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Monday, September 09, 2019

Pasteur Prestige Packs Patrons

Warners Finds Dignified Way To Sell Seats

What would happen if a present-day history instructor played The Story of Louis Pasteur for his/her class to introduce the nineteenth century chemist and his achievements? Suppose one student liked not only this old movie, but decided to explore more via TCM or streaming. Through such a back door may come a next film writer or historian. Ask most devotees and they’ll say the interest came indirectly, not by someone ritual-introducing them to “classic” cinema. Could a well-made, intelligently written 1936 film still beat a lecture or Wiki entry? It did when The Story of Louis Pasteur was new, encyclopedias a then-Wiki, if more reliable. Pasteur was a gamble for seeming like school, tall odds this, but it won a mass audience and worldwide rentals of $1.1 million. I wondered how Warners did it, hoping their Archive DVD might show me. Thirty years past seeing The Story of Louis Pasteur made it seem new, and as always there is fun in anything so far out of fashion (Pasteur leading off the next TCM Festival? … when pigs fly). A man of the 1860’s cures anthrax and rabies, and a movie about his life clicks. Better than that, it inaugurates a series of Great Man biopics to star Paul Muni, and then Edward G. Robinson (Ehrlich, Reuters). They even celebrate a Great Woman with Kay Francis to play her (The White Angel and Florence Nightingale). Most of these broke even or better. Toward understanding how, The Story of Louis Pasteur gives a good start.

It takes but 86 Pasteur minutes to find deadly spores, identify same, and then rid us of them. Dickie Moore is bitten by a mad dog for a mid-point livener. Muni as Pasteur sasses Napoleon III. Captain Englehorn, who found Skull Island, and Van Helsing that opposed Dracula, are doctors pitted against Pasteur, latter’s wife the later wife of Wolf Frankenstein. I mention these to lull viewership that might otherwise duck The Story of Louis Pasteur. There is the self-betterment for watching, plus fact it glides winningly from trauma to triumph, the lot of all visionaries. Wolf and related Frankensteins had things as rough, but got no laurel wreath for pains. I wonder if seeing so many mad (at least doomed) science stories made me shy of the subject at both school, and as possibility for life’s work. All through The Story of Louis Pasteur, I kept waiting for the title man to flop and be condemned, as Muni puts it, “to the guillotine.” Hadn’t that been Karloff’s apx. fate on too many occasions? Being fact-based permitted me to keep my head and be enriched by The Story of Louis Pasteur, it worth knowing why so much cattle and sheep died in past-century France, and how one frothy dog could empty a street fair. Made me realize how lucky we are to thrive in a safer world the Pasteurs bequeathed us. And no, I’m not being flippant.

Warners touted “Good Citizenship Combined With Good Picture Making,” an apt motto for a talking era that began with Disraeli, continued with George Arliss in varied historicals, the baton going to Paul Muni after GA left. Maybe Pasteur was less a risk than we imagine. He and others of great accomplishment were still taught at grade schools. Would even college level instructors today know Louis Pasteur? (he’d be a stranger to me but for the film) WB tied in with schools, libraries, the usual outlets, to make its public Pasteur-conscious. “The man who braved a thousand deaths so that countless millions may live” was hyperbole needed to give long-ago events a fresh urgency. Ads cleverly posited the notion that many if not most of us “Might Not Be Alive Today” to see The Story of Louis Pasteur had his experiments not been a success. Trade reviewing sang praises, the Motion Picture Herald citing “departure from prosaic formula” and “hushed silence among the audience," while Variety noted that “men were openly in tears throughout.” The Story of Louis Pasteur answered too-oft allegation that young people’s time was wasted at movie theatres. Toward making Pasteur’s story topical, Warners described “soldiers of science” who were yet sacrificing lives to protect ours, to wit then-recent instance of a woman trying to develop a meningitis serum who accidentally got a few test drops in her eye and died soon after (Anna Pabst, on Christmas day in 1935). And where would pet-loving children be had Pasteur not found his rabies cure? WB bluntly said, via star Muni, that dog ownership was enabled thanks to this.

