30 April 2001 | mark.waltz
An admirable attempt to film a great lady's life.
Warner Brothers in the 1930's was known a lot more than their Busby Berkley musicals and gangster dramas. They filmed a successful series of biographies, from George Arliss' "Disraeli", "Voltaire", and "Alexander Hamilton", to Dolores Del Rio's "Madame DuBarry". When Paul Muni had a hit with his performance as Louis Pasteur, Warner Brothers decided to give their biggest leading lady, Kay Francis, the chance for hers as "the lady with the lamp", Florence Nightingale.
This was a departure for Kay, who had appeared in a series of romantic dramas which for the most part had not done all that well at the box-office. The rising success of another Warner Brothers contract actress Bette Davis had Francis desperate to do something other than suffer in mink. Unfortunately for Kay, the film was released in July when the majority of the audience-teenagers-wanted action and adventure, not a history lesson. Then, there were the reviews, which were respectable-for the film's overall production, but not for Kay. They all mostly agreed that Kay was badly miscast as the noble Florence.
The film begins with wealthy young Florence fixing the broken leg of a dog, then deciding, much against the wishes of her family, to enter nursing. She is appalled by nursing conditions, and does all she can to change them. Cleaning out the drunk and cruel harpies which seem to represent 75% of the nursing profession, Florence finds an ally in a kind-hearted nun (Eily Malyon) who becomes her assistant. War erupts, and Florence works at the front harder than any of the women she hires. Of course, this takes a toll on her health, as does the presence of doctor Donald Crisp who objects to her methods.
I agree with the critic's conception of Kay's miscasting as Florence. While I don't know what she looked like in real life, something tells me that the nursing uniforms worn by Kay were not nearly as glamorous looking. Only in a Kay Francis movie can the heroine walk through a dirty hall of sick soldiers looking as if she's heading out to a nightclub. Kay's makeup never falters, even in her sickly state. It's not that Kay's performance is bad; something tells me that she was never able to sink her teeth into this role as Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck would have done. Sadly, the failure of this film seemed to doom Kay's remaining days at Warner Brothers to long-suffering mothers or romantic heroines.
Seen today on Turner Classic Movies, "The White Angel" can easily impress its audience with its overly noble portrayal of a saintly woman who changed the nursing profession single handidly. When compared to the Paul Muni and George Arliss bios, where it lacks is in the lack of a presence of a strong leading lady. Kay Francis still remains one of my favorites, and as a movie, this is enjoyable, but she's still Kay Francis, regardless of the lack of sables and minks. The story of Florence Nightingale had several other attempts on screen: in a 1950's English film with Anna Neagle; and on TV in the 80's with Jacqueline Smith. Just the mentioning of the last one makes me ask the question: didn't the people who made that version read the reviews of this one?