With current restrictions in Paris on how and why we can leave our apartment, we’ve had to make adjustments in shopping routines, exercise routines, and certainly social routines. For instance, a couple times each week, my wife and I watch a movie together, sort of a date night for people in lockdown. Rather than choosing some trendy TV series to binge-watch, I’ve looked for older, good movies that have passed me by. Recently we watched The Third Man, which was filmed in 1949 in post-war Vienna. Though it was a very popular and successful film, I realized that the plot of The Third Man needed help from Peoria, Illinois, my hometown, or it couldn’t have worked.
First, here is some background. Carol Reed directed the film starring Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, and Trevor Howard. The screenplay was by Graham Greene. In 1999, the British Film Institute voted The Third Man the greatest British film of all time. An unknown café musician created the award winning musical score using only a zither.
Since we had visited Vienna last fall, I was curious whether we had been to some of the locations filmed in the movie. The answer is yes, but I didn’t know then to take all the right pictures. There are actually Third Man walking tours in Vienna.
The film opens with an American writer named Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arriving in town to visit his friend Harry Lime. When Holly goes to his apartment, Harry isn’t there. Turns out that a passing car struck and killed Harry just the day before.
The entrance to Harry’s apartment is just across from Josefsplatz near the Hofburg Palace. Witnesses describe how they dragged Harry over by the base of the statue of Josef II. An American Army Major (Trevor Howard) offers to put Holly up at the Hotel Sacher, which is just across the square from the Albertina Museum. The Café Mozart near the Hotel Sacher is part of the script, but they used another location for the café scenes. During our visit, we passed through a number of the other shooting locations in the old city and along the Ringstrasse. We didn’t go to the cemetery or to the amusement park in the Prater neighborhood across the Danube Canal, both also used for scenes.
Now for the curious circumstance. Part of the movie’s plot revolved around the black-market sales of diluted penicillin. That there was any post-war penicillin at all in Europe was in large part due to the work of people from Peoria, Illinois.
Between 1837 and 1919, Peoria was the Whiskey Capital of the World. It had everything necessary for the production of whiskey: a plentiful supply of grains, clean and abundant spring water, dependable transportation, and fuel resources (wood and coal). The Great Western Distillery built in the 1880s was then the largest in the world. In 1919, the whiskey business in Peoria stopped because of Prohibition.
After the repeal, a large brewing and distilling industry returned when Hiram Walker and Pabst Brewing resumed operations. They continued in business for many years. In 1940, the Department of Agriculture built Peoria’s Northern Regional Research Laboratory. Being whiskey capital was an important factor in choosing Peoria for this laboratory because distilling and brewing provided natural benefactors and partners for research using corn and wheat in fermentation technology. Beyond its having just the whiskey business, Peoria was chosen “…because of the industry that was here and because of the agriculture commodities that were here and because of its close proximity to the Great Lakes. This was in the heart of agriculture territory.” Nowadays the Laboratory is called the Ag Lab. The broader function of the laboratory is the study and development of new and improved industrial uses for farm products.
In 1928 British bacteriologist Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in London. 11 years passed before a group of scientists at Oxford started research to use penicillin to kill bacteria. With the onset of World War II, England turned to the US for help in producing the quantities of penicillin needed for human clinical trials. The US Department of Agriculture chose the new regional lab in Peoria to lead the effort to produce higher penicillin yields because of its expertise in fermentation technologies.
The original penicillin strain could not be cultured in large quantities. To find a more productive strain, the Peoria lab first sent out a world-wide call for penicillin cultures. In response, Army pilots started sending dirt samples from wherever they landed. “Ironically, a strain of penicillium on a moldy cantaloupe from a Peoria market was found to produce the largest amount of penicillin.” Eventually Ag Lab found they could culture penicillin rapidly by submerging the strain in a deep vat using corn steep liquor, a by-product from a process to soften seeds and separate them into various components.
Working with Ag Lab, the USDA completed clinical trials of penicillin in 1943. The production methods and samples developed at Ag Lab were transferred to industry so that manufacturers could produce large quantities of penicillin in time for D-Day. The rapid upscaling of penicillin production was a huge success. It was also a huge step forward in the production of antibiotics and fostering of today’s pharmaceutical industry. Over the years, Ag Lab has touched the world in other ways. For example they created the super absorbent material used in disposable diapers and operating rooms everywhere. Also, they still maintain one of the world’s largest collections of microbes (yeasts, bacteria, fungi, etc.).
Thus, without help from Peoria, The Third Man might not have had any penicillin at all. As for the film, I don’t want to spoil it. You’ll have to watch it yourself.
That was supposed to be the end of this article, but there was another curious twist.
In searching for more information about industry, natural resources, and agriculture in Peoria, I found an old Industrial Resource Survey of Metropolitan Peoria from about 1955. It seemed promising so I started to read it. The author was Francis C. Mergen of Bradley University. Published by the Peoria Association of Commerce, it was the type of pre-internet data that could attract businesses and employees. For those of my readers who are from Peoria, it is a rich history of the city’s companies and manufacturing.
The shock for me was that I knew Dr. Mergen and his family. The Mergens lived a block down the street from us in Peoria. Their son Jerry was my good friend all through grade school and high school. Furthermore, my mother worked with Dr. Mergen in the Industrial Engineering Department at Bradley University. My parents and the Mergens socialized together frequently with other Bradley employees. Unfortunately, Dr. Mergen passed away in 1972. Bradley University offers an annual award in his name for the faculty member whose community service has best extended the impact of the university beyond the reach of the classroom.
I stopped working on this article to search for the Mergen kids and send them their father’s work. I reached Carole, the oldest, in Arizona and sent her the 400 page study. She replied that reading her father’s acknowledgement brought tears to her eyes, such sweet memories. She will forward the study to her brothers and her mom. What an amazing encounter it was for me, for remembering Dr. Mergen and his family brought back my family, our home, our neighborhood, our town, and the experience of growing up.