This highly touted 1931 film, based upon the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Sinclair Lewis (who refused to accept the Pulitzer), was named one of the ten best films of the year by none other than The New York Times. It also received a number of Academy award nominations, including that of Best Picture. Directed by the now legendary John Ford, I had high expectations of the film that were, unfortunately, not met.
This is a film that has not aged that well. While Ronald Colman, in the role of the central character, Martin Arrowsmith, is excellent, the film does not live up to its reputation. This film was shot in the early years of talkies, and it still carried some of the earmarks of a silent film. Exaggerated posturing, odd segues, and somewhat disjointed scenes mark it as such. It also suffers from a somewhat uneven screenplay.
The story revolves around a young, idealistic man who wishes to become a research doctor, rather than a practicing physician. He runs into a nurse, Leora Tozer (Helen Hayes), whom he falls in love with almost immediately and marries right away. One wonders what the urbane Arrowsmith sees in this somewhat pedestrian woman, as there appears to be no chemistry between them.
After they marry, he gives up his dream to be a medical researcher and, instead, moves to South Dakota, where his wife, Leora, is from and sets up a country practice. While working as a local physician, he interests himself in the plight of the local bovine, as they have fallen prey to disease. He comes up with a serum that saves the day, and he publishes his findings.
His research comes to the attention of the well respected McGurk Institute in New York City, where his medical school mentor, Dr. Gottlieb, is established. They make him an offer he cannot refuse, and he and the devoted Leora relocate to the big apple. There, he has a break through, having created a bacteria destroying serum. When Bubonic plague besets the then British West Indies, he goes down there to conduct a clinical trial with his serum. Leora also goes with him, against his better judgment.
While in the British West Indies, the authorities refuse to let him conduct clinical trials. They want him to give the serum to everyone. Arrowsmith is not prepared to do that as a medical researcher. He is then approached by a black doctor, a graduate of Howard medical school, who is working with the native population in one of the outer islands. He is willing to have Dr. Arrowsmith conduct his clinical trials on the native population. So, Arrowsmith goes off, leaving Leora behind on the main island, where he believes she will be safe.
A tragic set of circumstances causes the devoted Leora to contract the plague, while Arrowsmith is away. By the time he returns to her, it is too late. Going off the deep end, he stops his clinical trials and does the humanitarian thing, indiscriminately giving the serum to all. When he returns home, he is hailed as a hero, but he knows that, as a man of science, he has failed in his objective.
The most interesting segments of the movie are those scenes that take place on the islands. They are beautifully shot, moody and atmospheric. It was interesting to see the inclusion of the black doctor, at a time when Hollywood films generally only included blacks as eye rolling, singing, dancing Stepin Fetchit characters.
Ronald Colman is his usual velvet voiced and handsome self, competent and sympathetic in his role as the idealistic man of science. Helen Hayes I found to be lackluster and annoying in the role of Leora. When she contracted the Bubonic plague, I could not help but think that Arrowsmith would now be free of this stupid and insipid albatross. Myrna Loy has a bit, and I mean bit, part in this film, as a lovely looking woman, who is definitely interested in Arrowsmith.
Notwithstanding its shortcomings, fans of Ronald Colman, as well as those who love vintage films, will enjoy this one.