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Early in the 20th century, popular literature was often a conduit for progressive social criticism. Author Sinclair Lewis won a Pulitzer Prize with his 1925 novel Arrowsmith, which gave the medical profession a good whacking inside and out. Lewis's own father was a physician. Quackery, greed and entrenched interests dog the progress of the idealistic young doctor-hero, who must oppose faith healers as well as resist employers that wish to waste his talent for profit. Unlike Sinclair's earlier stories of small town boosterism, this book was less satirical. Director John Ford kept that earnestness when he tackled Arrowsmith for Samuel Goldwyn in 1931. Not particularly well written, the early talkie is beautifully acted by Ronald Colman and Helen Hayes. It waves the banner of science, but oversimplifies medical and research details. The film's message pits science against humanitarianism, making our 'hero' begin to resemble a proto- Ayn Rand type. 1
With its great performances and literary pedigree, Goldwyn and Ford's film was nominated for four Oscars including best picture. But the Production Code showed little respect for such things. Eleven minutes may have been removed from the film after the Code was enforced. Even with certain sections restored the show has continuity issues, which may or may not be due to censorship.
Promising medical student Martin Arrowsmith (Ronald Colman) is an ideal candidate for medical research. But he must turn down a chance to work at New York's prestigious McGurk Institute with his mentor 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 South Dakota, but he's encourged by the advice of touring lecturer Gustav Sondelius (Richard Bennett). When Martin's tinkering creates a serum to cure a livestock disease, he earns a ticket back to a good research job back with his mentor in New York. After a couple years, he makes a big breakthrough only to be "scooped" by Louis Pasteur. Humiliated by the McGurk Institute's premature publicity, Martin then takes a dangerous trip to St. Hubert in the Caribbean, where a runaway plague offers an opportunity to perform experimental serum trials. Leora refuses to stay behind, and once the island he keeps her away from the main area of contagion... a bad decision. To prove that his anti-plague serum is effective, Martin must do an experiment in which he gives the medicine to only half of the people at risk. When the local authorities block Martin's way, a local Doctor Marchand (Clarence Brooks) offers his village to serve as the first test subjects: half serum, half placebo.
The great actress Helen Hayes didn't make very many movies, and she and Ronald Colman make a compelling screen couple. She's scrubbing a floor when they meet and their wedding ceremony is a depressing visit to a city clerk's office. Hayes's Leora gives up nursing to be a full-time wife, and no mention is ever made of it again. Perhaps it's for the best, as Leora's later behavior around vials of deadly plague suggest that she paid no attention in her nursing classes. The glamorous Myrna Loy makes an interesting appearance, but her scenes in the movie may have been minimized by the Production Code censors. More on this a bit later.
The story's social criticism has been redirected as a sentimental drama. Screenwriter Sidney Howard also adapted Sinclair Lewis's celebrated book Dodsworth for the stage, and then for Goldwyn and director William Wyler. As originally conceived, the idealistic Martin Arrowsmith character is a flawed man who makes big mistakes at every step of his life. The elegant actor Ronald Colman easily conveys Martin's idealism, but always seems incapable of taking a misstep. His voice alone evokes high moral values.
John Ford's personal preferences weigh heavily on the film. A superfluous pioneer prologue has been retained from the novel seemingly because Ford liked such material. The director displays his talent for expressive compositions but he doesn't seem engaged with Sinclair Lewis's ideas about the state of modern medicine. The movie reverts to the cliché that doctors are sacred individuals holding the power of life and death, and that the vocation elevates them above common men. The sentimentalist Ford commonly depicts doctors as priest-like characters and/or happy drunks for comic effect. Martin Arrowsmith is instead put on a pedestal. When inspired he's like a mad doctor, working alone without sleep or food. The message is that scientists must deny their humanity if they wish to achieve great breakthroughs.
Martin Arrowsmith must choose a rural private practice because entry-level research work won't let him support his new wife in the city. Both the book and film of Arrowsmith preach that the noble calling of medical researcher is incompatible with a normal home life, ideas that now seem silly. The obvious solution is for Leora continue to work after marriage, but most movies treated that option as unthinkable. Today, of course, audiences might also ask why Martin doesn't take a living-wage job to allow Leora to pursue the vocation of her dreams.
Arrowsmith's sojourn as a country doctor is treated as a waste of his talent. His bumpkin patients are not worthy of him, even though John Ford is at his best when directing the farmers. One is played by John Qualen, who does the "Yumpin' yiminy' Swedish immigrant act favored in Ford's later The Grapes of Wrath and The Searchers. Ford also seems to like the colorful Gustav Sondelius (Richard Bennett), a hard-drinking, fraud-debunking Swedish scientist. Arrowsmith's other role model Professor Gottlieb (A.E. Anson) is a drier academic with no bad habits; Ford shows little interest in him.
The book had more to say about doctors and research institutes that put profit ahead of progress, but in the film we're not exactly sure why the McGurk institute stifles Martin's work. A brilliant breakthrough is ruined when Martin's boss releases a silly news blurb about a panacea that will "end all disease forever." None of this is very convincing; John Ford just rushes through it.
