Based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Sinclair Lewis, "Arrowsmith" is more of a curio today as an early entry in the viral disaster sub-genre. Screenwriter Sidney Howard pared down the novel's intellectual conflicts, and focused on Arrowsmith's rapid career rise from medical student to crusading doctor, and his relationships with the medical establishment, his devoted wife (played by an incredibly young Helen Hayes), and a tryst with the seductive Myrna Loy and her come-hither eyes and eyelashes.
When the film was re-issued after the implementation of the moralistic Production Code, virtually all of Loy's scenes wee removed, thereby reducing her already thin character to a faintly alluring, but supportive friend. For the DVD, MGM has restored the missing scenes, and while they suffer from weak sound and grainy textures, the scenes make it quite clear that Loy and Colman's characters spent the night together. (That's a big Code no-no, given neither receives a moral reprimand for their excursion into premarital whoopeeland.) John Ford's direction and Ray June's camerawork convey the pair's overt attraction, a prelude to their night together, and Colman's morning-after guilt, and the risqué scenes demonstrate how far filmmakers could depict an illicit affair before the Code created its own brand of marital artifice.
"Arrowsmith" was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, though the film hasn't aged particularly well. 40 year-old Ronald Colman plays Ronald Colman playing a more youthful, idealistic doctor, and his melodramatic style is often at odds with the more naturalistic Hayes. The singular surprise, however, is black actor Clarence Brooks, playing a university-educated doctor who later takes over the management of the epidemic. Where most of Hollywood 's product reduced African Americans to menial laborers, it's ironic that the film's white characters are walking cliches, including a blustering Swedish doctor with an idiosyncratic command of English.
In 1936, producer Goldwyn would bring Lewis' novel "Dodsworth" to the screen, and he would re-team with director Ford on another primordial disaster saga, "The Hurricane," in 1937. In 1999, "Arrowsmith" would be remade as a 280 minute TV miniseries for Czech television.
© 2005 Mark R. Hasan
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