John Ford had to adapt Sinclair Lewis' Nobel Prize winner (from a screenplay by none other than Sidney Howard) before tastemakers ("westerns? bah!") could take him seriously. As result, us diehard Fordians downgrade the film's rigid prestige vis-a-vis the more limber and personal ad-libbing of something like the earlier Up the River. The movie's link to Ford's oeuvre, however, burrows far beyond the occasional Ward Bond and John Qualen cameo -- softening Lewis' satire of the barrenness of American go-gettism, Ford nevertheless maintains a rigorous distance in dissecting the quest for glory of his Dr. Arrowsmith (Ronald Colman). Ricocheting from bucolic Midwest to metropolitan New York to West Indies tropical hell, his doc is far from the healing-raconteur figures of the Will Rogers films, or Dr. Mudd in The Prisoner of Shark Island: Arrowsmith's dedication to science leads to personal implosion, as his perpetually frustrated wife Leora (Helen Hayes) endures painful neglect til meeting her end at the tip of a virulent cigarette. Ford's ambivalence is mirrored in the movie's expressionism, as somber as his Fox work is pastoral -- Leora's death, etched in deep-focus and glowing chiaroscuro, looks back to Murnau and ahead to Welles. (More Welles: Richard Bennett, his unforgettable Major Amberson, here perks things up as a barnstorming scholar.) Much of this unsatisfying film goes unexplored (like Colman's attraction to wispy, tantalizing seductress Myrna Loy), though ultimately its interest, like a good deal of the director's work, lies as much in what it shows as in what it suppresses. Produced by Samuel Goldwyn. With Clarence Brooks, A.E. Anson, and Claude King. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce