Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940)
Reviewed on 2011 December 27
This is an old, classic movie, and in a way it’s miraculous it saw the light of day. It was a struggle to get it past the Hays code with their reluctance to even allow the word “syphilis”, let alone okay an entire movie about its cure. I am thankful it was greenlit, and if you’re a movie buff or a chemistry and science geek, this is a must-see.
Dr. Paul Erhlich (Edward G. Robinson) does his best to cure patients suffering from syphilis, fighting against the stigma of the disease and the primitive medicine of the time. In one early sequence, he tells one poor afflicted soul he can skip the sweat baths, a gold standard treatment of the time that did little more than sap the patient’s strength. This petty bit of going against convention gets him grief from his contemporaries, showing the uphill battles he faces.
Wanting to conquer this thing once and for all, Dr. Ehrlich starts working in a lab, still struggling against the lack of something better than mercury to slay this monster, and more than a few doctors who felt that if you caught this thing it served you right. Instead of wasting time debating the difference between “dude, what were you thinking?” versus “deserve it” with these people, Dr. Paul takes his work home with him. One day he discovers the “magic bullet”.
This was a fascinating and at times sobering look at the days of medicine before old friends like penicillin, and the acting is good too. Robinson said he was proudest of his work in this movie, and I read that Ehrlich’s family was thrilled with his depiction of Paul as well. What’s really funny is seeing a young, pretty Ruth Gordon, way before she’d portray Minnie Castevet in Rosemary’s Baby, playing his sweet and patient wife. The dinner party sequence is classic.
Three chocolate morsels.