It was the latter half of the 19th century. The year was 1860, ten years before the French Third Republic came into being. Medical Science hadn’t made the kind of advancements that it saw later, and disease and death were in abundance. It was a well-known fact that thirty percent of women died in childbirth due to Puerperal fever, better known as childbed fever, accounting for about twenty thousand annual deaths in the city alone!
Yet there was a grave ignorance of monumental proportions, even as one man, a chemist dared to think differently. He urged medical practitioners to boil their instruments; or in modern parlance, ‘sterilize’ them, before using on patients in addition to thoroughly washing their hands with a disinfectant before working on patients. He firmly believed that more than half the deaths were caused due to lack of hygiene and the transmission of ‘germs’ from objects such as the doctor’s instruments!
Not surprisingly, the man was laughed at, and written off to be a charlatan, a quack! After all, what would a chemist know, that the doctors couldn’t see! But the man had seen it all. He had first discovered what causes wine to go sour. His relentless experimentation in his laboratory had helped him discover that microorganisms were the major cause of disease (while the doctors still firmly believed that these organisms were a result of disease rather than the cause!).
The man was Louis Pasteur. And the technique he gave to the world was pasteurization!
William Dieterle’s 1936 biographical film “The Story of Louis Pasteur”, at its modest 85 minutes length, is a tad short to even qualify for a proper biographical film. It begins on a rather startling note with the scene of a doctor being shot by a silhouetted gunman. One wonders if they've taken cinematic liberties to such an extent as to make the lead actor Paul Muni feel at home owing to his crime film beginnings! It is later learnt that Pasteur is indirectly responsible for the murder of the doctor, for reasons best left for the viewer to find out! It's a rather silly beginning, one the film could've easily done without. "The Story of Louis Pasteur" does take a few minutes to attain a grip on its narrative which eventually does make for very engaging drama.
It is astonishing how a simple film revolving around a man and his microscope has been made into something so riveting, that you can’t take your eyes off, once it picks up steam. The primary focus is on Pasteur’s taxing attempts to prove to the then Emperor Napolean III, his findings about the microscopic creatures and their connection to disease, and later, post the advent of the Third republic, his diligent attempts at developing the first successful vaccines for deadly diseases like Anthrax and Rabies. Of course, there is resistance to his claims and discoveries, more specifically from Pasteur’s most vocal critic, Dr. Charbonnet (Fritz Leiber). As the audience, our hearts go all out to Pasteur and we find ourselves rooting for the industrious scientist. We watch with bated breath and find ourselves praying for him to succeed in his experiments, even when we are well aware of the eventual outcome. We feel the triumph felt by Pasteur when he weeps tears of joy upon tasting victory!
But Pasteur didn’t succeed instantly. There were numerous failed attempts and broken test tubes and dead ends from whence he found new directions. The entire medical fraternity turned against him but he stood his ground and ended up having the last laugh anyway! But the path to victory wasn’t easy for him, and “The Story of Louis Pasteur” succeeds in conveying to us, this particular facet of Pasteur’s dedication to science. It is heartening to watch Pasteur and his loyal team of scientists toil away in the laboratory attached to his house, as his devoted wife Marie (Josephine Hutchinson) cooks supper for the entire team and also stands by her husband through thick and thin. It is awe-inspiring to see him stumble upon clues almost by accident that lead him to make some of the most startling discoveries known to mankind now. It is also slightly scary to see him succumb to a suggestion of using an untested vaccine on a little boy who is supposedly at death’s door anyway!
The film may appear somewhat dated with regard to the set design and slightly poor production values. But that is hardly a hindrance, thanks to the gripping script and taut editing. There are some subplots in the film, that weren’t entirely necessary, though; that of a romance between Pasteur’s daughter Annette (Anita Louise) and the young Dr. Martel (Donald Woods) who wins Pasteur’s favor earlier in the film. It seems to be there merely to dramatize the proceedings. Ditto for the climactic twist of fate in the final few minutes when Annette is on the brink of delivering a baby. The events in those last few minutes seem contrived to the extent of being melodramatic, although, by then you are so in love with the protagonist that you don’t care for the minor hiccups. Because mostly, apart from the solid performance of Fritz Leiber, it is the magnificent Paul Muni that holds our attention.
The under-appreciated Paul Muni, in his Oscar winning performance of the steadfast scientist, manages to render this film much more watchable than it actually is. It is his earnest act that ultimately salvages even the weakest scene. His final speech, just minutes before “The End” flashes on the screen, as he struggles with a walking stick, thanks to being in a recovery phase from a paralytic stroke, is nothing short of inspiring! Paul Muni should be reason enough for anyone to look up “The Story of Louis Pasteur”. They don’t make ‘em like him anymore!