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NLM Announces Digital Release of “The Reward of Courage”

The National Library of Medicine (NLM) announced the digital release of The Reward of Courage, a 1921 silent film long believed to have been lost. Produced by the American Society for the Control of Cancer (the ASCC, later renamed the American Cancer Society), and funded by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, The Reward of Courage is a melodrama in the grand silent-era tradition. The film pits charlatans who promise cures through the use of quack salves and pastes against the forces of scientific medicine and the U.S. postal authorities, who crack down on such fraudulent and dangerous claims. This battle of good versus evil unfolds against a tender love story: the coming together of two young lovers is threatened by the mistaken belief that cancer is an inheritable disease and would afflict the offspring of their union. In fact, we now know that a predisposition to get certain forms of cancer can be inherited, but no reliable research on this had been done in the early twentieth century. The film calls for the establishment of clinics in industrial workplaces, to promote worker health and higher productivity, and provides what is likely the first representation in film of a breast examination for cancer.

Discovered in the film collections of the Library of Congress, The Reward of Courage was meticulously restored through cooperation between the NLM and the Library of Congress, transferred from its unstable nitrate base, and augmented with a musical soundtrack for the film, following the traditional silent-film practice of screening films with live musical accompaniment. The National Library of Medicine announced the digital release of both the original, silent version of The Reward of Courage and the newly-scored version, on the NLM’s Medical Movies on the Web, a curated portal featuring selected motion pictures from the NLM’s world-renowned collection of over 30,000 audiovisual titles. All of the motion pictures featured on Medical Movies on the Web, and others from the NLM’s audiovisual collection, are also available through the NLM’s YouTube site and through its Digital Collections.

Three film cells from the silent move The Reward of Courage

Images from The Reward of Courage (1921): (left) Miss Keene, the nurse at Dr. Dale’s clinic, examines Anna Flint. This is probably the first cinematic representation of a breast examination for cancer; (middle) Hidden behind a curtain, Morris Maxwell overhears a conversation about Anna’s cancer diagnosis before offering Anna a painless ‘cure’ for the disease for $200.00, his Radiumized Paste; and (right) Part of the animated section of the film showing the spread of cancer and its consequences, highlighted by arrows. The line drawing of the human figure and dark blotches of the tumors also serve to counter the prospect of any paralyzing fear or disgust that might be evoked by a live action image of tumors.

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