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Posted by on Apr 1, 2009 in Ethics, FDA, Media, Medical history, Pharma, Popular culture, Toxicology

Hollywood Showed Interest in Elixir Sulfanilamide Story

Hollywood Showed Interest in Elixir Sulfanilamide Story

In late October 1937, gossip columnist Louella Parsons revealed that both Warner Brothers and film executive B. P. Schulberg were in preproduction stages for 2 separate films that would dramatize the “shocking elixir deaths” [1].

Warner Brothers had bought the rights to the muckracking novel of investigative journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams, The Clarion. The book, published in 1914, was an expose of the fraudulent advertising of patent medicines. Screenwriters would incorporate the recent elixir-related deaths into the film, Parsons reported, which was to star Dick Foran (The Petrified Forest) and newcomer Ann Sheridan as the “romantic leads.” The working title for Schulberg’s production was Permit to Kill, with Edward Arnold (Diamond Jim) in a starring role.

Although the New York Times reported later that the Warner Brothers film title was changed to One Hundred Million Suckers, with a screenplay by Larry Kimble and Ring Lardner, Jr., neither film appears to have made it to production [2].

The elixir-related deaths were conveyed in nonprint media through NBC’s radio broadcast of The National Farm and Home Hour, which was produced by the US Department of Agriculture, and William Randolph Hearst’s “News of the Day”* newsreel, which was shown contemporaneously in movie theaters [3,4]. While attending the cinema in Flushing, New York, a pleasantly surprised FDA chemist praised the well-conceived “dramatic presentation” and the “clear and distinct voice” of FDA chief Walter G. Campbell in a letter to the FDA’s New York station. The chemist described the production’s scenes from memory:

I. S. E. Massengill’s plant.

II. Dr. Calhoun [of Mt. Olive, Mississippi] (?) one of the physicians that had prescribed the Elixir, and a nurse who had taken some of the Elixir but was still alive.

III. The laboratory of the American Medical Association at Chicago, showing a chemist working on a distillation apparatus and then holding in a graduate some of the distillate which was described as being the deadly ingredient.

IV. The same A.M.A. laboratory protraying[sic] a chemist using a Spectrographic apparatus.

V. Mr. Campbell’s office door.

VI. Scene showing Mr. Campbell picking up a phone, and instructing all agents to immediately stop all other work and to concentrate on location the Elixir, to be seized wherever found. In this scene Mr. Campbell did the talking rather than the commentator.

* Released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

1. Parsons L. Ford will direct Haycox in new film for Sam Goldwyn. Modesto Bee and News-Herald. October 31, 1937.

2. Screen news here and in Hollywood. New York Times. March 18, 1938; p 23.

3. FDA correspondence. Letter from W. G. Campbell to Chief, Central District. January 31, 1938.

4. FDA correspondence. Letter from D. M. Walsh to Chief, New York Station. October 29, 1937.

Public domain screenshot of Ann Sheridan from Wikipedia.


bmartin (80 Posts)

A native East Tennessean, Barbara Martin is a formerly practicing, board-certified neurologist who received her BS (psychology, summa cum laude) and MD from Duke University before completing her postgraduate training (internship, residency, fellowship) at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She has worked in academia, private practice, medical publishing, drug market research, and continuing medical education (CME). For the last 3 years, she has worked in a freelance capacity as a medical writer, analyst, and consultant. Follow Dr. Barbara Martin on and Twitter.


  1. There is some talk that Paramount is still interested. Just what I’ve heard.

  2. Excellent. Now I just have to write a riveting screenplay.

  3. You know my number, Barb.