Beginning in November 2019, I embarked on the Old Hollywood Best Picture Challenge, where I will endeavor to watch all 270 films that were nominated and/or won for Best Picture at the Academy Awards between the years 1927-1969. For a list of all films and reviews, please see my original post.

*****

  • Film & Year: Arrowsmith (1931)
  • Standing: Nominated Best Picture of 1931/1932
  • Type: Drama, Pre-Code
  • Other AA Nominations: Best Writing Adaptation (Sidney Howard), Best Cinematography (Ray June), Best Art Direction (Richard Day)
  • Other AA Wins: 0
  • Director: John Ford
  • Studio/Producer: United Artists / Samuel Goldwyn Productions
  • Cast: Ronald Colman, Helen Hayes, Richard Bennett, Myrna Loy, Clarence Brooks, A. E. Anson
  • Production Notes: Music by Alfred Newman, Cinematography by Ray June, Art Direction by Richard Day, Written by Sidney Howard based on Sinclair Lewis’ novel by the same name
  • Viewing Order: 24 / 270

Arrowsmith_poster

 

Summary & Viewing Experience:

Martin Arrowsmith is a young medical student (and to believe this, you must believe in the acting ability of Ronald Colman, who was all of 40 when playing him) who has dreams of being a research scientist in the medical field like his idol Dr. Max Gottlieb (A.E. Anson). The older doctor advises him to go all in in his medical studies and then come back to him for guidance. A few scenes to follow show him doing just that:

Arrowsmith delivers a baby then emerges from the room to tell the father and is greeted by an absolute flood of cigarette smoke from the men who have naturally gathered around for a poker game while the women do all of the work on the other side of the door. It makes you want to grab your rosary beads and say…

When ambling around the hospital, he finds young nurse Leora (Helen Hayes) camped out in the middle of the floor scrubbing it frantically, something she is clearly not keen to do by her surly gaze at the massive pool of water threatening to saturate her skirts. Still, he finds it good timing to interrupt her to ask for directions, then, with all of the arrogance he earned along with his degree, snaps when she doesn’t get up that “the first duty of a nurse is to stand when she speaks to a doctor” and threatens to report her. I’ve met this type before and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t desperately wishing for Barbara Stanwyck’s character in Night Nurse to come sweeping through ward 7 on the wings of the Hippocratic Oath and pop him one. Alas, Helen Hayes was built for being on the wrong end of a drama and so apologizes for her freshness and rebellion (Leora, no!). This show of submission of course endears her to Arrowsmith and he asks her for a date.

On this, their first date, Arrowsmith asks Leora, a woman who he’s known for a few hours at most, to marry him (Leora, no!). Leora is a bit hesitant, but replies, “I guess you’re pretty pigheaded and self-centered, aren’t you? But I like you so much I’d be a fool to pass you up.” True love, of course. She wants to set the mood and play soft music so turns on, of all things, the William Tell Overture in all of its frantic excellence, comically (and apparently unintentionally) drowning out the romance of the remainder of the scene.

After graduating, Arrowsmith turns down the job as Dr. Gottlieb’s research assistant since he now has to support a wife. Instead, the newlyweds head to Leora’s rural hometown which is in desperate need of a doctor. There Leora shows some of the gumption that she claimed she had, but we hadn’t actually seen in her to date. She sasses her parents into giving Arrowsmith a loan, rebelliously smokes cigarettes, and perilously stands on piles of books in her heels to hang curtains in Arrowsmith’s new doctor’s office. Arrowsmith soon distinguishes himself as the town doctor, but is still more inclined towards the scientific and develops a serum to help cure a disease killing off his neighbors’ cows. Eventually, he grows restless and goes back to work with former mentor, Dr. Gottlieb, who pegs him as the right man to send to the West Indies to help find a cure for the bubonic plague there. Going with him are the faithful Leora and fellow scientist Gustav Sondelius (Richard Bennett). There, Arrowsmith and Sondelius receive pushback from the leaders there about being able to test their findings on the inhabitants, so Dr. Oliver Marchand (Clarence Brooks) offers a group from his island. Among them is Mrs. Joyce Lanyon (Myrna Loy), who develops a crush on Arrowsmith.

With a plague wreaking havoc on the island, no one is safe, and it’s up to Arrowsmith to save them!

The film is many things, a PSA for not smoking being one of them, but exciting it is not. Ronald Colman and Helen Hayes do their best. Richard Bennett does a Swedish accent. Myrna Loy does…well, not much except flirt halfheartedly and play up her whiteness. I would like to hope that this film inspired many girls and boys to go into science and medicine, but Arrowsmith makes it all look so absurdly effortless that they would doubtless be disappointed at the actual amount of work required.

Screen Shot 2020-03-18 at 8.17.43 PM
Hayes and Colman

Behind the Scenes:

In the book, Arrowsmith eventually marries Myrna Loy’s character, though in the film she is reduced to not much more than a tempting blip.

Why was it nominated for Best Picture?

Most critics found a film like this, without the typical villains and long played out love story, refreshing. The film was often called intelligent and, though probably not so appealing to the young crowd of moviegoers or the masses, earned a feather in the cap of Hollywood for producing more than just pie in the face fare. It was exactly the type of movie the Academy was keen to honor to bolster their credibility. So, naturally!

How does it hold up today?

Not well. At all. Even with the parallels between Arrowsmith’s bubonic plague and the global COVID-19 pandemic the world is facing now, Arrowsmith’s lightning fast development and production of life saving serum, as portrayed in the film, seems unrealistic at best. Though I wouldn’t want to sit through an additional hour showing him conducting tests and trials, perhaps at least some of that could have been expressed without making it seem like he blinked and a serum appeared.

Also, the portrayal of male vs female roles in this film is horribly dated to the point of being cringeworthy. While I understand the “sign of the times” and all, it’s still not terribly pleasant to watch.

The one aspect that does hold up and is pleasantly surprising is the portrayal of a black character, the Howard University educated Dr. Marchand, played by black actor Clarence Brooks. Unlike most black characters of the time, Marchand is portrayed as educated, well-dressed, well-spoken, and treated with respect and on equal footing as his white peers. Brooks himself was an advocate for these types of roles for black actors, being one of the founders of The Lincoln Motion Picture Company, whose goal was to make films depicting true and realistic portrayals of African Americans [1].

From its release until now, Arrowsmith seems to be a film that critics and high brow audiences seem to enjoy much more than the general public.

  • IMDb rating= 6.2 out of 10 (with 1,389 ratings)
  • Rotten Tomatoes rating= 89% fresh by critics (8 fresh votes vs 1 rotten) and 40% fresh user ratings (out of 315 ratings)

 

Would this be my pick for 1931/1932 Best Picture?

No chance. In fact, I can hear it sliding towards the bottom as we speak.

*UPDATE: See my full 1931/1932 ranking here

*****

Sources:

  1. Black Cinema Connection