Cast & Crew
At the City Hospital in Chicago, young Dr. O'Donnell struggles to save a woman who is hemorrhaging after having given birth. Despite O'Donnell's efforts, the woman dies, and the distraught doctor wanders the streets while contemplating the whims of fate. A more experienced head doctor advises O'Donnell that because obstetrics is such an important but neglected branch of medicine, he should study at the Chicago Maternity Center under Doctors Hanson and Ballou. O'Donnell arrives at the center, which serves poverty-stricken women, and begins his training. He learns from his teachers the proper ways to examine the women, in order to indentify if they are susceptible to eclampsia, hemorrhage or infection, the three main killers of women in childbirth. During a lecture given by Hanson and Ballou, the student doctors learn that in the United States, almost as many women still die in childbirth as did twenty-five years ago, that more lives are lost in childbirth than as a result of cancer, and that deaths of new mothers and infants under one month ranks second only to heart disease in total mortality. The young doctors are shown a film on the proper way to scrub up and prepare the home for the delivery, as half of the women who gave birth the previous year did so at home, and 250,000 had only a mid-wife attending them. Soon after, O'Donnell assists Hanson on a case in a slum area, where Mrs. Mendez, the expectant mother, greets them in her run-down apartment. The delivery goes well, and soon O'Donnell becomes more experienced as he learns from Ballou and Hanson. One day, while returning to the center, O'Donnell becomes depressed by the poverty and filth surrounding his patients, and he despairingly asks the older doctors what good it does to help the poor when they have no chance to better their lives. The men tell him that even though disease and hunger stalk those who live in the slums, as physicians they must heal the sick no matter what the conditions and hope that modern medicine will improve their lives. O'Donnell and Ballou go on an emergancy call to a pregnant woman who is suffering from hypertension, and quick action by Ballou saves the woman's life. Time passes, and O'Donnell is now one of the teaching doctors, and the young intern assigned to him is Harris. The pair answer a call and prepare to aid a young woman pregnant with her third child. While her grandmother watches anxiously, the young woman gives birth. All appears well until the woman suddenly begins to hemorrhage. Remembering the hemorrhaging woman who died at the hospital, O'Donnell acts swiftly and orders a blood transfusion. His training serves him well and he saves the woman's life. Hanson and Ballou, who had come to offer their assistance, watch approvingly as O'Donnell leaves the recovered woman to go on his rounds in the hospital.
Beatrice Tucker M.d.
According to information contained in a 1940 program for this film, "over two-thirds of The Fight for Life was shot silent, in the Chicago Maternity Center, in a large maternity hospital, and in the tenement homes of expectant mothers, most of whom were relief clients." The program also notes that the dialogue sequences were shot in Hollywood, and that the "soliloquies" were inserted into the final cut of the film after the musical score had been completed. While an August 1940 New York Times article noted that the film was budgeted at $250,000, a Hollywood Reporter news item states that the film was made for $150,000. According to a NYH-T article, Warner Bros. originally offered author Paul de Kruif $50,000 for the rights to the best-selling book on which this film is based. De Kruif, however, rejected the Warner Bros. bid and instead offered it free to the U.S. Goverment with the stipulation that expert documentary filmmaker Pare Lorentz supervise it. The article also claims that had a private studio produced the film, it would not have been passed by the Hays Office.
The Hays Office, according to correspondence contained in the file for the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, was approached by Columbia in May 1940 with a request to certify the film, but it refused to do so because it was a government film and, consequently, was exempt from the agency's review process. According to a June 1940 article in the Los Angeles paper, The News, the film was to be the last government sponsored film because it was announced that the program that funded such films would be dissolved. Modern sources indicate that the film was commissioned by the United States Department of Health, and that it was withdrawn from circulation in 1944 due to the government's refusal to continue funding documentary films. An edited version of the film was released in 1947 in 16mm gauge. A biography of Lorentz notes that author John Steinbeck assisted in preparatory research for the film, along with Elizabeth Meyer, who lived at the Chicago Maternity Center for some time in order to learn more about the inner workings of the institution. Lorentz's biography also relates the following information: Photographer Floyd Crosby was assisted by William Clothier, and actress Dorothy Adams played the mother who hemmorhages after childbirth. Some of the music was performed by Joe Sullivan and his band, which was comprised of Edmond Hall, Danny Polo, Andy Anderson, Benny Morton and Billy Taylor.
The first showing of the film took place on December 31, 1939 at the White House, where it was shown to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who reportedly said of the film "I think it will do a lot of good." Although the exact national release date for the film has not been found, modern sources indicate that on May 22, 1940 the U.S. Government announced that it had contracted Columbia to distribute the picture. Fight for Life was nominated for an Academy Award in the Music (Original Score) category.