The Extinguished Lamp; or, Do You See Florence Nightingale?

I have been frequently miscast in the story of my life. And matters weren’t always helped by my being in charge of the casting. I was never more out of my element, which is neither quite earth nor air, as during those twenty months of civil service that I spent vaguely resembling a nurse’s aide. The stethoscope dangling around my neck may have fooled some of the patients some of the time; but my half-hearted attempts at hospital corners soon ruined whatever impression such a prop could have made upon them. Not that Hollywood fares any better in its imitations of strife, even though more harm comes to the reputation of the nursing profession than to the sick and injured by giving the so-called White Angel a tint of the Blue. Unless cast in minor roles, Hollywood nurses are as glamorous and rhinestonian as showgirls.

How much more realistic might the portrayal of those bed-pans carrying pulse-takers be once the pressure of making them look pretty—rather than the part—is removed? I asked myself that while listening to “White Angel,” broadcast on this day, 9 July, in 1946. Adapted for radio’s Encore Theater from the 1936 melodrama of the same title, the play stars Virginia Bruce (pictured) in the role of Florence Nightingale (impersonated on the screen by Kay Francis).

Even with the lights switched off, it was difficult for me to get the image of Ms. Bruce out of my head, to picture a nurse among the suffering and picture her suffering among them. As the title, “White Angel,” suggests, the portrait is altogether too clean to be genuine. At best, it is a eulogy, as idealized as Longfellow’s “Santa Filomena”:

A lady with a lamp shall stand
In the great history of the land,
A noble type of good,
Heroic womanhood.

Hollywood stars never truly disappeared when they stepped behind the microphone; not only did their names conjure up their faces, but their voices bespoke their presence. If sponsors paid for the services of a Ms. Bruce, they insisted on her sounding like Ms. Bruce. The audience, likewise, expected no less. Ms. Bruce does not disappoint; which means, of course, that she is altogether unconvincing as Ms. Nightingale. There is not a bead of sweat, not a drop of blood in her performance. Hers is the dignity of a socialite, of a lady serving cocktails rather than mankind in the Crimean.

“Why have women passion, intellect, moral activity—these three—and a place in society where no one of the three can be exercised?” Ms. Nightingale once asked. Hollywood could take you places, but it got you there in high heals and concealed the calluses. Reality, in the case of the Encore Theater, entered the stage only for a curtain call, during which Ms. Bruce spoke on behalf of the sponsor, the drug company Schenley Laboratories. Not to push penicillin, whose healing powers were extolled during the commercial break, but to urge the “Women of America” to do something more worthwhile than to dream of being Virginia Bruce:

“Today the need for nurses is desperate. If you are a high school graduate between the ages of 17 and 35, in good health, apply at the hospital nearest your home. Remember, nursing is one of the highest vocations a woman can follow.” After which bit of practical pathos the actress exited the broadcasting studio with a check for services rendered. Did any young woman walk into a hospital that week, saying “Virginia Bruce” sent me? And how many stuck it out not cursing the “White Angel” thereafter? I wonder.

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