skip navigation
John Ford - Spotlight
Remind Me


Dr. Martin Arrowsmith (Ronald Colman) is a freshly minted doctor who longs to work in research in the engrossing medical drama Arrowsmith (1931), directed by John Ford. As the story unfolds, Arrowsmith forsakes his dream to work as a country doctor in the Minnesota hometown of his new wife Leora (Helen Hayes). Restless and ill suited to family medicine, he turns back to his original love of research. He discovers a serum to cure a breakout of Black Leg disease in the local cattle. And his methods attract the notice of a former mentor, Dr. Max Gottlieb (A.E. Anson) who offers him a research job at New York's McGurk Institute.

At the McGurk, Arrowsmith's pioneering methods attract even greater notice. He soon decides to undertake his greatest project yet, testing a newly developed serum in order to find a cure for a more troubling malady: bubonic plague. Arrowsmith travels to the West Indies to test out a potential cure but finds some resistance to his methods from the white expatriates there who refuse to be guinea pigs in his experiments. Instead, with the help of a black doctor, Oliver Marchand (Clarence Brooks), Arrowsmith travels to an isolated island to inoculate its indigenous residents. While on the island, Arrowsmith meets and - in the thinly veiled shorthand of classical Hollywood cinema - has a liaison with another white Westerner, Joyce Lanyon (Myrna Loy). He also stands helplessly by as one of his esteemed colleagues, Sondelius (Richard Bennett), succumbs to the disease.

Arrowsmith's troubles intensify back on the mainland, where he finds he has inadvertently allowed Leora to contract the plague by leaving behind unhygienic laboratory conditions. [SPOILER ALERT] In a strangely downbeat turn for a Hollywood film of the time, Leora eventually succumbs to the disease.

Though critics of the time tended to find Colman's starring role as the conflicted, career-driven Dr. Arrowsmith compelling, writers in subsequent decades have not always been able to accept the British actor's innate sophistication -- and age -- next to the more homespun performance of First Lady of the American Theater, Helen Hayes.

Despite considering the role one of his best (until he made A Tale of Two Cities in 1935) Colman was not especially pleased to be working on the production. He felt that Samuel Goldwyn did not fit him into roles best suited to his talents. In addition, the actor so strongly disliked Goldwyn he dealt with him only through intermediaries.

As Colman told Hayes one day on set according to A. Scott Berg in Goldwyn, "What do I do? I just bring the body to the studio and say my lines." Colman's resentment for that and other crimes came out later when he sued Goldwyn for his publicity chief Lynn Farnol's indiscretion in letting slip to a movie columnist that Colman liked to drink liquor before performing his love scenes. Colman eventually dropped the suit.

Despite all of this, the film's director John Ford said of Colman, "He did everything so easily that no one acknowledged what a superb actor he was...but he was one of the greatest actors I have ever known."

Though born in Maine, John Ford identified strongly with his Irish roots, an identification that informed some of his greatest films (How Green Was My Valley (1941), The Quiet Man, 1952), but also fueled his combative personality which intensified when drinking. He initially came to Hollywood following his older brother Francis, an actor, writer and director in the industry. The younger Ford soon established himself as a masterful director, primarily as a maker of Westerns. Though he began directing in 1917, Ford would not achieve his greatest acclaim until the late '30s with iconic films like Stagecoach (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940).

Outside his usual Western genre, Arrowsmith was a highly unusual project for Ford who was in between projects at his home studio, Fox. The studio was thus anxious to draw on their investment by loaning their director out to Samuel Goldwyn for Arrowsmith. It was Ford's first picture away from the studio.

Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Sidney Howard adapted Arrowsmith for the screen from the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1925 novel by Sinclair Lewis, the country's only Nobel laureate. Lewis later expressed pleasure with Ford's interpretation of his novel.

Ford's treatment was undeniably visually compelling, profoundly influenced by the moody, shadow-laced, expressionist direction of F.W. Murnau. The film was especially lauded for demonstrating that the new "talkies" could be visual equals to the silents they were replacing. Cited in many polls as one of the best films of 1931, audiences were pleased with the picture as well, and The New York Times called it one of the ten best pictures of the year. The film was Oscar® nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Picture, but lost to Grand Hotel (1931).

Actress Myrna Loy had a brief role in the film as the woman who tempts Arrowsmith momentarily away from his serums and medicine. Loy considered her introduction in the film - in which her lily white arm is seen amidst the black ones extended for one of Arrowsmith's inoculations - as an indication of Ford's attraction to her. Ford begins at her arm and then pans up to Loy's face, making her ravishing beauty the climactic payoff. Loy said of the scene in her autobiography Being and Becoming, "That was Jack Ford again, with his special thing for me--it wasn't overt, but I knew it was there. You can tell when a man has a yen."

Leading lady Helen Hayes, who also claimed Ford developed a crush on her, saw a different side to Ford. The director was under strict orders from Samuel Goldwyn to stay away from the bottle during the film's production. But Hayes writing in her own autobiography My Life in Three Acts, noticed that, despite the Arrowsmith production proceeding well at first, as the shoot continued, things began to change. "I noticed funny things were happening--pages of the script were being tossed out, entire scenes eliminated, all sorts of shortcuts taken--and why? Because he wanted to pare-away the days till he could have another drink."

The director and actress had a small showdown when Hayes threatened to tell Goldwyn if Ford made any more cuts to the script. But Ford would not be intimidated. As Hayes recounted, "You'll do as I tell you," he growled. "I'm the director of this picture. You're only acting in it."

Director: John Ford
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn
Screenplay: Sidney Howard based on a novel by Sinclair Lewis
Cinematography: Ray June
Production Design: Richard Day
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Ronald Colman (Dr. Martin Arrowsmith), Helen Hayes (Leora Arrowsmith), A.E. Anson (Prof. Gottlieb), Richard Bennett (Sondelius), Claude King (Dr. Tubbs), Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Tozer), Myrna Loy (Joyce Lanyon).
BW-100m. Closed captioning.

by Felicia Feaster



Also Playing on TCM

Also playing
Governors Awards - 1/31
4 Movies

TCM honors four recipients of the 2017 Academy Governors Awards--writer-director Charles Burnett, cinematographer Owen Roizman,...more

TCM Shopping
  • Arrowsmith
  • Based on the classic Sinclair Lewis novel,... more info
  • $14.95
  • Regularly $19.99
  • Add to cart
  • The Informer
  • Victor McLaglen, Heather Angel, Preston... more info
  • $12.95
  • Regularly $17.99
  • Add to cart
  • Flesh
  • In the wrestling ring Polakai is a colossus... more info
  • $14.95
  • Regularly $17.99
  • Add to cart
  • Judge Priest
  • Will Rogers plays a post Civil War judge in a... more info
  • $10.95
  • Regularly $10.99
  • Add to cart