With the recent outbreak of the Ebola virus dominating the news this Pre-Code film is timelier than ever. Independently produced by Samuel Goldwyn and directed by John Ford, Arrowsmith (1931) stars Ronald Colman as Dr. Martin Arrowsmith, a young doctor whose talents in the field of medical research lead him to discover the cure for bubonic plague.
|Helen Hayes and Ronald Colman|
Arrowsmith is taken under the wing of Professor Max Gottlieb (A.E. Anson) who becomes his mentor and a major influence in his education as well as his ethics. He starts off as a doctor in a New York City hospital. It’s here that he meets nurse Leora (Helen Hayes). They have a whirlwind romance, elope – much to the distress of her parents – and relocate to South Dakota. Arrowsmith supports his growing family with a job as a small-town doctor. They're happy for a while but things soon change. Arrowsmith’s talents bring him back to the big city when his cure for a cattle disease demonstrates that his skills are needed for the greater advancement of medical science.
|Arrowsmith at his lab|
He returns to McGuirk, a major lab made up of scientists including Prof. Gottlieb, and discovers the cure for bubonic plague. Scientist Gustav Sondelius (Richard Bennett) sees the effects of the bubonic plague and encourages Arrowsmith to the West Indies where the plague is prevalent. Leora, unable to give Arrowsmith a child after her miscarriage, devotes herself to Arrowsmith. He often neglects her but relies on her unyielding devotion. They travel together to the West Indies for Arrowsmith’s experiment.
|Arrowsmith's trusty Microscope|
To prove his serum can cure bubonic plague, Arrowsmith plans to use it on half of the infected people and compare the results with the other half. While beneficial for the advancement of medical research, this brings up ethical and moral issues. Who is to be saved and who is not?
|Arrowsmith presents his plan to doctors in the West Indies|
Things get more complicated when scientist Sondelius gets sick, Leora becomes a victim of circumstance and the beautiful Joyce (Myrna Loy) catches Arrowsmith’s eye.
|Myrna Loy as Mrs. Joyce Lanyon|
The screen play was adapted by Sidney Howard and based on the 1925 novel by Sinclair Lewis. For accuracy in his depictions of science and medical research, Lewis relied on his adviser Dr. Paul de Kruif . Lewis was awarded with the Pulitzer Prize the following year but refused to accept the honor.
The film is choppy. The first 30 minutes are dreadfully slow and linger far too long on the small-town portion of the story. As soon as the Sondelius character enters the story the pace of the plot quickens. He moves the story out of New York City and into the West Indies where the true drama takes hold. Director John Ford as been pinpointed as the source of the film's unevenness. According to Joseph McBride, author of Searching For John Ford: A Life:
“At Sam Goldwyn’s request, Ford made a written pledge not to drink during the shooting of Arrowsmith. It was a telling sign of Ford’s malaise in this period that a studio chief had to enforce a discipline Ford normally was able to impose on himself. Ford’s unhappiness and distraction while making Arrowsmith was reflected in its extreme stylistic unevenness, its highly episodic nature, and its schizoid variations in mood.”
Ford also had issues with actress Helen Hayes. They had a love-hate relationship and some of her scenes were put on the back burner or were hastily put together. Ford was loaned out from Fox by independent producer Samuel Goldwyn who fired him for not keeping his sobriety contract. He was then fired from Fox. Fortunately, Ford was re-hired by Fox a couple years later.
|Clarence Brooks as Dr. Oliver Marchand|
At first the wealthy patriarch of the island is reluctant to allow his mansion to be used as a makeshift hospital. However, he and his family, including his guest Joyce (Myrna Loy), befriend Dr. Arrowsmith and help him in his efforts to eradicate the bubonic plague. In one telling scene, the family lines up with the natives to receive their serum. They don’t cut the line or use their status to get any special treatment.
Myrna Loy’s character Joyce was mostly edited out of the film to appease code regulations. Although this is a Pre-Code, filmmakers still had to be cautious. It’s only suggested that Joyce and Arrowsmith have an extra-marital affair. It’s clear that Joyce lusts for him but they are careful to portray Arrowsmith as only mildly interested. Morality and ethics play a key role in the film. The administration at the McGuirk lab demonstrate greed for fame and recognition when they are quick to publicize Arrowsmith’s work even before it’s put to the test. Characters struggle with the dilemma between what is good for humanity versus what is good for science.
The lighting and cinematography in this film are absolutely stunning. I love the use of light and shadow.
|Leora (Helen Hayes) and the unfortunate cigarette|
Doors are very symbolic in this film. The opening and closing of doors represent passage of time, opportunity waiting on the other side and the advancement of Arrowsmith’s career. Doors separate the sick from the healthy. They separate chaos from calm.
I would be remiss not to point out the lovely Art Deco sets used for the McGuirk lab. Art Deco is used to represent opulence and coldness which mirror the qualities of the McGuirk enterprise.
The film was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Writing, Adaptation (Sidney Howard), Best Cinematography (Ray June) and Best Art Direction (Richard Day).
Arrowsmith (1931) is available from Warner Archive on DVD-MOD. You can also purchase it from the TCM Shop.
Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. I received Arrowsmith (1931) from Warner Archive for review.