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The Girl in White

The Girl in White(1952)

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teaser The Girl in White (1952)

Sometimes those who are sticklers for facts complain about the "Hollywoodization" of the lives of famous people, instances when real-life stories are either tweaked or heavily embellished for the sake of selling movie tickets - and keeping moviegoers in their seats. In The Girl in White (1952), directed by John Sturges, June Allyson plays real-life turn-of-the-century medical pioneer Emily Dunning Barringer, the first woman doctor to secure and complete an internship in a general hospital in New York City. The real-life Emily Dunning had a solid Victorian upbringing, though her family fell upon hard times when Dunning was around eight years old. Still, she managed to find her way to Cornell University School of Medicine. At the time she earned her degree, fledgling doctors were appointed to general hospitals in New York on the basis of competitive examinations - exams women were not even allowed to take. Dunning beseeched the Medical Board for permission to take the exam, and was allowed to do so only on the condition that she wouldn't seek an appointment at any hospital no matter how well she did on the test. As it turned out, she placed first, and through perseverance, was able to secure an internship at New York's Gouveneur Hospital. Even then, the all-male staff, uncomfortable with her presence - and surely intimidated by her - tried to drive her out.

Dunning was undeterred, of course, but her path wasn't easy. And if The Girl in White makes her struggle look glossier and more picturesque than it must have been in real life, it does a reasonable job of outlining the types of challenges Dunning faced - not to mention that Allyson makes a very sympathetic heroine. A haughty male doctor tries to trip her up by declaring a man dead and stalking off to handle other "more important" duties. Allyson's Dunning recognizes, pluckily, that the man is still alive but has suffered alcohol poisoning, and revives him with the help of a crew of nurses. Some of them are just heading out to a dance when they get the call that they're needed, so they throw their uniforms on over their evening gowns - a touch that's probably pure Hollywood, but is wonderfully effective and charming nonetheless.

Among those who worked on the screenplay for The Woman in White was Irma von Cube (then known as Irmgard von Cube), whose writing credits also include Johnny Belinda (1948) and Mayerling (1936). She and fellow writer Philip Stevenson adapted the script from Dunning Barringer's 1950 autobiography, Bowery to Bellevue: The Story of New York's First Woman Ambulance Surgeon. (Dunning Barringer died in 1961.) And if Allyson, already known for playing agreeable, effortlessly cheerful characters in movies like the 1944 Two Girls and a Sailor (opposite Van Johnson, who would become her romantic lead in a number of films made throughout the decade), seems like a not-quite-natural choice to play a groundbreaking doctor, she carries the role with agility and grace, never pushing too hard for dramatic effect. The Girl in White sets up a potential love triangle that's most likely fictional, in which a doctor whom Dunning knew in medical school (Arthur Kennedy's Ben Barringer) vies for her affections even as the director of Gouveneur Hospital (Gary Merrill's Dr. Seth Pawling), who'd at first been resistant to granting her a staff position, becomes fond of her. In the end, of course, it's Barringer who wins Dr. Dunning's heart, but Allyson gives some delicate texture to the romantic confusion; there are times you really believe she might choose the wrong guy.

And if the critic for the New York Times was lukewarm about the film, dismissing it mostly as "simply a subdued development of facets in a career," he did praise Allyson's performance, as well as those given by her co-stars: "The chief attributes of The Girl in White are its principals. Arthur Kennedy makes a genuinely authentic doctor devoted to research and the girl he wants desperately to marry. As that girl, June Allyson is serious about her work and her love. Although the script does not give her many opportunities for incisive acting, she does, on occasion, give Dr. Dunning the stature of a crusader."

Although Allyson had become a bona fide star in the 1940s, making movies in the postwar era presented new challenges. At that point, the studio system was breaking down, and not long after making The Girl in White, Allyson found herself adjusting to the changing times. "The only parental authority I had was the studio," Allyson said in a 1972 interview. "When I was a star, there was always somebody with me, to guard me. I was not allowed to be photographed with a cigarette, a drink, a cup of coffee or even a glass of water because someone might think it was liquor. When I left the studio I was already married and had two children, but I felt as sad as a child leaving home for the first time." In some ways, Allyson's portrayal of a pioneering doctor presaged that act of striking out for new territory in real life, which, in Allyson's case, included more movies, a fair amount of TV work, and even, in the 1970s, appearances on the Broadway stage. None of that, of course, is exactly the same as being an early 20th century woman doctor in a man's world. But playing a ground-breaking doctor brimming with self-determination probably wasn't bad practice for the new and more complicated postwar world.

SOURCES:

IMDb
The New York Times
National Library of Medicine (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/changingthefaceofmedicine/)

Producer: Armand Deutsch
Director: John Sturges
Screenplay: Philip Stevenson, Allen Vincent and Irma von Cube. Adapted from Emily Dunning's autobiography Bowery to Bellevue
Cinematography: Paul Vogel
Music: David Raksin
Film Editing: Ferris Webster
Cast: June Allyson (Dr. Emily Dunning), Arthur Kennedy (Dr. Ben Barringer), Gary Merrill (Dr. Seth Pawling), Mildred Dunnock (Dr. Marie Yeomans), Jesse White (Alec, ambulance driver)
[black-and-white, 92 minutes]

By Stephanie Zacharek

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