Arrowsmith (1931): Small-Town Versus Big City–Doctors and Scientists

There are two types of villains in John Ford’s 1931 Oscar nominated Arrowsmith (and in other films about small-town features).

The city, bureaucratic doctors: here, the state veterinarian, who opposes to Arrowsmith’s serum, despite the fact that it may save the cattle from the disease. The second “villainous” type is more ambiguous: the research scientist, who favors the progress of scientific knowledge at the expense of treatment. Dr. Gottlieb can’t understand why Arrowsmith at first refuses to join him in New York. “Gif pills to ladies! Hold their hands for them! Deliver their babies for them! Make up their diets for them!” reflects Gottlieb’s contemptuous attitude toward the practice of country doctors. The film also sheds light on the scientific “rat race”: the importance of being the first in publishing a discovery; Arrowsmith is disappointed when a French scientist beats him.

In Arrowsmith, the Big City is juxtaposed with the small South Dakota town. As in The Crowd, Ford shoots New York’s skyscrapers from a low angle, making them appear menacing and ominous, whereas people are shot from a high angle–dwarfing them against the huge and anonymous buildings. The McGurk Institute is located on the 26th floor, and Ford’s camera travels with the elevator up and down. Inside the Institute, Ford used its long corridors and high ceilings to convey an impersonal, cold ambience.

Moreover, the City woman, Joyce Lanyon, differs from the country wife. Leora starts out as an independent and spirited woman who gradually loses her identity and self-worth because of her devotion to her husband. They first meet at the hospital, while she is scrubbing the floors; a punishment for smoking a cigarette. “It just makes me more rebellious,” she tells Arrowsmith. Later, Leora defies her narrow-minded and bigotted parents when they disapprove of her marriage. On their first date, she wants to listen to soft music, but instead the jukebox is playing the “Lone Ranger” sequence from “William Tell Overture,” which Tag Gallagher interprets as an alarming warning about their future marriage. Leora knows from the beginning that Arrowsmith is “self-centered and pig-headed,” but she likes him so much she “would be a fool to pass you up.”

The film is critical concerning the price independent women have to pay, obliterating their own needs for the sake of marriage and/or husbands’ careers. Leora almost apologizes for getting pregnant, “Poor Martin, you’ll be tied down worse than ever now.” Arrowsmith becomes responsible for Leora’s miscarriage; he is not there when she needed him. “Now that I can’t have a baby,” Leora states tellingly, “I’ll have to bring you up. Make a great man that everybody will wonder at!”

Once married, she stays at home, cooking, cleaning, and taking care of his needs. “I have no life without you,” Leora says repeatedly, a sentence bearing multiple and ambiguous meanings. By contrast, Joyce is an attractive, elegant, and sophisticated woman (played by Myrna Loy in one of her earlier siren roles), partly blamed for diverting Arrowsmith’s attention from his wife.

But in the end Arrowsmith redeems himself, rejecting both Dr. Tubbs and the Other woman. Realizing that Professor Gottlieb has gone insane, he rushes after Terry, who is on his way to the backwoods of Vermont. “Lee and I are coming too,” says Arrowsmith, “we are both coming with you!” demonstrating that Leora’s sacrifice was not in vain and her continuing importance in providing spiritual support. Following this last sentence, Ford freeze frames Arrowsmith in a close-up.

Arrowsmith set the thematic paradigm of many future films dealing with country doctors, emphasizing three basic dilemmas:

The conflict between personal and professional life;

The conflict between service (treating people) and research (promoting science) orientation;

The conflict between the country doctor and the rigid medical establishment (the city bureaucracy).