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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".
The fact that an idealistic medical doctor was the protagonist in
Arrowsmith is the reason why John Ford must have been attracted to this
story and agreed to film it for Sam Goldwyn.
Allegedly it was not a happy collaboration. Two very individualistic men wanted to have their imprimatur on the film. They never worked together on a finished product again, though Ford did start filming The Adventures of Marco Polo for Goldwyn and quit.
I read the novel way back in the day when I was in high school and we only get the second half of it. There's a great deal in the book before Ronald Colman as Martin Arrowsmith goes to work for the Research Foundation and A.E. Anson as Max Gottlieb. You miss quite a lot of the character development of Arrowsmith.
Of course the plot mostly centers on Colman and his other mentor, Richard Bennett going to a Caribbean Island where there has been an outbreak of plague. Along for the trip is Helen Hayes who is Colman's wife Leora.
Colman is there to test a new serum and he's under orders as a researcher to only administer the real stuff to half his patient and a placebo to the others as a control group. This is where the racism of the time kicks in as these human guinea pigs are black, probably the descendants of runaway slaves. There is a black doctor named Marchand in the cast played by Oliver Brooks and it is a rarity among black performers at the time in that the role was hardly servile at all. Brooks seems to go along with the controlled experiment, but he becomes one of many in the cast to meet a tragic end.
With some of what came out about the Tuskegee experiments later on Arrowsmith may have been quite on target without knowing it. A harrowing thought.
Colman and Hayes are an attractive pair of leads. Myrna Loy has a much abbreviated role in the film as a New York socialite that Colman meets down in the islands. In the book he has an affair with her and marries her later on. You won't see that here.
Arrowsmith is a good film though I wish more of Lewis's story got into the final product. But it probably would have run for three hours and films just didn't do that back then.
I am nearing 30 years old and just now beginning to appreciate old films. I absolutely loved Arrowsmith, cried through many scenes. I thought it was terribly romantic and tragic. I really liked the scene where he sees her scrubbing the floor and asks her out on a date. Then on the date he tells her that she is going to marry him and she pretends that she took him seriously (but seemed to be in shock that he was completely serious). Then throughout their married life it seems like one try after another with his career and then finally he decides to go back into scientific work with his old friend and mentor. Dr. Arrowsmith becomes so engrossed in his studies that he often neglects his wife, who is lonely and alone at home waiting for him. The ending, though tragic, is touching because of the last line that he says. It proves that he really deeply loved his wife...but you'll have to see this one to find out! It will be worth it to all you sappy romantics like me.
Goldwyn put together a lot of fine talent here, but none of it jells.
Ronald Colman, Laurence Olivier's idol and one of the screen's most likable actors, is just plain miscast. Helen Hayes projects annoyingly to the audience, stage fashion, rather than letting the camera discover her emotions, as even the young Myrna Loy knows how to do. Richard Bennett is enjoyably over-the-top as Sondelius but A. E. Anson's accent is a deal-breaker as Gottlieb (as if there weren't enough real Middle European actors in Hollywood at the time).
Sydney Howard's script is condensed to the point of silliness - the other reviewers here who contrast "Gone With the Wind" as a model of condensation are praising an uncredited Ben Hecht, not Sydney Howard. Ray June's fluid cinematography is beautiful throughout, with more than one shot that would wind up re-used in Ford's "The Searchers" many years later.
The story is that Goldwyn hired a bibulous Ford on condition that the director couldn't take one drink during production. Helen Hayes noticed that as the shoot progressed, Ford started discarding pages and then whole scenes, in a race to finish the film and get back to his booze. That may be one more reason that the film is barely coherent.
Hey, nobody's perfect all the time.
The student of medical school Martin Arrowsmith (Ronald Colman) dreams
on becoming a researcher. He seeks out Professor Max Gottlieb (A.E.
Anson) that promises the position when Arrowsmith is an undergraduate
doctor. Meanwhile Arrowsmith meets the nurse Leora (Helen Hayes) and
they fall in love with each other. When Prof. Gottlieb invites
Arrowsmith to work with him in New York, he declines since the salary
is not enough to support Leora and him. He marries Leora and becomes a
countryside doctor. After a while, the frustrated Arrowsmith decides to
move with Leora to New York to work with Gottlieb. Soon he is invited
to go to a Caribbean Island where there is an outbreak of bubonic
plague to test a serum he has developed in the population and Leora
decides to go with him despite the danger. Will Arrowsmith succeed in
saving the inhabitants?
