what keeps the film going. But then we get the uneven ending. Pierre is killed when he steps into oncoming traffic and is trampled to death by a horse and carriage. The narrative fast tracks from Marie’s immediate grief in learning of her husband’s death to her compelling speech as an aged mother of invention. These final moments extol Garson's virtues as a consummate actress; her ability to ring tears and pathos from her audience as she celebrates Curie's continuing search for truth and progress.

Madame Curie is not Mrs. Miniver (1942) but it is a meticulous and ambitious attempt to recreate the magic of that film. That it only comes to life in fits and sparks, and is not entirely successful, is regrettable. But Garson gives a solid performance that is never anything less than riveting. 

Warner Home Video’s DVD is, for the most part, quite satisfactory. The B&W image exhibits a very solid and nicely contrasted gray scale with clean whites and deep blacks. There is a hint of edge enhancement and some minor shimmering of fine details. Occasionally pixelization intrudes, breaking apart background information. Age related artifacts are present but do not distract. The audio is mono and nicely cleaned up. Trailers are the only extra.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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