Based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis, Arrowsmith is a layered film, though drastically shortened from the novel. Helen Hayes, whose wonderful portrayal of Leora gives us a strong but insecure woman, alleged that director John Ford excised much of the script in order to shorten the production time - she claimed that as he had promised to not drink during the filming, he was in a hurry to finish the film (this TCM article outlines the story that is included in her autobiography, My Life in Three Acts. In John Ford: Hollywood's Old Master by Ronald L. Davis, the story is elaborated on to discuss in a bit more detail the affection that resulted between Hayes and Ford.)
In spite of Ford's alleged trimming of the plot, the film still retains a lot of depth and character development. Martin Arrowsmith is carefully played by Colman, and he makes the relationship between Martin and Leora especially poignant before and after her miscarriage. While Martin is always genuinely caring of her, once she loses their child and is told she will not be able to conceive again, his attentions shift more towards his work. Is Arrowsmith afraid of losing Leora, or does he have problems confronting a life without the family for which he sacrificed his early career? Having married a nurse, it would seem obvious that Leora would become a helpmeet in his research, but, with the exception of one scene, she does not. In fact, there are no women scientists in this film (it is the 1930s, after all), and often the female characters are given short shrift. But, regardless, the story and Colman's portrayal document a marriage that is loving, but tenuous at best. John Ford: The Man and His Films by Tag Gallagher looks briefly at the marriage of Martin and Leora (but be aware, there are spoilers here).
In a brief role is Myrna Loy as Joyce Lanyon. In the novel, the character of Joyce was much more substantial, and figured heavily in the conclusion of the story. Though filmed in the pre-code era (see this commentary by my fellow blogger at Pre-code.com), this movie is remarkably tame. There is a hint of attraction between Joyce and Martin (is there an affair? It's not clear. In the book, there is some kissing, but nothing more), but the film does not dwell on any possible infidelity. Still several years away from her breakthrough role in The Thin Man, Ms Loy was still being cast as the vamp or the exotic, so it is not surprising her part is so suspicious. But even a brief appearance by Myrna Loy is welcome, and she does not disappoint. (For more information on the MPAA and the film, see this listing from the AFI Catalog).
In an even more brief appearance is Beulah Bondi as Leora's mother. She has all of one scene, and gets to say very little. Too bad, as Ms. Bondi is an asset to any film in which she appears. Born in 1889, she began her career at age 7 in her hometown of Valparaiso, Indiana (playing Little Lord Fauntleroy!) After receiving a master's degree in oratory at Valparaiso University, she began to get roles on Broadway (she would appear in 11 Broadway productions in her lifetime) in plays such as Street Scene and Rain (a part she would reprise in the screen version starring Joan Crawford). One of the first actresses to be nominated in the category of Best Supporting Actress (for her work in The Gorgeous Hussy) by AMPAS, she never won an Oscar (she was nominated one more time for Of Human Hearts). Interestingly, she played the same character three times, over a span of 18 years, appearing in On Borrowed Time in the 1939 film, the 1953 Broadway production, and a 1957 Hallmark Hall of Fame TV version. With 86 film and television credits (many of them named Granny or Mom), she is probably best remembered as James Stewart's loving mother in It's a Wonderful Life (though one of my favorite Beulah Bondi moments is her dance with Ginger Rogers in Vivacious Lady!). Her final role, in a career of 49 years, would be an Emmy Award winning performance in The Waltons. She died in 1981, at the age of 92. This TCM tribute to Beulah Bondi is well worth a viewing:
It is important to mention the presence of Dr. Oliver Marchand, as played by actor Clarence Brooks. Dr. Marchand is of African descent, and is treated by Drs. Arrowsmith and Sondelius (Richard Bennett) with respect and courtesy. Though a small part, it is a remarkable one, given the time period. Dr. Marchand is shown a competent doctor, concerned with in the health of his patients, with an understanding of Arrowsmith's need to check his research with a clinical trial. Marchand is willing to have his patients serve as test subjects, as it means many who would other die will survive. That a man of color in the 1930s was shown as a knowledgeable professional is something that should be noted.
One interesting aspect of the film is the need for Dr, Arrowsmith to prove his theory on the plague vaccine with a clinical trial. The film gives us both a population who refuse to be "guinea pigs" (even though the serum may save some of their lives), and another population who willingly participates. But, like Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet (1940), the clinical trial is shown as something that prevents patients from receiving medication that will save their lives. In the 21st Century, we have embraced the notion of the clinical trial, but in the era of heroic medicine, the clinical trial was seen as an unnecessary delay in delivering a cure.
We'll leave you with an early scene in the film in which Arrowsmith learns the joys of primary care medicine.