In the heyday of the studio system, Hollywood enthusiastically embraced the biopic. But a glance through the list of American film biographies made during the late 1930s and early 1940s—compiled by George Custen in his landmark book Bio/Pics—reveals something unexpected about this trend. Many early films in this genre portray the lives of historically well-known research scientists. These included Marie Curie (who discovered radium), Paul Ehrlich (who found the cure for syphilis), Louis Pasteur (who developed vaccines for rabies and anthrax), and Thomas Edison (who invented the electric light).

One must wonder how some of the most significant American directors, writers, and actors became involved in the project of making mainstream commercial movies about what were viewed by most as decidedly unglamorous, laboratory-bound lives. Understanding how this string of scientist biopics came to be illuminates much about the history of entertainment and popular science, as well as the social and political dimensions of scientific research in the interwar period.

In the 1930s, scientist biopics (according to Alberto Elena) “became true forerunners of the genre in the United States.” In 1939 and 1940 alone, Hollywood produced the same number of films about scientists as it did during the entire subsequent decade. Paul Rotha, in a 1992 New Scientist article, suggested that ideological legitimation provided the motive. In the politically unstable 1930s and 1940s, Rotha argued, filmmakers made “earnest and vigorous attempts to convince the electorate of the possibility of a national society based on science and education.”

But a closer look at films like Madame Curie (1943) and The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935) suggests that their creation was not quite so straightforward. In their portrayal of science as a powerful force for social change, these two films effectively exemplify the old-guard Hollywood elite’s liberal, politically progressive vision for the future of the country—a vision that was not without opponents. In the context of World War II, American scientists and filmmakers alike would have viewed contemporary clashes between reform movements and entrenched religious and political beliefs as the most powerful epics of their times. During the war against Nazis and fascism, in a time of home-front campaigns seeking to convince Americans of the need for public health measures like vaccinations, the lives of Marie Curie and Louis Pasteur could stand as models of the way that reason and persistence could engage with and ultimately prevail over orthodoxy and militaristic brute force.

The eagerness with which the studios jumped on the Curie project testifies to the urgency of this ideology. In 1937 Marie Curie’s daughter Eve published a well-received biography of her famous mother, and Universal Studios immediately optioned the rights to the book, hoping that one of their most bankable stars—Irene Dunne—would play the lead. But when Dunne and Eve Curie met to discuss the film, no sparks flew, so Universal sold the project to MGM, who initially wanted Greta Garbo to star. MGM put their best writers to work on adapting the screenplay, including F. Scott Fitzgerald; they also hired Aldous Huxley, great-grandson of respected biologist Julian Huxley, as well as Rudolph Langer, a California Institute of Technology physicist, to help make the scenes of scientific laboratory work more credible. Soon after, critically acclaimed director Mervyn LeRoy (Thirty Seconds over Tokyo) signed on to direct, and Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon agreed to play Marie Curie and her husband Pierre.

LeRoy faced a great challenge in directing Madame Curie: bringing together science and romance. The movie skillfully depicts both the drudgery and excitement Marie Curie experienced through her scientific work. Many months spent doing mathematical calculations on “glowing material” found in the French mines resulted in a breakthrough moment when Curie understood that she was witnessing radioactive decay. However, this initial discovery was not enough to convince her colleagues, and led only to months more of arduous labor in an ill-equipped laboratory outbuilding, extracting radium from the pitchblende in order to prove its existence. These long bench-top scenes likely gained special realism from Langer’s having reenacted Curie’s experiments for the screenwriters to observe firsthand. LeRoy later wrote in his autobiography, “I didn’t let a scene go by that I didn’t understand myself.”

In contrast to its realistic depiction of Mme. Curie’s scientific process, the portrayal of the romantic relationship between Marie and Pierre Curie seems to have been glamorized in keeping with the ongoing “reel life” relationship between the film’s two stars. Madame Curie was Pidgeon and Garson’s fourth on-screen pairing; audiences had adored them in such popular films as Mrs. Miniver and Random Harvest. LeRoy’s attempts to make them believable in a love story about two socially awkward scientists led to the inclusion of such clumsy scenes as the marriage proposal Pierre makes to Marie: “We must make our union official,” he tells her in chemically inspired language, “because you are sodium and I am chloride.”

Ultimately, while the film failed to convey some human passions, its focus on the world-changing power of one woman’s love for science resonated with audiences and critics alike. Marie Curie’s biopic, beginning with her mundane days as a poor Polish physics student and ending in her acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, represented a parable on the virtues of rationality and persistence in the face of adversity. For Americans mired in the ongoing social and political conflicts of the Second World War, Hollywood’s moral reminder of these values was well timed. Madame Curie collected seven Academy Award nominations in 1943—including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Actress—but ultimately it lost at the Oscars, where Casablanca was awarded Best Picture.

Unlike Madame Curie, The Story of Louis Pasteur began as a biopic in which the studio had no confidence, but it ended up a great critical and popular success. Warner Brothers took on the project as a star vehicle for Paul Muni, but gave it only a minimal budget—$330,000—and ordered director William Dieterle to reuse old sets rather than build new ones. (Film buffs will recognize Pasteur’s Academy of Sciences amphitheater as the redecorated nightclub set from several Busby Berkeley musicals.) In getting the film off the ground, Dieterle was greatly constrained by studio politics and prevailing assumptions about public tolerance for medical and scientific realities. One preproduction memo from a Warner Brothers executive demanded that the film show no scenes of childbirth fever or animal experimentation, because these could frighten American women and provoke the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Dieterle was also instructed not to include the names of any Russian scientists in the film because publisher William Randolph Hearst objected and would withdraw the services of his mistress—actress Marion Davies—from future studio productions.

Ultimately, however, Dieterle and the Pasteur screenwriters (including Sheridan Gibney) chose to focus on their titular character’s courageous struggle against rampant skepticism and scientific convention, circumventing most of the studio’s directives in the process. Regarding Pasteur’s new idea that microbes caused the anthrax infections sweeping through farms in the French countryside, the film portrays the uneducated farmers as the only people willing to try the vaccine. By contrast, Pasteur’s peers and colleagues come off as inflexibly doctrinarian, dismissing his results as unproven by the most stringent laboratory standards (namely, Koch’s postulates) and openly rejecting Pasteur’s persistent belief in microorganisms as evidence of his own delusional “private menagerie.” When a poor mother whose child has been bitten by a rabid dog presents her progeny in desperation to Pasteur, the scientist must acknowledge that treating the boy with a clinically untested vaccine would be ethically questionable (“If I fail, it would mean prison—perhaps the guillotine.”). But Dieterle’s telling emphasizes how Pasteur’s faith in the experimental method—specifically, rigorous laboratory trials he conducts with animals with isolated rabies virus—convinces him to overcome his fear of social reprisal; when the boy lives after Pasteur finally administers the vaccine, the scientist finds both professional and public recognition as a hero.

In this biopic, then, Pasteur’s life in science epitomizes how adherence to laboratory values can illuminate a radical, but ultimately effective, path to socially desirable outcomes. For his performance as Louis Pasteur, Paul Muni won the Academy Award for Best Actor of 1936, and the picture also picked up the Best Original Story and Best Screenplay trophies. These accolades led to an adaptation of The Story of Louis Pasteur for CBS radio that same year, directed by Cecil B. DeMille.

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After 1952, studios produced far fewer scientist biopic projects, and those that made it to the screen—such as The Three Faces of Eve (1957)—focused less on the trials and tribulations of individual scientists than on the effects of a scientific worldview (like Freudian psychotherapy) on the public at large. One of the reasons for the scientific biopic’s initial popularity was best expressed by the New York Times reviewer of Madame Curie: “Whether the film is entirely a picture of the Curies as they were and whether its scientific data are precise is beside the point. The important thing is that it expresses the spirit of science honestly and that makes for a romantic and thrilling pursuit.” Today these films persist as examples of well-crafted entertainment, and as resources for learning about both historical attitudes toward science and technology in America and the myriad implications of choosing a life in laboratory research.

Works Cited:

Crowther, Bosley. Review of Madame Curie. The New York Times, December 17, 1943.

Custen, George. Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History. Rutgers University Press, 1992.

Elena, Alberto. “Exemplary Lives: Biographies of Scientists on the Screen.” Public Understanding of Science 2 (1993): 205-223.

Fristoe, Roger. “The Story of Louis Pasteur,” www.turnerclassicmovies.com.

LeRoy, Mervyn. Take One. Hawthorne Books, 1974.

Passafiume, Andrea. “Madame Curie,” www.turnerclassicmovies.com.

Robinson, D. “Scientists of the Silver Screen.” New Scientist 72, no. 1032 (1976): 734.

Karen Rader teaches Science, Technology, and Culture and Sarah Lawrence College in New York.