by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The movie TCM showed after Doctor “X” was one both Charles and I had been chasing after for a long time: Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, a 1940 Warners production starring Edward G. Robinson, who in addition to his continuing gangster roles (many of them spoofs) also got to succeed Paul Muni to the big, prestigious biopics after Muni left the studio. Directed by William (née Wilhelm) Dieterle, who had also helmed the Muni vehicle The Story of Louis Pasteur, Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet clearly follows the same formula — a courageous, crusading scientist takes on the medical establishment and is proven right — but to my mind is a richer and more interesting movie. (It probably also helps that John Huston was one of the screenwriters, along with Heinz Herald and Norman Burnside — Burnside is also credited with the “idea” for the film.)
Dr. Paul Ehrlich is a minor doctor in a famous hospital who’s confronted with a couple of cases of syphilis — at the start of the movie this is still the disease that dares not speak its name, but later on the film becomes surprisingly honest about it (it’s known that public-health organizations in the late 1930’s were becoming concerned about the spread of STD’s and interested in using the media to educate people about them, and it’s likely there was a lot of heavy-duty lobbying from the U.S. Public Health Service and other places to get the Production Code Administration to approve this film) — and reluctantly advises the patients to take the conventional treatments, steam baths and ointments. One young man accepts Ehrlich’s words of optimism, but when Ehrlich gets home he tells his wife Hedy (Ruth Gordon), “He could see in my eyes that I was lying.” Ehrlich’s other syphilis patient is a teamster (back when that literally meant someone who drove a team of horses pulling a cart with cargo on it) who complains that the sweat baths leave him so weak he’s unable to work, and Ehrlich pisses off the hierarchy at his hospital both for violating the rules and for spending his spare time researching a theory of his own that newly developed aniline dyes can be used to stain bacteria as long as the right dye can be found that has an affinity for the bacteria while leaving the rest of the slide unstained.
This attracts the attention of Dr. Emil von Behring (Otto Kruger in a — mostly — sympathetic role for a change), an associate of the famous Dr. Robert Koch (Albert Bassermann, the great character actor and German refugee who never learned English — he memorized his lines phonetically and when working with a German director like Dieterle or Fritz Lang, or a German-speaking director like Alfred Hitchcock, he was O.K. — with anyone else he needed an interpreter; in A Woman’s Face Conrad Veidt translated director George Cukor’s directions to Bassermann into German), who has just found the bacterium that causes tuberculosis (through the famous four postulates that served as the governing rules of microbiology until they were set aside by modern researchers as obsolete and quaint). Unfortunately, when he tries to present slides of it virtually no one can see the tubercle bacilli in the midst of the background — so he seizes on Ehrlich’s staining technique (after one of those typical scenes in which Ehrlich’s wife accidentally turns on the heater on which he was resting his slides, and thereby lets Ehrlich know he has to heat the slides to fix the dye so it will show) and hires Ehrlich for his institute. Alas, in working with the samples of tubercle bacilli Koch gave him, Ehrlich has got TB himself — so he and his wife go to Egypt to take the cure in a warm, dry climate. While there, Ehrlich treats a child who dies of a fatal snakebite — and marvels that the kid’s father was bitten by the same snake but didn’t get sick, because he’d received four similar snakebites and had developed an immunity to them. Ehrlich uses this knowledge to develop an anti-diphtheria serum (which he grows in horses) that saves the lives of thousands of German children, and he becomes a medical hero and gets funding for his own institute to research his theory that “magic bullets” — custom-tailored drugs that kill bacteria while leaving the body alone — can cure diseases.
Fifteen years pass (as expressed in a title that mentions Ehrlich’s Nobel Prize) and Ehrlich decides to use his techniques to develop a cure for syphilis — his interest in the disease is re-ignited by a paper announcing that another scientist has discovered its cause — and he goes through 605 trial formulas involving arsenic as the key ingredient before the 606th one has the desired effect of killing the syphilis organism without (generally) harming the patient. Unfortunately, the drug is rushed into production too soon before Ehrlich has been able to test it and find what other conditions might contra-indicate it, and 38 people die from its effects. Ehrlich’s old nemesis Dr. Hans Wolfert (Sig Ruman in a serious role) publishes an article denouncing the drug and Ehrlich sues for libel — and Behring, who’d broken with Ehrlich earlier, is the prime witness for Wolfert’s defense. But Behring saves the day for Ehrlich and his treatment (which was variously marketed as Formula 606 and Salvarsan) by announcing in court that even if a few people die from the treatment, at least it’s preventing syphilis from spreading because the people who take it — whether they live or die — at least can’t transmit it to anyone else.
There are a couple of annoying medical errors in the film — the script calls the syphilis organism a protozoan (it’s a bacterium) and promotes the old myth that you could get it from kitchen utensils or toilet seats — but for the most part Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet is a fine film that indulges in the clichés of the genre (particularly the overuse of montage sequences to depict the long, painstaking researches in Ehrlich’s lab) but also contains some veiled but unmistakable anti-Nazi messages, including Wolfert’s complaint that he doesn’t fully trust Ehrlich “because he is not of our faith” and later the comment of Mittelmeyer (Donald Meek) that Ehrlich shouldn’t have an Asian scientist on his research staff taking a job away from a “good German.” (Doubtless Robinson, who had put his career on the line to get Jack Warner to produce Confessions of a Nazi Spy two years earlier, delighted in this subtext.) Though I’m a lot more skeptical about modern medicine than I used to be, this film holds up surprisingly well and raises ethical questions about research — particularly the issue of whether to release a promising drug immediately or continue the controlled scientific trials on it, and the possiblility that lives could be lost either way (either the drug works and people made to be in the control group get sick and die needlessly, or the drug doesn’t work and people die needlessly from a prematurely prescribed treatment) — that are still significant today.