He mixed global salvation and soapmaking
Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap is an herbal liquid soap, heavy on the peppermint, that's been a mainstay of health shops for decades. Users swear by it. Some 4.5 million bottles are sold annually.
Besides listing ingredients, the label of each bottle includes the text of "The Moral ABC," a mini-treatise on the meaning of life. Emmanuel Bronner both wrote the text and formulated the soap.
Bronner (1908-1997) was a deeply flawed visionary -- an Errol Morris movie waiting to happen. A German-Jewish chemist, he fled to America before Hitler took power. Mixing global salvation with soapmaking, he all but abandoned his three children after his wife died. "Eccentric geniuses cannot be good fathers," explains Bronner's younger son, Ralph, who is as much the subject of Carol Lamm's fitfully engaging documentary, "Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox," as his father is.
Overly-strenuous proselytizing for "The Moral ABC" got Bronner committed to an Illinois insane asylum in 1947. "I did this to make your dad normal," Bronner's sister later explained to Ralph. "It is not normal to unite Spaceship Earth."
Managing to escape the asylum after a few months, Bronner made it to Las Vegas, where he won $400 at the Golden Nugget. Those winnings helped get him to Southern California, where he and his soap flourished.
Bronner fit right in as a classic Left Coast crank. He hated communism and feared fluoridation. He claimed to be Einstein's nephew (he wasn't). A devotee of nude sunbathing, Bronner urged employees to join him in the altogether and catch some rays. He strongly identified with Thomas Paine and, later on, venerated Mark Spitz, the Olympic swimming champion.
Further compounding the strangeness were the dark glasses Bronner wore after he went blind late in life and his Teutonic accent. It made him sound like a cross between Erich von Stroheim and Donald Duck. The accent was so thick that subtitles accompany all of his dialogue in "Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox."
In the archival footage and home movies that Lamm has assembled, Bronner looks like a tighter-wound Casey Kasem. Imagine him every week barking out the biggest hits on "Spaceship Earth Top 40." In actuality (not that that word necessarily pertains to Bronner), he made tapes preaching "The Moral ABC."
Rock 'n' roll may not have been Bronner's thing, but his philosophizing (and soap) earned him countercultural status. An aging-hippie Magic Soap user tells Lamm his pantheon of the most important people in the world once consisted of Frank Zappa, Dennis Hopper, John Lennon, and Bronner. Lamm also interviews a somewhat bemused Eldridge Cleaver, the former Black Panther, who speaks of Bronner with wary approval.
Son couldn't be more different from father. Amiable and flabby, Ralph's a bit of a schlub. Everywhere he goes, he tells people about his father. He says he used to wonder how Frank Sinatra could repeatedly sing "My Way" with feeling. "Now I know," he confesses, "because I never, never, never get tired telling about my father." He concludes every conversation with a hug. Where the father's life was an ongoing rant, the son's would seem an amiable mumble. Too often, the film also mumbles. "Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox" has some amazing moments but they get submerged in an overall slackness.
A patently nice man, Ralph is a not very compelling figure. It's as if he's dedicated his life to not being compelling. In that respect, he's a more representative figure for the documentary than its namesake is.
In light of how compelling his father was and what a number he did on Ralph, this makes perfect sense. "Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox" alternately shows the elder Bronner as lovable and nutty, sinister and terrifying, victim and victimizer. Ultimately, those disparate elements never coalesce. Ralph's affection for his father is unmistakable; so is the continuing bewilderment beneath it. Viewers are unlikely to share the former, but they can certainly understand the latter.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.