"Arrowsmith" is a deceptive film directed by John Ford. The story seems to be incomplete missing explanation, for example, about Mrs. Joyce Lanyon, performed by the gorgeous Myrna Loy. The relationship between Arrowsmith and his wife is also underdeveloped. Ronald Colman is too old for the role of a young idealistic doctor. Maybe the viewer that has read the novel may like this film more than one that has never read it. Last but not the least, the Brazilian title is awful. My vote is five.
Title (Brazil): "Médico e Amante" ("Doctor and Lover")
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This film was actually nominated for four academy awards -
cinematography, art direction, adapted screenplay, and best picture.
Viewing it today, there are so many somewhat incomplete story lines and
messages present, I am somewhat unclear about the director's goal in
all of this. Sinclair Lewis' book, on which the film is based, goes
into great detail about the tribulations and triumphs of studying to be
a doctor and then practicing medicine back in the 1920's. It is just
impossible to convey all that goes on in the novel in one 108 minute
film. First of all, although young Dr. Arrowsmith comes across as an
admirable protagonist who doesn't lose his idealism through all of his
experiences, his character development and motivations are just not
fleshed out in the film, and thus he is left an unintended mystery. His
passion for medical research definitely shines through in Ronald
Coleman's performance, but I had many unanswered questions. The film
seems to imply that Arrowsmith is attracted to Myrna Loy's character
through one scene in particular in the film. Was this intentional? The
two have an affair in the novel, but if it is going to be omitted from
the film - and it is - what was that one scene doing there? Arrowsmith
talks a good game about loving his wife, but he seems to constantly
overlook her in his passion to find new cures for diseases. Is he
actually taking her for granted, or is this just a common attitude from
the past in which wives always took a back seat to their husbands'
careers? There is another whole part of the film that is quite
troubling to a modern audience. When Arrowsmith is sent to the
Caribbean to help fight the plague by testing his new serum, he is
instructed to basically do what today is called a double blind study.
He is to inject half the patients with his serum and the other half he
is to treat conventionally. Thus, it can be determined whether or not
the serum will be effective. When Arrowsmith presents his plan of
action to the local plague-ridden residents, the shocked citizenry deny
his help "in the name of humanity". However, a local black doctor,
Oliver Marchand, tells Arrowsmith that he knows of how he can
accomplish his goal - by experimenting on the black residents of the
island of course! To me, this was all too reminiscent of the Tuskegee
experiments and had a large Ick Factor to it.
I can't grade this film too severely since I have to take into account its year of production, the fact that dialogue had not become that sophisticated yet since talking pictures had only been universally accepted for about two years, and finally that a complex novel is being squeezed into just over an hour and a half. This film's value today is mainly as an example of one of the better transitional era talkies. Dialogue and acting were much more natural than they had been just a year or two prior to this film, but vast improvements, particularly in dialogue and technology, were just a couple of years away.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Based on Sinclair Lewis's novel, Dr. Martin Arrowsmith (played by
Ronald Coleman) suspends being a medical researcher to marry Leora
(played by Helen Hayes) and become a country doctor. After concocting a
remedy for cows suffering from blackleg, he returns to research.
It's a fluent story, supported by Ray June's felicitous dark cinematography and good performances. Coleman is appropriately earnest in his character's pursuit of ideals and Hayes, too, for her distressed and fragile character. The strife of Dr. Arrowsmith balancing home and work is the impetus here. Where Goldwyn, Ford and screenwriter Sidney Howard don't deserve any such best picture or adaptation Oscar nominations is when they fumble the ending.
Warning: Spoilers herein
I've seen worse, but the senselessness of the Hollywood contrivance of attempting a happy end after the four most important persons in Martin Arrowsmith's life just died still took me aback. It was done quickly and sloppily, too. Additionally, they should have dropped the character Joyce Lanyon (played by the lovely Myrna Loy). The movie began with, "the story of a man who dedicated his life to service and his heart to the love of one woman." Friendship is not all that is behind the relationship between Dr. Arrowsmith and Lanyon, or at least it wouldn't be. She crosses the globe to offer her friendship--he accepts and runs off with her and another researcher for who cares what other life.
Although the film has not aged well, "Arrowsmith" was well regarded
when it was released and garnered four Academy Award nominations
including Best Picture. Perhaps in those early days of sound, competent
use of the camera and decent recording equipment were regarded as high
values that merited praise. However, with the exception of some
occasionally striking cinematography by Ray June, this John Ford
adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel is choppy, unevenly acted, and
betrays its age.
