MOVIE REVIEW: Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940)

Science and scientists rarely get proper treatment by Hollywood. If they aren’t the stereotypical Mad Scientist creating wacky gadgets or Tampering In God’s Domain, they’re the Absent-Minded Professor who is socially awkward and treated as Comic Relief. Or the Screen Scientist is just in the plot to provide exposition so the other characters (and the audience) can know what’s going on.

Most likely, this lack of respect is simply because if they showed a real scientist, they’d look just like someone in any other field of employment (and behave similarly, no doubt). And if they showed real science, not only would most of the audience not understand it, the “process” of Science is long, tedious, and filled with failure. Not something that makes for a good movie.

Is it any wonder, then, that the best movies about science and scientists tend to be biographies?

One has to wonder what Warner Brothers was thinking when they picked Edward G. Robinson to play the title role in Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet. He’d become famous for his work in gangster and crime movies. Why cast him as a medical researcher?

Perhaps it was because Robinson was tired of the stereotype, and wanted to branch out and really show his acting ability. He had enough clout with the studio to make it happen. Robinson gives one of his finest performances as the Good Doctor. A tight script, fine direction, and an excellent supporting cast all help, too.

When we first see Ehrlich, he’s giving palliative care to a young man suffering from syphilis. Only he doesn’t mention it by name. The disease still has a certain social unacceptability about it; in the late 1890s (and 1940s!), you couldn’t even mention the name in public. He gets chewed out by his supervisors in the hospital; not for being honest with his patients, but for telling them that they can skip a “treatment” if they don’t like it. They all know that the disease is fatal, but you have to keep up appearances! The hospital isn’t keen on his using the labs for personal research projects, either.

Back at home, he tells his wife (Ruth Gordon) that he’d quit, but they need the money. In a fine touch, it’s made clear without shoving it in our faces that they have to watch every pfennig when his wife remarks just how much milk their daughters are drinking, and the two girls then try out their arithmetical skills by calculating the weekly cost of their milk habit….

The movie follows the real career of Paul Ehrlich reasonably well, with only a few excusable shortcuts and “revisions” for cinematic purposes. Given the breadth of Ehrlich’s interests and contributions, any accurate biopic would last for days! The ones we do see are his development of chemical stains to help identify microorganisms, work on the relationship of toxins and antitoxins to help with serum-based treatments, work on the development of an improved treatment for diphtheria… and that’s before he starts working on a cure for syphilis!

I really doubt that his discovery of an effective stain for the tuberculosis bacteria was the result of an accidental heating as shown, or that he sketched out his idea for plotting the effectiveness of his experimental syphilis treatments in chalk on the lab floor. And it was Emil von Behring (Otto Kruger) who was the real force behind the diphtheria serum (Ehrlich did the background theoretical work behind why it worked, allowing for improved quality control) – which earned him the first Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. But Ehrlich did have a Japanese researcher on his staff (Dr. Hata Sahachirō), whose work with Ehrlich on the syphilis treatment got him nominated for a Nobel Prize – three times (to no avail, alas).

It does get a little mawkish at the end. But you kind of have to do that, when you want to make a happy ending out of the death of the main character.

As far as it’s depiction of science and scientists, I don’t think I’ve seen anything better. Robinson’s Ehrlich has his personal foibles, but he’s a loving husband and a good father (as far as we can see). The labs look like real labs, with fairly clean counters and shelves and cabinets filled with supplies and equipment. Not only does Ehrlich have to deal with repeated failures in his experimental trials, he also has to deal with bureaucracy and funding. Not in the manner of “Those fools can’t see how important my work is!”, but “You’re neglecting your duties as a doctor”, “We need to properly test it, first”, and “Where will the funding come from?”

This would make a fine double feature with “The Story of Louis Pasteur” (1936), if you want to see how Hollywood used to treat science and scientists. They’re getting better; I’ve heard good things about “The Theory of Everything” (2014) and “The Man Who Knew Infinity” (2015) – which, probably not really coincidentally, are also biographies. I wonder how well they depict theoretical astrophysics and mathematics…..

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