Monday, August 3, 2009
Polio as a Subject for the Movies
Above is some March of Dimes newsreel footage about the treatment of polio. In the early 1950s, the “fight” for a way to prevent polio became a “race” as the panic over yearly summertime polio epidemics grew more widespread and more fierce. In 1955, the vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk became available to the public, and thousands upon thousands of people brought their children to be vaccinated. That this was a new and largely untried serum, the public’s leap of faith had to be enormous. Perhaps the only thing greater than their faith was their fear of this horrific illness.
Knowing all that, it seems strange that there were not more movies with polio patients or polio treatment as a subject. When one considers other dreaded elements of the stressful post-war life that became fodder for many films, elements such as the fear of nuclear warfare, the fear of communism, the lurid explorations of crime, mental illness, and flying saucers, why was there not more examination in the movies of the greatest medical story of the day? A story that was so inherently dramatic?
Perhaps because polio was even scarier to most people than nuclear war, foreign enemies, bad guys, or aliens from another planet. Some of those films were fantasies or at least dealt with threats to modern society that were not as plausible or as fearsome as going to a public pool one day, developing a fever that night, and ending up in an iron lung in a matter of days.
There was “Sister Kenny” (1944) with Rosalind Russell which touched upon polio through the biography of the Australian nurse who developed her own methods of therapy for polio victims. We’ve also noted in the recently covered “Roughly Speaking” (1945), also with Rosalind Russell, that one of the children in the film had been a polio victim, and wore leg braces as a child, improving to using a cane as an adult. But she was only one member of a large family, and her story was not the central one.
Perhaps the most striking drama I can recall involving polio as a plot element, was an episode in the old “Loretta Young Show” on television, called “Earthquake”, originally aired in October of 1953. In this episode, Loretta plays the wife of a man who must stay in an iron lung at home because his polio has left him unable to breathe on his own. Set in a southern California town, when an earthquake occurs in the middle of the night and the electricity goes off, Loretta must manipulate the hand crank on the iron lung to keep the bellows working, to keep her husband breathing. When the crank breaks, she opens the machine, and manually pumps and massages her paralyzed husband’s chest for hours until help arrives. It is a grim story, and the triumphant message at the conclusion relates to their love for each other, and their perseverance in never giving up until he may someday recover.
Many people did recover from polio to varying degrees, but many did not. Though polio has been eradicated in most countries today, thanks to Dr. Salk and to Dr. Albert Sabine, there is still no cure. Here is a link to a news story from 2008 about a woman in an iron lung who, like the character in the melodramatic “Loretta Young Show”, faced calamity when her home lost power. She died. Her polio left her unable to live outside the iron lung. She had been living in an iron lung for 50 years, since childhood.
Possibly the most famous polio victim was of course President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who at various times tried to hide his physical limitations, leading to a bit of controversy when his memorial statue in Washington, D.C. did not openly depict him in his wheelchair. Elements in the design were later changed to suggest his wheelchair beneath his cloak.
Actress Helen Hayes lost her 19-year-old daughter, Mary, to polio, and thereafter dedicated herself to the cause. Here is a link to an article, and a 1951 audio piece of Miss Hayes speaking on the Mary MacArthur Respirator Unit at Children’s Hospital in Boston, where she calls polio “that most frightening of diseases that strike children.”
The public, obviously, was very aware of the urgency to fight polio, but was there still some controversial element of showing polio victims for there to be so few feature films? Or was the illness, and its treatment, perceived by the public as too ghastly to be the subject of a movie drama, far more scary than the worse movie monster imaginable?
PBS showed an excellent documentary a few months ago on the “race” to develop the polio vaccine. A striking indirect message is that younger generations are likely ignorant of the magnitude of the fear of polio in society. That is both a good thing and a bad thing. Their ignorance of polio demonstrates they do not have to fear it. But if they want to know about this awful aspect of life in the early 1950s (and previously), they won’t learn much from the movies.
Do you recall any other movies that mentioned or in some way dealt with the subject of polio? Do you remember getting the shot, or the oral vaccine? Do you remember being afraid?
Below, Ella Fitzgerald delivers a public service announcement, as many stars did, for the March of Dimes in 1958.