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Josef von Sternberg
Anna May Wong
Ronald Colman was 40 when he took on the role of the idealistic young student doctor, Martin Arrowsmith. See more »
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Reasonably good acting, but Sinclair Lewis should have sued
Sinclair Lewis wrote ARROWSMITH in 1923, after the first two of his blockbuster novels that dissected American Society (MAIN STREET and BABBITT). Lewis decided to make a complete study about the medical profession. As such it was brilliant - far more brilliant than this movie is. If one can think of the novel as what it is - an expose about what is wrong concerning the medical profession - the novel is a glass of fine champagne, and this movie version is a glass of lemonade! Lewis takes us along the entire career of Martin Arrowsmith - through medical school, through practice in a small town, through his marriage to Leora Tozer, through his going to the big city (New York) where he is connected to a large, well-known Foundation, to his battling the plague (and losing his wife and his co-worker), and his finally coming to terms with what he wants from his profession. For the key to the novel is that medicine is extremely lucrative, but Martin is very idealistic. He does not seek riches, but wants to help his fellow man.
The problem, as the film proceeds, is that the people who run or control the profession (or society, for that matter) can care less for the idealistic goal. For one reason or another they want results that are pragmatic or banal. For example, one would think that the Foundation (a swipe at the Rockefeller Foundation, by the way) would be really gung ho about an idealistic medical researcher. They certainly have the laboratories and talent for real progress. But they also have a strong desire for immediate results that can be used for propaganda purposes. So they keep pushing aside certain desires for private testing that Arrowsmith and his mentor Max Gottlieb (A.E. Anson) are requesting on the bubonic plague serum. The director of the foundation insists that Arrowsmith goes to a plague saturated island with his co-discoverer, for immediate SUCCESSFUL results. This leads to massive tragedy in the novel and the film.
This doesn't come across too clearly in the film. Instead it looks like Martin (Colman) would like more time to test, but the emergency prevents it. This weakens the novel's criticism. And this is not the only example.
When Martin starts out in the small town, the local medical community has this idiot running it who knows squat about modern medicine, but is great at self-advertising. The man, who looks like Theodore Roosevelt, thinks that the height of local medical activity is running a "health day" parade. This too is not in the movie.
The film, in short, short-changes Lewis's wonderful novel. In fact, more of the spirit of Lewis's attack can be found in the Robert Donat - Rosalind Russell - Ralph Richardson film THE CITADEL (based on an A. J. Cronin expose novel). That's rough, considering how important the critique by Lewis really was.
The film's cast gives it their all, particularly Helen Hayes (still the young actress who won her first Oscar that same year for THE SIN OF MADELON CLAUDETTE), Myrna Loy (in a heavily cut role) and Colman. John Ford's directing was somewhat mediocre in this film, unlike later works of his. So I give it a "6" out of "10".
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