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Film / Romance of Radium

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The Curies at work.

Romance of Radium is a 1937 short film (ten minutes) directed by Jacques Tourneur, produced by Pete Smith.

It is a documentary short about early research into radiation and the isolation of radium. The short starts with Henri Becquerel, a physicist in the latter 19th century who had a thesis that certain ores would, if they were exposed to natural radiation from the sun (i.e., light), later emit that radiation, which might fog a photographic plate. As the short demonstrates, persistent rainy weather caused Becquerel to store his uranium ore and plates inside in a desk. When he went to retrieve them Becquerel found that the plates had been fogged despite neither the ore nor the plates being exposed to sunlight. This was the accidental breakthrough that led to the discovery of radiation.

Becquerel then brings his findings to physicists Pierre and Marie Curie, who by painstaking labor isolate the compound radium chloride. While radium is soon discovered to be very dangerous, it is also used in medical treatments. The short ends with Pete Smith as narrator musing on how radium will continue to be used far into the future as a healing chemical.



  • Documentary: A documentary about early research into radiation and the isolation of radium. Some of it is fairly accurate (Becquerel's discovery of radiation happened basically the way it's demonstrated), and some of it comes off as racist nonsense (the African tribesman whose bite wounds were supposedly healed by radium).
  • Gratuitous Laboratory Flasks: The Curies are scientists, so of course they have to have a whole table filled with flasks and beakers.
  • Jungle Drums: The scene where the African tribesman is supposedly healed by the application of radiation from radium ore in the ground is accompanied by the sound of jungle drums, as the miraculously healed native dances.
  • Narrator: No dialogue, but instead Pete Smith narrating as he did with all his shorts. While most of Smith's shorts were droll and snarky in tone, this is a surprisingly dry short about early radiation research.
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  • Sand Necktie: An unusual variation on this trope, in which an African tribesman is buried up to his neck supposedly to heal him! And supposedly it works, due to radiation from radium in the ground. It's racist nonsense, but the sight of the tribesman's head moving to face the white guys entering the tent is very reminiscent of some of the later horror works Tourneur made with Val Lewton, like I Walked with a Zombie.
  • Sickly Green Glow: The glow-in-the-dark properties of radioactive compounds are discussed at length, and the short ends with a cameraman capturing a sample of apparently pure radium which glows in the dark. Concentrated radium, as it turns out, glows blue (although in this black and white short it's impossible to tell what color it is).