Tuesday, May 01, 2007


Early John Ford film, not the kind of action movie he became known for, but an excellent example of a director overcoming the drabness of the early talkie style to forge an effective sound style. Ronald Colman stars as Martin Arrowsmith, whom we meet as a medical student who wants to be a research doctor but is convinced to put in some time as an M.D. He meets a no-nonsense nurse (Helen Hayes) whom he marries, opens a small town practice, and does research on a cure for a cattle disease. A local veterinarian resents his meddling (and his single-minded aim causes him to be absent when Hayes suffers a miscarriage), but his discovery gets his name known and allows him to go to work in New York City doing research (in a fabulous art-Deco high rise) under the auspices of his former mentor (A.E. Anson). His first major discovery, an anti-bacterial breakthrough, gets blown up in the press (deliberately, by the clinic's PR guy) and then fizzles out when they discover that Louis Pasteur got there first. Soon Colman, inspired by another mentor (Richard Bennett), decides to go to the West Indies to experiment on a serum for bubonic plague; when told he will need to give half the sufferers a placebo in order for their tests to be valid, he resists at first, but then agrees. However, the plague winds up hitting home, with both Hayes and Bennett succumbing, and Colman, after a drunk scene which climaxes with him yelling, "To hell with science," gives the serum out to all. In the end, he turns his back on big-time research and goes off to Vermont with a pal (Russell Hopton) to do independent work.

Thematically, what I find interesting is that in the battle between "heartless" scientific research and humanitarianism, there seems to be no clear winner; I didn't see a strong attempt made at delineating good and bad characters, just different ways of looking at a situation. The one thing I believe is being critiqued is the desire for fame and glory, which is exactly what Colman gives up in the end. The film looks fantastic, and its visual style (shadows, gliding camera movements, and some spectacular sets) helps get the viewer through some sluggish sections. A few scenes are memorable for their startling backgrounds, especially a lecture in which a huge map dwarfs the speaker, and a restaurant scene played before a large tilted wall mirror. The way in which Hayes contracts the plague is absurd (Colman leaves an open vial of plague virus lying on the coffee table) but the camerawork makes it a memorable sequence. The acting is mostly fine--I have no problem with Colman but Hayes is rather bland. Myrna Loy has a small role as a woman with whom Colman has a one-night stand during his plague duty (another nicely shot moment), David Landau continues his string of mean, cranky characters as the vet who opposes Colman's cattle research, and Clarence Brooks plays a completely non-stereotypical black doctor, a common enough role now but rare when this film was made. A bit slow at times, but interesting to see for its visual style. [TCM]

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