Monday, February 10, 2014

Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet

I'd been suggesting for some time that Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet isn't avaialble on DVD, but the TCM schedule must have been acting up, as it's now claiming that you can get it courtesy of the TCM shop. At any rate, it's coming up on TCM early tomorrow morning at 4:30 AM (or overnight tonight if you're out on the west coast), and is certainly worth a full-length blog post.

Edward G. Robinson plays Dr. Paul Ehrlich, who was a doctor and a medical researcher. The opening scene has Ehrlich being controversial from a young age, which may not be quite true; Wikipedia (not the best source, I know) doesn't mention anything analogous to the opening controversy. But Ehrlich in real life had a cousin who worked with staining bacteria to study them more closely, which is what led to Ehrlich's interest in medical research. (That cousin doesn't seem to be a character in the movie, either.) This is wher Ehrlich did come into some difficulties in dealing with the other doctors, as his research was so new that many of the other doctors apparently couldn't understnad it. Unfortunately, doing medical research also left Ehrlich with a case of tuberculosis, so he left for Egypt where the drier climate would presumably be good for his health, and to do further medical research.

It was in Egypt that Ehrlich, according to the movie, got the idea for serums, which would have been a completely new class of medicine at the time. The movie portrays it in the form of Ehrlich helping a snakebite victim, and realizing that if antitoxins can be specific to one snake venom, perhaps you could have toxins that were more specific to certain diseases. This insight was also developed in large part because of the study of immunity inherited from the mother, a field in which Ehrlich worked with one Dr. Emil von Behring (played by Otto Kruger; this is a real person). Togethr the two developed a serum for diphtheria, but the two also had a dispute over who should receive how much credit and how much of a share of the profits from the serum, which led to a professional falling out that would have consequences later in the movie.

Much of the second half of the movie deals with Ehrlich's attempts to find that "magic bullet" which would be a more effective treatment for an individual disease by more selectively targeting the organism that causes the disease. In the movie, this manifests itself in n attempt to discover an effective treatment for syphilis, which is controversial since it implies that people are actually having lots of sex. (Well, they are, aren't they?) It's a long, arduous task, and experiment after experiment fails, until finally, on the 606th attempt, it looks like there is success! The treatment is called 606 at first in honor of the 606 attempts, and then Salvarsan (again, a real name), but for a whole bunch of reasons it's controversial, which once again seems fairly true to Ehrlich's actual life story.

Biochemistry is not one of my strong points, so I have to admit that I don't know quite how much of what Warner Bros. portrayed when they made this movie is technically accurate, above and beyond whether it's faithfully re-telling the story of Ehrlich's life. All I've gathered is from doing some cursory reading on Wikipedia, and it seems as though there's some reasonable accuracy, and some stuff played up for dramatic effect, especially Ehrlich's death at the end. Edward G. Robinson is, like Paul Muni in The Story of Louis Pasteur, quite entertaining and carries the movie singlehandedly in the title role. Everybody else is good enough, but not quite memorable, in supporting Robinson. In part because of the topic, and in part because this was an era when there were so many good Hollywood movies being made, Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet doesn't get the attention it deserves, and that's a shame. It's really quite a good movie, even if parts are bound by the constraints of what the studios were doing at the time.

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