Story of Louis Pasteur, The (1936): Warner’s Oscar Winning Biopic, Starring Paul Muni as the Famous French Scientist

Warner’s The Story of Louis Pasteur is part of the studio’s cycle of biopics of great men, which also included “The Life of Emile Zola,” the Oscar winner of 1937, and “Juarez” in 1939, all starring Paul Muni. 

 

Like George Arliss before him, who had played “Disraeli” on stage and in various screen versions, Paul Muni became closely associated with the biopic genre in the mid to late 1930s.  However, he had first impressed critics and audiences with his crime movies, the best of which was Scarface: The Shame of the Nation, loosley based on Al Capone.

 

In this fictionalized biopic, French scientist Louis Pasteur fights prejudice and bureaucracy in order to establish the validity of his theory about microorganisms and inoculation against diseases, targeting his work on finding cure for anthrax and hydrophobia.

 

At first, Pasteur’s peers at the Medical Academy are suspicious and contemptuous; they think his experiments are simple a waste of time and money.  Unfazed, he relocates with his family to the countryside, where he can fully dedicate himself to research, with no interruptions.  The narrative is structured as a triumph against obstacles.  The turning point occurs when the medical establishment finds out that, as a result of his experiment, the sheep in his region are disease-free.

 

Narrative Structure (How the Plot Unfolds)

The story begins in Paris in 1860, when a distraught man murders his doctor, blaming him for the death of his wife, who died of puerperal fever after giving birth..

Meanwhile, the chemist Louis Pasteur (Paul Muni) has been publicizing a theory that diseases are caused by microbes, which doctors should avoid spreading by washing their hands and sterilizing their instrument.

Pasteur is dismissed by France’s medical academy.  His most vocal critic, Dr. Charbonnet (Fritz Leiber Sr.) claims that his recommendations are tantamount to witchcraft.

Pasteur calls attention to the risks of Charbonnet’s non-sterile methods, predicting that a member of Napoleon III’s royal family who Charbonnet is treating will die of puerperal fever. However, it’s Pasteur who’s  considered dangerous when that member dies; his enemies claim that Pasteur’s ideas have led to murder.

When the Emperor himself comes down against him, Pasteur leaves Paris and moves to the small town of Arbois.

When the new French government tries to restore the economy after the Franco-Prussian War, they learn that many sheep are dying of anthrax, except around Arbois. They then realize that, working with a small group of researchers, Pasteur has developed a vaccine against the disease.

The medical academy still opposes him, claiming Arbois must simply be free of anthrax. The government buys land there and invites sheep farmers to use it. Pasteur objects, claiming that the soil is full of anthrax spores, and eventually an experiment is proposed. He will vaccinate 25 of the newly arrived sheep, and they will be compared with a control group of 25 others to be injected with blood from sheep with anthrax.

Joseph Lister (Halliwell Hobbes), the pioneer of antiseptic surgery in England, witnesses Pasteur’s success as all the vaccinated sheep remain healthy after the other 25 have died.

Meanwhile, Jean Martel (Donald Woods), a young doctor who was Charbonnet’s assistant but now is following Pasteur, becomes engaged to Pasteur’s daughter Annette (Anita Louise).

The celebrations are short-lived, as a rabid dog runs through the town and a man is bitten. A woman attempts to cure him by witchcraft, and Pasteur laments that doctors would have no more chance of success.

Moving back to Paris, he makes rabies his next project. He is able to spread the disease from one animal to another by injection, but is unable to detect any microbe being transferred (viruses had not yet been discovered), and the method he had used to create the anthrax vaccine does not work.

Charbonnet is so certain Pasteur is a quack that he injects himself with rabies—and is triumphant, as he does not get the disease. Pasteur is puzzled, until his wife Marie (Josephine Hutchinson) suggests that the sample may have gotten weak with age. This revelation sets him on the right path, giving dogs  progressively stronger injections.

Before his experiments reach a conclusion, a frantic mother begs him to try his untested treatment on her son (Dickie Moore), who has been bitten by rabid dog. Risking imprisonment or even execution, Pasteur decides to try and save the child. During the attempt, a Dr. Zaranoff (Akim Tamiroff) arrives from Russia with peasants who have been exposed to rabies, volunteering to receive Pasteur’s treatment.

Annette goes into labor with Martel’s child. The doctor who was to attend her is unavailable, and Martel is urgently needed for the boy. Pasteur searches frantically for another doctor, but the only one he can find is none other than Charbonnet. He begs Charbonnet to wash his hands and sterilize his instruments, and Charbonnet finally agrees on condition that if he lives another month, Pasteur will retract and denounce all his work on rabies. Both men are honorable enough to respect the agreement. The birth goes well, but Pasteur collapses with a mild stroke.

Word comes that Pasteur has permission to treat those Russians still alive. He attends them in hospital for the first injections using a wheelchair, and then a cane. The experiment is a success, and even Charbonnet concedes that he was wrong, tearing up Pasteur’s retraction and asking for the shots for himself.

When Pasteur hears that he is to be denounced by Lister at the academy, he angrily attends. But it turns out to be a surprise, as he’s praised by Lister, presented with the Russian medal by Zaranoff, and honored by the same doctors who had once scoffed his discoveries.

Movie Cycle: Biopics of Great Men

As is often the case with popular genres, every Hollywood studio responded with its own bunch of biopics.  The success of this picture led to the making of “Dr. Erlich’s Magic Bullet” and to MGM’s “Young Tom Edison” (1939), “Edison the Man” (1940), featuring Spencer Tracy, “Madame Curie” (1943) with Greer Garson.

For its part, Fox produced “The Story of Alexander Graham Bell” (1939), starring Don Ameche, and “Wilson” (1944) with Alexander Knox as WWI-era U.S. president.

Several of these prestige productions, considered to be dealing with “important” issues and personalities, were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.

In addition to winning the Best Actor Oscar, Paul Muni also won the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the 1936 Venice Film Fest.

 

Oscar Nominations: 4

Picture, produced by Henry Blanke

Original Story: Pierre Collings and Sheridan Gibney

Screenplay: Pierre Collings and Sheridan Gibney

Actor: Paul Muni

 

Oscar Awards: 3

Story

Screenplay

Actor

 

Oscar Context

 

The Story of Louis Pasteur competed for the Best Picture Oscar with nine other films: The Great Ziegfeld, which won, Anthony Adverse, Dodsworth, Libeled Lady, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Romeo and Juliet, San Francisco, A Tale of Two Cities, and Three Smart Girls.

 

The other most nominated film were William Wyler’s Dodsworth, with 7 citations, winning one, for Richard Day’s Interior Decoration, and Anthony Adverse, which won the largest number of awards (4) of it 7 nominations.

 

CAST

Louis Pasteur (Paul Muni)

Madame Pasteur (Josephine Hutchinson)

Annette Pasteur (Anita Louise)

Jean Martel (Donald Woods)

Dr. Charbonnet (Fritz Liever)

Roux (Henry O’Neill)

Dr. Rosignol (Porter Hall)

Dr. Radisse (Raymond Brown)

Dr. Zaranoff (Akim Tamiroff)

Napoleon III (Walter Kingsford)

 

Credits:

Produced by Henry Blanke

Directed by William Dieterle

Music by Leo F. Forbstein
Cinematography by Tony Gaudio
Edited by Ralph Dawson
Produced and distributed by Warner
Release date: February 22, 1936

Running time: 87 Minutes