Later in the 1930's, Sidney Howard adapted the sprawling historical novel "Gone with the Wind" into a fine screenplay that left viewers with the feeling that they had seen the entire book on screen. However, his adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize Winning "Arrowsmith" omits the core message of the novel and rushes through events in the life of Dr. Martin Arrowsmith in brief vignettes that leave viewers confused. Characters appear and disappear, decisions and moves are made without deliberation or motivation, and Arrowsmith himself comes off as a shallow individual with little regard for either those he supposedly loves or those he supposedly has dedicated his life to saving.
Ronald Colman is generally a fine actor, and his idealism in "Lost Horizon" appeared genuine. However, Colman's suggested idealistic behavior in "Arrowsmith" is not convincing, despite a few effective scenes towards the end of the film. Helen Hayes has a few good scenes as the doctor's wife, although Myrna Loy has little to do but look seductive, which she does quite well.
Unfortunately, the scenes in the Caribbean seem demeaning to the characters, and a local doctor's willingness to allow what is effectively experimentation on his fellow countrymen borders on the criminal. However, these attitudes were considered the norm when the film was made and should be viewed in the context of the period. Although most films seem far too long, "Arrowsmith" is much too short to convey the canvas that Lewis painted in his novel. Almost like a Clift Notes version of the book, John Ford's "Arrowsmith" disappoints, especially when the talent expended on its production is considered.
Arrowsmith is the big box office winner and well-reviewed movie of 1931 that made the NBR's ten best of the year and one of the big hits, that is top 20 of its year. An adaptation of that famous muckraker, Sinclair Lewis, at least it has made me curious to read the book upon which the movie is based, at least to find out if the theme is as muddled as this movie's theme is. First of all, what's there to like about this movie. The unstaginess and fluidity of the camera is almost ridiculous for a 1931 movie. In the early days of sound pictures through at least 1931, the camera did not move and most movies from back then feel extremely stagy. You ought to watch a big budget box office hit from the year before called Disraeli to ponder the nadir of such film-making. But the always reliable John Ford keeps the action flowing. The lack of studios sets and actual location filming especially in the boondocks is a nice change but Samuel Goldwyn was an independent producer not aligned with any studio. So this might explain that. Now, the problem is the always charming and debonair Englishman, Ronald Colman. For this fine actor and good line deliverer, this is not his finest hour at the least, especially a drunk to the point of going crazy scene which he just butchers and is a classic case of cringe-worthy acting. The plot as it is, appears to be pretty straightforward. Young doctor graduate, meets girl, falls in love, moves to small town to work for the people. Later, moves to big city, good old New York, where results and making the front page is a higher priority to serving science. But what exactly is wrong with the big hospitals with their corporate funding and what is the gain of being small as opposed to big is left unsatisfactorily explained. Instead we suffer through Hollywood melodrama as Helen Hayes suffers away as the good, supportive wife who pays the ultimate price for her man and dedication. Ford direction is crisp as always, especially a scene in the Caribbean Islands where he builds slow tension with exquisite lighting and framing as only John Ford can. the funny thing is I could see similarities btw the world of scientific research that is presented in this 30's movie and today's current health world we live in, so it is not outdated. Just sloppily put together in a fashion that leaves one seeking clarity and resulting in lack of resonance with this viewer.
Ronald Colman is dreadfully miscast, and far too old. He is supposed to be in his early twenties. At least as a teenager starting college Ford had the good idea of showing only the back of his head throughout a long scene, but the result is dreadful, particularly as a middle- aged voice is coming out of this first year student's invisible face. Gary Cooper, who played opposite Helen Hayes the following year in Farewell to Arms would have saved this movie, for me. I didn't believe Ronald Colman in many scenes. He seemed to be giving awkward readings of his lines. And the part where he is meant to be laughing in drunken despair is cringe- worthy. The final shot just looks as if he is stepping up to his mark in the studio with no intention of going any further, which is of course what he is doing, but it really looks as if it is what he is doing. This is Ford as the sorcerer's apprentice, making a frightful mess with his wands, before he mastered the art of miracle-making. The high points for me were those strong shots of Helen Hayes and a cane chair, earlier with a cigarette and later an open door, reminding me of the famous open door in The Searchers. But this clearly touched enough people in the Academy to be up for best picture of 1931. So a must for Oscar completest and a chance to see Helen Hayes in action during the early thirties. Also Myrna Loy, quietly choosing sexy clothing in her bedroom is a visual feast. And it's always nice to see Ronald Colman, even though he seems to have uncharacteristically failed to engage with his character for most of this rather clunky story.
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