Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940)


Director:  William Dieterle

Starring:  Edward G. Robinson, Otto Kruger, Ruth Gordon, Montagu Love, Sig Ruman, Donald Crisp, Albert Bassermann, Maria Ouspenskaya, Henry O’Neill, Hermine Sterler, Edward Norris, Wilfrid Hari, Charles Halton, Donald Meek, Louis Calhern

Screenplay:  John Huston, Heinz Herald and Norman Burnstine




The 1930s and 1940s were a rich period for the cinematic biopic, and also a time of a great war between two great studios, MGM and Warner Bros., for championship in this area of film-making. MGM liked biopics for the opportunity to craft star-heavy, period-costumed dramas that were also the kind of prestige productions that drew critical plaudits; Warners liked them because, being “true”, they allowed for some stringent social criticism under the acceptable guise of historical fact.

One subset of such films, the scientific biopic, illustrates clearly the philosophical divide between the two studios and their approach to these films. Madame Curie, released by MGM in 1943, is of course overtly the story of Marie and Pierre Curie and the discovery of radium, but in truth the film is as much about providing a vehicle for the studio’s favourite romantic pairing of Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon as it is about the science: after the death of Pierre Curie, the film jumps blithely over the next fifteen years or so of Madame Curie’s career – including her second, solo Nobel Prize! – and cuts to her delivering a dramatic curtain speech. The End.

There’s a fifteen year jump in the middle of Warners’ Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, too, but not because Ehrlich’s career during that time didn’t suit the studio’s viewpoint. Rather, the scientific career of Paul Ehrlich was so varied, so astonishing in its scope, so rich in discovery, that not all of it could be crammed into even a feature-length film. Ehrlich pioneered the discovery of specific bacteriological stains to facilitate diagnosis; was involved in the development of a treatment for diphtheria; elucidated the toxin / antitoxin relationship, which allowed the standardisation of serum-based treatments; refined and improved the treatment for sleeping sickness; discovered a cure for syphilis; proved the existence of the blood-brain barrier; originated the concepts of “autoimmunity” and “chemotherapy” and conducted groundbreaking research in these new fields; and won the Nobel Prize – and that’s just a highlights package!

It was clearly impossible for Warners to cover all of this ground without trivialising Ehrlich’s accomplishments. Consequently, the screenplay by John Huston, Heinz Herald and Norman Burnstine (which was rightly nominated for an Academy Award) concentrates upon those areas of Ehrlich’s work where the importance to society as a whole is the most obvious. Even this narrowing of the story’s focus leaves almost too much ground to be covered: a situation that in fact had the most positive impact upon the film as a whole. There was no time for diversions, for any leavening of the story, for anything but the science. It is precisely this, in my opinion, that makes Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet the best of all the scientific biopics: of all these films, this is the one that simply sticks to the point.

It is, of course, entirely typical of Warners that they should, of all Ehrlich’s accomplishments, choose to focus in their film upon his discovery of a treatment for syphilis, at a time when the mere mention of venereal disease was forbidden under the Production Code. (We shall take a look at exactly how they got away with this later on in the review.) When Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet begins, we find Paul Ehrlich (Edward G. Robinson) unhappily employed at the Berlin Medical Clinic, a general physician who longs to be a scientist (that’s my boy!), but who cannot use his time as he would wish for simple financial reasons: he and his family need the money.

Aside from his ward duties, Ehrlich is in charge of a clinic that administers to syphilitic patients. It says everything about the state of medicine at the time that this work is assigned to the dermatology department: a combination of mercury-based topical creams to treat the lesions and steam baths to “sweat out” the disease is the standard prescription; neither is least bit of use, as Ehrlich knows full well. His decision to tell one patient, in danger of losing his job due to the debilitating effects of the steam baths, that he may discontinue this aspect of his “cure” brings him into conflict with hospital authorities – not, we gather, for the first time.

While Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet is unwontedly factual for the most part, it does take a few liberties in the name of creating more drama. It is also evident here that Warners were guilty of slipping a few modern references into their period drama, as they were wont to do. At their most overtly German, Professor Hartmann (Montagu Love) severely reprimands Ehrlich for his maverick ways, telling him that he must “conform or suffer”, while Dr Wolfert (Sig Ruman) makes it clear that there is a deeper reason for the authorities’ dislike of Ehrlich: anti-Semitism. It does not seem that during his career Ehrlich did suffer all that much, if at all, as a consequence of his faith. However, since by the time of this film’s production the many public tributes to this brilliant Jewish scientist, who at the height of his fame had streets and buildings and parks named after him all over Germany, had all been ruthlessly expunged, we can probably forgive the writers for this piece of revisionism. Similarly, the screenplay later gives Ehrlich a dying speech in which he deplores the many men in the world – the world “today” – who suffer not just from diseases of the body, but diseases of the soul…

Regardless of official reprimands, Ehrlich goes on his way, spending as much time as he can manage in the laboratory. There’s a beautiful moment here when Ehrlich, speaking to Dr Sensenbrenner (Charles Halton), whose laboratory facilities he appropriates, uses the expression “as one scientist to another”; Sensenbrenner bridles indignantly at being called a scientist. At this time Ehrlich’s research is focused upon the development of specific stains, work based upon the natural affinity of compound and target. This had been the subject of Ehrlich’s doctoral dissertation, and during his time at the Berlin Medical Clinic he demonstrated the division of dyes into acid, basic or neutral, and discovered several specific stains that allowed great advances in haematology.

Within the film, it is one such stain, which results in the visualisation of the nucleus of leukocytes with the greatest detail yet achieved using these cells, that attracts the notice of Dr Emil von Behring (Otto Kruger), another vital figure in history of medical research who was employed at the time at the Koch Institute, and worked under Robert Koch himself. Here, von Behring is so impressed with Ehrlich’s staining work that he issues him with an invitation to a scientific meeting at the institute.

The meeting happens to coincide with Ehrlich’s ward duties, but he goes anyway (another lovely touch: Ehrlich hanging up his rather shabby hat and overcoat in the middle of a row of shining new top hats), and thus is present for the announcement by Dr Koch (Albert Bassermann) of his discovery of the organism that causes tuberculosis, that which is now known as Mycobacterium tuberculosis. (This took place on the 24th March, 1882.) Koch invites his fellow scientists to view his discovery, but concedes that only those with sharp eyes and skill in microscopy will be able to see it.

This brings Ehrlich to his feet, and evokes a blurted explanation of his staining research. Koch is impressed by the theory but profoundly doubtful of its practicality, and tells Ehrlich – speaking with an irony that the scientist certainly fails to detect – that the development of such a stain would ensure his place in history. As it turns out, Ehrlich has plenty of time to devote to his cause: on his way out of the meeting he runs into Dr Hartmann, also in attendance, and is sacked from the clinic on the spot.

(This is a fabrication: Ehrlich’s real supervisor at this time, Professor Gerhardt, upon whom Dr Hartmann was presumably based, was indeed a clinician who disapproved of Ehrlich’s side pursuits, but who allowed him to proceed with them nevertheless.)

Obtaining sputum samples from the sceptical but intrigued Koch, Ehrlich immures himself in his tiny home laboratory, running test after test in his quest for a diagnostic stain, while his endlessly supportive wife, Hedy (Ruth Gordon), watches the bills pile up but promises, “We’ll manage – somehow.”

Late in 1882, Paul Ehrlich succeeded in discovering a means for selective staining of M. tuberculosis, which had previously defied all such attempts through its “acid-fast”, or acid resistant, nature. The film chooses to make this discovery partially the result of a happy accident: Hedy turns on a small stove in Ehrlich’s lab, not noticing that he has used it as an extra shelf and left some slide preparations sitting on it; the heat proves to be the critical missing factor. Ehrlich shows his discovery to von Behring, who is elated by this breakthrough in diagnosis, but worried about the cough that is troubling his friend. Not allowing Ehrlich to avoid the issue, von Behring challenges him to use his new test on himself... Paul Ehrlich did indeed contract tuberculosis in the course of his research (although later than is depicted here), and use his own test to diagnose himself.

As a consequence of his illness, instead of taking up the position offered at the Koch Institute as a reward for his efforts, Ehrlich spends the next two years in Egypt in an attempt to combat the disease. While there, he encounters a survivor of multiple snakebites, and becomes fascinated by the man’s account of his increasing resistance to the effect of the venom. It was already known that surviving some diseases could confer subsequent immunity, but here Paul Ehrlich begins to toy with the idea of immunity being something that could be induced, and strengthened, by entirely artificial means.

Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet is not without certain touches of humour, and its main running joke (fittingly, considered the amazing breadth of Ehrlich’s pursuits) is that each time the scientist achieves a breakthrough, he will be offered a lab to go on doing just that work, and have to explain apologetically that, well, he’s had another idea…

Thus, upon his return to Germany, Ehrlich rejects the state-of-the-art staining lab offered to him by Robert Koch, and tells him that what he is really interested in now is…snakes. Snakes he therefore gets; and is in the middle of a series of highly successful experiments in conferring resistance to venom when he is visited by Emil von Behring, who is in the depths of despair after the failure of his experimental serum for the treatment of diphtheria, which is killing the children of Germany at a terrifying rate. The serum, von Behring reports, worked on mice and rabbits, but failed on children.

It is Ehrlich who sees that the problem is one of scale. Applying Ehrlich’s theory of resistance to von Behring’s idea of using serum from an immune donor as a treatment, the two men set to work infecting horses with diphtheria, building up their resistance, and finally producing a high-titre serum that they believe will be efficacious. They are anything but welcomed by their old friends, Hartmann and Wolfert, when they appear at the Berlin Medical Clinic, but such is the extent of the diphtheria epidemic that the desperate administrators allow them to test their serum – under stringent conditions. Hartmann insists upon a controlled experiment, given the scientists a ward of forty children, with strict orders to treat twenty only. (This is, of course, the correct way of going about things…theoretically.) Ehrlich and von Behring agree to these terms, but at the last moment they crack, treating all forty children with their serum. This failure to adhere to protocol sees them denounced by Hartmann and banished from the hospital – with the result that they are last two people in Berlin to know of the seeming miracle that has taken place…

Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet gives Ehrlich too much of the credit here – or at least, the wrong kind of credit. It was von Behring who was the prime mover in the development of a therapeutic serum for diphtheria – and who would receive the Nobel Prize for his work – while Ehrlich was the one eventually to elucidate the nature of antibody / antigen interaction, an understanding that allowed for the standardisation and strict quality control of therapeutic sera, and thus eliminated the serious issue of batch-to-batch variation that had undermined the efficacy of serum treatments to that point.

It is here that the film takes its leap into the future, and dares to deal with the most controversial phase of Paul Ehrlich’s career.

It is quite astonishing to think that, in 1940, a major studio could not only conceive of making a film that dealt with the subject of venereal disease, but could do so to popular success and critical acclaim. Venereal disease, like other sexual issues, was strictly forbidden as a subject under the Production Code; but there were ways and means of getting around that, and Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet is a fascinating study in compromise.

There is a tendency today to think of Joseph Breen and his minions as a bunch of joyless old fuddy-duddies; and while that’s true to an extent (even as it is true that Breen sometimes used his position to exercise his own prejudices: his own bitter anti-Semitism had a lot to do with who got away with what), it is also true that there are instances of the studios working directly with Breen in an attempt to bring more “adult” matters to the screen. For one thing, Breen loved to be consulted: submitting an idea or a draft of a screenplay and humbly begging for his help was usually a sure-fire way of getting him onside. And of course, from one perspective, Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet was exactly the kind of serious, thoughtful, uplifting drama that Joe Breen liked best. There’s nothing remotely salacious in the film’s handling of syphilis as a subject; it’s merely the fact of it that poses the problem.

A close examination of the script of Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet makes very clear the result of the negotiation that must have taken place between Joe Breen and Hal Wallis prior to the production of this film: the characters are allowed to talk about syphilis, but only as an abstract concept. That is, they are allowed to say things like, “Syphilis is a disease”; but never at any point does anyone say to a patient, “You have syphilis.” Instead, vague references to “this scourge” and “this dread disease” are made, with a strict distance kept at all times between the phenomenon of syphilis and those suffering from it.

There is also some dislocation between who might have the disease theoretically, and who actually does. The dialogue makes it clear that no-one is safe from syphilis – towards the end, a physician begging for access to Ehrlich’s still-experimental drug makes an impassioned speech about, “Young lives destroyed, marriages ruined, children infected”, and mentions in particular, “A young girl” – but throughout the film, the only people visually identified as carrying the disease are all adult males. The other thing that the screenplay does, far more contentiously, is have Ehrlich twice insist that syphilis can be caught, “In very innocent ways”. Evidently a disease that could only be caught in, well, very guilty ways was not considered acceptable subject matter.

(And of course, as with the later advent of the contraceptive pill, there was a section of society that regarded the finding of a cure for syphilis as an open invitation to public immorality; and that likewise considered Ehrlich’s research to be immoral in and of itself.)

Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet opens with a scene that, in 1940, must have seemed shockingly confrontational. Ehrlich is in his clinic at the hospital, treating a young man who is slumped over in despair, and who speaks brokenly of, “A girl in Munich” and their dreams of marriage. “Marriage is out of the question,” Ehrlich tells him. He goes on to prescribe the topical cream and the steam baths, but it is clear that he has no faith in these remedies. “Tell me the truth,” the boy demands, reading the sorrow in his doctor’s eyes. “Has anyone ever been cured?” Ehrlich tries to reassure him, but the boy sees through the official spiel. As he dresses behind a curtain, Ehrlich is distracted by the demands of bureaucracy – Wolfert demanding reports, someone else wanting papers signed – until a dreadful interruption occurs as the boy’s lifeless body slumps to the floor, a pair of scissors still grasped in his bloodied hand…

Apart from Ehrlich’s later reprimand for breaking protocol – “You know as well as I do that they are of no value,” Ehrlich says of the prescribed steam baths, at which Dr Wolfert huffs, “That’s beside the point!” – this is the last we hear of syphilis until after the screenplay’s great leap forward in the wake of the diphtheria epidemic. When we rejoin Paul Ehrlich, he has been made the head of a new research institute. (The Royal Institute of Experimental Therapy, later the Paul Ehrlich Institute, was one of those buildings from which Ehrlich’s name was removed during the 1930s.) At this time, Ehrlich had begun working upon a radical new concept that he called his “magic bullet”, that is, the development of chemicals that could specifically target the disease organism without harming the body that contained it. This work was the basis of modern chemotherapy; and then, as now, much research went into maintaining or, hopefully, improving treatment efficacy while striving to reduce or eliminate side-effects.

Atoxyl, an arsenical compound developed in 1859 for use against skin diseases, was found in 1905 to be effective against trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness, as well; a major epidemic in Africa at the turn of the century prompted new interest in this disease and its treatment. However, the toxicity of the drug was so great it almost outweighed any benefit of the treatment. At this time, Paul Ehrlich and his people began producing and trialing derivatives of Atoxyl, believing that they could hit upon the formula that would kill the trypanosomes, the micro-organisms that caused sleeping sickness, while not harming the host. The team developed literally hundreds of chemical compounds, and tested and recorded their efficacy and their deleterious effects. A safer alternative to Atoxyl was eventually developed.

It was also in 1905 that Fritz Schaudinn, a German zoologist, and his assistant Erich Hoffmann proved that syphilis was caused by the micro-organism Treponema pallidum, a highly motile spirochaete. Encouraged by the similarities between Schaudinn’s description of the behaviour of this bacterium and the trypanosomes upon which he and people had been working, Ehrlich conceived a hope that the arsenic-based compounds that worked in the treatment of sleeping sickness might also be effective as a treatment for syphilis. Switching the focus of their research, Ehrlich and his people began re-investigating the chemical compounds they had already derived, as well as deriving even more – over seven hundred in total – in the hope of identifying one that would prove curative for syphilis. It was compound #606, which had been totally ineffective against the trypanosomes, that would ultimately find worldwide acceptance as the first modern chemotherapeutic drug. Marketed under the name “Salvarsan”, Ehrlich’s compound remained the treatment of choice for syphilis until the discovery of penicillin.

It is during this final section of Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet that the screenplay takes the most liberties with the facts, inventing conflicts and obstacles for Paul Ehrlich that in truth did not exist, in order to provide a suitably tense and dramatic climax to the story. The first of these takes the form of financial difficulties, when the ubiquitous Dr Wolfert reappears as head of an appropriations committee self-evidently searching for reasons to cut the budget. He finds them, and funding to Ehrlich’s institute is slashed just when the research is at its most hopeful.

It is Hedy Ehrlich who comes to the rescue here, suggesting to her husband that he apply for assistance to Franziska Speyer (Maria Ouspenskaya), the widow of the Jewish banker, Georg Speyer, who had died of cancer. Having announced that the trust fund left her by her husband was to be used for “the public good”, Frau Speyer is already drowning in supplicants when Hedy calls upon her, insisting quietly that there could be nothing more in the public good than the support of Paul Ehrlich’s research.

Frau Speyer is impressed, and invites the Ehrlichs to dinner – thus setting up the film’s funniest and most fondly remembered moment, when Ehrlich reduces the cream of Frankfurt society to a shocked and incredulous silence with his one-word response to Frau Speyer’s inquiry as to his latest area of research.

However, Ehrlich’s monetary problems have barely been solved when he runs up hard against public opinion. This blow is all the more cruel for coming in the most unexpected form: as bitter criticism from Ehrlich’s old friend and comrade, Emil von Behring. Since last we saw von Behring, he has been appointed to a comfortable professorship, and in the interim has grown fat, and sleek – and conservative. Gone is the radical young conqueror of diphtheria; in his place is a man who has aged not just in years, but in thought; who counsels caution and journeys by known pathways; who tells Ehrlich that his research in chemotherapy is absurd and pointless; and that – were they not friends – he would denounce him for it publically. The always quick-tempered Ehrlich is stung to his very soul by this, and in a few bitter minutes, the friendship of a lifetime lies in ruins…

It is after a young chimpanzee is experimentally infected with syphilis and then completely cured with no side-effects by compound #606 that the researchers first dare to dream of curing patients. The question of human safety of course still exists. Here, one of Ehrlich’s assistants, Dr Morganroth (Edward Norris), has a flash of insight and realises that Ehrlich fully intends to test his compound on himself…and circumvents this by beating him to it, with no ill consequences. Working in secrecy, Ehrlich then applies to the head of a small private clinic, Dr Lentz (Henry O’Neill), who appeals for volunteers from amongst his patients. Some of them are blind; some of them are crippled; but one and all they come forward when Lentz tells them of a possible cure for, “The disease that afflicts you”, as he diplomatically phrases it, in spite of the danger.

The trial is a smashing success. Inevitably, word leaks out; and Ehrlich finds himself besieged by desperate physicians who beg him to make #606 available. Ehrlich is hesitant, knowing that the compound needs much more testing to determine its side-effects, and to identify those for whom it is unsuitable; and it takes a wry reminder of a certain diphtheria treatment to persuade him to set aside his doubts and put #606 into production straight away. Before long, the compound is being shipped for use all over the world.

(Including, we notice, to Sydney Hospital, Sydney, Australien. Surely not!)

Many are cured by Ehrlich’s compound but, inevitably under the circumstances, there are some deaths. This gives the scientist’s enemies the opening they’ve been waiting for. Hartmann and Wolfert manage to get into the newspapers a scurrilous attack upon Ehrlich, penned by Wolfert, which openly accuses him of murder. It is “the Oscar Wilde manoeuvre”: they hope that Ehrlich will bring a libel suit against them so that they may use the publicity of a trial to destroy him. The tactic works: the reluctant Ehrlich is finally persuaded that he must defend his reputation, only to find himself in desperate trouble as the court case begins to go badly – and for things to take a blacker turn still when Emil von Behring is summoned to testify against him…

Edward G. Robinson made his reputation in the Warners gangster films of the early thirties, but even faster than his brothers-in-arms, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, Robinson grew sick of the stereotype and began to fight against it. As early as 1935 he was making fun of his own image in John Ford’s The Whole Town’s Talking (in which he plays both a meek accountant and his lookalike, the local crime boss), and battling for character roles that would let him expand his professional range. Robinson is wonderful in Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, disappearing into the character of Paul Ehrlich in a way that, given the strength and distinctiveness of his own personality, is quite remarkable.

While this film is wholly dominated by Edward G. Robinson, Warners saw fit to surround him with an extraordinary supporting cast – including, apart from those I have already mentioned, Donald Crisp, Louis Calhern, Harry Davenport, Donald Meek, Paul Harvey, Torben Meyer and Louis Jean Heydt. I should also make special mention of Hermine Sterler as Martha Marquardt, Ehrlich’s devoted secretary, who later wrote an important biography of her employer; and of Wilfrid Hari, a Japanese-American actor in the most important role of his brief career, as Dr Hata Sahachirō, who was Ehrlich’s right-hand man throughout the development of Salvarsan, and later three times nominated for the Nobel Prize.

The screenplay plays more than fair by Ehrlich, emphasising his passion for science and his commitment to helping society at large without trying to make him out a saint; painting him as focused, idealistic and a little naive without resorting to the usual clichés of “absent-minded” and “dysfunctional”; and establishing him as a devoted husband and affectionate father while still making it clear that, at all times, the work came first.

There was inarguably a lot wrong with the studio system during the period often referred to as the “Golden Years of Hollywood”, but Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet is an example of everything that was right about it. Powerfully directed by William Dieterle and beautifully photographed by James Wong Howe, this is a fine, thoughtful, compelling drama, and a fitting tribute to a brilliant man.

Paul Ehrlich with Hata Sahachirō.

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1 Response to Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940)

  1. Pingback: Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940): Remembering a noble film – The Greanville Post

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