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Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet

Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet(1940)


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"Among all the plays and films in which I've appeared," wrote Edward G. Robinson, "I'm proudest of my role in Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet (1940). I played Paul Ehrlich, a Berlin doctor who insisted on telling patients the truth...It was, I think, one of the most distinguished performances I've ever given. I say that not only because the critics said it, and my mail and the box office said it, but most of all because that inner voice, that inner self, that captious critic Emanuel Goldenberg said it."

Ehrlich was a Nobel-Prize winning doctor most famous for discovering the cure for syphilis. He also helped develop the diphtheria shot and developed radically new theories for applying chemistry to medical science. His story made for a typically top notch Warner Bros. prestige picture of the time, shot by master cameraman James Wong Howe, scored by Max Steiner, produced by Hal Wallis and directed by William Dieterle. For Dieterle, Ehrlich was the fourth of five A-level biographies he made in a five-year period. (This being the studio era, he also directed six other movies in the same span.) A German director, he had come to Hollywood in 1930 and quickly climbed the ranks at Warners, directing The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) just before tackling Ehrlich. His talent let him get away with some bizarre habits, such as never starting a film unless his astrologer cleared it, and always wearing white gloves on the set.

Producer Hal Wallis wrote in his memoir that one of the reasons he was keen to make this film, despite objections from the Hays Office over the syphilis subject matter, was to help refute a widely-quoted 1938 statement by Adolf Hitler in which he said, "a scientific discovery by a Jew is worthless." (Ehrlich was a German Jew.) In researching Dr. Ehrlich's life, Wallis acquired letters, notes and clippings from the doctor's widow, all of which were used by writers Norman Burnstine and Heinz Herald to fashion a script. When Wallis found their draft too stiffly written, he brought in John Huston for a rewrite. Huston, an up-and-coming writer at that time, had recently worked on the scripts for Jezebel (1938) and Juarez (1939). "With his gift for writing fluid, idiomatic dialogue, he did a fine job of making the story smooth and believable and all the characters very much alive," remembered Wallis. The script was ultimately nominated for an Academy Award.

But it's Edward G. Robinson's movie all the way. He ages 35 years in the story and keeps his portrayal personable and convincing. The New York Times review was typical: "It is a rounded gem of portraiture, electric in its attractiveness, astonishingly apart from the manneristic screen behavior of Little Caesar [1931]," wrote critic Frank Nugent. Robinson himself later recalled his intense approach to the role: "While doing Ehrlich, the world outside seemed to vanish, or at least diminish in importance. During the filming I kept to myself, studied the script, practiced gestures before the mirror, read about his life and times, studied pictures of the man, tried to put myself in his mental state, tried to be him."

Producer: Wolfgang Reinhardt, Hal B. Wallis, Jack L. Warner
Director: William Dieterle
Screenplay: Norman Burnstine, Heinz Herald, John Huston
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Film Editing: Warren Low
Art Direction: Carl Jules Weyl
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Edward G. Robinson (Dr. Paul Ehrlich), Ruth Gordon (Hedwig Ehrlich), Otto Kruger (Dr. Emil Von Behring), Donald Crisp (Minister Althoff), Maria Ouspenskaya (Franziska Speyer), Montagu Love (Professor Hartman).
BW-104m. Closed captioning.

by Jeremy Arnold

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