Emily Dunning (June Allyson) is a woman on a mission. She’s decided to become a doctor after witnessing the work of Dr. Marie Yeomans, one of very few female doctors in New York.
Emily herself was once skeptical of the skills of female doctors, until Dr. Yeomans successfully delivered Emily’s younger brother when no other doctor was available.
Dr. Yeomans warns Emily that women in the medical field have a very difficult time finding jobs and being taken seriously, but Emily is determined to find success in the field and becomes a pre-med student at Cornell.
Rising to be ranked second in her class, Emily stands determined in the face of prejudice and doubt. While making her way in the world of medicine, she also finds her relationship with fellow med student Ben Barringer complicated by the gender politics of their field and of the time period.
The Girl in White is a biographical film, telling the story of the first woman to work as a doctor in one of New York’s public hospitals. The film was directed by John Sturges and stars June Allyson as Emily Dunning. An opening title reads:
“A pioneer is one who goes before to prepare the way for others. Emily Dunning, who lived in New York at the turn of the century, was a pioneer. This is her story.”
That pioneering spirit really comes through in The Girl in White. From Emily’s sense of determination comes an outspokenness, a self-asuredness… a willingness to stand up for herself when anyone doubts her skills or potential.
I love the fact that she doesn’t let anyone, even the man she loves, tell her that she can’t break barriers and find success. (You go, girl!) This side of Emily’s personality is clear from very early on in the film and only grows stronger as she gets older, earns her education, and tries to break into the medical field.
Allyson’s performance in the role of Emily is very good, and the fact that such a likable actress was chosen for the part helps plant the viewer even more firmly on Emily’s side. When the male doctors doubt her or attempt to sabotage her career, we’re right there with her, a fire of anger and “I’ll show you!” attitude burning in our own bellies as well as Emily’s.
As inspiring as the character is, and as much as I loved Allyson’s performance, there is still (heartbreakingly) a bit of an “anti-career woman” sentiment to the film. Oh, that ’50s mindset, where spinsterhood is a fate much worse than eternal damnation. Surprisingly, this sentiment is perhaps most strongly perpetrated by the character of Dr. Yeomans — the woman who inspired Emily to get into medicine in the first place!
Also on the negative, the story’s pace is a bit on the slow side, making the film feel longer than it truly is. A bit too much time is spent on specific patient cases and treatments. It’s good to see Emily at work, emphasizing that she truly is a skilled physician and deserves respect. (See: The dock accident scene, in which a rough-and-tumble, tattooed sailor is amazed by Emily’s ability to fix his dislocated shoulder in a jiffy.) However, the film would move along more steadily without quite as many of these diversions into medical detail.
The Girl in White isn’t a perfect film, but features a great lead performance by June Allyson and tells an important story — one of a woman who fought against the odds to make her career dreams come true in an era which expected her to spend most of her years in the kitchen. For these reasons, I’d certainly consider the film worthy of a watch. The score: 3/5