Arrowsmith from 1931 with Ronald Coleman, Helen Hayes, Clarence Brooks and Myrna Loy
Arrowsmith is based on a big book by Sinclair Lewis. The challenge for making films from big books is how to distill a long and complex story down to a coherent movie of a reasonable length.
Unfortunately, instead of focusing on one or two time periods or one or two themes of the many in the novel, the makers of the movie tried to retain too much of the long and broad sweep of the story.
The resulting movie feels rushed and inconsistent as it speeds through too-many decades and too-many challenges and plot twists in only ninety-nine minutes of screen time.
For all its issues, though, director John Ford, with leads Ronald Coleman and Helen Hayes, produced in Arrowsmith an interesting movie that raises several challenging philosophical medical questions.
The picture might not completely work, but it still has a number of engaging and thought-provoking scenes.
Coleman plays Arrowsmith, who, when we first meet him, is a promising medical student more interested in research than being "a pill pusher." He's a young idealist doctor.
He then, however, marries a pretty young woman, played by Helen Hayes and puts research aside when he moves with Hayes to a rural community to build a practice, make a home and start a family.
After curing a bacterial outbreak in the local cow population - he's closing in on penicillin - which brings him national fame, Coleman and Hayes move to New York City when Coleman is offered a job at a distinguished research institute.
A few years later, Coleman is sent to the Caribbean to treat, and do research on, a plague outbreak. With Hayes along - she's been the "strong woman" behind the man his entire career - Coleman quickly faces a moral medical conundrum.
He has to decide if he is going to conduct a "study" where he only gives serum to half the population to "prove" its effectiveness and advance the long-term benefit to mankind or if he will just treat everyone as the "humane" thing to do.
This always rushed movie climaxes with Coleman facing yet another moral conundrum, this one regarding how one does true and honest research. His decision, with the benefit of what we know today, looks idealisticly naive.
Along the way, there are many good "quick hits," as we see Coleman battle narrow-minded government bureaucrats, superstitious patients and bosses more interested in publicity and funding than medical research.
It is also uplifting to see one of the great historical moments of scientific advancement as the discovery and refinement of antibiotics truly did improve life for mankind.
Coleman and Hayes also go through a series of ups and downs in their relationship as Coleman is often frustrated in his career choices, which impacts their marriage.
The usual financial and family challenges also buffet their marriage, including a potential love affair that Coleman could have with a socialite played by Myrna Loy. It's an affair that is dramatically toned down from the book.
The cinematography in Arrowsmith is outstanding (and wonderfully restored). For 1931, the beautifully sets, sweeping shots, gorgeous use of shadow and general attention to detail is impressive.
John Ford was still learning his craft, but his ability to shoot epics was already forming, even if he didn't fully pull this one together.
Coleman and Hayes, and several other actors, especially Clarence Brooks in a very refreshing-for-the-time not-at-all-stereotypical role as a black doctor, deliver outstanding performances.
Arrowsmith tried to do too much, resulting in a movie that feels rushed and inconsistent, but one that is still impressive, especially for 1931. With engaging performances and a big budget that delivered some spectacular sets and cinematography, Arrowsmith is worth at least one viewing.