Kay Francis … Florence Nightingale
Ian Hunter … Reporter Fuller of the London Times
Donald Woods … Charles Cooper
Nigel Bruce … Dr. West
Donald Crisp … Dr. Hunt
Henry O’Neill … Dr. Scott
Billy Mauch … Tommy, the Drummer Boy
Charles Croker-King … Mr. Nightingale
Phoebe Foster … Mrs. Elizabeth Herbert
George Curzon … Mr. Sidney Herbert
Georgia Caine … Mrs. Nightingale
Ara Gerald … Ella Stephens
Halliwell Hobbes … Lord Raglan
Eily Malyon … Sister Colombo
Montagu Love … Mr. Bullock, Under Secretary of War
Produced by Henry Blanke.
Directed by William Dieterle.
Screenplay by Michael Jacoby & Mordaunt Shairp.
Art Direction by Anton Grot.
Special Photography by Fred Jackman.
Musical Direction by Leo F. Forbstein.
Musical Composition by Heinz Roemheld.
Cinematography by Tony Gaudio.
Film Editing by Warren Low.
Gowns by Orry-Kelly.
A First National Picture.
Released June 25, 1936.
Box Office Information:
Cost of Production: $506,000
Domestic Gross: $886,000
Foreign Gross: $530,000
Total Gross: $1,416,000
[Please see the Box Office page for more info.]
Director William Dieterle guided Paul Muni to his most excellent screen portrayal with The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935), the film which garnered the legendary actor his only Academy Award. To cash in on the success of the film, Warner Bros.—who produced Pasteur—decided to produce an immediate follow-up biopic involving the life of a medical expert. For some unexplained reason, they chose Florence Nightingale.
The selected heroine was a great choice, but it was too late to produce a lavish biopic on the life of the lady with a lamp who survived the Crimean War—one of the bloodiest in history. The Production Code Administration had given Warner Brothers the green light on the project, but informed them that no violence could be shown on the screen (BF).
As a result, Florence Nightingale’s perseverance through Crimea was seen strictly in the medical hospitals where she treated her patients, and the offices of the generals who second-guessed her.
Newspaper ads printed in December, 1935 read about Kay’s casting in Angel of Mercy, her “greatest picture for Warners” (BF). Originally, Josephine Hutchinson was promised the part, and was not to happy when Kay got the lead and star treatment (BF). But, as Jack and Harry Warner made clear, Kay was their top box office star, and Angel of Mercy was to be a very important picture (BF).
Production began March 2, 1936 and concluded on April 22 (CR). Producer Hal B. Wallis recognized the film as a potential disaster from the beginning. “I felt [Dieterle] should have gotten more emotion from Kay Francis,” Wallis later remembered. “In scene after scene, reacting to the sight of the injured, or clashing with an official who refused to see things her way, she looked completely blank. We weren’t too happy with the picture. The White Angel was well-directed, but miscast, and Kay Francis lost the box office she once had. It was one of our box office failures” (PL).
Retitled The White Angel, the film received mixed reviews but it was not the box office flop history has exaggerated it to be, particularly with a gross of $1,416,000.
But in the years following The White Angel, and even before, Florence Nightingale’s life has never been produced on the screen with stunning results.
(BF) Kay Francis: I Can’t Wait to Be Forgotten, Scott O’Brien, 2006.
(CR) The Complete Kay Francis Career Record, Lynn Kear and John Rossman, 2008.
(PL) Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career, Kear and Rossman, 2005.
The White Angel opens up with dramatic credits appearing before a portrait of Florence Nightingale standing with the lamp in her hand. “Towards the year 1850,” they tell us, “England was at peace with the world. Her men were following her ships to the four corners of the earth, building the great empire that is Queen Victoria’s monument. Women were only permitted to nod meek approval. In all England, only Her Majesty had the right to express herself with the independence of a man.”
It’s New Years, and while the respectable citizens of England, such as the Nightingales, bring in the New Year by toasting a glass of port to the Queen, after which retiring to sleep, the lower classes are busy making drunken asses of themselves out in the streets.
On that night, Florence Nightingale’s father promises her that all she desires will come true this year, sound advice Florence takes dear to her heart.
