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Friday Night Spotlight - Science in the Movies
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The Story of Louis Pasteur

The Story of Louis Pasteur

"There should be no sheep jumping over stiles because the audience will start counting them and go to sleep," read a memo from the front office of Warner Bros. studio during the pre-production period of The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), starring Paul Muni as the 19th-century French chemist who invented pasteurization and created the first vaccine for rabies. The reference to sheep was because another of Pasteur's vaccines was to stop an epidemic of anthrax that was killing herds throughout France - except in Arbois, where Pasteur was putting his vaccine to work. In 1860 Pasteur turned to the dangers of childbirth, as 20,000 women were dying annually in Paris alone. His theory, that a large part of the problem was the failure of doctors to wash their hands and sterilize their instruments, was met with scorn from the French scientific community. It took the Russians to recognize Pasteur's genius before he was honored in his own country.

The notorious memo from an unnamed Warners executive also ordered that the film should show no experimentation on dogs because the SPCA would object; that no childbirth fever be shown because it might frighten women and cause them to stop having babies; and that no names of Russian scientists be mentioned because publisher William Randolph Hearst might object and withdraw the services of his mistress, actress Marion Davies, from the studio. The memo also suggested that the plot of Pasteur focus on a long-suffering love affair between the chemist and a young woman from his university days that he is unable to win until he is acclaimed and famous. "At the age of 80," was the wry comment of scenarist Sheridan Gibney, who, with his writing associates, wisely ignored the studio's suggestions.

Lack of faith among the Warners bigwigs meant that The Story of Louis Pasteur was made on a remarkably low budget - $330,000, the bare minimum at the time for an "A" picture. No new sets could be built; previously used ones were merely redecorated. The Academy of Science indoor amphitheater, for example, had been a nightclub set for a Busby Berkeley production number. Despite these limitations, the artistry of Muni and his colleagues shows through. In addition to an Oscar® to Muni as Best Actor, the film won the categories of Best Original Story and Best Screenplay, and was nominated as Best Picture. Although he was not nominated, another outstanding contributor was cinematographer Tony Gaudio, who lighted and photographed the meager sets with such mastery that a London film critic would describe him as "an artist who has achieved shots worthy of being hung in the world's great galleries."

Director: William Dieterle
Producer: Henry Blanke
Screenplay: Pierre Collings, Sheridan Gibney, Edward Chodorov (uncredited), from story by Collings and Gibney
Art Direction: Robert M. Haas
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Costume Design: Milo Anderson
Editing: Ralph Dawson
Original Music: Bernhard Kaun, Heinz Roemheld (both uncredited)
Cast: Paul Muni (Louis Pasteur), Josephine Hutchinson (Marie Pasteur), Anita Louise (Annette Pasteur), Donald Woods (Dr. Jean Martel), Fritz Leiber (Dr. Charbonnet), Henry O'Neill (Dr. Emile Roux), Akim Tamiroff (Dr. Zaranoff), Dickie Moore (Joseph Meister).
BW-86m. Closed captioning.

by Roger Fristoe



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