#42 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
It’s interesting to note movies that were nominated for Best Picture from decades past. Occasionally you’ll find something like Citizen Kane, but most of the time the also rans are simply forgotten (sometimes even the winners). Arrowsmith is one such movie. Quite popular in its day, it’s been overshadowed mightily by other Ford films and lost to Grand Hotel at the Oscars. Looking at the film almost 90 years after the fact, it’s clear to me that Arrowhead is a perfectly respectable film, a sanitized adaptation of the book by Sinclair Lewis, the sort of seemingly challenging entertainment that challenges not all that much but makes the audience feel good for the attempt.
There’s a choppiness to the first act or so of the film, and that feeling starts at the film’s very opening. We get a quick look at a wagon train and a young woman driving her horses onward with big words about moving forward and starting a new life out West. This is our main character’s grandmother, and…she’s never mentioned again. Then we move to our main character named Martin Arrowsmith as a child with his father telling him that he will grow up to be a great doctor, and…we’re off to our main characters as a young man and medical student, now played by Ronald Colman. He marches into the office of the esteemed researcher Professor Max Gottlieb (A.E. Anson), telling him that he will be a great researcher one day, and…we skip ahead to Arrowsmith being a research assistant to Gottlieb and running into the pretty nurse Leora (Helen Hayes). They very quickly court and marry, and…Arrowsmith gives up his research career to go with Helen back to her home in South Dakota where he will become a country doctor. Keep in mind, we’re about ten minutes into this movie.
The only major behind the scenes information I’ve seen about this film is that John Ford got the job from the producer Samuel Goldwyn by promising to stay off the drink for the shoot which led to Ford getting through the shoot as quickly as possible, cutting scenes left and right he didn’t consider absolutely essential to the plot. I have to wonder if that set of actions on Ford’s part contributed to the staccato nature of the opening scenes.
Anyway, once in South Dakota, things settle down into a story, and the film goes from being in a rush to finding the right kind of tempo for the film. Life in the small town is dull for a great mind, and Arrowsmith ends up inserting himself into a bovine question. There is a disease affecting a local farmer’s cows, and the state’s veterinary specialist is offering up a cocktail of a solution that doesn’t seem to have any effect. Arrowsmith, partly out of boredom and partly because he’s a natural researcher, looks into the solution, finds it lacking, and comes up with his own that he promptly tests on the cows. He only gives his own creation to half the cows, saving them while the other half die in confirmation of his hypothesis about the efficacy of his work. To the farmer, who is happy to have at least some of his herd still living, it’s a bit of a cold comfort to know that Arrowsmith’s solution was what really saved half of his herd instead of being unsure with the entirety of it, but, as Arrowsmith says, that’s how one does science and research. There must be a control group.
With that under his belt, Arrowsmith heads back to the city and Gottlieb’s laboratory to do his own research, eventually coming up with a solution that seems to kill any germ without harming the patient. Careful research must be done, though, and when the head of the research institute, Dr. Tubbs (Claude King), lets it be known to the press of his miracle cure Arrowsmith is nothing but angry because too much has been assumed. An outbreak of the bubonic plague in the West Indies, though, allows Arrowsmith to apply his research in a practical environment.
He takes Leora, and they’re off. There’s a literary aspect to how the film is constructed that most likely comes from its actual literary origins. The replication of the aspects of research that he had followed in South Dakota must be followed in the West Indies, but this time with people instead of cows. This is where the movie gains a new aspect and a depth that the first two-thirds of the movie had been setting up, even with its abbreviated opening. The moral questions weighing down on Arrowsmith are quite interesting to watch as the well-written character, a man of ideals who is being challenged on those ideals themselves, wrangles with his conscience. A key death sends him into a drunken stupor and has him giving up on his ideals to do what he sees as right.
Now, when I said that the film feels sanitized, it’s because of Myrna Loy’s character, Joyce. She’s an inhabitant of the West Indies, and it’s obvious, even without having read that Arrowsmith is a womanizer in novel form, that there’s supposed to be a romance here. Even pre-Code, Ford found it hard to include an adulterous affair in a film, and anything around it that got shot was cut to the point where Joyce is a pretty face introduced late in the film. There’s something missing here, and it would probably have helped the film a bit to actually have that bit in instead of out.
The cast is a professional lot, doing quality work. Led by Colman who throws himself into the part whether it requires taciturn contemplation or drunken revelry, they carry the film well. It’s interesting to note that Loy gives a solid if limited performance as Joyce, purely because of the stilted nature of her performance in Ford’s previous film The Black Watch.
A staccato opening and sterilized ending don’t help the film, but in between there’s a solid look at a scientist who develops an ideal and must referee the fight between the ideal and reality. Well filmed and well acted, it’s a good film in Ford’s very busy 1930s output.