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By the time she delivered her Oscar-nominated performance in RKO's Sister Kenny (1946), Rosalind Russell had known the real-life Sister Elizabeth Kenny - a nurse from the Australian outback who successfully battled infantile paralysis and the medical establishment - for six years. The two met through Russell's work for a California charitable organization she helped found, The League for Crippled Children. In her autobiography, Life Is a Banquet, Russell repeated her initial impression of Kenny: "She looked like an M-4 tank, but her eyes were the loneliest and loveliest I've ever seen." The friendship that sprang up between the two women intensified Russell's desire to play Kenny onscreen.
Often traveling with Kenny and watching her work, Russell grew to admire her more and more. "I believe if she hadn't gone stamping through the world, stirring people up, we'd have been a whole lot longer getting the Salk vaccine," the actress wrote. Kenny, observing Russell's toddler son Lance in the bath during a visit to the actressome, noticed a spastic muscle in his right leg and had the child admitted to her Kenny Institute in Minneapolis under a false name. Little Lance, who had been unable to walk before, left the clinic walking normally.
Sister Kenny, developed by three screenwriters (including co-star Alexander Knox) from Kenny's autobiography, offers Russell a tour de force that takes her character from college days to age 60. After first encountering the ravages of polio in the outback, Kenny evolves a theory of treatment that is scorned by the medical community but eventually proves so successful that, after arriving in the U.S. in 1940, she sets up her own institute. The men in Kenny's life are played by Dean Jagger, as the romantic interest she leaves behind in her dedication to work; and Knox as a Scottish physician who believes in the nurse's ideas despite the opinions of his fellow doctors.
Russell's close association with her subject allowed her to observe many details that she wove into her characterization. "I studied her walk, her gestures," the actress wrote in her autobiography. "She had a very powerful right hand, a very feminine left hand, and she stood very straight because her mother had kept a back brace on her as a child."
Sister Kenny brought Russell the second of four nominations for an Oscar, which she never won in competition - though she was given the Academy's Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1973. Her other nominations were for My Sister Eileen, 1942; Mourning Becomes Electra, 1947; and Auntie Mame, 1958. Russell did win five Golden Globes, including one as Best Dramatic Actress for Sister Kenny. Daily ads in the Hollywood trade papers had promoted Russell for the Oscar that year, and she was the only one among the 10 acting nominees to keep running ads after the nominations were announced. Despite these efforts, Russell lost the statuette to Olivia de Havilland for To Each His Own (1946).
Producer: Dudley Nichols, Edward Donahue (associate)
Director: Dudley Nichols
Screenplay: Alexander Knox, Mary McCarthy, Dudley Nichols, from the book And They Shall Walk by Elizabeth Kenny and Martha Ostenso
Cinematography: George Barnes
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, William E. Flannery
Costume Design: Travis Banton
Original Music: Alexander Tansman
Editing: Roland Gross
Principal Cast: Rosalind Russell (Sister Elizabeth Kenny), Alexander Knox (Dr. Aeneas McDonnell), Dean Jagger (Kevin Connors), Philip Merivale (Dr. Brack), Beulah Bondi (Mary Kenny), Charles Dingle (Michael Kenny), John Litel (Medical Director).
BW-117m. Closed captioning.
by Roger Fristoe