The following article is MovieFanFare’s contribution to the Feb. 19-21 Movie Scientist Blogathon co-hosted by Christina Wehner and Silver Screenings. You can find a complete list of participating sites here.
By the end of the 1930s the Warner Bros. studio could pin much of its success on specializing in two seemingly incongruous film varieties: the guns-a-blazin’ gangster tale, usually starring Edward G. Robinson or James Cagney; and the historical biodrama, in which either George Arliss or Paul Muni seemed to play every notable politician, author or inventor of the previous two centuries. As such, it should come as no surprise that in 1940 the studio decided to combine elements of both, casting the hard-boiled Robinson as Dr. Paul Ehrlich in director William Dieterle’s biopic Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet.
To movie audiences of the time, however, who saw the star’s name on the marquee and expected a gritty crime drama (after all, two of Robinson’s most recent gangster flicks were titled Bullets or Ballots and The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse), it must have been quite a shock to see the pugnacious Little Caesar himself as the turn-of-the-century “microbe hunter” whose tireless research lead to treatments for tuberculosis, diphtheria and, most famously, syphilis.
Yes, you read that right. At the height of the Hays Code and Hollywood’s self-imposed censorship, they made a major motion picture about the search for a cure for a venereal disease. And, thanks in no small part to a superlative lead performance, fine attention to detail and an effective screenplay whose writers included John Huston, it’s one of the better examples of the “scientist biopic” subgenre.
The film opens in a German hospital, were staff physician Ehrlich–much to the displeasure of his co-workers, particularly the anti-Semitic Dr. Wolfert (Sig Rumann)–divides his time between treating patients and working in the lab on a method to stain bacteria that will make them easier to find under a microscope. When he must tell a young man that he has contracted, as the doctor puts it, “a contagious disease..an infection like any other” (don’t worry; the script will get around to using the “S-word” eventually) and cannot marry, Ehrlich tries to console him with overly optimistic hopes of a possible cure. But after overhearing an argument between Ehrlich and Wolfert about another patient’s treatment, the distraught youth fatally stabs himself. Later reminded by his wife Hedvig (Ruth Gordon) that he did everything in his power to help the dead man, Paul replies “everything in my power amounts to nothing.”
Sneaking out from his hospital shift to attend a lecture by noted microbiologist Dr. Robert Koch (Albert Bassermann, himself a chemist-turned-actor) on the tubercule bacillus gives Ehrlich the chance to prove his staining theories, but it also costs him his job when his superior sees him. “Men like you usually have a very difficult time in this world because they do not know how to conform,” Ehrlich is told. “It’s conform or suffer.” Determined to show everyone, including a skeptical Koch, that he’s right, Ehrlich–with some inadvertent help from Hedvig lighting a stove, finds a successful stain for tuberculosis. A grateful Koch offers him a position with his research institute, but Paul discovers he contracted TB while working with the test culture.
At the urging of his friend and colleague Emil von Behring (Otto Kruger), Ehrlich travels to Egypt to recuperate, and while treating a father and son for snakebites he comes up with the theory of anti-toxins. This idea is put to a most trying test upon his return to Germany, as a diphtheria epidemic is plaguing the country and striking down thousands of children. Working in concert, Paul and Emil hit upon a successful serum. First, however, they first must overcome opposition from Ehrlich’s old Berlin bosses before being allowed to administer the experimental drug on several young patients…one of whom just happens to be the grandson of a high-ranking government minister (Donald Crisp).
Flash forward one title card and 15 years: Ehrlich’s pursuit of what he dubbed his “Side Chain Theory” for finding specific cures that could be released into the body with “magic bullets” has earned him a Nobel Prize and his own publicly funded research lab. But when he sets out to find the “bullet” that will cure “the cause of man’s most vicious disease” (guess which one), Paul is attacked once again by Wolfert (who is also unhappy that one of his key assistants is a Japanese scientist (Wilfred Hari), now part of an influential government committee. With his budget cut in half, Ehrlich turns for financial help to a wealthy dowager (Maria Ouspenskaya). This leads to a memorable scene at an elegant dinner party where Ehrlich, asked what he’s working on, manages to stop the conversation cold by simply replying “syphilis,” then proceeds to draw his theory of antibodies attacking diseased cells on a tablecloth for a fascinated Ouspenskaya.
Even with funding, however, it takes several years and more than 600 different formulas before Paul and his team hit upon compound 606, later to be known as Salvarsan. At first hesitant to make the discovery available to the public, Ehrlich relents after pleading from colleagues, and soon the drug is being manufactured and shipped around the world. But when several deaths are attributed to 606’s use, Wolfert launches a defamatory newspaper campaign against Ehrlich and his cure, forcing Ehrlich to sue for libel in a headline-making trial that could mean the end of everything he’s achieved to that point.
So, what gave Warner Bros. the idea of making a film about Paul Ehrlich and his most famous discovery, and how did they think they could get away with such a controversial subject matter? According to producer Hal Wallis, a key reason behind the film’s production was to refute Adolf Hitler’s 1938 statement that “a scientific discovery by a Jew is worthless” (Nazi officials were already busy wiping Ehrlich’s name out of history books and from a street in Frankfurt).
While the subject of anti-Semitism wasn’t emphasized and is only broached in one line by Rumann’s antagonist, who confesses “to a certain feeling against people of his (Ehrlich’s) faith in our profession,” the depicition of German attitudes regarding race can still be seen as a jab at the regime that had already launched Europe into World War II…and that the studio and star Robinson (born Emanuel Goldenberg) had tackled the previous year in Confessions of a Nazi Spy. In a similar vein, the word “syphilis” isn’t mentioned until an hour into the picture, with the disease treated as a puzzle to be solved while its more–shall we say, inappropriate associations are downplayed.
There are many great performances in the movie, with small but notable turns by former FanFare “Scene Stealers” Maria Ouspenskaya as Ehrlich’s benefactor and Donald Meek as a member of the committee investigating his lab. Sig Rumann, whose “Mittle European” persona was usually played for laughs in such fare as A Night at the Opera and Ninotchka, makes a very effective antagonist. And Ruth Gordon, who made her sound film debut in 1940 with both this film and Abe Lincoln in Illinois, is an earnestly supportive Frau Ehrlich. But this is Robinson’s film, and the man who up to this point in his screen career was known almost exclusively as a law-breaking tough guy fully immerses himself in the role of the soft-spoken but resolute man of medicine (he even communicated with Ehrlich’s widow and daughter to help him perfect his portrayal).
Following in the tradition of such contemporary Warner Bros. works as The Story of Louis Pasteur and Best Picture Oscar-winner The Life of Emile Zola (both also directed by German-born Jewish refugee Dieterle), Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet is an effective historical drama that depicts the painstaking research of its subject in great–but not overlabored–detail. “Among all the plays and films in which I’ve appeared,” Robinson once wrote, “I’m proudest of my role in Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet…It was, I think, the most distinguished performances I’ve ever given. I say that not only because the critics said it, and my mail and the box office said it, but most of all because that inner voice, that inner self, that captious critic Emanuel Goldenberg said it.”