Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
John Ford's early talkie version of Sinclair Lewis' Arrowsmith was nominated for four
Oscars, including best picture. Watching the film 74 years later we really can't see why,
as this very un-progressive film has a script that seems to come from an earlier era. Added to
that burden are cuts imposed on the finished film that make nonsense out of its final reels.
Promising medical student Martin Arrowsmith (Ronald Colman) turns down a chance to
do research at the McGurk Institute with Professor Max Gottlieb (A.E. Anson) because he
wants to marry his sweetheart Leora Tozer (Helen Hayes). The newlyweds have a tough time on the
rural doctoring circuit in
Minnesota, but through the encouragement of touring lecturer Gustav Sondelius (Richard Bennett)
Martin finds his way back to the Institute in New York with Gottlieb. After a couple years, he's
"scooped" on a major find by Louis Pasteur, but then takes a dangerous trip to the Caribbean to
do experimental serum trials on a runaway plague. Leora accompanies him but he tries
to keep her away from the main area of contagion ... a bad decision.
The reason to watch Arrowsmith is for its actors. Ronald Colman and Helen Hayes are a
compelling couple even if the film's script makes their story seem hollow and trite; and a very
young Myrna Loy grabs our attention even if most of her part has been excised. The film opened
at 110 minutes; even with certain sections restored it is still only 99 minutes long. Savant has
the feeling that it was drastically cut to allow for re-release under the 1934 motion picture
censor code, and the missing sequences lost.
John Ford shows a knack for some expressive compositions and a felicity with actors but I'd have
to think that the screenplay by Sidney Howard (who did far better with William Wyler's
Dodsworth a few years later)
is at fault. Either the writer could not come to grips with the ideas in Sinclair Lewis' book, or
they weren't very inspiring in the first place.
Arrowsmith accepts the idea that doctors are sacred individuals holding the power of life
and death and that their vocation needs to be held above that of common men. John Ford would later
present doctors as priest-like characters, either standing sadly above the strife of his fellow men
or battling alcoholism while performing medical miracles.
Martin Arrowsmith's problem seems to be that he is torn between living as a mortal - marrying his
sweetheart Leora, having a home life - or following his noble destiny as a medical researcher. The
story insists that the two goals are incompatible, a dated concept that makes most of the movie
Arrowsmith's sojourn as a country doctor is treated as a waste of his talent and his bumpkin patients
not worthy of him, even though Ford is at his best when directing the farmers. One of them is
John Qualen from
The Grapes of Wrath and
The Searchers. Naturally, he and Leora try hard, but his heart is back in New York and
research. When they finally goes back to the city they are able to afford a
liveable flat at least as good as the one in Minnesota, so what was all the fuss about getting married
being the death of his glorious career? It can only come from the movie-world myth that a man only
marries when he can keep his wife in luxury.
The McGurk institute is too cartoonish to be a realistic criticism of medical research foundations.
This is probably the focus of Sinclair Lewis' book, but the movie seems bored with anything
except the dramatics between Martin and his wife. Martin swishes chemicals around in beakers and
suffers embarrassment when his boss releases a news blurb calling a possible breakthrough a cure-all
that will "end all disease forever." None of this is very convincing; John Ford just doesn't
seem comfortable with standard urban melodrama.
But far worse is the movie's wrong-headed view of clinical trials. As I understand it, classic tests
for new drugs involve test subjects divided into two groups, those who get the drug and those who
don't - the "controls." I should think that concept would have been around a lot earlier than 1930.
In Arrowsmith the issue is presented in ridiculous terms. Martin and Professor
Sondelius go to the West Indies where a terrible plague presents a good opportunity to find human
guinea pigs to test Martin's new serum. But he immediately tells the authorities that he's going
to offer it only to half the population - and the other half will be "sternly denied." Presented
that way, Martin's experiment sounds like medical murder. There's no mention of the fact that
the untried serum might be as dangerous as no serum at all. Also, the concept only works if the
patients don't know who got the serum and who didn't - so that psychological factors can't come
into play. That's where the idea of giving dummy shots and placebos to the control patients comes
The patients are instead lined up and told that half will be "Sternly Denied!" the
life-giving medicine. All the whites, including the attractive tourist from New York played by
Myrna Loy, are in the serum line. Arrowsmith makes medical research seem like murder for
the good of mankind, a cold equation that would be doubtlessly be endorsed by the likes of Ayn
Rand. The fact that the experimental subjects are mostly black gives the whole process a nasty
racial aspect as well. The best thing about the black Dr. Marchand (Clarence Brooks) is that he
kindly volunteers 'his people' to be sacrificial guinea pigs to Dr. Arrowsmith's research.
The dramatics become more strange when Martin's adoring wife Leora forces her way onto his boat and
joins him in the tropical capital. He leaves her behind when he goes off to tend to the natives
in the sticks, and she stays hidden in this dark room surrounded by voodoo-chanting natives. A
laughable medical blunder seals Leora's fate - Arrowsmith leaves open vials of concentrated plague
microbes sitting around their bedroom, begging to be spilled. Leora's terrible demise happens
when she's alone, and it's the only sequence that seems to have inspired John Ford. There's a
sad shot from behind an armchair that would later be developed in
The Long Gray Line.
While away from Leora fighting the plague, Martin meets Joyce Lanyon (Myrna Loy), setting up a
potential romantic triangle. Here is where I believe the eleven minutes have been excised, because
the sequence ends abruptly and Loy has no scenes of any substance. Yet when the newly-widowed
Martin returns to New York to leave the crooked research foundation, Loy shows up, clearly to
offer herself as a replacement for Leora. Something obviously happened between them back in the
tropics. Martin brushes Joyce off, as he's learned his lesson, that
romantic entanglements are incompatible with his new goal to start doing "good" research.
We're left in almost total confusion. I can only surmise that Leora's terrible suffering was
originally intercut with Martin and Joyce getting cozy - in the middle of a plague! The movie implies
that Leora, a life-complicating woman, never had any business being with Martin. If she
loved him, she would let him go on alone and fulfill his grand destiny. Arrowsmith is
either very wrong-headed, or fumbles its message badly.
Ronald Colman and Helen Hayes are charming; Richard Bennett's Scandinavian doctor is an
interesting character and Myrna Loy is barely in the picture. But despite its Academy honors,
Arrowsmith just doesn't seem to be the kind of subject that would fire John Ford's imagination.
MGM's DVD of Arrowsmith looks and sounds fine. Some sections jump to a slightly lower picture
quality, making it look as if the censored release were even shorter, and this 99 minute cut a
restoration of what could be found. There are no extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Good (but a real mess, and incomplete)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 1, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson