Arrowsmith (1931)

“Bugs don’t commit suicide… What killed them?”

A doctor (Ronald Colman) and his new wife (Helen Hayes) move to her small town, where he starts a practice — but he’s soon wooed by his mentor (A.E. Anson) to New York for a research position, and begins work on a revolutionary serum. When he is called to the West Indies to scientifically test his serum on victims of the bubonic plague, his wife insists on accompanying him, with dire results.


John Ford’s Oscar-nominated adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel was likely of much greater interest to audiences of the day — presumably those who had read the novel — than it will be for modern viewers. Much about the storyline feels dated, beginning with the fact that a funded research career is so entirely out of the question for Colman (apparently that issue is explained in greater nuance in the novel). Most egregious is the (inevitably) racist depiction of black West Indies natives as less-than whites, and primitive in their rituals. The one black native (Clarence Brooks) presented as civilized has, naturally, been educated in the United States, and is lighter-skinned. Meanwhile, Colman’s infatuation (affair?) with Loy’s undeveloped character is thoroughly unexplained — again, it’s dealt with more realistically in the novel, and sanitized for the screen; and the pivotal moment when Colman makes a deadly mistake on the island is laughable in its (his) unrealistic carelessness. On the plus side, Ray June’s black-and-white cinematography is stunning throughout (there are many memorable visual sequences), and Hayes’ performance is notable as well; she imbues her challenging role with humanity.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Helen Hayes as Leora Arrowsmith
  • Ray June’s cinematography

Must See?
No; skip this one unless you’re curious.


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