Mr. Nightingale serves on the welfare committee, and gets entangled in the charges brought upon hospitals for the lack of inefficient nursing staffs. One night, while Florence is going through her father’s papers, she comes across the accounts, horrified about what is really going on in the medicine world. It is because of this that she throws away plans to marry and settle down, opting instead to go to a sufficient nursing school in Germany and return to England to rebuild the reputation of the hospital nurse from the ground up.
In Germany, Florence scrubs the floors, disinfects the rooms, cares for patients, and learns the true responsibility of the nursing profession. She returns to England only to have every door slammed right in her face. No one will hire her because nursing, or even having any sort of a career in general, is something that the “respectable” English woman is not supposed to do. The respectable young ladies are supposed to marry, produce children, and dedicate their lives to their families and their households. Only women of unstable financial homes are supposed to be out working.
Florence sees life differently.
When the Crimean War breaks out, Florence manages to get herself a job in Crimea managing a nursing staff in a service hospital. She has a major recruitment of followers determined to go over to Crimea and help out, but Florence only chooses a select few she is convinced can actually handle the gruesome responsibility about caring for wounded soldiers.
Florence and her staff arrive in Crimea during a downpour—symbolic of the animosity she is about to meet at the hospital from the male higher-ups convinced that women make irresponsible nurses. Charles Cooper, the man most against women having anything to do with the professional world, leads the pack against Florence.
As the nurses enter the hospital, they are at first taken back by the horrific conditions they have encountered. On top of overcrowding, filth, vermin, disease, and lack of fresh air, there is a lack of supplies for the reconstruction. Watch Kay’s face when she first opens the door into the hospital. For a slight second she looks like she’s about the burst into tears, but then quickly pulls herself together, knowing that crying is exactly what Charles Cooper would expect her and her nurses to do.
Within weeks the hospital has become totally revamped by Florence and her nurses into a functional, productive, and healthy facility were the injured soldiers can regain their health and rebuild their lives.
Fuller, a reporter from the Times, follows Florence on her journey through Crimea, reporting everything back to the printing house in England where the entire country has become fans of Florence’s achievements. As the Queen hears of her work, she decides to send Florence to Balaklava for a similar assignment. Here the conditions are even worse than the ones in Scutari, and Florence gets ill with chorea as a result. She recovers, and continues to impress the people of England and Queen Victoria, who calls Florence back to England for a personal meeting and a promotion to a Superintendent of Nurses title.
While waiting to meet the Queen, Florence encounters the man who has been leading the resistance against her for the past two years. She ignores his ignorance, and begins to recite the Nurse’s pledge, to which the Queen overhears. She gives Florence a brooch with an inscription which reads “Blessed are the Merciful.”
I actually really enjoyed this one. Kay is miscast, and looks a little odd in the period wardrobe, but it’s still a good one to see her in considering it was a landmark film of her career. The glamour is really toned down, even in the scenes before she goes to nursing school in Germany. Her makeup is rather plain, her outfits not too outlandish; the only aspect of her appearance which is slightly exaggerated is her complicated hairstyle. Other than that, she’s really broken down from the Hollywood mystique into the plainest possible form.
Her performance is a bit inconsistent. She’s blank-faced throughout much of the film, and emotionless while responding to dying soldiers, amputations, and hostile resistance. The only scene in which her acting leaves an impression is when she first enters the hospital at Scutari. Other than that, she almost seems totally uninterested in everything.
Donald Cook does a really good job with his ignorant Charles Cooper, a type of character he usually played, at least in his films with Kay. Ian Hunter really isn’t that mentionable. There’s not much for him to do here but follow Kay around with a pen and paper. The role of Fuller should have been given to an actor of less prestige.
The White Angel was directed by the brilliant William Dieterle, the man responsible for the success of The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935), with Paul Muni in the title role. Dieterle and Kay had previously worked together on Man Wanted, Jewel Robbery (both 1932), and Doctor Monica (1934). All of those films feature Kay giving strong, sincere performances. It’s hard to tell what happened here, but when one reads into the behind the scenes information on White Angel, apparently the film was a disaster from the pre-production stages.
Supposedly, this is the best film version of Nightingale’s life, and it’s actually pretty much historically accurate. And while is may not be the best film of Kay’s career, it’s still pretty decent, and worth more of a consideration than it gets.
