The Story of ‘The Story of Louis Pasteur’
I love this story I read this morning in “Film Crazy: Interviews with Hollywood Legends” by Patrick McGilligan. It's about the making of “The Story of Louis Pasteur” (1936), which I‘ve never seen, but which always seemed like an odd movie to come out of gangster-crazy Warner Bros. studio. I assumed it was a stab at respectability, since studios, then and now, don’t exactly beat down doors to portray historical scientists. According to IMDb, Pasteur has been portrayed on screen only 19 times, and most of those are European productions—French, German, British—and many of those on the small screen (“Dr. Who,” etc.).
The interview is with Sheridan Gibney, who wrote “Pasteur”'s screenplay as well as “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” became twice president of the Screen Writers Guild, and whose last credit is an episode of “The Six Million Dollar Man” in 1975. Asked why Paul Muni, a big star in the 1930s, who got the kind of roles that Humphrey Bogart always wanted, wanted to play Louis Pasteur, he shrugs and says with a laugh. “His wife told me that he had always wanted to play someone with a beard, and that is what intrigued him.”
(Sidenote: What is it with actors and beards anyway?)
Muni told Gibney he wanted the movie to be almost documentary-like, so Gibney did weeks and weeks of research, visited hospitals, spent time with doctors, then sat down and wrote the screenplay in four weeks. Muni got a copy at the same time Jack Warner did. Their reactions differed.
Jack was horrified. He called up Hal Wallis, who was, I believe, at Lake Arrowhead or Tahoe, and sent the script up by special messenger. Monday morning, when I got to the studio, I had a three-page telegram from Hal Wallis, saying that I was to be taken off the script immediately and Laird Doyle was to put on the project. And there was to be no mention in the script of any disease that would frighten women, no experimentation with dogs, because of the Cruelty to Animals Society, no mention of Russian scientists, because that would offend Mr. Hearst, who was anti-Russian, and Mr. Muni could not wear a beard, and the whole story should take place while Pasteur is in college.
Of course Muni loves the script; and when Gibney shows him Wallis' telegram, he's furious—“I'd never seen him so mad,” Gibney says—and Muni has final approval. Now Warner bawls out Gibney for insurbordination, for showing a script to an actor before the producer, but his hands are tied. They have to make the movie to placate Muni.
They gave it the lowest possible budget an A star like Muni could work with, which was $330,000, and they cast it all with company people under contract. They gave it to an unknown director brought over by Reinhardt, who could barely speak English at this time—Bill Dieterle. He could read, but his vocabulary was limited, and he had to have the script translated to him by his wife, who spoke excellent English. And Bill Dieterle hated the script. This is the way we went into the picture. ...
When it was done, my contract was up and Leland was told I'd never be back at Warner Brothers and I left for London to work on a play. I was gone about six months, and I got a cable from [my agent] Leland saying I should come right home. The picture was nominated for an Academy Award! When I got home I was met at the dock, to my amazement, by the top New York executive of Warner Brothers, who had a limousine waiting to take me to my hotel. Sure enough, I won the Academy Award. But winning the Academy Award meant my salary automatically tripled, and even if they had wanted me back now I was beyond the range of Warner Brothers. So I signed with Zanuck, who was over at 20th Century Fox by now and wanted me to come to work for him.
The movie was also nominated for best picture, while Muni won the Oscar for lead actor. It was a huge success. Muni would go on to play similarly prestigious parts: Chinese in “The Good Earth”; Emile Zola in “The Life of Emile Zola.” But my favorite part of the story is the coda:
Two years later, Jack Warner was invited to Paris by the president of France and given the highest arts decoration and kissed on both cheeks by the president himself for this wonderful monument to French science. And for years afterward, Warner wouldn't let Muni appear in anything without a beard.
Way of the world.