June 13, 2005

Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet (1940)
Grade: 54/100

Director: William Dieterle
Stars: Edward G. Robinson, Ruth Gordon, Otto Kruger

What it's about. In Germany before the first World War, mild-mannered doctor Ehrlich battles tuberculosis, diptheria, and syphilis, but his most determined enemies are thickheaded fellow doctors and administrators.

How I felt about it. Robinson actually looks distinguished wearing a beard and glasses, and his toned-down accent and manner makes him further distant from his tough guy stereotype. I'm sure he enjoyed the role, especially since the film had the weight of the Warner Bros. machine behind it. A quick glance at the credits yields heavyweights like John Huston, Irving Rapper, James Wong Howe, and Max Steiner.

The movie is engaging, and moves fairly briskly. A pattern emerges, similar to that seen in director Dieterle's The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935). The humble but undeterred scientist persists due to hard work and genius, despite interference from clods unwilling to embrace his newfangled theories.

The pattern repeats three times. Ehrlich's devotion to staining slides costs him his hospital job. His diptheria vaccinations given to all children, instead of a sample, threaten his termination at another post. Finally, his costly search for a syphilis cure draws the harrumphs from a government budget committee. In each instance, Ehrlich's vision is inevitably vindicated.

This pattern is used because it works, and it works because it allows us to identify with our hero Dr. Ehrlich. We become the imaginative scientist, who conquers again and again, until Father Time takes his toll.

The biggest problem with this presentation is its simplifications. Medical skeptics become pompous, racist, or closed-minded. Our hero is always right, deserves most of the credit, never gets lost in pointless research, and never lets success affect his humble and inquisitive nature.

How others will see it. Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet is a film made for grown-ups, an unusual concept at times in Hollywood. Teens and even older children, though, should understand its themes. It is an example of storytelling rather than escapism, and enforces the importance of the individual, the one man who sees a new way to do things, and has the persistence of effort to succeed, to benefit humanity rather than seek hedonistic pleasure.

Horatio Alger tales are considered quaint, especially since the moral is driven home too single-mindedly. While interesting and even entertaining, the movie is watchable but not fascinating; competent, but not inspiring.