The thing about motion pictures before the widespread use of color film, morally ambiguous characters and multi-faceted story lines is that they were so bland. Often, as was the case with 1931’s Best Motion Picture nominated film, Arrowsmith, the entire film, characters, sets, dialogue – what have you – the motion picture overwhelms in pushing a particular message; or, as was the case with 1936’s San Francisco, a particularly refined film technique.
Starring Ronald Colman and a young Helen Hayes, Arrowsmith tells the story of young, pragmatic researcher (Dr. Arrowsmith) whose singular focus, and the focus of the movie, revolves around him “making something of his life.” First, he attends medical school, then he gets a wife, then he moves to a small town, then he takes a job at a prestigious research facility in New York, then he travels to the West Indies, then his wife dies, then he gives up. If that sentence seems tedious and overwrought with minutiae, that’s how this movie felt to watch. A singular conflict defines his every move and happenstance tends to take over the storytelling hand over fist.
Though the story’s plot plodded along a one-way track to a nebulous fin, we must not overlook the significance of this film in context. For any amateur film critic, movies crafted before a certain age – whether it be 1939’s Wizard of Oz or 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life – must come fettered with an overwhelming price tag. Before refinement of modern techniques and the consolidation of talent into studios and agencies made the barriers to entry too much for some filmmakers, the motion picture industry could have been the object of an entertainment-based Manifest Destiny. The sheer numbers of films made (and nominated for Best Motion Picture) before the mid-1940s describe this phenomenon without much digging. It’s also why we tend to lionize certain stars more so than we do today as “classic;” both contemporary and modern critics picked the brightest from a pool of talent that was either considered much smaller or much larger than it is today. Whatever the reason, these stars were ubiquitously recognized. Arrowsmith was neither memorable for its plot or its stars or its foray into uncharted themes or techniques. Continue reading