Movies and the Jews: “Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet” (1940)


Edward G. Robinson as Nobel-prize winner Dr. Paul Ehrlich

The opening scene takes place in a medical consulting room in 19th century Germany.  A young clinician has given his patient some bad news.  Although nothing is said directly, both men know that the situation is grim.  Immediately after the patient walks into the lobby, a commotion ensues.  The man has committed suicide.

Dr. Paul Ehrlich, the clinician,  just told his patient that he has syphilis.  There is no cure.  The man could expect to develop horrible end-stage symptoms like blindness, paralysis, or dementia before the disease ultimately took his life.  In addition, a diagnosis of syphilis at this time in history meant excommunication from society, which is yet another death.  It’s no wonder that the patient chose to end his life right then and there.

In Warner Brother’s excellent bio pic, Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, we see Nobel-prize winner Ehrlich (played by an unrecognizable Edward G. Robinson) spend the remainder of his life researching various methods of chemotherapy in order to cure disease, ultimately beating syphilis.  He describes each treatment as a “magic bullet” specifically modified to the nature of the disease to be treated.  Ehrlich accomplishes much on his way to the Nobel Prize:  A ground-breaking method for staining bacterial samples in order to facilitate identification and diagnosis; contribution to the development of an effective diphtheria serum; and development of an arsenic-based chemotherapy to treat syphilis.

Dr. Ehrlich’s road is not an easy one.  His research is dependent on the support of countless public and private donors.  But we’re talking Germany, Dr. Ehrlich is a Jew, and well….some are hesitant about donating to someone of the “Hebraic religion.”  In addition, Ehrlich has a most disconcerting habit of hiring the best in the medical field, regardless of race or creed.  At one point, some potential donors discover that he has a Japanese research scientist working in the laboratory….horrors!


The real Dr. Ehrlich with his colleague, Dr. Sahachiro Hata

Things really come to a head when Dr. Ehrlich visits a rich dowager (played by Maria Ouspenskaya) in order to solicit funds for his research.  A clip from the film shows people’s reactions when they find out what he is currently working on:

Fortunately, the dowager is far more open-minded than her guests, and she gives Dr. Ehrlich a generous amount of money.  This enables the doctor to successfully complete his experiments regarding syphilis chemotherapy.


Paul Ehrlich (1854-1915) was a German-Jewish physician and scientist responsible for many innovations in the areas of hematology, immunology, and antimicrobial chemotherapy.  He is probably best known for his development of arsphenamine (Salvarsan), which was the first effective treatment for syphilis.  For his contributions to medicine, Ehrlich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine in 1908.

At the time that Magic Bullet was released, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party were in the process of destroying records of Ehrlich’s work; according to Hitler, “A scientific discovery by a Jew is worthless.”  All the more reason to see this film in remembrance of a brilliant Jewish scientist’s contribution to medicine and humanity.

You can purchase DVD’s of Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet on by clicking the following link:



Edward G. Robinson (1893-1973) is probably best known for his role as Enrico Bandello, the title character of 1931’s Little Caesar.  Robinson’s spectacular performance as the two-bit hoodlum who rises to the top of organized crime led to a series of gangster roles, most famously in 1948’s Key Largo.

It may be surprising to some that this “Italian hood” was born into a Romanian-Jewish family as Emanuel Goldenberg.  When “Manny” Goldenberg was 10 years old, his family emigrated from Romania to the U.S.A (New York City).  Goldenberg decided at a young age to become an actor.  He was known in New York circles as Edward G. Robinson, a versatile performer who could play almost any ethnic part (Robinson spoke several languages, including Yiddish, Hebrew, Romanian, English and German).   One of Robinson’s favorite sayings was, “I’m not so much on face value (he was not a handsome man), but when it comes to stage value, I’ll deliver for you.”

Robinson was eventually hired by Warner Brothers, and went on to portray one of Hollywood’s most famous criminals.  The endless parade of “hood” parts that followed made Robinson yearn for a different kind of role.  He jumped at the chance to play Dr. Ehrlich when the opportunity presented itself in 1940, and he did a magnificent job.

For more information on the life of Edward G. Robinson, read Alan L. Gansberg’s excellent biography, Little Caesar:  A Biography of Edward G. Robinson.  You can purchase a hard copy or Kindle version of the book at by clicking on the following link:



Pluses:  Energetic performance by Edward G. Robinson; excellent plain-language explanations of the scientific theories behind Dr. Ehrlich’s research.

Minus:  Misogynistic portrayal of Dr. Ehrlich’s wife (Ruth Gordon).  She doesn’t even get to be with him when he dies.  Instead, Dr. Ehrlich asks her to step into the parlor and play the piano!

Cast:  Edward G. Robinson, Ruth Gordon, Otto Kruger, Donald Crisp

Director:  William Dieterle

Rating:  Unrated

Black and white

Length:  103 minutes


“Paul Ehrlich.”  Wikipedia:  The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.  31  July 2016.  Web.  2 December 2016

“Edward G. Robinson.”  Wikipedia:  The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.   28 December 2016.  Web.  28 December 2016.

Gansberg, Alan L.  Little Caesar:  A Biography of Edward G. Robinson.  The Scarecrow Press, Inc. (2004)






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