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SISTER KENNY (director/writer: Dudley Nichols; screenwriters: Alexander Knox, Mary McCarthy /from the book And They Shall Walk by Elizabeth Kenny and Martha Ostenso; cinematographer: George Barnes; editor: Roland Gross; music: Alexander Tansman; cast: Rosalind Russell (Sister Elizabeth Kenny), Alexander Knox (Dr. Aeneas McDonnell), Dean Jagger (Kevin Connors), Philip Merivale (Dr. Brack), Beulah Bondi (Mary Kenny), Charles Dingle (Michael Kenny), John Litel (Medical Director), Doreen McCann (Dorrie McIntyre), Regis Toomey (New York newspaper reporter); Runtime: 117; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Dudley Nichols/Edward Donahue; RKO; 1946)
“It works as inspirational entertainment.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The title Sister refers to Kenny’s stint as an Army nurse, and has nothing to do with being a nun. Dudley Nichols (“Mourning Becomes Electra”) competently directs this standard issue biopic. It’s based on Elizabeth Kenny’s autobiography “And They Shall Walk” that is co-written with Martha Ostenso; the screenplay is by co-star Alexander Knox and Mary McCarthy.

In 1911, soon after graduating as a nurse Elizabeth Kenny (Rosalind Russell) returns to her parents’ home in Queensland, Australia, and tells the outback’s lone doctor in the area, Dr. Aeneas McDonnell (Alexander Knox), that she plans to be a bush nurse. In the outback, the dedicated nurse Kenny first confronts the debilitating illness of polio while treating a child named Dorrie McIntyre (Doreen McCann). Dorrie’s legs are severely cramped, and her back is in severe pain. Sister Kenny learns from Dr. McDonnell it’s infantile paralysis and untreatable. The persistent Kenny develops a method for treating infantile paralysis by exercising spastic muscles. But the good nurse has to battle rigid colleagues such as the inflexible polio expert Dr. Brack (Philip Merivale), who refuses to acknowledge her therapy.

Kenny is about to marry army captain Kevin Conners (Dean Jagger), but doesn’t because of an Australian law that says that nurses must be single. Instead she opens a clinic to take on Brack’s discharged patients as a way of proving her methodology. During World War I she chooses to follow Kevin to the front as an army nurse and then to England, where he recuperates from an injury. Elizabeth, still enthused about doing her radical clinic work, returns to her hometown to open a clinic. Ten years later, Elizabeth’s solid reputation grows around the country. She finally admits to her fianc√© Kevin that her profession comes before marriage and decides to live a life free of romantic entanglements. After another decade, Elizabeth wants her methods accepted by the medical community and confronts Brack as he is giving a lecture on polio. Brack ridicules her and threatens to have her clinic closed down. The government puts together a royal commission to study Kenny’s methods and rules to close the clinics. A discouraged Kenny, while on a visit to America, is invited in 1940 by the Medical Director (John Litel) at the University of Minnesota to open the Kenny Institute and she has great success treating patients.

It shows the bias against Kenny by the medical community because she was only a nurse and the uphill fight she had to go through to get her methods recognized even though they worked.

It works as inspirational entertainment. Russell received a Best Actress nomination for an Oscar. The serious film took a beating at the box office, proving once again the public’s taste was usually more partial for lighter pics.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”