In 1952, somebody knocked Eleanor Roosevelt out of the number one spot as America’s Most Admired Woman, according to a poll by Time magazine. Her name was Elizabeth Kenny, and in her own time she was a controversial rebel who fought the medical establishment, got a movie made of her life starring Rosalind Russell, and saved countless children from suffering.
It’s hard for today’s generation to get a sense of how terrifying polio was to our parents and grandparents. In 1952 – the year Sister Kenny made her mark – there was a record high of 58,000 new cases. Between 1946 and 1953, there were more cases of polio than at any other time in history, surprising for a disease that is traceable as far back as ancient Egypt, with little end to the epidemic in sight.
The standard treatment in the early 20th century was focused on immobilization of the muscles, but an Australian bush nurse was beginning to change that, and in the process contribute enormously to the progress of what we now call physiotherapy. She had no formal training, but had served on “dark ships” during the First World War and had earned the rank of Sister, which at that time in the commonwealth was reserved only for formally trained nurses. (That was another point of controversy. The woman was a lightning rod, and her public dismissal of doctors and her courting of press coverage didn’t help at all.)
In 1943, what started in Australia moved to the United States, as she began teaching her methods and establishing Sister Kenny clinics. A number of notable people regained mobility thanks to these clinics, including Alan Alda, Dinah Shore, and Martin Sheen.
Rosalind Russell was fascinated by Sister Kenny, and admired her greatly. When there started to be murmurs of a biopic, Russell leapt at the chance. Despite the poor box office performance of Sister Kenny, it’s a performance that deservedly won her a Golden Globe. And the financial underperformance had way more to do with the mood of the era than the quality of the film. In 1946, the year the film was released, people didn’t want to see downer movies. War pictures, medical pictures, things where the two romantic leads separated in a moving but tragic finale, these did not do well.
Sister Kenny has all of those elements.
Its structure is pure biopic, even at the expense of reality. (But never let reality get in the way of a good movie, I say.) We start with young Elizabeth Kenny deciding, against the wishes of a totally fictitious mentor played by Alexander Knox, to devote herself to care of rural bush communities with limited access to hospitals.
After a few years of setting broken bones and helping the locals through various bouts of this and that, she finds herself facing a totally new challenge when a little girl named Dorrie starts to exhibit the symptoms of infantile paralysis. Dorrie, like all the kids in the movie, is heartbreaking in her pain. When she tries to move her legs and can’t, it’s a tear-jerker.
But Sister Kenny bucks the odds against little Dorrie, and by the end of her makeshift treatment, Dorrie can walk, cartwheel, and dance just like she wants to.
Yes, its melodrama, but its effective melodrama.
You’ll probably need a box of tissues for the scene where Sister Kenny and her paramour, played wonderfully by Dean Jagger, take Dorrie to the big city hospital to be examined by Australia’s foremost authority on infantile paralysis. There, Dorrie meets a little boy in leg braces whose excitement to show her how he can kick a ball is the biggest weepy moment in a movie almost totally comprised of them.