The Girl in White
June Allyson made her name as an M-G-M star in comedies and especially musicals, such as Good News and Words and Music, but by the end of the 1940s she had graduated to literary adaptations like Little Women (as Jo) and The Three Musketeers (as Constance). In 1952’s The Girl in White, she starred in the true-life story of Dr. Emily Dunning, the first woman to secure a surgical residency, who had published her memoir two years earlier at the age of 74.
The somewhat fictionalized film version of Dunning’s life begins in turn-of-the-century New York, when young Emily’s pregnant, recently widowed mother falls unconscious as the family moves into a new home. The only doctor Emily can find is Marie Yeomans (Mildred Dunnock) and while at first she is reluctant to trust her mother to the care of a female doctor, Emily is ultimately so impressed by “Yeomy” that she becomes the doctor’s protégé and proceeds to study medicine at Cornell. She falls in love with fellow student Ben Barringer (Arthur Kennedy) but—like the other men in her world—he believes there is no future for a woman doctor.
Despite graduating from with honors, it is only after Yeomy applies political pressure that New York’s Gouverneur Hospital accepts Emily as an intern. There she is reunited with Ben, who is now a resident experimenting with the medical uses of radium. Although Ben approves of her dedication to medicine, she still finds opposition from the other men at the hospital, especially its recently divorced director, Dr. Pawling (Gary Merrill). Emily triumphs over the low expectations of her colleagues, finding herself torn between the affections of Ben and Pawling. Yeomy dies of a heart ailment while helping at the hospital during a typhoid epidemic, after recommending that Emily not sacrifice her personal life for her profession (as Yeomy herself had done). Emily and Ben finally acknowledge their love for each other: even though he must leave to study in France with Marie Curie, she promises to wait for him while continuing her career in medicine.
The film was originally announced as Bowery to Bellevue (the title of Dunning’s memoir), but the studio was perhaps worried that audiences would think it was a comedy about the Dead End Kids getting sent to a mental institution. It was changed first to Doctor Emily and finally to The Girl in White, which (considering the story’s emphasis on Dunning’s struggle for equality) may today imply a more patronizing attitude than it did for audiences at the time. (In the early 1950s, “girl” was less likely to be considered a condescending term for a grown woman.) Allen Vincent and Irmgard Von Cube (who shared the screenwriting credit on Johnny Belinda) penned the script, and Philip Stevenson (an Oscar nominee for The Story of G.I. Joe) shared the credit with Von Cube for “adaptation.” Although Yeomy is a fictional character, there was a real-life equivalent: Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi, a family friend, who helped inspire Dunning.
Reviews at the time were generally positive, but while Saturday Review quipped that Allyson “rarely shakes the suspicion that she might burst into song at any moment,” a contemporary audience less familiar with her musical comedy roles may have a much easier time accepting her in the part. The studio had originally announced Robert Walker as one of the male leads, but the actor died from an adverse reaction to prescription drugs in August 1951, shortly before filming began. While all too many biopics place more emphasis on their subjects’ personal lives than on their great achievements (as if it were their romantic lives that made Picasso or Dian Fossey important), The Girl in White does a particularly good job of balancing the personal and the professional. The medical scenes are handled with a minimum of melodrama and a convincing degree of technical detail: the film’s producer, Armand Deutsch, spent two weeks at Bellevue Hospital researching the film. Even during a sequence in which Emily and a team of nurses revive a man erroneously declared dead, the emphasis is on slow, laborious effort rather than miraculous healing. A particularly memorable scene involves a helpful ambulance driver (Jesse White, later a household face as the Maytag repairman) who teaches Emily the most efficient way to climb into an ambulance (in those days, a horse-drawn carriage).
Like Kind Lady and The Magnificent Yankee, The Girl in White, is not the type of film one would expect from director John Sturges based on his later output, but he does a fine job of balancing the film’s light and serious moments; veteran character actress Mildred Dunnock (who the previous year earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Death of a Salesman) provides the film’s most memorable performance as the dry, sympathetic Dr. Yeomans. The only occasions when Sturges gets to really flex his action muscles are when Emily goes out on her ambulance rounds, and the scenes of Allsyon hanging on for dear life while the carriage races through turn-of-the-century streets are particularly exciting.
