Must-See Classic Movies About Pandemics

Ronald Colman in ARROWSMITH, Greta Garbo in CAMILLE, Edward G. Robinson in DR. EHRLICH'S MAGIC BULLET and Bette Davis in JEZEBEL - Photofest - Split - H 2020

As a result of the current coronavirus pandemic, most people have more discretionary time than they did a month ago. Large numbers have wound up in front of their television sets seeking not escapism, but rather pandemic-related films.

The two most widely seen, thus far, have been relatively recent: Wolfgang Petersen's Outbreak (1995), in which Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo and Morgan Freeman confront an Ebola-like disease; and Steven Soderbergh's Contagion (2011), which boasts an all-star ensemble including Kate Winslet and Matt Damon in a story about a fomite-driven outbreak.

People who prefer classic movies have plenty of additional options of pandemic-related films. Here is my suggestion of one for each of several different pandemics.

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JEZEBEL (1938)

Affliction Yellow fever, a viral infection spread by mosquitoes which has popped up over the centuries.

Production William Wyler's Gone With the Wind-esque 1938 film Jezebel, adapted from Owen Wilson's 1933 play of the same name, is set in 19th century New Orelans. Bette Davis plays Julie, a headstrong Southern belle who — famously — blows her engagement to Henry Fonda's Pres when she shows up to a dance wearing a red dress at a time when unmarried women were expected to wear white. (Many viewers recall seeing a red dress — but the film was actually in black-and-white.) Pres moves on with his life, but Julie does not, and when he is stricken with yellow fever and quarantined, Julie finally does something selfless. The film was Oscar-nominated for best picture and Davis won best actress honors for the second time, four years after her first.


Affliction Bubonic plague, a bacterial infection — also known as Black Death — that was transmitted by fleas, resulting in painful inflammation of the lymph nodes.

Production In John Ford's 1931 film Arrowsmith, which was adapted from Sinclair Lewis' 1925 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, Ronald Colman plays a young doctor who develops a cure for a cow disease and is then enlisted by his former medical school professor to try to help create an antidote for a bubonic plague outbreak in the West Indies. He travels to the region, at great risk, and embarks on an experimental trial, but the process is too slow to save many, including people close to him, so he is forced to reconsider his scientific approach. The film was nominated for four Oscars, including best picture.

CAMILLE (1936)

Affliction Tuberculosis, fast-spreading and lung-targeting bacterial disease that has also been referred to as 'consumption,' a vaccine for which was not widely available until after World War II.

Production George Cukor's 1936 melodramatic film Camille, which was adapted from Alexandre Dumas' 1848 novel and 1852 play, is set in 19th century Paris and centers on Robert Taylor's society man Armand and Greta Garbo's titular character, a prostitute who knows her days are numbered due to consumption, as they fall into forbidden love. Garbo received a best actress Oscar nomination for her heartbreaking turn.


Affliction Syphilis, a bacterial infection spread by sexual contact that may lay dormant for years but can ultimately result in brain or nerve damage.

Production Many are surprised to learn that a film about a venereal disease emanated from chaste Golden Age Hollywood, but indeed one did, produced by Casablanca collaborators Jack Warner and Hal Wallis, no less, and directed by William Dieterle: 1940's Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet, starring Edward G. Robinson in a rare non-gangster role as Dr. Paul Ehrlich, the German doctor and scientist who overcame considerable red-tape and resistance from the medical community to create 'magic bullets' — chemicals injected into the blood to fight infectious diseases, a precursor for chemotherapy — and found a cure for syphilis in 1909. Its three screenwriters — one of them John Huston — were among the inaugural class of best original screenplay Oscar nominees.


Affliction Polio, a paralysis-causing virus transmitted through contaminated food or water or contact with someone who already has it.

Production Polio terrorized the world until Jonas Salk created a vaccine for it in 1955 — the same year MGM released Curtis Bernhardt's Interrupted Melody, a film based on Australian opera singer Marjorie Lawrence's autobiography of the same name. Lawrence (Eleanor Parker) climbed to the heights of the Met stage before falling to the depths of despair upon being stricken with polio in 1941. Paralyzed and no longer able to sing, she lost her will to live — but was lifted back up by her devoted husband (Glenn Ford). The film won the best original screenplay Oscar and was nominated in two other categories, including best actress for Parker.


Affliction Smallpox, a highly contagious infectious disease that was eradicated in the late 1970s.

Production Back in 1950, when Earl McEvoy's 1950 film noir B-movie The Killer That Stalked New York was released, smallpox was still a very real threat — indeed, just a few years earlier, a smallpox outbreak sparked panic in the Big Apple. This film, one of the earliest shot on location, depicts a city that descends into terror after a woman (Gone With the Wind alum Evelyn Keyes) who smuggled diamonds from Cuba into Manhattan, and then goes on the run, turns out to have brought smallpox with her, as well, with the city's supply of smallpox serum unable to cater to the enter population.


Affliction Cholera, a bacterial infection of the small intestine that is caused by contaminated food or water, and causes vomiting and diarrhea, which, in turn, causes dehydration.

Production Richard Boleslawski's 1934 drama The Painted Veil — which was adapted from W. Somerset Maugham's 1925 novel of the same name, and was subsequently remade twice, in 1957 as The Seventh Sin and in 2006 once again as The Painted Veil — tells the story of a newly married woman (Greta Garbo) who accompanies her husband (George Brent), a doctor, to Hong Kong, where he is doing medical research, whereupon she falls in love with someone else (Herbert Marshall). Things get complicated when her husband decides to head to inland China to try to help combat a cholera epidemic.

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Plus, two others...


Affliction Spanish flu, an extremely deadly strain of influenza that struck in early 1918 and petered out at the end of 1920.

Production Oddly, as Smithsonian has noted, this affliction has rarely been dealt with in novels or in films, so here we'll make an exception and list a TV program: the 1919-set second season of Julian Fellowes' Downton Abbey from 2011, in which several principal characters — Lady Grantham, Carson and Lavinia Swire — are struck by it. Spoiler alert: In the season finale, Swire, Matthew Crawley's young fiancee, succumbs to the affliction, which was particularly lethal for young people. That season of Downton wound up with nine Emmy noms — among them, best drama series and six acting noms — which was only one behind field-leader Mad Men.


Affliction HIV, a virus transmitted by bodily fluids that devastates the immune system en route to becoming AIDS, first became widespread in the 1980s, and remains so to this day, although treatment options have significantly improved.

Production In 1990, back when Americans were still trying to wrap their heads around HIV/AIDS and The New York Times still referred to the partner of a person who died of the plague as his 'longtime companion,' along came Norman Rene's indie Longtime Companion, the first widely released film to focus on the then-taboo affliction. (The film shows, year by year, how a group of male friends and lovers were impacted by HIV/AIDS over the course of the 1980s; Bruce Davison received a best supporting actor Oscar nom for his portrayal of one of them.) It would be another three years before a Hollywood studio film — Philadelphia, for which Tom Hanks won his first best actor Oscar — dared to do the same.