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MOVIE REVIEW

Clean living? Well, a colorful life, at least

A genial documentary on the inventor of Dr. Bronner's soap reveals an unusual man with a higher calling.

July 13, 2007|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

A biographical documentary always benefits from a charismatic figure at its center. "Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox" is fortunate to have two of them.

Filmmaker Sara Lamm's film ostensibly chronicles the life and career of the proselytizing natural soap-maker Dr. Emanuel H. Bronner, but it also spends a lot of time with his son, Ralph, who travels the country lecturing and spreading the words of his father.

A bizarre character of epic proportions, Bronner was born in Germany in 1908 and emigrated to the U.S. at the age of 21, a decade before the Nazis killed his parents and nationalized the family soap plant. His experiences were larger than life, but even so his version of his story often seems to border on fiction. He claimed to be the nephew of Albert Einstein, for example, and referred to the Illinois insane asylum where he was confined as a concentration camp.

Escaping from the asylum to California in the late 1940s, the doctor (a self-anointed title, though he was considered a master chemist) revived the family trade of soap-making and began turning out peppermint oil-based multipurpose cleaners. The tingly product was embraced by the counterculture, and Bronner became something of an underground hero and an early advocate of healthy living.

An impassioned speaker, Bronner was a virulent anti-Communist and railed against the fluoridation of drinking water. His activities didn't go unnoticed by the FBI, mainly because he frequently called them with complaints and suggestions.

Bronner's larger mission in life, however, was "to unite all mankind and spaceship Earth" through his "All-One" philosophy. He called for worldwide peace and preached unifying principles through a manifesto he called "The Moral ABCs" that was and continues to be printed on every label of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap -- 4.5 million bottles and counting. The teachings are based partly in Judaism but draw from most of the world's major religions.

Lamm makes liberal use of archival footage of Bronner, including countless hours of fiery, self-made audiotapes, presenting an enigmatic character whose accented, staccato speech and Yoda-like syntax were both mesmerizing and confounding. Blind for the last 20 years of his life (he passed away in 1997), he appears as a slightly wacky prophet whose at-times mystifying message belied a crafty, entrepreneurial mind.

Devoting one's life to uniting spaceship Earth had a heavy personal cost. Bronner left his three small children in various foster-care situations after his wife died, visiting them when possible, but essentially sacrificing them for the "greater good." Despite being a self-proclaimed rabbi, he also showed signs of denying his Jewish heritage and favoring his blond, blue-eyed son, Jim, over the darker Ralph.

The film makes no judgment of Bronner's treatment of his family, presenting it as tragedy as much as anything else. The revelation of the film is the warmness his family now feels toward him, seemingly understanding his fervent beliefs, forgiving his choices and growing the progressive soap company in ways the patriarch may never have imagined. Operated under what might be called benevolent capitalism, Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps is a multimillion-dollar family-run business and donates 70% of its net profits.

Its vice-president is Ralph Bronner, who looks like a stockier version of his father and shares his fondness for talking. Ralph projects a Midwestern folksiness as he crisscrosses the country improvising lectures. He punctuates most encounters by handing out bottles of soap and asking for a hug.

Lamm effectively uses interviews with family members and the soap's users to draw a well-rounded portrait of the otherwise inscrutable senior Bronner. In doing so, she observes a bittersweet story of a family and the surprising effects a crusading eccentric can have on them.

kevin.crust@latimes.com

"Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869. Lamm will appear at tonight's 7:20 screening.

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