Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet
|Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet|
1940 Theatrical Poster
|Directed by||William Dieterle|
Hal B. Wallis|
Jack L. Warner
Wolfgang Reinhardt (executive producer)
Edward G. Robinson|
|Music by||Max Steiner|
|Cinematography||James Wong Howe|
|Edited by||Warren Low|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros. Pictures|
Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet is a 1940 biographical film directed by William Dieterle and starring Edward G. Robinson, based on the true story of the German doctor and scientist Dr. Paul Ehrlich. The film was released by Warner Bros., with some controversy considering the subject of syphilis in a major studio release. It was nominated for an Academy Award for its original screenplay (by Norman Burnstine, Heinz Herald and John Huston), but lost to The Great McGinty.
Paul Ehrlich (Edward G. Robinson) is a physician working in a German hospital. He is dismissed for his constant disregard for hospital rules, which are bound by bureaucratic red tape. The reason for his conflict is his steadily rising interest in research for selective color staining, the marking of cells and microorganisms, using certain dyes and marking agents, which, as he describes in the film, have a certain 'affinity' to that which is to be stained and nothing else. Emil von Behring (Otto Kruger), whom Dr. Ehrlich meets and befriends, while experimenting with his staining techniques, is impressed with Dr. Ehrlich's staining methods and refers to it as 'specific staining,' adding that this is one of the greatest achievements in science, especially for diagnostic purposes, based on optical microscopy. After attending a medical presentation of one Dr. Robert Koch (Albert Basserman) showing that tuberculosis is a bacterial disease, Ehrlich is able to obtain a sample of the isolated bacterium. After an intense time of research and experimentation in his own lab, paired with a portion of luck, he is able to develop a staining process for this bacterium. This result is honored by Koch and medical circles as a highly valuable contribution to diagnostics.
During his work, Dr. Ehrlich is infected with tuberculosis, a disease still known as being deadly. Therefore, Ehrlich travels with his wife Hedwig (Ruth Gordon) to Egypt for recovery and relief. There he starts to discover the properties of the human body with regard to immunity. This discovery helps Ehrlich and colleague Dr. von Behring to fight a diphtheria epidemic that is killing off many children in the country. The two doctors are rewarded for their efforts.
Ehrlich concentrates on work to create his "magic bullets" - chemicals injected into the blood to fight various diseases, thus pioneering antibiotic chemotherapy for infectious diseases (later adopted by others to fight cancer). Ehrlich's laboratory has the help of a number of scientists like Sahachiro Hata (Wilfred Hari). The medical board, headed by Dr. Hans Wolfert (Sig Ruman), believes much of Ehrlich's work is a waste of money and resources and fight for a reduction, just as Ehrlich begins to work on a cure for syphilis. Ehrlich is financially backed by the widow of Jewish banker Georg Speyer, Franziska Speyer (Maria Ouspenskaya) and after 606 tries he finally discovers the remedy for the disease. This substance, first called "606", is now known as Arsphenamine or Salvarsan.
The joy of discovery is short-lived, as 38 patients who receive the treatment die. Dr. Wolfert denounces the cure publicly and accuses Ehrlich of murdering those who died from the cure. As faith in the new cure starts to dwindle, Ehrlich is forced to sue Wolfert for libel and in the process exonerate 606. Dr. von Bering (who had earlier told Ehrlich to give up his pipe dreams of cures by chemicals), is called by the defense to denounce 606. Von Bering instead states that he believes that 606 is responsible for the death of syphilis itself, the 39th death as he calls it. Ehrlich is exonerated, but the strain and stress from the trial are too much for his ill body and he dies shortly thereafter, first telling his assistants and colleagues about taking risks with regard to medicine.
Politics and self-censorship
Warner Bros. Studios was concerned about Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet because it was about a venereal disease, syphilis, and because Ehrlich was Jewish. This was before the U.S. entry into the Second World War. Warner Bros. didn't want the movie to be political, they didn't want it to seem to have a Jewish agenda, and Germany was a market for American films.
Ehrlich was one of the greatest Jewish doctors, and in 1908 his work on immunity won a Nobel Prize. However, the Nazi regime in Germany had systematically expunged all memory of Ehrlich from public buildings and street signs and censored books referring to him. The Second World War had already begun but the United States was not yet directly involved. Jack Warner, like other Hollywood moguls, was wary of criticism of pursuing any supposedly "Jewish" agenda on the screen. A memorandum circulated by the studio bosses stated with regard to the forthcoming Ehrlich movie: "It would be a mistake to make a political propaganda picture out of a biography which could stand on its own feet." So the words "Jew" and "Jewish" went entirely unmentioned in the film. Anti-semitism in Ehrlich's life was no more than hinted at, and then only once or twice. In addition, the original version of the deathbed scene was changed so that Ehrlich no longer would refer to the Pentateuch (books of Moses in the Bible). Nevertheless, the film's story writer Norman Burnside declared "There isn't a man or woman alive who isn't afraid of syphilis, and let them know that a little kike named Ehrlich tamed the scourge. And maybe they can persuade their hoodlum friends to keep their fists off Ehrlich's coreligionists."
Working under the puritanical restraints of the Production Code of the Motions Pictures Producers and Distributors of America, Warner executives furthermore seriously considered not mentioning the word "syphilis" in the movie. However, Hal B. Wallis, president of the association, while advising caution, wrote to Warner Bros. that "to make a dramatic picture of the life of Dr. Ehrlich and not include this discovery [the anti-syphilis drug Salvarsan] among his great achievements would be unfair to the record."
The movie's title role star Edward G. Robinson, himself Jewish, was keenly aware of the increasingly desperate situation of the Jews in Germany and Europe. He personally met with Paul Ehrlich's daughter who had fled to the US and he corresponded with Ehrlich's widow, who was a refugee in Switzerland. (Robinson furthermore welcomed the opportunity to break out of the police and gangster roles in which he was in danger of being forever stereotyped.) "During the filming," Robinson later recalled with regard to his role as Ehrlich: "I kept to myself, studied the script, practiced gestures before the mirror, read about his life and times, studied pictures of the man, tried to put myself in his mental state, tried to be him."
- Edward G. Robinson as Dr. Paul Ehrlich
- Ruth Gordon as Hedwig Ehrlich
- Otto Kruger as Dr. Emil Von Behring
- Donald Crisp as Minister Althoff
- Maria Ouspenskaya as Franziska Speyer
- Montagu Love as Professor Hartman
- Sig Ruman as Dr. Hans Wolfert
- Donald Meek as Mittelmeyer
- Henry O'Neill as Dr. Lentz
- Albert Bassermann as Dr. Robert Koch
- Edward Norris as Dr. Morgenroth
- Harry Davenport as Judge
- Louis Calhern as Dr. Brockdorf
- Louis Jean Heydt as Dr. Kunze
- Charles Halton as Sensenbrenner
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:
- Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet on IMDb
- Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet at the TCM Movie Database
- Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet at AllMovie
- Short description of the Movie Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet from William Dieterle, dated 1940
- Feature Article of the Movie Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet from LIFE Magazine, dated March 4, 1940