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Warner Bros. decided to follow the critically acclaimed The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), which starred Paul Muni in an Oscar-winning performance, with another biography about a legend in the field of medicine. Though famous for topical stories in contemporary genres, such as backstage musicals and gangster films, the studio courted prestige by producing a series of biopics, including Disraeli (1929), Voltaire (1933), Alexander Hamilton (1931), and even Madame Dubarry (1934). The White Angel (1936) told the story of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing who helped turn the profession into a medically rigorous, skilled vocation that required training and discipline. William Dieterle, who had directed The Story of Louis Pasteur, was tapped for The White Angel, which starred Kay Francis, Warner Bros.'s highest-paid star.
A part of the Warner Bros. stable since 1931, Francis enjoyed her greatest success in the early Depression era in romantic comedies and melodramas. A chic, worldly brunette with a cello voice, Francis brought glamour and class to her characters, who excelled in the game of romance. Whether her character suffered in love, or caused the suffering of others, she gallantly tried to do the right thing in the final reel. Her characters were generally a part of Caf Society, where ladies of leisure toyed with good men's affections, or well-bred women fell hopelessly in love with ruthless businessmen or careless cads. Fanzines regularly touted Francis's fashion sense, and part of her star image required that she wear stunning gowns, stylish suits, and tasteful accessories. Her sleek, model-like figure was ideal for the long lines and dropped waists of 1930s styles. In short, Francis was the essence of the ideal modern woman, caught up in the conflicts of romance, career, and social position.
Obviously cast against type in The White Angel, Francis and Warner Bros. seemed eager for this prestigious departure from her usual roles. A period piece set in the mid-nineteenth century, the film follows Florence Nightingale from her decision to become a nurse through her horrific experiences in the Crimean War, where the wounded suffered under the primitive conditions of the hospital facilities. Nightingale experiences criticism from her upper-class friends and peers for her decision to become a nurse, and she constantly fights against the reactionary views of male doctors, hospital administrators, and war department officials. Through it all, she remains resolute and committed to her vocation. She is so committed that she turns down a marriage proposal and eschews romance. Much to her mother's chagrin, she insists on wearing the drab nurse's attire of full, gray skirt and unflattering white cap. Thus, Florence Nightingale seems to have little in common with Francis's other characters.
The White Angel was a critical and box-office failure. Both reviewers of the period and scholars of today blame the misfire on the miscasting of Francis. But, that judgment seems unfair and outdated. While women of the Depression related to stars like Francis because they provided glamorous models of the modern woman, viewers today don't have those expectations of her. Few contemporary viewers are even familiar with Francis, who has been forgotten over the decades, so they will not be disappointed that she is playing against type. Francis's performance is controlled and subdued, a style of acting suited to the character of Nightingale, who was steadfast against the tides of personal and professional criticism. That doesn't mean her performance is without emotion. When Nightingale opens the door to the hospital in Crimea, which is filthy and disgusting, she looks like she is going to cry for a split second, but she quickly pulls herself together. The subtlety in that change of expression is an example of Francis's preference for conveying emotion through her eyes.
The faults in the film have less to do with Francis's casting and more to do with the conventions of the biopic during the 1930s. Generally overwritten and overwrought, many biopics from the era have not aged well. Though the long monologues and broad, gimmicky acting tended to garner accolades and awards at the time, these films now seem leaden and tedious. The White Angel suffers more than most biopics from these weaknesses. As the reviewer for The New York Times noted, Florence Nightingale "talks, walks and thinks like a historical character. When she speaks, she is speaking for posterity."
Though Florence Nightingale does not fit Kay Francis's star image, the role does share something in common with some of her other characters. Francis's other roles represented modern womanhood in the decade after the liberating Jazz Age, just a few years after women won the right to vote, when views on womanhood were in flux between progress and tradition. Likewise, in the film, Florence Nightingale struggles with changing views of women in the nineteenth century. When Florence returns home after rigorous training in Germany, because England has no comparable nurses' school, she goes to Dr. West, a family friend, for employment. He tells her that her training will come in handy for marriage. Another character pleads with her to "marry soon and get these ideas out of your head." When she gets to the battlefields of Crimea, she is undermined by the officer in charge, who is determined to pressure her until "she goes home where she belongs." Florence modernizes the filthy army hospitals in Crimea with new ideas of sanitation and organizes the nurses for round-the-clock care of the wounded. Though Florence reduces the death rate among the wounded from 56% to 6%, the chief medical officer in the hospital at Scutari believes women to be naturally unfit, unbalanced, and incompetent. The constant comments in the dialogue against females in the work place and about women and marriage are familiar in any era in which women's roles are in flux, which gives the film a universal theme. The undue emphasis on the "miscasting" of Francis in assessments of The White Angel has detracted from more interesting readings of the film.
Unfortunately for Francis, the film marked a turning point in her position at Warner Bros. and in her career. The downward turn may have started with powerful producer Hal Wallis, who was disappointed with director William Dieterle. He blamed Dieterle for what he called Francis's emotionless performance in which he accused the actress of using the same expression no matter the circumstance. As the year 1936 progressed, the relationship between Francis and the studio deteriorated. They refused her request for certain roles; she sued them for breach of contract when she was promised the lead in Tovarich (1937), and the studio gave it to free-lancer Claudette Colbert. Harry and Jack Warner were hoping that Francis would request an early release from her contract, and when she refused, they mounted a campaign of harassment and humiliation. Francis stuck it out until her contract ran out in 1939, but her Hollywood career never recovered.
By Susan Doll
Producer: Henry Blanke Director: William DieterleScreenplay: Michael Jacoby and Mordaunt Shairp, based on a biographical sketch by Lytton Strachey in Eminent VictoriansCinematography: Tony GaudioEditor: Warren LowArt Director: Anton Grot Costume Designer: Orry-KellyOriginal Music: Heinz RoemheldCast: Florence Nightingale (Kay Francis), Fuller (Ian Hunter), Charles Cooper (Donald Woods), Dr. West (Nigel Bruce), Dr. Hunt (Donald Crisp), Dr. Scott (Henry O'Neill), Sir Sidney Herbert (George Curzon), Mrs. Elizabeth Herbert (Phoebe Foster), Mr. Nightingale (Charles Croker-King), Mrs. Nightingale (Georgia Caine), Tommy (Billy Mauch)
1936 B&W 75 mins.