Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet is a movie with a paradoxical goal: it wants to convince us not to be ashamed of something that the movie is obviously ashamed of.
It begins with a prologue informing us of the fact that the movie is based on a true story, explaining that it was the goal of Dr. Paul Ehrlich (Edward G. Robinson) to develop chemicals, which he called “magic bullets,” to treat the diseases that are the “scourges” of mankind. No mention is made of the particular scourge that this movie is about, which is syphilis. Already, we get the first indication of reticence on the part of the movie to actually mention the word “syphilis.”
In the first scene, a young man enters Ehrlich’s office for a physical examination. As with the prologue, Ehrlich does not utter word “syphilis,” referring to it as a contagious disease, and then, incredibly enough, adding that it is “an infection just like any other.” Inasmuch as the unmentioned syphilis was, at that time, an often fatal, neurological degenerative disease, what are we to make of this inappropriately reassuring phrase, “an infection just like any other”? A clue to what he is getting at comes with the following remark, “I’ve seen cases where it was transmitted by an inanimate object.”
In other words, most people get syphilis through sexual intercourse, which makes the disease shameful. Therefore, to separate the disease from the shame, Ehrlich is making excuses for the patient’s condition, indicating that he might have contracted it in some manner other than sex. Hence the phrase, “an infection just like any other.” Of course, we all know that this young man probably had sex with a prostitute. So, in the very act of telling him (and us) that the disease whose name he won’t utter might have been contracted in a non-shameful manner, he is implicitly saying that the vast majority of cases of syphilis, which are contracted through sex, are not infections just like any other, but are in fact something to be ashamed of.
Several times the man asks if there is a cure, and each time Ehrlich avoids answering the question. However, when the man asks if he can get married, Ehrlich says that is out of the question. During this conversation, Ehrlich is putting some substance into a jar for the man to apply to his skin. He picks up a label, holding it between his thumb and fingers, licks the label, and applies it to the jar. Now, how’s that for an inanimate object? In the very act of licking something his hands just touched right after examining the patient, he makes it hard for us to take him seriously about alternate means of transmission.
He lies to his patient that some people are cured, but the man does not believe him, and while supposedly getting dressed, the patient commits suicide, apparently slitting his own throat with a scalpel. Needless to say, nothing like that ever actually happened, but exists solely for its melodramatic value. Later, Ehrlich tells his wife Hedwig (Ruth Gordon) that the man is better off dead, and the world is better off because he cannot infect anyone. He despairs that all the treatments he prescribes are useless, just something to give patients a false sense of hope.
From this point, the movie follows Ehrlich through various medical discoveries. As is typical in movies about scientists, the role of accident is emphasized, “Eureka!” situations, as it were. For example, when Hedwig turns on the furnace to provide more heat in Ehrlich’s laboratory, it allows for a successful staining of a microbe that he had been struggling to produce without success. Such accidents do occur in science, of course, but they are given more significance in the movies than they really deserve, because they have more dramatic value than the norm of dull, plodding science that moves from one carefully controlled experiment to another. The movie further provides us with an Arrowsmith situation, specific to medical science, in which the experiment requires that half the subjects get the serum or vaccine while the control group gets only a placebo or nothing at all; but in the name of humanity, the doctor ends up giving everyone the medicine, which saves their lives. Of course, in these dramatic situations, there is always a de facto control group anyway, which is all the people who were dropping dead from the disease prior to the experiment.
In any event, about one hour in, the word “syphilis” finally makes its way into the movie. And now, what he once referred to as “an infection just like any other,” he calls “man’s most vicious disease.” However, shortly after he embarks on testing the effect of arsenic compounds on syphilis, the institution for which he works decides to cut off his funding. He turns to Franziska Speyer (Maria Ouspenskaya), a rich woman determined to dedicate much of her late husband’s fortune to some worthy project. She invites him to a dinner party, and when asked what he is working on, he shocks the guests by uttering the word “syphilis.”
Anxious to reassure the guests, he returns to the earlier dodge of saying that this disease can be transmitted by an ordinary object like a drinking cup or eating utensil. When I was young, it was toilet seats that were the inanimate object of choice for transmitting syphilis by means other than sexual intercourse, but I suspect the people that produced this movie were almost as embarrassed by the word “toilet” as by the word “syphilis.” In any event, we see that Ehrlich is once again trying to remove the shame of syphilis with his reference to alternate forms of contracting the disease, which he refers to as “innocent ways.” In so doing, however, he implies that there are guilty ways of contracting syphilis, which are by far the most common, such as by whoring around.
Eventually, he develops Compound 606, later to be marketed as Salvarsan, a compound that allows arsenic to kill the spirochete bacterium without harming the test animals. We then get the trope of the scientist that experiments on himself, when one of Ehrlich’s staff injects himself with the compound to see if it is safe for humans. Following this, we get another Arrowsmith situation, in which Ehrlich allows Compound 606 to be made available to doctors before he is through testing it, sacrificing strict scientific procedure for the sake of the dying patients. As a result, a few patients die, leading to accusations against Ehrlich, who in turn sues for libel. This is most fortunate, from a cinematic standpoint, because a trial is also a good way to dramatize science.
In the end, however, Dr. Ehrlich was more successful in his struggle to defeat syphilis than the movie was in its struggle to defeat the shame that comes from contracting it.