Even more troubling is the movie's wrongheaded view of clinical trials. I should think that concept of dividing test subjects into two groups, those that receive the drug and the "controls" that don't, would have been around a lot earlier than 1925. Martin and Professor Sondelius go to the West Indies to fight the terrible plague, but also to get conclusive proof that Martin's new serum works, that it can be mass-produced for use against the plague in the future. Why is the wholesale distribution of an unproven serum considered a good idea in the first place? To heighten the drama, the screenplay has Martin propose his research idea to the local authorities in ridiculously harsh terms. When Martin insists that half the population will be "sternly denied" the serum, it sounds like he wants to commit medical murder. In reality, only a limited number of test subjects (100? 200?) would be needed for the test.
Arrowsmith makes medical research seem a callous use of humans as guinea pigs. The patients are lined up with the instruction that half will be "sternly denied" the (unproven) life-giving medicine. All the whites are in the serum line, including the attractive Joyce Lanyon (Myrna Loy), who makes an immediate personal impression on Martin. The fact that the experimental subjects are mostly black also gives the process a nasty racial aspect. Educated at Howard University, the black Dr. Marchand knows the value of Arrowsmith's research. We're supposed to be pleased when he humbly volunteers 'his people' for the serum trials. It's far too obvious that the film believes that the Negro lives are less valuable than the whites. Except for Dr. Marchand, the black islanders are fearful primitives incapable of dealing with adult matters. This is supposed to be the multicultural Caribbean, but in its visuals and attitudes the movie makes us think more of Heart of Darkness.(spoilers)
The film's lack of sophistication (or its capitulation to the demands of the Southern movie market) become more clear when Martin goes off to tend to the natives in the sticks, leaving his adoring wife behind in the port city. She stays hidden in a 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. Director Ford applies some Murnau-like expressionist imagery to the scenes of Leora ill and delirious. She reaches toward a blinding light that surely represents death. A sad shot from behind an armchair would be repeated and refined in Ford's later The Long Gray Line.(more spoilers)
The movie expands the plague episode and drops the book's entire last section dealing with Martin Arrowsmith's marriage to Myrna Loy's Joyce Lanyon. The screenplay compensates by making the attractive Joyce character into a jungle temptation for Martin, setting up a potential romantic triangle. But Joyce has barely been introduced when the sequence abruptly ends. Later in New York, Joyce shows up to offer herself as a replacement for Leora, and then immediately exits. The flatly directed, unsatisfying reappearance makes it seem certain that something more must have transpired between Martin and Joyce back in the tropics. 2
At the finale Martin all but declares that romantic entanglements are incompatible with the noble call of scientific research. Joyce and Leora were disrupting influences that would waste Martin's scientific energy. Both the book and the movie send the message that scientists need to be uncompromised by common emotional entanglements that might divert their attention or warp their judgment.
Despite its Academy honors and glowing reputation Arrowsmith just doesn't seem to have been the kind of subject to fire John Ford's imagination. Ronald Colman and Helen Hayes are charming, Richard Bennett's Scandinavian doctor is an interesting character and Myrna Loy is barely in the picture. The Pre-Code controversy and dated attitudes will make Arrowsmith more interesting to viewers aware of the great Sinclair Lewis, who turned down his Pulitzer but a few years later accepted a Nobel Prize for Literature. 3
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Arrowsmith is essentially a re-issue of an old MGM Home Video release from 2005; distribution of the Goldwyn library shifted between the companies several years back, and among the improved WB reissues are The Best Years of Our Lives and Stella Dallas. I was able to access the old disc for a comparison, as to better advise disc buyers whether the new title is worth getting. The new disc looks a little better, less washed out, but overall I'd have to say that it could very well be the same master with a slight adjustment during the encoding.
Other incidentals are consistent. The chapter stops are in the same places on both discs. The new disc has English subtitles, too, which for a WAC disc can sometimes indicate a pre-existing master. It's good to have Arrowsmith back in circulation again. I enjoyed studying the scenes between Ronald Colman and Myrna Loy, trying to decide if their faces gave clues to a possible censored love affair.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Part of this comes from the book, in which the hero's mentor proposes a new Presidential Cabinet post called the "Secretary of Health and Eugenics". A similar novel about medical ethics, 1937's The Citadel, was made into a film and directed by King Vidor. Vidor also directed the Ayn Rand crackpot lecture movie The Fountainhead.
2. According to TCM host John Osborne, Myrna Loy said that John Ford arbitrarily dropped a lot of Loy's scenes to speed up the filming. Is this true, and the longer 110-minute cut is a myth? In the 99-minute cut, almost all of Loy's scenes are the 'restored' footage of lesser quality.
The photo on the left shows Colman posing with Loy, who is wearing the thin nightgown we see Joyce laying on the bed when Martin is in the next room, staring at the light from under her doorway. The publicity-oriented photo doesn't prove that the characters actually get together like this in a cut scene.
3. Sinclair Lewis's political satire It Can't Happen Here (1935) depicts a Fascist takeover of the United States, and was reportedly written to subvert a possible 1936 Presidential bid by the populist demagogue Huey Long. I'm assuming that it was the source of the title for the fascinating Kevin Brownlow / Andrew Mollo 'negative subjunctive' political Sci-fi war movie It Happened Here.
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T'was Ever Thus.