#323) The Forgotten Frontier (1931)


#323) The Forgotten Frontier (1931)

OR “Call the Midwife”

Directed by Marvin Breckinridge

Class of 1996

The Plot: Photojournalist Marvin Breckinridge ventured into filmmaking to document the humanitarian work being done by her cousin Mary in Kentucky. Mary’s organization, the Frontier Nursing Service, provides nurses and midwives to the underserved Appalachian Mountains. In filmed recreations – some involving the actual patients – Mary and her team ride on horseback for miles to help the community, from delivering babies to inoculating children to tending bullet wounds.

Why It Matters: The NFR write-up has no superlatives, just a run-down of the film and its historical context (though one of the sentences is weirdly cut off mid-way through).

But Does It Really?: As always, I will give a film a pass for representing a filmmaker in the Registry and/or highlighting a community that rarely gets recognition. “The Final Frontier” is both, introducing me to the work of Marvin Breckinridge (and her generations of famous relatives) as well as showcasing an organization I’m embarrassed to say I had never heard of. Obviously medical technology has evolved over 90 years, but the Frontier Nursing Service’s rustic beginnings make for a fascinating historical document, and a welcome addition to the NFR. And as for the unsung heroes of the medical profession, lets give nurses three cheers…and significantly higher pay.

Everybody Gets One: Mary Breckinridge had gotten her nursing degree in 1910, but did not pursue a career until ten years later, following her divorce and the death of her two young children. While in Europe she saw the British midwife system in action, and founded the Frontier Nursing Service in 1925 upon her return to America. Mary’s cousin was also named Mary Breckinridge, but went by her middle name, Marvin, to help differentiate between the two. Marvin was an international photojournalist throughout the ‘30s, joining CBS News during WWII and becoming the only woman on the original “Murrow’s Boys” team.

Wow, That’s Dated: It’s a nursing service that relies on horses and river fording. You can pretty much date everything in this movie.

Other notes

  • You know who else is a cousin of Mary and Marvin’s? John Cabell Breckinridge Jr., better known as Bunny Breckinridge, the actor who played the Alien Ruler in “Plan 9 from Outer Space”. I wonder if that ever came up at Thanksgiving?
  • Despite the film’s title and its frequent reliance on horses, this is not a western.
  • There’s a lot of Kentucky/Appalachian terminology I had to look up as I went along. For starters, “fotched-on” is a variation of “fetched-on”, as in someone fetched from another part of the country to the Appalachians.
  • “Hey woman! My woman is a-needin’ you!” Not exactly the Bat-Signal, is it?
  • I know it’s a recreation, but the woman in labor is going for the Melanie Hamilton Award for Most Quiet Childbirth (2018’s winner: Emily Blunt in “A Quiet Place”!)
  • One of the assistant directors of the Frontier Nursing Service is identified as “Miss Peacock”. What happened to her depends on which room she is in, and with what object (and which ending you watch).
  • I like that all of the nurses wear ties and coats while on duty. Gender norms be damned!
  • Is the schoolteacher discouraging her students from getting inoculated? Ah man, even back then history had Jenny McCarthys.
  • There are several scenes where the nurses have to ford a river on horseback. You have to be really dedicated to want to do this line of work.
  • The man who delivers the orphaned babies is referred to as “a widow-man”. Did the term “widower” not exist yet?
  • Another Appalachian term: the “least’uns” is the youngest member of a family. I’m the least’uns of my family!
  • There’s a scene in which an angry man guns down his neighbor. Do you think either of these men were willing to recreate that moment?
  • I’m in amazement that not only does this group of volunteers take the gun victim 16 miles on foot to the nearest hospital, and not only does the surgeon travel 25 miles on horseback to operate on him, but that the victim survived long enough for any of this to happen, AND survived the operation. That’s sheer determination at that point.
  • The final shot is of Mary riding off to help another family, in this instance riding a horse in the middle of the night using a flare to guide the way, which seems terrifying. That is some true dedication to your work. Makes me question all of my life choices up to this point.


  • Marvin Breckinridge became a philanthropist towards the end of her life, donating her photos and art to, among other places, the Library of Congress. She lived long enough to see “The Forgotten Frontier” make the National Film Registry.
  • Mary Breckinridge continued to direct the Frontier Nursing Service until her death in 1965. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1995, and received her own postage stamp in 1998.
  • The Frontier Nursing Service is still in operation in Kentucky, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. You can learn more about them here.

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