Program Notes: The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936)
The work of scientists generally doesn’t lend itself to dramatization.
In real life, earthshaking breakthroughs are fairly rare. Great cures and life-changing inventions are most often the result of painstaking trial and error over years or decades.
Not that Hollywood has ever let facts get in the way of a good story.
Take, for example, the opening sequence of The Story of Louis Pasteur. In mid-19th century Paris, a physician prepares to go on a house call. He places his instruments in his black bag and, dropping one on the floor, picks it up, wipes it off on his pants leg, and puts it in with the rest.
The camera then pans to a dark alcove. A figure emerges holding a gun. Bang! Dead doctor.
What’s this bit of melodrama got to do with the great microbiologist Louis Pasteur?
Just this. The shooter is the husband of a woman who died at the hands of the doctor. Apparently the widower had read a pamphlet published by Pasteur which excoriates France’s physicians for their failure to sterilize their hands and instruments. And now the distressed husband is taking his revenge.
The Story of Louis Pasteur isn’t a full film biography, as it only covers about a decade in the great chemist’s life. For modern audiences it is less about one man than it is about the bad old days of head-in-the-sand medicine, when doctors didn’t think a wound was healing without a lot of pus and took pride in their filthy instruments.
The bulk of physicians, in fact, thought that Pasteur was either a madman or a con artist for his assertion that disease was caused by tiny creatures – germs – that could be seen only under the microscope.
The film presents this situation as a monumental struggle between Pasteur (Paul Muni, who won a best actor Oscar for his work here) and his nemesis, the imperious Charbonnet (Fritz Leiber), a prominent member of the French medical establishment.
Charbonnet is determined to have Pasteur prosecuted and/or discredited.
In fact, Charbonnet is so successful at this that Pasteur flees Paris for the countryside, where he diligently works to create a vaccine that protects livestock from anthrax, a disease that has left French agriculture reeling. Or at least reeling everywhere but in Pasteur’s little corner of the country, where the cows and sheep are doing just fine, thank you.
But Charbonnet and the other myopic M.D.s are sure there’s some sort of chicanery at work. Even when Pasteur’s theories are vindicated in a government-sponsored test, they refuse to believe.
Pasteur next turns his attention to developing a vaccine for rabies. By immunizing patients he runs a great risk. Should one of them die, he could be charged with murder and face the guillotine.
Charbonnet is so sure Pasteur’s theories of how the deadly scourge is spread are hokum that he deliberately exposes himself to the disease. Arrogance, thy name is Doctor.
There’s a subplot here involving Pasteur’s pregnant daughter, and Pasteur’s frantic efforts to find a doctor to deliver the baby who will go the extra mile and wash his hands before tending to his patient.
The Story of Louis Pasteur has been nicely mounted in classic Golden Age of Hollywood style.
Director William Dieterle was a German immigrant who began making silent films in Europe and distinguished himself in Hollywood with titles like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Satan Met a Lady, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He directed Muni not only in Louis Pasteur, but also in The Life of Emile Zola and Juarez.
Other films in the series “Muni the Magnificent”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- December 7: Scarface (1932) Not Rated
- December 14: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) Not Rated
- December 21: The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) Not Rated
- December 28: The Life of Emile Zola (1937) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.