Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Story of Louis Pasteur

I've briefly mentioned the 1936 film The Story of Louis Pasteur several times, and last month pointed out that it would be airing again at 6:30 AM on February 10. That's tomorrow, so now would be a good time to do that full-length post on the movie.

The movie opens up with what was a very vexing problem in the middle of the 19th century: deaths of mothers in childbirth. Doctors weren't certain what was going on, but Pasteur, a chemist and biologist (but notably not a physician) speculated that there must be some sort of organism already existing on the doctors' medical instruments causing the women to get sick -- they didn't know enough back then to sterilize the instruments to the extent that is done today. Pasteur's experiments more or less proved what is now known as the germ theory. However, as Pasteur wasn't a physician, there were a lot of people who felt that it wouldn't be safe for Pasteur to do anything perceived as practicing medicine, so these old doctors, represented by Dr. Charbonnet (Fritz Leiber) get him to stop making his work on the topic public.

Fast forward several years. In real life, Pasteur was working on figuring out how micro-organisms caused various agricultural diseases, as well as working on vaccines. All of this work is telescoped into a sequence involving an anthrax outbreak, with Pasteur being at the center of the one region of France where anthrax doesn't seem to be endemic. Of course, it's because of the vaccines he and his team of researchers has been working on. These assistants are headed up by Dr. Martel (Donald Woods), who by this point has fallen in love with Pasteur's adult daughter Annette (Anita Louise). Ultimately, the scientists and doctors do an experiment involving a control group that more or less proves that it's Pasteur's vaccine keeping the livestock of the region safe. Another victory for Pasteur, but again he's practicing medicine without a license.

The next topic discussed in the movie is rabies. Pasteur and his assistants were trying to develop a vaccine for the disease, and were conducting trials on dogs. They reached a point where they thought they might be having some success, at which point the movie conveniently has a young boy (Dickie Moore) get bitten by a rabid dog. Pasteur takes the daring step of giving the boy the rabies vaccine that he's been testing on the dogs. To be fair, it's not as if there's anything else the normal doctors could have done to help the boy. And if Wikipedia is to be believed, the incident of a boy getting bitten really did happen while Pasteur and his team still hadn't tested the vaccine on that many dogs. Of course, the boy recovers (as he did in real life). Pasteur eventually lives long enough to be honored by the establishment.

Reading up on Pasteur's life story on Wikipedia, which I presume is going to be reasonably accurate since it should be a fairly uncontroversial topic, the movie gets the broad themes more or less correct. Pasteur was keenly interested in microbiology and did do work on both anthrax and rabies. The movie, however, apparently plays up the controversy for dramatic effect; also, the romantic subplot involving Pasteur's daughter and research assistant seems to be made up. Compared to many other biopics, however, this is fairly mild. It also doesn't mention the work that led to Pasteur's name becoming an eponym for treating milk to remove micro-organisms. But Paul Muni is just so darn entertaining as the daring scientist that he makes the movie more than worth watching.

The Story of Louis Pasteur seems to be out-of-print on DVD, since it's not available from the TCM shop.

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