For a chemist’s work to compel, the stakes had to be high, and that needed a strong opener for The Story of Louis Pasteur, a doctor shot dead in his home by a man who blames him for a wife’s death. Squirmy scenes have medicos dropping probe instruments on the floor, then putting them back in bags without washing. We could wonder if that sort of neglect still went on in 1936 when Pasteur came out. His first crusade is to reduce “child bed” deaths caused by doctors who carry infection from one patient to the next, which again, may still have been a problem in less developed areas of the US. “No grease-paint heroics,” promised Warners, but an unflinching recount of one man’s halt to deaths by the score. The fact Pasteur brought a medical establishment to its senses, plus the distance of years, made the topic fit for entertainment. Did the Studio Era ever dramatize an epidemic and search for a vaccine before one was found? Noteworthy is WB, in fact no company, filming the story of Anna Pabst, the first woman killed in the line of duty for the National Board of Health. But Ms. Pabst, gone mere weeks before The Story of Louis Pasteur opened, would not have made an agreeable biopic subject, for we lost her, and bacterial meningitis remains a deadly threat to this day. Pasteur, for all his struggle, got to win in the end, this a must, in fact the must, for Hollywood accounts of Great Men or Women.

WB Selling Muni as Zola Sans the Beard
Of potential great men was Paul Muni, whose prestige breakout this was. Muni had done two that were word-of-mouth tidal waves, Scarface and I Was A Fugitive From a Chain Gang, both to be remembered a long time and recognizable today by those in the classics know. Muni had a caveman countenance but wanted more. A building star persona was not a thing he encouraged, and that in the end cost him dear. Muni sought a line in versatility, multiple roles in one film, aging from youth to old age in another. He’d go brute, if an educated one, for Bordertown, and I suspect that’s how fans best liked him, but Pasteur was the goods as Muni saw them, his notion plus that of a wife behind the throne. Warners gave in to script approval, his contributing to same, and no penalty should he turn down a project. It was said this went to his head, but maybe others envied such a dedicated and serious actor, which Muni certainly was. Trouble was reluctance to come out from behind beards (Pasteur, then Zola), or heavy ethnic disguise (The Good Earth, Juarez). Hal Wallis saw the peril, told make-up crew to ease up facial hair so Muni as Zola would be recognizably Muni (Zola’s one-sheet was a head-shot of Muni, sans muff). By finish of the 30’s, there was no Muni to reclaim, his kind of bio gone out of fashion (Juarez lost money), him still unwilling to do formula vehicles and reassert Muni-as-star. Robinson was for character leads, but in moderation and tempered by tough guys his public continued to like. When Muni did Angel On My Shoulder in 1946, again a dual part, audiences got at least half w/ his brute man back and opposed to gentle soul Muni, Angel a mirror of contradiction in the actor’s screen self. Integrity was what no one could tempt from him, and chances are Muni didn’t mind the price his high standards exacted.

Mr. and Mrs. Muni Do the High-Culture Thing at Home
Interesting footnote re Robinson. He and Muni were rivals, and not friendly ones. Maybe Paul got petulant when Eddie put on his own beard. Robinson had refinement and intellect Muni couldn’t lord over. All My Yesterdays, the autobio of Edward G. Robinson, spelled it out: “He (Muni) played Pasteur and Zola. I (Eddie’s italic) could have. I played Ehrlich and Reuter; he could have. The Brothers Warner regarded us as two sides of a coin and did not hesitate to exploit the situation.” Then, in a paragraph to itself, “I disliked Muni and Muni detested me.” Muni was instance of single-minded talent you’d put up with so long as profit flowed. Hal Wallis recalled him doing Pasteur scenes with the wife behind director William Dieterle’s camera. Muni would freeze up when she shook her head no, then demand a retake, a preamble to that Svengali woman who did a same number on Marilyn Monroe in the 50’s. Muni was worth the guff for a Pasteur Oscar he’d win, capping it with a Best Picture award he helped Zola get a year later. We ignore or disparage Muni too readily, have for too many years. To wit, colleges could rent Pasteur or Zola at a bargain $75 each during the 70’s, the best of Bogart commanding twice that. When Muni went out of fashion, he really went. In all fairness, shouldn’t we give this distinguished actor another try?


