By Sarah Eilers
The Story of Wendy Hill, 1949
A “fine and wholesome” young woman, newly married, steps into the street below the office where she works as a secretary in small-town Greendale. A car appears and slows to a stop. She looks, pauses, then hurries into the road. Suddenly a truck barrels toward her, strikes her as she lets out a terrified shriek, and leaves her lying in the street.
Our narrator, the kindly Dr. Woods, tends to the sore, but not seriously injured, Wendy Hill in the hospital. He tells Wendy’s husband, Jim, that he can thank his lucky stars she was knocked down by that truck (!) If not for the accident, “I don’t think she would have had a urinalysis for months!” It is this routine test that reveals Wendy has diabetes.
Well. A violent and inadvertent calamity is hardly the most common means by which the disease is discovered, but this 1949 film makes the point that often people don’t recognize the signs and symptoms of diabetes. The disease may be diagnosed during a routine medical examination, or while a patient is being treated for another condition. This remains true 65 years later.
November is American Diabetes Month. The American Diabetes Association estimates that 29.1 million Americans have diabetes, with 8.1 million of those undiagnosed. Ninety-five percent of those affected have the form known as Type 2, in which the body does not properly use insulin to metabolize blood sugar. The remaining five percent have Type 1, formerly known as juvenile diabetes, in which the body simply doesn’t produce insulin. Since unmanaged diabetes can lead to a host of health problems, awareness and treatment are important, a fact recognized by the U.S. Public Health Service and the American Diabetes Association when they commissioned this film.
The film was directed by Joseph E. Henabery, who had worked with filmmaker D. W. Griffith on two controversial masterpieces of the silent era, Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). Henabery’s biography includes its own drama. In the early 1920s, he clashed with powerful studio heads Louis B. Mayer of MGM and Adolph Zukor of Paramount, and was effectively blackballed. He then freelanced for Columbia, Universal, and other less prominent studios, producing low-budget action pictures. From World War II until his 1957 retirement, Henabery directed U.S. Army training films and documentaries, The Story of Wendy Hill being one.
The Story of Wendy Hill conveys its message with all the drama film can offer. Wendy is heartbroken to learn that she is diabetic; she cries to Jim that they never should have gotten married. She worries she won’t be able to have children, mostly for fear that they might inherit genes for the disease. It was perhaps better understood later on that diabetes usually means a high-risk, though manageable, pregnancy. In any case, Dr. Woods reassures Wendy that both children and a perfectly normal life are possible for her.
Jim steps up, taking care of Wendy once she is home from the hospital. He wears an apron and works in the kitchen, preparing the sort of meal he understands to be appropriate for her condition. Unfortunately for Wendy, that consists of a tiny burned chop and a single pea. Dr. Woods drops in for a visit and lets Jim know he can be a bit more generous with the portions.
Wendy and Jim go on to have a healthy baby boy, ignoring the misgivings of a snooping, meddlesome aunt. Wendy’s diabetes is managed, and the tale ends on a high note. It’s even revealed that Dr. Woods himself has diabetes.
Film reviewers from the American Journal of Public Health noted at the time that from a medical viewpoint, The Story of Wendy Hill accurately presents the discovery, care, and management of diabetes. They objected to the truck, however, and thought the film would have done better to illustrate a person recognizing worrisome symptoms and seeking a checkup, so that the importance of periodic medical exams could be emphasized.
To watch more films like The Story of Wendy Hill from the National Library of Medicine’s Historical Audiovisuals collection, visit NLM’s Digital Collections.