The Warners, prompted by the success of their “Story of Louis Pasteur,” are offering a new medical biography in “The White Angel,” which had its first metropolitan showing at the Strand yesterday. A respectful—in fact, a worshipful—history of Florence Nightingale, founder of modern nursing, the picture is dignified, reasonably accurate, deeply moving and dismayingly pompous. These descriptives are contradictory, which cannot be helped, for the film itself is a curious admixture of good and bad. Perhaps we had best stand on the adjective “worthwhile.” The epithet is not as faint as it sounds; not too many of any year’s pictures are truly worth the seeing.
Biography always is a courageous undertaking for a motion-picture studio, particularly when (as in this case) the producer obviously is anxious to adhere to the essential facts. Since life usually does not fit the pattern of the successful scenario, the producer of a screen biography either must change the course of history or run the risk of displeasing the romanticists in his audiences. To the Warners’ credit let it be noted that “The White Angel” is guilty of only minor infidelities and these are not along romantic lines. Miss Nightingale, unlike the probationers in the Loretta Young school of nursing, is not unduly torn between a handsome juvenile and a professional career.
The film’s fault is not so crude as that, but it is as readily discernible. Simply stated, it is that the life of its heroine has been editorialized: Miss Nightingale—as Kay Francis portrays her—talks, walks and thinks like a historical character. When she speaks, she is speaking for posterity. When she makes her nightly round through the hospital ward you are sure she is striving to live up to Longfellow’s “Lady With the Lamp.” When she tells her opponents they cannot stop her work you cannot escape the feeling she is speaking less out of sublime faith than certain knowledge gleaned from a twentieth century encyclopedia.
This, of course, is all wrong, and the treatment becomes all the more incomprehensible when we realize that the film was suggested not by the more reverent biographies but by Lytton Strachey’s extremely human sketch of Miss Nightingale in his “Eminent Victorians.” An angel of mercy she was, no doubt, and a woman of infinite compassion, humanity and far-reaching influence. But she was, too, a lively, forceful, direct, sarcastic and present-minded personality, who, in all probability, did not regard herself (as Miss Francis would have us believe) as a Joan of Arc, mystically responding to the promptings of heavenly voices and moving with an air of lofty serenity and other-worldly detachment on a pre-ordained mission.
In most other respects the picture presents honestly, graphically and dramatically the major episodes in Miss Nightingale’s gallant crusade in behalf of nursing—a crusade which long has been recognized as one of the most important in the history of medicine and public health. The tale begins in London in 1850, when nursing was considered a “peculiarly disreputable profession” and Miss Nightingale was eyed suspiciously and disapprovingly by her mother’s friends when she announced her intention of entering hospital service.
The picture pretends she was ignored in London after gaining her training abroad, and compels her to wait until the outbreak of the Crimean War before finding an opportunity to use her new-won knowledge. It returns to fact thereafter, with the record of her dramatic journey to the military hospital at Scutari, where, with her band of thirty-eight female nurses, she took care of 10,000 wounded and diseased soldiers who previously had been dying like flies because of the indescribable filth, neglect and mismanagement typical of war hospitals.
There, too, she encounters the stubborn and unbelievably stupid hostility of the army surgeons and aides, the administrative inefficiency of the supply department and other evils which she must overcome before a climatic scene when she is received by Queen Victoria and presented with the historic brooch bearing the inscription: “Blessed are the merciful.”
Like “Pasteur,” the film is a chronicle of conflict between enlightenment and ignorance; a dramatization of forces beyond the usual interests of Hollywood. And, in the main, it has been excellently served by its cast and director. Miss Francis’s performance is sincere and eloquent, however we may regret its reverential tone. Donald Crisp, Nigel Bruce and Montagu Love are shrewd personifications of conservative, stand-pat medical and army men. There is some valuable minor assistance from George Curzon as the sympathetic Secretary of State, Ian Hunter as the Times correspondent, Halliwell Hobbes as Lord Raglan, Eily Malyon as a nursing sister, Henry O’Neill as a helpless surgeon, and many others. The sincerity of the Warners’ attempt deserves our respect, even if the picture does not fully achieve its destiny.
Written by Frank S. Nugent.
Published June 25, 1936 in the New York Times.
From Photoplay, August 1936: