Usually when I roll out of bed and into the shower in the morning, I’m too lethargic to remember to wash between my toes, let alone analyze the prose on my bottle of soap. Which is probably why I never paid attention to the thousand-some-odd words printed all over the Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap bottle. Upon closer, wakeful inspection, those words are frickin’ nuts.
Case in point: “ENJOY ONLY 2 COSMETICS, enough sleep & Dr. Bronner’s ‘Magic Soap’ to clean body-mind-spirit instantly uniting One! All-One!”
Which is probably what prompted filmmaker Sara Lamm to find out more about this Dr. Bronner and his legendary soap in her new film, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox, which has been making the film festival rounds and debuted on The Sundance Channel this week. The film is an engaging, quirky profile of one of the first green businesses in the United States, and a history of a product that lots of us have been lathering up with for years.
It turns out that Dr. Bronner — his actual name was Emanuel, but he adopted the “Dr.” randomly at some point — was a German-born, eighth-generation soapmaker. His parents were killed in a concentration camp during World War II, but Bronner immigrated to the United States in 1929. In the U.S., Bronner began a crusade to “unite mankind and spaceship earth,” traveling around and talking to anyone who would listen about his ever-evolving 30,000-word manifesto that he called “The Moral ABC.” The ABC is an odd hodge-podge of rhetoric from various world religions, boiled down to the main message that we’re all one people united in one god faith, with the “All-One!” mantra repeated, uh, repeatedly. Bronner was so obsessed that he abandoned his three kids with whatever random family was willing to take them so he could focus on his mission to unite mankind.
Then in 1947, after a particularly wild speech at the University of Chicago, Bronner was committed to an Illinois mental institution where he remained until eventually escaping and hitchhiking to California. In 1948, Bronner began producing and selling his all-purpose soap from a seedy Los Angeles hotel room, the beginning of a business that today brings in $18 million a year. He also peppered his soap-making with regular calls to the U.S. government to warn them about commie attacks on the water supply and other threats to life as we know it, and gradually went blind due to some undisclosed illness.
Bronner may have been bat-shit crazy, but his soap was a hit, even with all his rantings inscribed on the label. All of it is produced without artificial ingredients, animal testing, or exploited labor, and it’s touted as the catch-all product for all your cleaning needs — bodies, hair, teeth, kitchen floors, cars, and pets included! His sons Jim and Ralph, and later his grandsons David and Mike, took over the business, which now sells 6 million bottles of soap every year.
The film details Bronner’s life through use of file footage of the good doctor (he died 10 years ago) ruminating on his philosophies, conversations with his surviving heirs, and interviews with his former employees and all manner of Magic Soap-lovers. The film at times feels pretty amateur (most of the interviews look like they should be on YouTube rather than the big screen), but the story is so well-told that I barely noticed.
And while viewers will be totally amused by the true story of the guy behind your favorite soap, it’s the family’s story that really grabs you. The kids Bronner ditched coming to help him run the business, the nutty fourth wife, the death of the favored son — all make for a tale far more interesting than the guy’s cockamamie ideas. A large portion of the film focuses on his son Ralph taking up the task of traveling around and talking about this father and the company, handing out free bottles of soap and hugs to everyone he meets, singing to special needs kids, and chatting with tattooed bohemians. While not nearly as wack as his father, Ralph — who’s now 70 years old himself — has an endearing eccentricity that helps carry the narrative.
The film also gets into some of the great work the company does today, in addition to creating organic, planet-friendly soaps. They also pioneered the 100 percent post-consumer recycled plastic bottle, and they donate nearly 70 percent of their net profits to social causes around the world. They family has even capped their own salaries, making sure that they make no more than five times as much as their lowest-paid employees. Even though Bronner’s descendents seem to realize their granddad was a little off, his philosophies about fairness, equity, and doing right by the world have carried on. Which to too many people probably still qualifies them as crazy, sadly.
Check local listings or the film website to find a screening in your neck of the woods.