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.
Whether the criteria upon which the Academy based its nominations has significantly changed (it has) or whether Helen Hayes deliberately overshadowed her performance in this film (coincidentally winning Best Actress for her other 1931 movie, The Sin of Madelon Claudet), we can reasonably assume that this movie’s source material offered a no-lose scenario for John Ford and his backing studio, what was to become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. That author Sinclair Lewis, who had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature, penned Arrowsmith and more likely than not, this drove a large sales push to have the words translated onto screen. Unfortunately, either the capability was not adequate to effectively portray the seemingly simple Dr. Arrowsmith and his hijinks or the story just wasn’t meant to be told through this medium.
Both of these points, while true, were not unique to the filmmaking in the 1930s. In fact, many movies made today are done in a similar vain, except instead of simplistic methods, studios are content to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to ineffectively write compelling screenplays. To read into Arrowsmith as anything more than a fun story is to read Avatar as something more than a blatant and billion-dollar remake of Fern Gully. That said, wildly anachronistic quotes, misunderstood medical methodologies and some kind of allegorical disaster-molding save Arrowsmith from becoming as bland as its contemporaries, when viewed through a modern and rather jaded lens. If nothing else, this movie hasn’t given Hollywood a reason to remake it yet.