Arrowsmith (1931)

Director: John Ford
Screenwriter: Sidney Howard
Adapted from: Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis
Cast: Ronald Colman, Helen Hayes, Richard Bennett, A.E. Anson, Clarence Brooks, Myrna Loy
Nominations: Picture, Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction

The story of a man who dedicated his life to service
and his heart to the love of one woman.

Where yesterday’s film dealt more with the practical aspects of researching how to fight and prevent disease, today’s film approaches the same topic with a more idealistic and humanistic perspective.  Of course, the based-upon-a-real-person Louis Pasteur comes with more name recognition, historical significance, and respect than the fictional Martin Arrowsmith, so leeway can be given to The Story of Louis Pasteur’s more clinical narrative.  Arrowsmith, on the other hands, needs more of an introduction and inspection for him to earn our admiration—and earn it he does.

Based upon the 1925 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Sinclair Lewis, Arrowsmith follows the medical career and personal life of Martin Arrowsmith.  He’s a determined, ambitious, and intellectual man eager to help mankind with scientific research than by practicing medicine.  The novel’s Arrowsmith is more flawed than his cinematic counterpart—on the page, Arrowsmith is a womanizing egomaniac who has several affairs and belittles others he sees as inferior, while on the screen he is a faithful, caring, hero-doctor—which is an interesting change given the film was a Pre-Code Hollywood production.  That change, however, gives us a protagonist we feel more comfortable rooting for: in the film, it’s Arrowsmith’s love for his wife Leora that keeps us invested in him as he remains hyper-focused on conducting his research. 

Then again, Ronald Coleman’s sensitive, subtle performance probably would have been enough for us to forgive Arrowsmith’s romantic transgressions.  Coleman’s Arrowsmith is at constant odds with his career choices, so had he been given an inability to maintain a stable, happy marriage, it would have made sense for the character: when he struggles in one area of life, he tries to make up for it in another.  That choice, however, would have made Helen Hayes’s portrayal of Leora as grounded and dutiful less impressive because she would have been a put-upon wife and we would be constantly questioning her devotion to such a lecher.  Even the single scene that hints at a possible adulterous liaison is left (narratively) open-ended.

The shot of Arrowsmith in his room are visually exciting, as Oscar-nominated cinematographer Ray June uses powerful mood-inducing chiaroscuro lighting later popularized in 1940s film noir.  Employing a technique heavily associated with another genre is bound to evoke some of that genre’s tropes: Arrowsmith’s struggle to cure the islanders now has an underlying of cynicism and fatalism; his frustrations with conducting his experiment and losing his colleagues transposes to his sexual frustrations with being away from his wife.  Crosscut his shot with those of Joyce (Myrna Loy) in her room, laying out her nightgown on the bed, and the tension between the characters becomes almost unbearable.

In addition to the lighting, a symbolic motif seen throughout the film shows up in the scene to indicate Arrowsmith’s infidelity: sitting represents death.

Arrowsmith is undoubtedly a workaholic.  For him, any loss of momentum means a loss of work and a loss of potential progress.  He turns his kitchen into a makeshift lab when working on the blackleg vaccine, refusing to make room on the stovetop so Leora can make a decent supper.  When he discovers dead bacteria in a flask, he works “all night long, two nights, a couple of weeks” to figure out why they died.  Rest is death.

It’s a strong theme that when combined with the symbolism of sitting makes the ambiguous fade out of the above scene more conclusive.  The scenes that follow involve two characters succumbing to the very disease Arrowsmith is trying to treat: his sitting and taking time away from his task brings the death of not only those characters but his fidelity to Leora as well.  Later, when defending his decision to end his experiment and instead vaccinate everyone on the island to his mentor, Dr. Gottlieb, the elder suffers a stroke.  While not dead, he “has gone down to the darkness.”  Arrowsmith’s inaction to keep to his plan is forever connected to Dr. Gottlieb’s professional death (it didn’t cause it, no, but the correlation is undeniable).

It’s difficult to say how one should feel after viewing Arrowsmith.  In the end, Arrowsmith abandons the scientific method to help save the islanders (out of guilt from his wife’s death), but then holes away in the far-reaches of Vermont to conduct research free from distraction (out of guilt from his mentor’s debilitation).  Ultimately, what might be worth taking away from the film is how we’re more than just our jobs and our families.  One area isn’t more important than another.  To find happiness and success, we have to bring together every part of who we our and work to improve each of those parts together.