George and Catherine Apley of Boston lead a proper life in the proper social circle, as did the Apleys before them. When grown daughter Eleanor falls in love with Howard (from New York!), ... See full summary »
Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Even though only around a third of John Ford's pictures are westerns, it's still undeniable that his forte or, if you prefer, his comfort zone was in historical pictures of some sort. Arrowsmith is unusual in that it is a contemporary drama that Ford both directed and co-produced.
In spite of the above, you might think this was indeed a western from the opening scene, in which we see an ancestor of the protagonist as a good ol' covered wagon pioneer. This bit of family history is not brought up again, but it was obviously judged by Ford and Sam Goldwyn to be significant enough to open the film with, even though it would have been one of the most expensive scenes of the shoot (unless that opening shot is lifted from somewhere else, which it may well be). The point seems to be to draw a line between the struggles of the pioneers and the main story of a medical scientist torn between his home life and his career. It seems a rather tenuous comparison.
On the other hand, there could be parallels between Dr Arrowsmith and a typical Fordian westerner. Not in the character as written – I'm no auteur theorist – but in the way Ford shoots their environments. In the majority of Ford films he exaggerates the smallness of interiors and the vastness of exteriors. The homestead is safe, yet dull, and the great outdoors is exciting yet dangerous. The village where Arrowsmith practices as a country doctor is shot in much the same way as Ford would a western settlement – cramped interiors, foreground clutter and heavy use of framing. However the medical research centre, while it may be another interior, is shot so as to show off its openness and stark cleanliness, with corridors and waiting rooms so vast they look almost surreal. This is Arrowsmith's "wild west", where he is free to be a pioneer of another sort. Another tenuous comparison? Maybe, but remember directors have many choices of how to shoot a place, regardless of the script or the set design, and these choices will reflect how they view that space and what they feel it means to the story.
While Ford's use of space developed incredibly early on, the camera movement at this stage is not yet of the "invisible camera" technique that later became his standard. For those that don't know, invisible camera means you only move the camera when it's following an action, say for example a character walking to the other end of the room. If everyone in the scene is sitting still, the camera sits still. If it's done properly the audience doesn't notice the camera movement, hence "invisible camera". And yet here there is rather a lot of obtrusive camera movement. This is pretty much in line with the general style of the time, in spite of the myth that cameras were immobilised in the early sound era. Despite a few teething problems that were mostly solved by the end of 1929, cameras of the early talkies zipped around just as giddily of those of the late silents.
Ford is not known to have given his actors much coaching, nor allow them rehearsals or repeated takes to hone their performance. For this reason the acting in his pictures tends to be only as good as the raw talent of the performers. Ronald Coleman and Helen Hayes were both good dramatic actors, and here they give good – but not outstanding – dramatic performances. Richard Bennett however just gives a fairly standard, slightly comical supporting-player performance as Sondelius, and the part should either have been cast differently or he should have been prompted to play it with more conviction.
The story goes that the hard-drinking Ford was contracted by Goldwyn to remain teetotal until the production wrapped. Apparently Ford, eager to get back to the bottle, rushed the shooting even more than usual, tearing pages out of the script wherever he could get away with it. Whether this is true or just another bit of Ford mythology, it certainly makes sense. In particular the love story, crucial to the picture's impact, is massively underdeveloped. Downplaying the romantic angle is actually very typical of Ford, but even the usual Fordian semi-improvised comedy diversions are absent – with the exception of a couple of nice gags in a scene where a boy has his tooth pulled, and an almost surreal moment where a comedy drunk inexplicably wanders on and off the set. The resultant picture is full of great moments, but overall seems a little undernourished. Arrowsmith could have been an intense and poignant drama, but Ford was the wrong man for the job.
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