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25 February 2018

The Fight for Truth: Paul Muni in The Story of Louis Pasteur

Paul Muni as Louis Pasteur demonstrates his microscope to the court

Coming Up Next Week on TCM: The Story of Louis Pasteur, 1936

The Story of Louis Pasteur is not just an enjoyable movie, it's an informative and important movie. We're used to the format now, but this was one of the first serious biographies about an important cultural figure produced by Hollywood. True, Warner Brothers made some successful biographies starring the established stage star, George Arliss, but these were based on conventional "well-made" plays intended for entertainment purposes, not historical accuracy. Other early biographical films, such as The Lady With Red Hair (about the actress Mrs. Leslie Carter), Mata Hari, and Annie Oakley hardly bothered with any facts at all. Warner's "modern" biographies included up-to-date research, and when this approach proved popular at the box office, other studios followed.

Feeling that audiences needed a dramatic story to hold onto, with heroes and villains, even if there weren't any in real life, screenwriters William Gibney and Pierre Collings incorporated fictional happenings into the tale of Louis Pasteur's real scientific discoveries. They used these dramatic events to show the real struggle between conventional society and the changes engendered by scientific progress. The first big problem Pasteur tackled was what was called "child-bed fever," which was a deadly sepsis frequently developed by new mothers, nearly always fatal to the mother and often the child. Pasteur proved it was caused by infectious microbes transmitted by doctors' unwashed hands and instruments. This assertion was greeted with a storm of outrage from medical professionals. Most doctors didn't understand or believe in the whole concept of microbes, or that what they called "invisible animals" could cause disease. Pasteur, who was not in fact a medical doctor but a chemist, could do little to break through the solid wall of institutional resistance to change. His insistence that conventional medical practices led to thousands of unnecessary deaths made him powerful enemies. The fictional character of the haughty Dr. Charbonnet, who dogs Pasteur's footsteps for years, embodies these enemies.

Paul Muni is superb as Louis Pasteur; he shows the essential tough-mindedness of the true scientist. Critics and politics are ephemeral annoyances; only the truth matters. Muni had been an actor since his early teens, and probably never heard of such things before, but he explains with precision and authority scientific principles such as controlled experiments, which Pasteur employed to demonstrate the effectiveness of his world-changing anthrax vaccine. Anthrax decimated herds of sheep and cattle for centuries in the important food-producing areas of France. Pasteur's discovery of an effective vaccine, and his ability to prove it through a publicly observed test (a herd of sheep was divided into two groups and one group was vaccinated, while the other was not). relieved near famine conditions for the poor, and even prevented armed conflict in Europe over resources that had seemed to be growing scarcer and scarcer.

The cast is terrific. Muni gives us a sophisticated, skeptical Pasteur. very French, with a wry, understated sense of humor. Josephine Hutchinson is an intelligent, self-effacing Madame Pasteur, Anita Louise lovely as always as their daughter, who eventually marries another scientist, played by Donald Woods. Fritz Leiber is very effective as the conniving Dr. Charbonnet, Halliwell Hobbes is the great English scientist Dr. Lister.

Akim Tamiroff has a key role in a very striking part of the story, which is true -- a delegation from Russia arrives to beg Pasteur to find a treatment for rabies. Rabies was rampant among the animals in Russian forests and easily infected humans who came in contact with them. With some reluctance, the Pasteur Institute takes on the task, which is complicated by the fact that rabies is extremely contagious, and, in those days, always fatal. Even obtaining samples for study was dangerous. This leads to some very authentic science scenes; the investigators pretty much throw caution to the winds, handling cultures and samples with awe-inspiring recklessness (precautions are for other people). I'm sure that's exactly what they did.

Warner Bros. progressive political agenda shows through. In Germany, the Nazis were trying to establish "alternate facts," and rewrite reality with their "scientific" theories of racial superiority. The fact that one stubborn, unconventional thinker who bowed to no one solved the deadly mysteries of three scourges of humanity, rabies, anthrax, and childbed fever, says something about science, and how it must be done -- freely, with the ability to follow the truth wherever it leads. No societal pressures can be allowed to deter free thought and investigation. It also shows exactly what the Nazis didn't like about it.

This was an important film when it was released in 1936; the New York Times review considered it a landmark in the ability of film to educate and inform. It won a plethora of awards, including three Academy Award nominations, including picture, best screenplay. and best actor, which Paul Muni won. It also won the best foreign film award at the Venice Film Festival, and was included in many top ten lists. Even more to the point, from Warner Brothers point of view, it was one of the top-ten grossing films of the year, which inspired the studio produce more such biographies. Other studios took notice, too, and a golden era of movie biographies began, including such classics as The Life of Emile Zola (also starring Paul Muni), The Great Garrick, Parnell (which was MGM's first try, and it was awful), Conquest, Boys Town, Marie Antoinette (in which MGM proved they could still outspend anyone), The Buccaneer, Suez, and more.

The real Louis Pasteur