Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Arrowsmith (1931)

Directed by: John Ford

Starring: Ronald Colman and Helen Hayes

Plot: A medical researcher is sent to the West Indies to halt a plague.

Thoughts: This film had a lot of potential. We're allowed into the scientific world for a little while to see that there's more to it than test tubes and microscopes. However, this same world can often be cruel. In the 1930s, the practices seen in the film probably weren't unusual but would be considered criminal now. What puzzles me is just how much this film falls apart toward the end, but was still considered for Best Motion Picture. The ending alone feels like it was written as quickly as possible to beat the traffic home (a little more on what the real reason might have been below). It wouldn't surprise me if there were some peculiar politicking responsible for Arrowsmith being considered by the Academy.

Based on the 1925 novel by Sinclair Lewis, Arrowsmith was rumored to be Samuel Goldwyn's way of keeping John Ford from drinking. Ford allegedly was quite the alcoholic, but needed money. Supposedly, one of Goldwyn's conditions was that Ford could not have a single drop during production. Another rumor (purportedly from actress Helen Hayes) was that Ford wanted to get the film over and done with and discarded script pages and soon, entire scenes, in order to get back to drinking. I'm not sure what degree of truth these rumors had, but the finished product does feel a bit rushed, especially toward the end.

Despite its flaws, Arrowsmith does have a number of interesting aspects. One of these is that this film was the first to portray an African-American in a non-servile, non-stereotypical role. The character in question was Dr. Oliver Marchand, as played by Clarence Brooks. Dr. Arrowsmith considered him his equal and had planned to leave him in charge of the plague research. Unfortunately, whatever ground was broken would be shoveled back in again as Brooks took on familiar roles later in his career. One other aspect was a short scene straight out of the German Expressionist handbook with Helen Hayes sitting in a chair. Although earlier events had already painted the character's fate for us, it was still a very interesting visual.

Arrowsmith was nominated for four awards, including Best Motion Picture. The other three were:
  • Best Art Direction for Richard Day's ability to go from rural town to big city to jungle without using standing sets;

  • Best Cinematography for Ray June's mood setting framework; and

  • Best Writing, Adaptation, for Sidney Howard's condensing of the novel into a screenplay.

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