Wednesday 31 October 2007

The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935) William Dieterle

It's 1860 when we begin and we're in a doctor's office in Paris. Dr Francois is quickly shot dead by the husband of one of his patients who died on his table, quoting to the police Louis Pasteur's plea to doctors to scrub their hands and boil their instruments. Naturally the doctors are skeptical and see Pasteur as the cause of Dr Francois's death. Pasteur isn't even a doctor, merely a chemist, and he has no business treading on the toes of the real doctors, or so the powers that be believe. They even influence the Emperor himself to forbid Pasteur to continue with his work.

Ten years late, he's at it again. While the country suffers from a plague of anthrax, the region of Arbois seems miraculously and uniquely free of the disease, and investigation shows that it's entirely because of a vaccination Pasteur has come up with. Of course the government don't believe that, merely that the ground is lucky or blessed or something, so move everyone else's sheep there too, where they promptly die. They also come up with a highly publicised experiment to prove him wrong, which naturally proves him right instead.

Paul Muni was well known for his biopics, which won him international acclaim and Academy attention. Playing Louis Pasteur won him an Oscar and he was nominated the following year for playing Emile Zola. It wasn't just Frenchmen though, by 1939 he was playing people like Benito Juarez, coincidentally both for the same director, William Dieterle. He was a powerful and versatile actor who took on a wide variety of roles at speed that must have seemed like snail's pace to the audiences of the time. 22 films in 30 years is hardly prolific, but there are a lot of important films and performances in that short filmography and his influence is still felt today.

The only catch is that this was the thirties and so historical accuracy was hardly the order of the day. Reality has to be massaged and altered for the benefit of the story, and sensationalism is hardly avoided. The film begins with a murder and continues with some awesome coincidences. When the government visits Arbois, they coincidentally inspect the field next to Pasteur's house. When Pasteur finalises his vaccine for rabies a sick boy is coincidentally brought to him the very same time day.

This is all fine and makes for a dynamic story, but growing experience with these thirties Hollywood biopics suggests to me that I know as little about Pasteur after finishing than I did before I started. Reading up on his life confirms it. Apparently the logic applied here to his work on rabies was actually what he went through on anthrax, and the coincidences weren't his. While he was crucially important in developing microbiology and vaccination, he didn't come up with either and built his work on others, rendering the whole melodrama of the idiocy of the establishment subplot far less important. Here Pasteur admires Lister's work on antiseptics but in reality Lister's work was grounded on Pasteur's. The film is fun though.

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