Sunday, June 2, 2024



Directed by
John Ford
Written by Sidney Howard from the novel by Sinclair Lewis
Starring Ronald Colman, Helen Hayes, A. E, Anson, Myrna Loy
IMDB Entry

For various reasons, I've been writing about pre-code films a lot lately. Nearly all of them were B-pictures or programmers. Arrowsmith is different:  an A picture with a big name cast (for the time), based upon a best-selling novel and directed by one of old Hollywood's greatest directors. But it doesn't seem to get the mention it deserves.

Martin Arrowsmith (Ronald Colman) is a medical student who is interested in doing research and approaches Dr. Max Gottlieb (A.E. Anson). Gottlieb is impressed, but insists that Arrowsmith finish his course of study, and then hires him to be his research assistant. In the interim, however, Arrowsmith fallls in love with Leora (Helen Hayes) and they marry. Arrowsmith can't support himself as a research assistant, so he moves to Leora's home town and set up a shingle.  When cattle are dying, though, he acts as a veterinarian and develops a vaccine for the disease. At that point, he joins Gottlieb at he McGirk Institute.  Eventually, he stumbles on an antibiotic.*  Before it is fully tested, he is sent to and island in the West Indies, where an outbreak of the bubonic plague is broken out.

Colman plays Arrowsmith with the right amount of idealism and passion and Hayes gives Leora a personality more than just the faithful wife. The main issue with the film is that Arrowsmith never really faces any major challenges. Whatever he attempts works out and, though there is some tragedy toward the end, it is quickly balanced out by his successes.  It looks like the subplot about an affair with Joyce Lanyon (Myrna Loy) was cut out of the movie version; it would have helped add some darkness to Arrowsmith's story.

Author Sinclair Lewis was a major name during the 20s and 30s, and Arrowsmith was a best-selling book. It lacks the bite of his other works, which were more satirical in tone. His literary reputation has diminished over the years, but one of his novels, It Can't Happen Here seems even more relevant today.

John Ford, of course, needs no introduction to movie buffs, and Colman and Hayes both won Oscars. The movie was nominated for four Academy Awards, but didn't win anything.**


*The term is not used in the movie, since the word wasn't coined until several years after it was filmed, but it's the same effect.

**The Oscars at that point were controlled by the studios. MGM's Grand Hotel was selected that year.

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