Jersey-Set Film Tells Tragic Story of WWI Women

'Radium Girls' follows factory workers in the late 1910s, who were slowly poisoned while they painted glow-in-the-dark watch dials for soldiers overseas.

radium girls
Joey King, who plays Bessie Cavallo. Courtesy of Juno Films

In the late 1910s, women dial-painters working for the United States Radium Corporation would dip the tips of their brushes into luminous, radium-infused paint before wetting the bristles with their tongues and creating a fine point with their lips. It was World War I, and American soldiers overseas needed glow-in-the-dark watch dials with precise numerals.

This seemingly innocuous profession quickly turned deadly. Amelia “Mollie” Maggia, who worked at a factory in Orange, was the first dial-painter to die on September 12, 1922, according to theradiumgirls.com. Despite battling tooth loss and jaw-bone decay, syphilis was ruled the cause of her death. At the time, radium was not widely known to be toxic. In fact, many people believed it was beneficial.

Eventually, amid a lawsuit against the corporation, her body was exhumed. The corpse had traces of radioactive materials. Radium poisoning was the true cause of death.

Amelia and her younger sisters Albina and Quinta, as well as many other women who worked in this factory, are the inspiration for a new film, Radium Girls.

[RELATED: The Lifelong Activism of Suffragist Alice Paul]

Based on their story and the true events surrounding the women who unknowingly ingested the deadly element, Radium Girls follows teen sisters Bessie and Jo Cavallo, who paint luminous watch dials at the fictional American Radium factory in New Jersey. When Jo loses a tooth and has aching joints, Bessie vows to uncover the mystery. In this coming-of-age story, Bessie and her fellow factory workers take on American Radium as they file a lawsuit.

Created by co-directors Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler, the film stars Joey King (The Act, Fargo, Kissing Booth) and Abby Quinn (Little Women, BumblebeeBlack Mirror). Although shot in upstate New York, the film takes place in New Jersey.

radium girls
Courtesy of Juno Films
radium girls
Courtesy of Juno Films
radium girls
Courtesy of Juno Films

Originally set to be released in April but postponed due to Covid-19, the film will be screened at New Jersey theaters beginning October 27. Some screenings will be offered virtually:

Cranford Theater Drive-In
(1025 Orange Avenue, Cranford)
Tuesday, October 27 & Saturday, November 7

Basie Center Cinemas
(36 White Street, Red Bank)
Thursday, October 29–Sunday, November 1

Princeton Garden Theatre
(Virtual screenings)
November 6–20

Summit Film Society
(Virtual screenings)
November 6–20

Click here to leave a comment
Read more Arts & Entertainment articles.

By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.

Required
Required not shown
Required not shown