Dec 19, 2015

Rosalind Russell, Sister Kenny

Won: Golden Globe Award - Best Actress
It's Rosalind Russell as a nurse!! It's the female The Story of Louis Pasteur (or companion piece to Madame Curie??)!! That just about sums up my viewing experience of Sister Kenny. And I'd like to preface this by saying that by no means do I want to diminish the legacy of trailblazing nurse Elizabeth Kenny; but Sister Kenny the film is formulaic oatmeal. It runs too long, its story too conventional and too outdated, with that old-Hollywood touch that makes it another film in a library of sappy 'prestige' biopics that mean well but stink of mediocrity.

And Rosalind Russell, try as she might, can't make this movie worth the watch. For the first hour or so you have young Elizabeth Kenny, ready to take on the world and be the best bush nurse she can damn well be. Which is fine and customary and what not, but then comes the problem that all old-Hollywood science-based biopics face--yours and my pedestrian selves don't understand medicine and science, and so the screenplay has to help us out by forcing some really preachy, training-video-for-dummies dialogue down our throats. Thus we are left with a rather laughable scene of Roz carefully talking to a polio-stricken child's leg, and the level of seriousness she dedicates to the scene only makes the whole thing all the more silly. Then comes the latter half of the film, where our hero faces the usual by-the-books discrimination one faces in these types of stories, the aforementioned 'alternative solution discrimination' faced by Paul Muni in Pasteur, but also a touch of sexist discrimination as well. So as with most of these forties films, Sister Kenny is a rehash and a repurposing of previously seen material. Roz is at her strongest in the latter half of the film, where she is given the most opportunities for dramatic weight. She fights back against the naysayers and she does it well, and I do feel as though she does a good job of sensitizing her rather strong on-screen persona that is otherwise unseen in the first half of the picture. But the importance of this woman isn't explicitly translated by this film or performance. Given her Golden Globe win and the fact that she plays a heroic lady out to save paralyzed children, she was likely second or third in the Best Actress race that year. But ask me in a few months (or maybe even years) from now if I'd like to revisit this film and I'll likely say no. Ask me what the best parts of her performance was and I'll probably have already forgotten. This is standard, standard, standard.


  1. I first saw this film as a youngster and was quite moved by it. When I saw it again as an adult I was rather aghast at almost all of the observations you've made here. Rosalind Russell had a tendency to overstress dramatic moments and hit her beats like a tom tom. She does settle down a bit as the movie progresses and shows more sensitivity in her interpretation during later moments, but the film is such a by the numbers example of forties biopics that her rising to the occasion, so to speak, is not enough to raise the film above the merely ordinary.

    I will say, Russell got better at these dramatic roles later in her career, though the properties themselves became more pedestrian, but this is a prototypical '40s biopic that has dated badly.

  2. I too saw this as a teenager, and while I remember Russell being as earnest as possible playing it, Sister Kenny never calls you back on the scale of Sylvia Fowler, Hildy Johnson and Mame Dennis Burnside.

    Of her late 40s material however, I certainly enjoyed 1948's "The Velvet Touch," Russell playing a Broadway actress who impulsively kills her producer/former lover and allows (a great) Claire Trevor to take the blame. The terrific Sydney Greenstreet is onboard too.

    1. Agreed--I feel as though she and Grant got the short end of the stick in the sense that they were each granted nominations this decade for work that no one remembers decades later, in spite of both putting out quite excellent work within the same time frame. 'tis a shame really.

      I'll try and find time to check The Velvet Touch out, it sounds interesting!