Here is John Ford’s very first Oscar nominated film. Let’s just say he could only go up from here.
Arrowsmith is based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis about a young medical research scientist with so much potential. All Martin Arrowsmith’s (Ronald Colman) life seems to be in preparation to be a great scientist. He’s told by his professor and mentor that he could do great things in the world of research, but Martin meets a young nurse, Leora (Helen Hayes) and marries. A research scientists salary won’t support them, so they move to her hometown in South Dakota and Martin becomes the town’s doctor.
Throughout the film, the men of science who work in laboratories trying to find cures for diseases look down on private doctors. They write them off as pill distributors, only helping one person at a time. These lab rats seem to thrive on the idea that though their work may be slow and tedious, their rewards will be much greater in the end. It seems that Martin is selling out.
Martin quickly finds out that he’s not very good at practicing medicine. It’s not so much that he’s a bad doctor, but that he is not motivated by running house to house distributing pills. When a disease breaks out among the town’s cattle, Martin steps into the case, just for fun. He ends up turning his kitchen into a lab and creating a serum to cure the infected cattle. We easily see that he’s more invigorated by creating medicine rather than delivering babies or pulling children’s loose teeth.
Word soon gets around about Martin, the cow doctor, and when Leora loses their baby they decide to move back to New York, where Martin will work under his old professor again. His research starts slow at first and of course once he’s a little discouraged he makes a great discovery. Along this time there’s also an outbreak of plague, which propels the Arrowsmiths to go to the West Indies to see if his newly discovered medicine can help.
All that just seems like perfect timing, don’t it? But don’t worry, the travels prove to be tragic and Myrna Loy shows up as a beautiful Hollywood headliner in the last quarter who doesn’t really have much other purpose in the film. Hard to believe this trite plot line has been reused for over eighty years now.
Honestly, this seems like one of the first boring biographical films made just for an Oscar buzz. It’s not biographical, but it has that sort of feel, building Arrowsmith up to some hero with all sorts of drama around him. I don’t know how well the film follows the novel, (perhaps Loy’s character has more time and purpose) but I think you’d get much more satisfaction out of any novel than this film.
“That’s no compliment, it’s a scientific fact.”