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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Radium City' Paints Incredible Horror Story of the Atomic Age

January 09, 1988|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

Carole Langer's "Radium City" (opening today for weekend showings at Laemmle's Monica) is a brave, compassionate documentary. But it's also a great American horror story: Its events and ramifications would have beggared the imaginations of Poe, Lovecraft or Stephen King.

Langer tells her appalling story--the 60-year chronicle of a city poisoned by one of its industries--in a tone of immense sobriety and reticence. Using the standard tools of the independent documentarian--interviews and archival footage, monochrome past juxtaposed with colorful present--she builds up a bleak, cumulative terror, wrung quietly out of the everyday.

Her subject is Ottawa, Ill., an ordinary town filled with ordinary people, a plain slice of midlands Americana, where Lincoln once debated Douglas. It's a gray, cold-looking place here--less Norman Rockwell than rustic Diane Arbus--full of weeds, gray spaces and angry or defensive people.

What happened here? In 1922, an entrepreneur from the East, Joseph Kelly, opened the Radium Dial Co. in Ottawa, hiring mostly local girls--ages 14 to 17--to paint radium clock faces for Westclox Corp. They were dutiful, grateful girls, many from poor households. They listened carefully to their bosses--who told them to dip their brushes in the radium paint, and lick the tips with their tongues to keep them moist. It was the Roaring '20s, and Radium Dial's then-munificent salaries--$17.50 a week--allowed them to buy fancy clothes, furs, radios.

Like the clock faces, they glowed in the dark.

And then they began to die. Horribly, one by one. The living became sick, the dying gave birth to children who died as well--or suffered deformities: Down's syndrome, cancers, tumors the size of beach balls.

It's a chronicle of horror that never ends, spreading like endless ripples in a pool of blood. By the '30s, Ottawa had gained a national nickname: "Death City." Despite denials and defenses by its management, the Radium Dial plant was closed down in the mid-'40s. Then, several months later, a new company, Luminous Processes, opened in Ottawa, winning over the old Westclox accounts: a company also owned by Kelly--who was, by then, following radium into higher spheres, supplying fissionable material for nuclear bombs.

Yet, back in Ottawa, no one would acknowledge what was so obviously happening--not the city fathers, not the plant bosses, not the Atomic Energy Commission, which began testing the clock painters at nearby Argonne in the early '50s, yet never told them why. We hear Ottawa's ample-bellied mayor boom out evasive platitudes and windy rhetoric in what nearly seems unconscious mimicry of the pompous blowhards Edward Arnold played in 1930s comedies.

Finally, in 1977, Luminous Processes closed down and left the city. The plant was torn down. But the people who demolished it apparently left the remains scattered all over Ottawa--in a landfill, by the VFW hall, near the water supply.

"Radium City" has two main narrators: ex-worker Marie Rossiter and local crusader Ken Ricci. Ricci--plump, chatty, determined--is shown carrying a cheap Geiger counter over the entire city, finding "hot spots" everywhere. As he walks over the graveyard, we hear a fusillade of clicks; even the dead apparently will never be clean. Rossiter, an elderly, courageous survivor of the earliest Radium Dial crews, is revealed to us halfway through with legs so swollen and red they seem ravaged by some hideous elephantiasis. Her bones, she tells us, are "honeycombed with radium."

Like many independent documentaries, "Radium City" was shot on scanty resources, and it looks it. The camera work is functional, grainy; the editing has a slow, deliberate rhythm. But despite its meager tools, it's a movie of raw integrity and draining impact. There's an overwhelming sadness to the story, and parts of it make you all but vibrate with outrage.

Ottawa is no isolated case, though the fairy tales of the '80s might dupe you into believing so. Industrial neglect and callousness, unfortunately, didn't stop 60 years ago; the problem is usually finding people strong and clear-sighted enough to point it out. But Langer found some. Most of all, she found Marie Rossiter and Ken Ricci. One is grateful for their courage, and for Langer's in recording it.

'RADIUM CITY' Producer/director Carole Langer. Camera Luke Sacher. Editor Langer, Brian Coitnor. Music Timmy Cappello.

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

Times-rated: Family (graphic depictions of illness may disturb children).

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