White Angel, The (1936): Dieterle’s Biopic of Florence Nightingale, Starring Kay Francis

William Dieterle directed The White Angel, an historical drama starring Kay Francis about Florence Nightingale’s pioneering work in nursing during the Crimean War.

In Victorian England, Florence Nightingale (Kay Francis) decides to become a nurse, puzzling her upper-class family (nursing was deemed disreputable profession at the time). She travels to Germany to the only nursing school. The training is arduous, but she endures and graduates. When she returns home, however, no one is willing to employ her.

When the Crimean War breaks out, she finally gets her chance. With the help of influential friends and damning newspaper reports on the wretched conditions in the Crimea by Fuller (Ian Hunter), a reporter for The Times, she is permitted to recruit some nurses and lead them to Scutari in Turkey to tend the wounded.

She is bitterly opposed by Dr. Hunt (Donald Crisp), who is in charge of the hospital. She remains undaunted, and soon wins the love of her patients. Each night, she passes through miles of the wards, carrying a lamp, so she can satisfy herself that her patients have all they need. Her tireless efforts greatly reduce the mortality rate. Her fame is spread by the newspapers, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow writes a poem in her honor.

In the end, despite pressures, Queen Victoria shows her approval by presenting Nightingale with a brooch.

The film, too earnest for its good, was moderately successful at the box-office.

Kay Francis as Florence Nightingale
Ian Hunter as Fuller
Donald Woods as Charles Cooper
Nigel Bruce as Doctor West
Donald Crisp as Doctor Hunt
Henry O’Neill as Doctor Scott, a strong supporter of Nightingale
Billy Mauch as Tommy
Charles Croker-King as Mr. Nightingale
Phoebe Foster as Elizabeth Herbert
George Curzon as Sidney Herbert
Georgia Caine as Mrs. Nightingale
Ara Gerald as Ella Stephens