The Girl in White was the final film in the David Raksin-John Sturges quartet (although at one point The Hollywood Reporter announced veteran arranger Conrad Salinger as the film’s composer). Emily’s theme, a warm—even feminine—melody reflecting Emily’s personality (and quite different from Raksin’s most famous medical theme, for TV’s Ben Casey) dominates the score. A second, more serious theme is frequently associated with Emily’s attempts to pursue her medical career, although Raksin often treats it playfully, particularly in the opening scenes of children playing on the sidewalk outside the Dunning family’s new home. Raksin also composed a subtle, evocative cue for a scene in which Ben demonstrates the power of radium to Emily (in an appealingly subtle plot touch, a radium burn on Ben’s hand proves to be a minor injury and not a portent of a tragic death) and Emily’s rousing ambulance rides get their own dynamic motive. —
This premiere release of the complete score to The Girl in White has been mastered from ¼″ monaural tapes of what were original 35mm three-track recordings (long since discarded), with a light stereo ambiance added to improve listenability; period source music has been excluded.
- 1. Main Title
- The opening credits unfold over Currier-and-Ives–style pencil sketches of early 20th-century New York City; a bittersweet introductory melody (later linked to Emily’s hospital duties) leads into the string-driven, spirited main theme for the actual title card. An earnest secondary theme (to be associated with Dr. Yeomans and Emily’s drive to become a doctor) plays under a printed text that describes Dunning as “a pioneer.”
- The Children
- Playful readings of this “pioneer” theme underscore dutiful young Emily (June Allyson) rounding up her siblings and ushering them inside the Dunning family’s apartment as they moves into a new home. The cue ends just before Emily’s recently widowed—and pregnant—mother (Elizabeth Flournoy) collapses, unconscious.
- 2. Dr. Yeomans
- Raksin develops the main theme echo Emily’s concern while Emily searches for a doctor. A local shopkeeper directs her to the office of Dr. Yeomans (Mildred Dunnock), where Emily is surprised—and disappointed—to find that “Yeomy” is a woman. The music adopts a more hopeful tone when the doctor agrees to help; when the scene transitions back to the Dunnings’ apartment, the cue becomes increasingly sympathetic as Yeomy takes charge of the situation and determines that Mrs. Dunning’s baby must be delivered immediately. She is unfazed by the furniture movers’ assertion that the circumstances require “a real doctor.”
- The Baby
- A low, anticipatory ostinato grounds fateful wind writing for Yeomy preparing to deliver the baby. Emily nervously assists—and when she threatens to lose her composure, the doctor slaps her and reminds her that she “has a job to do too.”
- The scene segues to outside the makeshift delivery room, where the movers suddenly hear a baby crying. Strings acknowledge the birth and play through a transition to Yeomy presenting the infant to Mrs. Dunning. A hint of the pioneer theme sounds as the doctor passes the baby to Emily, who is profoundly moved by the experience. The main theme returns when she turns to look at herself and the child in a mirror, announcing that she will “never forget this.” The film jumps ahead in time several years, with Emily excitedly preparing in front of another mirror; the melody continues as she leaves the apartment to tell Yeomy that she has applied for admission to Cornell.
- 3. Bridge to Cornell
- Yeomy warns Emily of the bumpy road ahead but agrees to help her get into Cornell, to an affectionate statement of the pioneer theme. A transition to the campus is scored with a warm arrangement of the Cornell alma mater (the melody for which is taken from the song “Annie Lisle”).
