It’s been a while since I’ve seen a Paul Muni film; or, at least, one that I hadn’t seen before. I like Paul Muni, and the man, despite a few nominations, only won one Oscar in his career; for this, The Story of Louis Pasteur. While this won’t be fuel for a potential run of mine through the Best Actor nominees, I have seen all five of the nominees for that award for 1936, and while I don’t know outright whether I think Muni should’ve won over the others, I’m glad that he did; even with the still-short history of the Academy, Muni was overdue for actual recognition, and I’m okay with him getting it for this when he didn’t get it otherwise. That said, while Muni is far and away the biggest and best selling point this film has got, I do feel a little disappointed that he was honored for what ultimately amounts to a sub-par and far too on-the-nose biopic, and the flaws in this film seem to have only grown larger and more noticeable with age.
Muni is the titular Pasteur, who many know for the process of pasteurization, which is incidentally not covered in this film. Here, instead, we follow Pasteur’s attempts to combat diseases caused by what he calls microbes, in particular anthrax in sheep and rabies (or hydrophobia) in dogs and men. Since Pasteur is such a forward-thinking individual, his efforts at finding the causes of disease and fighting them, as well as his efforts to change how doctors and surgeons operate, are met with derision from the established medical community, and this is the prime conflict found in the film itself. First off, fans of Muni will no doubt recognize his face under that thick facial hair, even as he is particularly metamorphosed into the role of Pasteur, hence why I indicated in the opener that I was fine with him winning for this role; it’s certainly not an undeserved award, with what Muni accomplishes here. My problem with this film, and I guess with biopics of the era in general it would seem, is the deification of the subject that they feel they need to do in order to seemingly justify making a biopic of the person in question. Here, Louis Pasteur is not only a man who did great things and should be looked up to, but the film pushes it way beyond this and makes it so Pasteur is always right and everyone around him is hideously, ignorantly wrong; all of the time. There were more than enough scenes in this of Pasteur’s so-called foes in the academic world scoffing to his face and blindly refusing to open their minds even the slightest bit to his claims, or groups of these people literally laughing at the personally-absent Pasteur and how ‘impossible’ the things he’s been saying seem to be. I don’t know how historically accurate this film is, but having everyone against Pasteur literally getting together and laughing at the man and anyone who supports him seems… overdone, to put it nicely, and the film as a result has not aged all that well.
There was one thing to like about this film, and everything else was either par for the course, or had aged very poorly. This is pretty much why I’m ending up on the particular side, rating-wise, that I am. To add to that, aside from Muni’s performance, this was nowhere near what a Best Picture nominee ought to be; of course, that one or two exemplary features alone should net a film a Best Picture nomination is not an uncommon occurrence in the history of the Oscars, but the continued happening of it doesn’t mean that it’s justified or not incorrect for doing so. The Story of Louis Pasteur is but one of these many films; watch it for Muni, and pretty much for no other reason.
Arbitrary Rating: 6/10