Blogger DBenson said...

A college showing at the 70s drew a few interesting laughs.

First, the doctor picking an instrument off the floor and casually brushing it off was taken as a gag -- until he was shot dead. From there on the student audience took the movie seriously.

Then, the night before his sheep vaccine would be proved or disproved, the movie cuts from laughing skeptics at a lavish dinner to Pasteur and his wife in their twin beds, somber in their nightcaps. The subtle-as-a-brick contrast between the arrogant establishment and the humble man of science got a laugh. The audience was fully engaged before and after that moment, but that one juxtaposition screamed Hollywood a little TOO loudly.

Side note: Pasteur of course gave us pasteurization, so you'd think the ads and the movie itself would play up how Pasteur's name is on every bottle of safe milk. Perhaps they felt it was a distraction from his more dramatic achievements. In any case, there's only a fleeting mention early on in the movie.

3:37 PM  
Blogger Ed Watz said...

Harold Lloyd's THE MILKY WAY premiered the same month as THE STORY OF LOUIS PASTEUR. Lloyd's comedy featured a national tie-in with Borden's Milk. Ads declared "For a real laugh see Harold Lloyd in THE MILKY WAY. For health & new energy drink Borden's Grade-A Pasteurized Milk." Perhaps Warner Brothers felt that Paramount's promotion had already cornered the pasteurized angle?

8:48 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

That trade ad: "no applause when the picture ended?" I wonder if that spooked the Warner people in attendance, as though the film had died. I don't think I've ever encountered a house that had no response at all at the finish.

I do remember a college screening of OPEN CITY, after which some of the audience seemed to be in mild shock. Kinda like Thurston Hall in THE BAND WAGON, sleepwalking out of the theater after witnessing Jack Buchanan's veddy heavy drama.

3:34 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Perhaps they were bludgeoned into silence by the greatness of Louis Pasteur.

4:33 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

John, your "they were bludgeoned" comment reminded me of one house that indeed had no response.

My movie gang saw a 35mm print of a Columbia two-reel comedy called DOGGIE IN THE BEDROOM (1954), starring Wally Vernon and Eddie Quillan. This was unfortunately producer-director Jules White at his all-time bluntest. Poor Christine McIntyre, who was ladylike in practically every comedy, was forced to submit to White's sledgehammer gags. She had to cross her eyes, she got her face knocked into a bowl of cake batter, she submitted to a flying tackle, and she got hit with various airborne objects. This has to have been the last straw for the actress, who quit the White unit after 10 years.

My gang, watching this cavalcade of cruelty, sat still — they might as well have been an oil painting — as the film faded out and the end title came on. "Bludgeoned" is right: no audible response. It was awful and it was embarrassing, so I called out in the darkness, "We only show sophisticated entertainment here!" That got a bigger laugh than anything in the Columbia short.

8:43 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Scott, perhaps that was exactly when Columbia's New York office told White, "Just make STOOGES comedies. We can *sell* those!"


10:21 AM  
Blogger Rodney said...

Thanks, Scott. Now I really want to see that terrible short.

2:54 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

THE STORY OF LOUIS PASTEUR had been sitting quietly unattended on my Amazon Prime queue for some time, so at your urging I checked 'er out. Yes, holds up quite nicely! Love the character actor parade of detractors especially Fritz Leiber. The bright red one sheet for PASTEUR has Muni looking like the devil himself!

Warners may have had the corner on great man bio-flix, but who could forget Paramount's oddball entry THE GREAT MOMENT? The crazy inspiration of Preston Sturges, this one was designed to present sequences outlining the life of William Morton, discoverer of anesthesia, in reverse chronological order! The writer/director wanted to rattle through Morton's career of frustration and lack of recognition, saving the initial moment of scientific discovery for the climax! Famously, the studio soon re-edited the thing into a more conventional continuity, leaving it the dull dud it is today. Hard to believe even Sturges could have pulled this off but, what the heck, SEINFELD made the idea work 50 plus years later!

2:59 PM  

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