Well, I feel silly now. I'd avoided The Story of Louis Pasteur for years because I'd assumed it was a movie about the Pasteur's discovery of the pasteurization process. Zzzz.
Well, our action begins in 1860 putting pasteurization in the rear view mirror from the start of the movie. No, in fact, The Story of Louis Pasteur opens in typical 30's Warner Brothers style (a Cosmopolitan Production for Warner's) with a gun shot and a murder and Paul Muni's Pasteur being ostracized from the medical community who react as though he pulled the trigger himself.
Pasteur is mocked by the reigning doctors of Napoleon III's (Walter Kingsford) France because he, a scientist and not an actual doctor himself, has the nerve to suggest doctors themselves are responsible for the spread of disease by way of not washing their hands or sterilizing their equipment. One member of the Academy suggests his patients would believe he were practicing some form of witchcraft if he were to go through such a ridiculous routine.
Ten years pass, Napoleon III gives way to the President of the First Republic of France (Herbert Corthell), but the same doctors still preside led by Pasteur's main foil throughout the film, Charbonnet (Fritz Leiber) as well as Doctors Radisse (Raymond Brown) and Rossignol (Porter Hall).
We witness Pasteur gain stature first through his creation of an anthrax vaccine to save the sheep of France. At a contest proving Pasteur's vaccine works a rabid dog breaks up the crowd and infects a man, in the process pointing Pasteur towards his next great goal.
Muni, who can rub me wrong sometimes with his elaborate disguises of voice as much as appearance, is excellent as Pasteur speaking his lines with a mild French accent in a precise tone. Beyond him I thought Lieber's Charbonnet was standout, though if you've seen the film it really was a bit overboard of him to make Pasteur sign that confession while attending Pasteur's pregnant daughter.
Josephine Hutchinson was fine as Pasteur's understanding wife, Marie, though Anita Louise as his daughter Annette was all but invisible. Donald Woods as Pasteur's assistant/protege Dr. Martel started off with a lot of promise turning in a fine performance early, but he too sort of disappeared in the second half of The Story of Louis Pasteur.
Also present are Halliwell Hobbes as the visiting Dr. Lister from Britain, a Pasteur admirer whose won stature adds to Pasteur's credibility. Akim Tamiroff is Russian doctor Zaranoff, who in one of the more effective scenes plays Pied Piper to a troupe of white-bearded Russian peasants infected by rabies through wolf bites in their homeland. Little Dickie Moore is on the scene as well, himself a boy suffering rabies who willingly becomes Pasteur's first human guinea pig for the vaccine. The Story of Louis Pasteur was directed by William Dieterle.
I'm sure we're supposed to be rooting for Muni's Pasteur as he dares to elevate his experimentation from dogs to Dickie Moore, but at the same time I couldn't help but feel the character had entered a brief period of potentially dangerous megalomania. After all, Pasteur was a scientist, not a doctor, and despite Dickie's doctor pleading for Pasteur to help, what good was it to allow Dr. Rossignol to render an opinion if Pasteur was going to ignore it in the end? Granted, it's the boy's moaning and suffering which spurs Pasteur into action, but as you root for him I don't think you can help but to wonder what happens if he fails. Pasteur mentions the guillotine as possibility, if that were the result would his character have remained sympathetic or would he not have simply become another mad doctor?
The Story of Louis Pasteur was nominated for four Oscars in 1937 and captured each of them except Best Picture which went to The Great Ziegfeld. Paul Muni won Best Actor, his only victory in six nominations, plus Pierre Collings and Sheridan Gibney won two Best Writing Awards, one for best Original Story and the other for best Screenplay.