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.

18 comments:

Ares Vista said...

Polio was a devastating disease. It is also the last disease we released a cure for.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome, Ares Vista. Devastating is right, however though it was eradicated as an epidemic, there still is no cure. Fortunately, illnesses which are passed from person-to-person, like polio, are a bit easier to stop others from getting if there is a vaccine. Drs. Salk and Sabine were heroes.

Moira Finnie said...

I am also interested in this topic, especially after seeing that PBS American Experience program that you mentioned, Jacqueline.

It is fascinating to recall that within living memory so many people were affected by a disease that we have no experience with in this country. I do remember going to a local public school for the vaccine, (an adventure in itself, since I went to parochial schools and never set foot in public institutions). I wasn't afraid, perhaps because my parents weren't, they had faith in the science behind the vaccine. It may also have not been frightening to me because I had no experience knowing anyone who had been touched by polio. My elder sister, however, remembered the summers when one could not congregate at public pools nor could you visit certain friends due to an occurrence in their household.

In terms of classic movies, Leave Her to Heaven (1945) had Darryl Hickman as Cornel Wilde's younger brother, who was determined to overcome the disease. I think it was rarely mentioned in movies because people felt so overwhelmed and helpless to defend their loved ones from the illness, as they often did cancer. Of course, movies such as Sunrise At Campobello (1960) concerning FDR gave a good picture of the challenges posed by this illness, (though there is now some forensic medical research casting doubt on Roosevelt as a polio victim. There may have been another pathogen at work).

There was a recent HBO film featuring Kenneth Branagh as a youngish FDR fighting his polio, learning to accept his limitations and learning great compassion as a result. Part of the story outlined the development of Warm Springs, GA and the March of Dimes creation. It was called Warm Springs (2005) and managed to avoid most of the more maudlin elements of such stories.

Frida (2002), the biopic about Mexican artist Frida Kahlo starring Salma Hayek touched on the lingering after-effects of this disease (and a crippling bus accident at age 18) on the life and art of the surrealist painter.

In real life accounts, actor Alan Alda wrote about his parent's prodigious efforts to help him overcome a bout of polio that threatened him as a boy of seven. Alda wrote about it at length in Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I've Learned. Alan's parents, whose father was 1940s the actor under contract at Warner's at the time of the child's illness, Robert Alda and whose mother was a gifted woman with some serious mental issues, assiduously applied the techniques of Sister Kenny to his limbs, enabling him to develop quite normally, (despite the fact that A.A. later mentioned having learned from doctors that Sister Kenny's treatments were not a cure by today's standards).

As an individual who was born with a birth defect, I am always interested in the way that films deal (or don't deal) with any kind of anomaly in human nature. I too tend to think that for all their foibles, individuals such as Drs. Salk and Sabine may be among the few we can cite as character witnesses for the human race. They helped ease the world's suffering so much more than any of us will ever know. Thank you for writing such a thought provoking post.
All the best,
Moira

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you so much for writing such an insightful and informative comment, Moira. I was hoping somebody would come up with some other movie titles. Leave it to you.

"Leave Her to Heaven" got right by me, as did the obvious "Sunrise at Campobello." I did see "Warm Springs" and thought Branagh marvelous in it. I thought I had seen "Frida", but I don't remember anything about polio in it.

Your mentioning the same reticence to discuss polio as to discussing cancer openly is a good point. I don't think films dealt with cancer either back then.

What mainly puzzles me is that, unlike cancer, polio was a raging communicable disease that was actually stopped in its tracks. A real made-for-the-movies happy ending.

But they didn't seem to want to touch it. I'm astonished by that. No cheesy biopics of Dr. Salk? No smiling children playing together unafraid?

Maybe because the ones who'd been afflicted were, unlike the fortunate Mr. Alda, not going to walk again, or move that arm, or get out of the iron lung. You couldn't show the story of the triumph over polio without being reminded that for some, the triumph might always be a little hollow. And a little late.

Deb said...

I was immunized in England in the early 1960s. It seems to me that we were actually given sugar cubes with the vaccine in them Could I be mis-remembering that?

I had a college professor (in the late 1970s) who said that she thanked Jonas Salk every day. She'd had two children in the early 1950s and many years later had two more children and she said there was a huge difference in raising the youngest two because she wasn't frightened anymore about polio.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Deb, welcome. It seems to me I've heard somewhere about children receiving the oral vaccine on sugar cubes. It's possible.

