Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox

2006, Movie, NR, 0 mins


Scan the shelves of the most mainstream urban pharmacy, health-food store or corner grocery and chances are you'll find bars and bottles of Dr. Bronner's Magic Pure-Castile Soap. Unmistakable in their color-coded labels — green for almond, brown for eucalyptus and blue for his famous peppermint — the soaps have been a fixture for decades. But take a closer look at the label and you'll see what really makes these multipurpose cleansers unique. In addition to the list of ingredients and various uses (it's recommended for everything from bath and baby to dogs and dentures) and tips on how to use the soap to get more enjoyment out of life, there are some 30,000 additional words devoted to the kind of proselytizing ordinarily found in religious pamphlets. You know there's a story behind Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap, and filmmaker Sara Lamm hopes you're interested in hearing it. Luckily the story behind the suds is a pretty good one.

Emanuel H. Bronner was a chemist, self-declared doctor and rabbi, and a seventh-generation soap maker from Heilbronn, Germany, who was fortunate enough to leave the country in 1929, several years before the Nazis nationalized his family's factory and murdered his parents. Once in the U.S., Bronner began touring the country, touting his plan to unite mankind under an ecumenical, we're-all-children-of-one-god-on-Spaceship-Earth doctrine he called the "All-One-God-Faith," aka "The Moral ABC." By 1944, he had a wife, three children and as many soap factories, and had come to see himself as a servant of God; he also believed he was the nephew of Albert Einstein and that he and his family were being poisoned by Communists. In 1947, after ranting through a lecture at the University of Chicago, Bronner was committed to an Elgin, Illinois, asylum where he underwent shock therapy before escaping to Los Angeles. Bronner soon began manufacturing all-natural, all-purpose peppermint soap that came with Moral ABC printed directly on the label, and the product became understandably popular with the spiritual seekers of the '60s counterculture. Ten years after Bronner's 1997 death, that same soap is still being made by his descendents, who maintain Dr. Bronner's long-standing commitment to social justice and environmental concerns. But there is a second story to be told: the story of Bronner's three children — Ellen, Jim and Ralph Bronner — who were shuttled between their sickly mother, "visionary" father and a series of foster families and orphanages. Their lives were scarred by emotional neglect, lack of family structure and abuse at the hands of virtual strangers. But who can properly raise a family when there's a world waiting to be united through soap?

Lamm patches together the tale of Dr. Bronner and his two sons (daughter Ellen spent most of her life suffering physical and psychological disabilities) through archival footage and interviews. The result feels padded and a bit unfocused, with large gaps left in Dr. Bronner's story (exactly what he did during the years between his arrival in the States and his institutionalization is unclear), but Lamm has a keen sense of the human tragedy that lies behind the charming eccentricities. Particularly poignant is the fate of Bronner's youngest, unfavored son, Ralph, who now lives entirely in the shadow of his larger-than-life father. Ralph makes the rounds of towns, cities and schools, telling his father's story through his one-man "Magic Soap Show," handing out articles, hugs and soap, and carrying Bronner's "All-One-God-Faith" torch as best he can. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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