John Ford

BY Travis Mackenzie HooverPublished May 1, 2005

Nobody will ever mistake this virtuous 1931 drama for a masterpiece, but it's still fitfully interesting as a view of a great director beginning to assert his powers. Based on a Sinclair Lewis novel, it charts the progress of idealistic doctor Martin Arrowsmith (Ronald Colman) as he rises from country doctor to research scientist to developer of a plague serum. Unfortunately for his wife (Helen Hayes), he's more interested in work than in home, and she winds up neglected and unloved as he fulfils his ambitions. I imagine that the tension between domestic and professional fulfilment was better dealt with in the novel, because the film is pretty straight-up '30s melodrama, with a dashing ambitious doctor and a wife with a bad case of the blues boiled down to their hyperbolic essences. But despite the ludicrous oversimplifications, the film has conviction enough to hold you, for which I assume we can thank then nascent Great American Director John Ford. Though it doesn't have the expressionistic brilliance of the slightly later The Informer, there's a total commitment to the material and a visual flair that manages to triumph over the limitations of early sound filmmaking. You won't buy a word of it, but you'll buy that Ford buys it, and you'll humour him in thrilling to the adventures that the director refuses to simply patronise or blow off as beneath him. The film may only be for completists, but those completists will be pleasantly surprised. Ronald Colman makes the perfect Arrowsmith, clipped and classy without being haughty or smug; Myrna Loy has a nice turn as a socialite who is drawn to the doctor on one of his messianic missions. (MGM)

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