That's an interesting comment about your professor comparing raising her two eldest children in fear of polio, and the younger two without that fear. I guess that says it all.

Thanks so much for sharing your memories with us.

iok19 said...

nice movies..nice blog;)

panavia999 said...

I received the polio vaccine in 1964 via sugar cube. I remember the office visit because a sugar cube was such a treat to a little kid. I was visiting my grandmother for only a few days and my mother called her and asked her to have me vaccinated. I'm not aware that there was a polio scare at the time, I think my mother was simply that worried. Like Deb's mother, it symbolizes a time of real fear.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Panavia, thanks so much for helping out with this subject on polio. These collective memories are fascinating, and it's interesting how many shared these similar experiences, and even though young, recall a climate of fear.

Anonymous said...

Just came across your blog. What do you think of the prominence of a stiff-legged Frankenstein's monster (Cheney, Lugosi, and, of course, their model, Karloff) during the polio pandemic/panic? By 1957, Christopher Lee's incarnation of the monster is far more lithe and less awkward in gait. Thoughts?

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

That's an interesting thread of discussion. I had not considered that those famous stiff-legged characterizations were either reflective of the polio pandemic, or even accidentally insensitive to it. Perhaps someone in leg braces struggling to his seat in the movie theater to watch Frankenstein's monster stumbling over the countryside might have felt differently.

Is Christopher Lee's more lithe movement a reflection of polio being "conquered"? Perhaps it just a happy coincidence.

Thanks for this thoughtful and intriguing discussion.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

THIS JUST IN...a message on my Facebook page recently reminded me of "The Five Pennies" (1959) with Danny Kaye and Barbara Bel Geddes. This is the story of cornet player Red Nichols. His daughter contracts polio. As a teenager she is played by Tuesday Weld. Remember that one? Thanks so much to David for helping us out with this one.

Linda said...

I had polio in 1951. I wore leg braces until I was 15; after some surgeries I was able to walk although with a limp. Now as an adult, I have to walk with a cane and back with a brace. I find it interesting and alarming that today's physicians do not seem to know or care about polio survivors. I guess they are too young to recall the disease and do not have many answers for those of us who still suffer from its effects.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Linda, for joining in the discussion, especially valuable from your own perspective. I'm sorry you find the physicians of today ill-equipped or uninterested as regards the continuing treatment of polio surviviors, but that is indeed a very interesting and puzzling situation that should be addressed.

Linda said...

Actually there are a lot of stories I could tell about my life as a polio survivor, how I had to negotiate entry in to buildings and dealing with schools that were not adapted for people with mobility issues. I recently went by my old elementary school & it made me tear up to see that a ramp was now placed along side the stairs that I had so much difficulty navigating as a child.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I can imagine how seeing that ramp at your old school must have affected you, Linda. Perhaps you are more than a survivor; you are a pioneer. I wonder if today's "mainstreaming" of people with physical challenges is due in part to the experiences of polio survivors.

panavia999 said...

I saw a news item about a 3 yo girl with polio. Her father said he couldn't bear to watch her cry when she got shots, so he didn't get her vaccinated. Well, now she can cry for a long time instead of for just a minute. Get that man an irreversible vasectomy because he is too stupid to have kids.
In my region, whooping cough is coming back because people think it isn't necessary anymore or have ideas about the dangers of immunizations. You'd think it's the immigrant community due to ignorance or superstition, but NO, immigrants usually know and fear these diseases from recent memory and want prevention. In my area, it started with children of college educated parents. Children used to die or be disabled by scarlet fever, erysipelas, and other diseases caused by strep, staph and viruses. Now, people say, "Can you believe people used to send their kids outside without sunblock, and put them on bikes and skates without a helmet!" Ha! That was the least of their worries. The invisible scourge of viruses and bacteria was far more dangerous at one time.
Calvin Coolidge's son died at 16 of septicemia from a blister on his foot which he got playing tennis. He died in 7 days. The best medical attention of the day could not save him in 1924. (Coolidge's son said his father was in a depression the rest of his life, and the stories of "Silent Cal" really started after this family tragedy, which was not so rare an event back then.)
Incidentally, since this is a movie related blog, Lionel Barrymore had two daughters who died in infancy. (Don't know the cause.) He was heartbroken and later had great affection for Jean Harlow who was the age his daughters would have been had they lived. He must have been suffered again when she died. Very sad.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Very good points, Panavia. Sometimes I think the more sophisticated we get, the stupider we get.