- Amyl Nitrate
- A tentative version of the main theme plays on woodwinds as Emily’s flirtatious classmate Ben (Arthur Kennedy) invites her to go ice skating. She smiles but declines, the theme gathering strength as the scene transitions to the following day, with Emily standing at her window looking down at the activity on the campus’s frozen pond. The cue ends on an uncertain note when Emily enters a laboratory, where Ben has passed out from experimenting with amyl nitrite. (Later in the film, Emily mistakenly refers to the compound as “amyl nitrate” and the film’s leagal cue sheet duplicates this continuity error.) After regaining consciousness, he invites her on a sleigh ride—and this time she accepts.
- Cornell Montage
- On the sleigh, Emily, Ben and a group of other students happily sing the school alma mater, a cheerful, contrapuntal setting of which underscores a subsequent montage of Emily studying and performing experiments. The cue reaches a lush conclusion as Emily and Ben sit by the pond, preparing for their final exams.
- 4. Medical School Montage
- Ben proposes to Emily but she declines when he insists that she drop out of school; she instead moves in with Yeomy and attends Cornell’s City of New York College of Medicine. A chipper rendition of the pioneer theme plays through a montage of Emily studying, observing operations and attending lectures. Contemplative developments of the theme accompany Yeomy when she enters Emily’s room in the middle of the night and helps her study; while using a stethoscope to examine the doctor’s heart, Emily detects a murmur. Raksin adds a foreboding air to the cue as Yeomy goes on to explain her heart condition, but a reassuring statement of the latter half of the pioneer theme intervenes when the doctor downplays the severity of the illness. A rich reading of the first half of the theme underscores a transition to Emily’s graduation; Yeomy proudly watches from the audience and the melody concludes warmly on a close-up of Emily’s diploma.
- 5. Ambulance Call
- After every hospital in the city turns down Emily for a job—despite the fact that she finished third out of 286 applicants on her qualifying exams—Yeomy manipulates the system and lands her an internship at Gouverneur Hospital, over the protests of the institution’s director, Dr. Pawling (Gary Merrill). Emily receives her own room on the same floor as the male residents; during a brief reunion with Ben, who is also an intern at the hospital, she learns that they have already petitioned (unsuccessfully) to have her removed.
- Assigned to ambulance duty and escorted by driver Alec (Jesse White), Emily races to a pier where an accident has occurred. Their hectic trip through the city via horse and carriage receives a busy cue of trilling strings and woodwinds and fanfaric brass writing; the material loosely follows the shape of the introductory theme from the “Main Title.” The agitated orchestral activity recedes when the ambulance arrives at the dock and Emily tends to an injured sailor (James Arness); back at the hospital, she resets his dislocated shoulder while a smiling Ben looks on.
- 6. Night Fire
- Raksin reprises the unstable material of “Ambulance Call” when Emily and Alec arrive at the scene of a burning building; Dunning retrieves a baby from a fiery apartment and climbs down the fire escape. The cue subsides to a suggestion of the introductory melody as the scene shifts back to the hospital: Alec, impressed with Emily’s work, decides to teach her how to board the ambulance more efficiently—her long petticoat is hindering her.
- 7. Petticoat Music
- Following her lesson with Alec, Emily enters an empty operating room to retrieve a pair of surgical scissors; a graceful version of the pioneer theme alternates with an Americana figure based on a descending major second for Dunning’s attempt at trimming her petticoat. After Dr. Pawling walks in and reprimands her for using the hospital’s equipment, Nurse Jane Doe (Marilyn Erskine) helps the embarrassed Emily with her alterations.
- Emily and Jane leave the operating room to find water leaking through the ceiling in the hallway. Dunning realizes that the bathtub she installed in her room is overflowing; a playful, contrapuntal passage chases after the women as they race upstairs to turn the water off. Teasing brass gives way to the pioneer theme when they arrive at Emily’s room and begin to clean up the mess.
