Film Review

The White Angel

todayAugust 31, 2023 207

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By – Gareth Jones

For fans of Classic Hollywood, Kay Francis, William Dieterle Bio films, nurse representation on film

Released in 1936 by Warner Brothers, The White Angel is a fascinating biopic about Florence Nightingale.  It is one of several biopics directed by German actor turned director William Dieterle including The Story of Louis Pasteur, The Life of Emile Zola, and Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet. It is a grand melodrama giving plenty of opportunity for Kay Francis to chew some scenery.  With all that being said, it is an intriguing representation of the nursing profession and the person who is seen as the mother of modern nursing. It was an era in Hollywood where scientists could be the lead characters in big blockbuster films.  We may be entering another era now with Oppenheimer, but that remains to be seen.

Set around 1860 the film chronicles the times before the Crimean War to the post-war era.  Florence Nightingale was born into a high class, wealthy family and all set for a meaningless life as a wife with little inspiration or purpose.  However, her father is on the board that oversees the conditions of the hospitals in London and soon Florence discovers the atrocious conditions of the hospitals due in several ways to the completely inadequate state of nursing.  None were trained and few had genuine empathy for the patients.  Florence immediately decides to go and be trained properly as a nurse in Germany and returns to change the state of affairs. Unfortunately, she hits the patriarchal wall of indifference, that is until the war in Crimea breaks out and she is able to convince the government to let her train some nurses and head to the battlefront to help and heal the injured.  

All of this is presented in the typical Classic Hollywood style with grand set pieces, immaculate costumes, and theatrical acting.  At the time, Kay Francis was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood and it is seen in how she is lit, framed, and shot throughout the film. She is often backlit to look angelic or heavenly.  The main villain of the piece, Dr. Hunt, portrayed by the dynamic Donald Crisp (the beloved father in How Green Was My Valley) has many lines about the roles of women that surely will make modern audiences cringe.

In spite of the Hollywoodization of the story, Florence Nightingale remains a very important figure in the history of medicine, and her portrayal here is significant to the perception we have of nursing and the profession as a whole.  It does a great job of showing how Nightingale fought the patriarchal system to create a training system and philosophy for the profession.  It counters the standard expectations of having every heroine needing a man to be by her side and to end a film with a marriage or assurance of a relationship.  In this case, she went on to dedicate herself solely to nursing, never marrying or needing a man to accomplish her goals.  It also has one small but significant character, the chef who sees the necessity of diet in the healing process and joins Nightingale in her battle.  Nightingale was a major influence in the medicinal value of food in the nursing environment. But this was just one man in a field of women. As such, as in many other films about the medical world, it reinforced stereotypes that women can only be nurses and nurses can only be women.

Written by: Gareth Jones

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