Watching 1939: Nurse Edith Cavell

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  Nurse Edith Cavell

Release date: Sept. 22, 1939 (NYC premiere)

Anna Neagle, Edna May Oliver, George Sanders, May Robson, Zasu Pitts, H. B. Warner, Mary Howard, Robert Coote, Henry Brandon, Jimmy Butler, Rex Downing

Studio:  RKO

Director:  Herbert Wilcox

Starting in 1913, English nurse Edith Cavell is the matron of a small hospital in Brussels. The Germans occupy Brussels when World War I begins. With the help of three other local women — Countess de Mavon (Oliver), Mme. Rappard (Robson) and Mme. Moulin (Pitts) — Nurse Cavell shelters Belgian, French and English that are wounded or prisoners of war and helps them escape to the Netherlands.

Awards and Nominations:
• Anthony Collins was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Music, Original Score

1939 Notes:
• Released Sept. 22, 1939, only a few weeks after Germany invaded Poland, beginning World War II on Sept. 1, 1939.
• The first film that Anna Neagle made for RKO in the United States
• “Nurse Edith Cavell” (1939) is a remake. Director Herbert Wilcox first directed the story of Edith Cavell in te film Dawn (1928). He remade the film in 1939 with his wife Anna Neagle as the lead.
• One of 5 films Zasu Pitts made in 1939; one of seven films May Robson made, one of four films starring Edna Mae Oliver, one of 8 films made by George Sanders
• Anna Neagle’s only film in 1939
• 1939 news briefs said this was Anna Neagle’s first American film.

Anna Neagle and Edna May Oliver in “Nurse Edith Cavell”

Other trivia: 
• One of five versions of Edith Cavell’s story. The others are: Nurse and Martyr (1915), Nurse Cavell (1916), The Woman the Germans Shot (1918), Dawn (1928)
• Jimmy Butler plays Jean Rappard, a runaway Belgium prisoner of war, fought in World War II and was killed in action in France.
• The screenplay was written based on Nurse Cavell’s personal papers including letters, notes in Nurse Edith Cavell’s Bible and in her diary from 1913 to 1915, according to an April 20, 1939, article.
• Herbert Wilcox wanted Wendy Barrie to play one of the supporting characters, according to an April 21, 1939, brief.
• A film brief on April 24, 1939, also mentioned Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was going to be in the cast. Fairbanks Jr. did not end up in the film.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
Nurse films are one of my favorite types of films. And in the classic age of films, telling the biographical stories of brave nurses caring for patients was nothing new. For example, Kay Francis had already played Florence Nightingale in “White Angel” (1936) and the story of Nurse Edith Cavell had been told four times before this movie’s release.

But there is something different about “Nurse Edith Cavell” (1939). In comparison to some medical films that can be rather melodramatic, “Nurse Edith Cavell” is a very quiet film that has some tense moments.

English actress Anna Neagle plays Nurse Cavell as a level-headed character who is very calm and collected and rarely speaks above a low, soft voice. Even when she faces danger, she doesn’t yell or scream. The plot solely revolves around Cavell and three other women helping British, Belgian and French soldiers escape occupied Belgium to the Netherlands.

Knowing nothing about this film, you glance at the cast and see Zasu Pitts, May Robson and Edna May Oliver and could assume this is a comedy. While there are slightly funny parts involving Zasu Pitts, this is a serious film. This was one of Edna May Oliver’s last films and she passed away in 1942.

While it is set during World War I, the film doesn’t condemn the Germans. Nurse Cavell’s sentiment was that “patriotism is not enough, I must have no hate in my heart.” Because of this, she cared for German soldiers who were brought to her hospital, along with the British, French and Belgians that she helped escape. If anything, the message of this film is pacifism. With the political climate in 1939, director Herbert Wilcox was asked if the film would reflect that:

“Our job is entertainment, not propaganda,” Wilcox is quoted in the “Around Hollywood” column by Robbin Coons on May 29, 1939. “The film will be anti-militarist, not anti-German.”

“We will show Edith Cavell as one of war’s victims, as the great woman she was,” Neagle is also quoted in the article.

George Sanders has a surprisingly small role as a German officer, entering into the story 50 minutes into the 100-minute film. The Germans suspect that someone is aiding prisoners of war and enlist a soldier, played by German actor Henry Brandon, to investigate.

Portrait of the real Nurse Edith Cavell

Before seeing this movie, I had never heard of Nurse Edith Cavell, but she became a prominent figure during World War I, particularly in 1915. I’m not sure if everyone knows the history of Nurse Cavell and what became of her and I don’t want to share any spoilers. But I will share that her story shook the world and was shared internationally. Her story was used in her home country of England for military recruitment and to rally the United States into joining the war. The United States did not enter World War I until 1917.

A few notes I thought were particularly interesting:
– In regards to history and 1939, this film is interesting because it shows homefront conditions in Europe during World War I. And it was released only weeks after England and France declared war on Germany on Sept. 3, 1939, two days after Germany invaded Poland. During film screening and a personal appearance in Columbus, Ohio, on Sept. 21, 1939, Anna Neagle said:
“Over here, the war is so unreal, that I actually cannot believe that it affects my country, my people. I am on my way home, but I haven’t the faintest idea what I’m returning to.

– Many biographical films have dramatic elements added to the real story, but from what I have read, much of what was portrayed in the film was factual. This would have been an easy story to exaggerate and the Germans could have been portrayed as “barbaric,” as they were in news stories in 1915, but they are not. The story shows Germans occupying the town and searching the hospital, but nothing is over the top. The main realistic difference is that Anna Neagle was 35 when she performed this role, and Nurse Cavell was 49 in 1915.

– “Nurse Edith Cavell” differs from many films revolving around a woman made at this time. There is no contrived love story what so ever, which is rare. Anna Neagle has no suitor or lover in the film, nor do her three “underground” accomplices. (Though Zasu Pitts is married, her husband is only seen in a few scenes helping soldiers escape).

– Director Herbert Wilcox is remaking his own film. In 1928, Wilcox told the story of Nurse Cavell in the film “Dawn” starring Sybil Thorndike. Neagle and Wilcox were married when this film was made.

“Nurse Edith Cavell” is not a well-known movie today and not terribly easy to find (I watched it on Amazon Prime, but the sound is garbled for 20 minutes in the middle). But while it was being made, it received a great deal of news coverage in 1939. It is a quiet film that I enjoyed and delivered a great message of strength.

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page, follow on Twitter at @HollywoodComet or e-mail at