- 8. Radium
- In his laboratory, Ben dims the lights and shows Emily a small supply of radium he has been using for cancer research—she is impressed when he illuminates a glass beaker simply by holding the capsule near it. A thin, haunting passage (similar in texture and orchestration to the material that underscores Emily’s conversation with Yeomy in “Medical School”) incorporates the Americana figure as the doctors marvel over the power of the element. (The eerie, shimmering effect was recorded as a brass overlay.) The main theme functions as a soothing love theme when they share a quiet moment together: Ben confides that he wants to pursue a career as a researcher rather than a general practitioner. He implies that he did not sign the petition to have Emily removed, and the cue’s serene closing bars incorporate the pioneer theme as she leaves him alone in the lab.
- 9. The Mollified Tantrum
- Dr. Graham (Gar Moore), the condescending senior intern, pronounces a comatose patient dead and dismisses Emily when she suggests that the prognosis may be incorrect. After Graham leaves, she manages to revive the patient. An excited nurse takes it upon herself to call a local newspaper and the press shows up to take Emily’s picture while she keeps the patient conscious by walking him back and forth down a hallway. Unfortunately, Dr. Pawling arrives at the same time and sternly asks Emily to explain herself. Expecting another scolding, she explodes at Pawling and storms off.
- In private, Ben consoles Emily after she threatens to quit, telling her not to let Pawling and the others get the best of her. The main theme mingles with the introductory melody as he tells her he thinks she is “wonderful,” and she agrees to accompany him on a date to the beach. In a subsequent (unscored) scene, Pawling summons Emily and—rather than belittling her—expresses his appreciation for her good work, instead focusing his anger on Graham.
- 10. The Beach
- The main theme returns as Emily relaxes on the beach with Ben. He informs her of an upcoming party in honor of Pawling’s first anniversary as the hospital’s director. Emily begins to ask questions about Pawling and his ex-wife, and the main theme briefly gives way to the pioneer theme, associating it with Emily’s possible attraction to him. The main theme returns when Ben changes the subject and asks her to save the first dance for him.
- The Party
- A pure rendition of the pioneer theme underscores a sequence in which the hospital staff makes preparations for Pawling’s rooftop surprise party—the doctor is taken up to the celebration via elevator. Various source cues accompany the party itself, with Ben becoming jealous when Pawling approaches Emily for the first dance. She in turn becomes offended when Ben asks if she is in love with Pawling.
- 11. Coffee Time
- Emily is reunited with Yeomy when the latter arrives at the hospital to assist during a typhoid outbreak. While the hospital staff is slowly weathering the epidemic, Ben announces he has been awarded a fellowship to research radium in Paris. He joins Emily over coffee and as he tells her the news of his acceptance, both try to mask their pain, to a bittersweet presentation of the score’s three principal themes: the melodies outline the options before Dunning with the main theme representing Ben, the pioneer theme for Pawling, and the introductory theme for Emily’s work. Before they can address the ramifications of the situation, an oblivious intern arrives and strikes up a conversation with Ben, prompting Emily to leave.
- Advice to the Lovelorn
- The score continues to gently alternate between its main themes as lovelorn Emily seeks advice from Yeomy; the elder doctor tells her to wait as long as necessary if she is conflicted over whether or not Ben is the right man for her—or, if she knows she truly loves him, to immediately seize the opportunity.
- 12. Clinch and End Title
- The epidemic passes, but Emily reports to the typhoid ward to find Yeomy dead from her heart condition—afterward, the main theme returns briefly for a depressed Dunning wandering in the hallway. As Pawling joins her and offers words of encouragement, the pioneer theme connects his sentiments back to the melody’s earlier applications to Yeomy. He tells Emily that she will carry on Yeomy’s wisdom and he advises her against sacrificing her private life for her career—something he learned during his first marriage. He bids her goodnight and leaves, to a bittersweet solo horn variation of the theme.
- The main theme receives a series of impassioned, contrapuntal readings as Emily and Ben meet in the hallway and say their goodbyes. They kiss and confess that they have always loved one another; Emily tearfully insists that he leave, assuring him that she will be waiting when he returns. He obliges, and the theme climaxes when she turns and walks back down the hall to attend to her work.
- Cast Titles
- An upbeat reprisal of the main theme underscores the end credits. —