The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936, William Dieterle)

For the huge cross section of people who love Paul Muni, France, populist and slightly pedantic 1930s Warner Bros. biopics, and science, The Story of Louis Pasteur is the perfect motion picture. Like a lot of period dramas of the period, it’s so ludicrously artificial it might as well be just some form of fantasy: once upon a time there was a scientist who wanted people to wash their hands, and believed that disease and death were inflicted upon us by tiny microscopic germs. He was right, but he was alienated by his rightness, raising animals and kids in exile and sticking to his convictions. It’s all very admirable, very polite, and all but completely bloodless as cinema.

Yet somehow, it’s also kind of fun. Louis Pasteur’s opponents in the science community trade in wild histrionics — everyone vocally thinks he and his microbe theories and wild ideas about non-woo woo vaccination are just prePOSTerous, and much of the entertainment value of the film lies in their endless scoffing at Pasteur’s completely reasonable and easily tested (and eventually proven) theories. Muni is a delight, as he nearly always was, and director William Dieterle manages to get some (but not much) excitement out of this very straightforward story, but there’s very little to glean from this.

The modern emotional reaction one has is simply to be appalled at the behavior of Fritz Leiber’s Dr. Charbonnet, who injects himself with rabies to prove a point in a ludicrously petty dispute; or how Pasteur endures isolation and excommunication from the scientific and medical communities because he believes in trying an experimental treatment as a last resort on a dying child. Then there’s the way he’s made to look foolish through his exercising of simple logic, like maybe you shouldn’t perform surgeries or live births with filthy hands. One has to actually adjust their basic perception of the universe to accept that, yes, much of this really was controversial at one point. Then you remember that in so many circles, dreadful ignorance about medical science still rules the day. When I can be told to visit an acupuncturist and have him squeeze my forefinger because my neck hurts a bit, it doesn’t seem so unbelievable that people once thought the idea of germs was Martian Satanic batshit.

The Story of Louis Pasteur is a reasonably accurate film, but the automatic distancing forced upon it by Hollywood makes it easily less relevant to one’s study of these matters than pretty much any given TLC documentary. Pasteur is rightfully depicted as a revolutionary and a hero of logic, science, medicine and agriculture, but the film can’t really illuminate anything meaningful that a dry reading of better-researched text would, and it doesn’t truly justify its existence. Perhaps if this truly felt like a missive from the nineteenth century, or if anyone besides Pasteur in the film seemed to at least mean well, it would come off as more than a front for some quite goofy history lessons — firmly rooted, of course, in the “great men” theory, which has its merit but also invites easy ridicule.

Since seeing this film I’ve spoken to a few people who remember, as recently as 2007, having it shown to them as part of a high school biology or French class curriculum. That’s probably the primary utility of a film like this now, though it indicates impressive longevity for such a relatively ordinary 1930s picture. (Especially by the standards of this particular studio, it’s rather a lifeless effort, and its critical praise and awards are surprising to me.) It’s doubly impressive since this means those schools have kept VHS copies of the film all these years, as so far as I can tell it has never been issued on DVD, even from Warner Archive. (That probably means the elements are in poor shape.) I can’t help feeling like this is the old-Hollywood equivalent to something like Lincoln — once upon an awards season it was prestige entertatinment defined, but now it’s just something else with which we can bore teenagers to death and scare them away from the genuine beauty and wit to be found in classic movies. Buuuuuut whatever.

[Watched this on Youtube, couldn’t take screenshots, so…]

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