Arrowsmith ★★★½

I originally downloaded this as part of "John Ford" week of the 2017 Film School Dropouts challenge, but didn't get around to watching it until last month. Adapted from one of the remarkable string of 1920s hits penned by satirical novelist Sinclair Lewis (you're probably more familiar with Main Street, Babbitt or Elmer Gantry; these four plus Dodsworth, each of them award-winning bestsellers, were all written by Lewis in an astounding nine-year period), this 1931 early Ford hit (after cutting his chops in the 1910s and '20s cranking out literally hundreds of silent Western shorts) tells the bildungsroman (coming-of-age story) of an idealistic Midwestern medical student who becomes a brilliant academic researcher, only to grow frustrated with the politics of academic life and abandon it all to become a small-town physician; it's there that he discovers a cure for a particularly deadly strain of the bubonic plague, which eventually leads him to answer a call for help from a small Caribbean island who is about to be wiped out by the disease, but whose relief efforts have been hampered by a corrupt local government.

It's all right for what it is, but is absolutely a sign of its 1931 times, a film that will be a chore for most modern audience members to sit through; frankly, the main reason it's even remembered at all anymore is for being the first movie in Hollywood history to feature a black character who has a college degree, the put-upon Caribbean plague doctor who asks for Arrowsmith's help in the first place. And I have to say, I've also been kind of disappointed by my forays into studying Ford as a filmmaker; because it turns out that he was actually a journeyman-style director and not an auteur-style one, meaning that he primarily saw the making of a film as an unremarkable day job, to be completed as quickly and cheaply as possible no matter what it takes, rather than a piece of creative art that he was obliged to imbue with a personal vision. He definitely churned out a lot of great films along the way (including The Grapes of Wrath, Rio Grande, Mister Roberts, Stagecoach and a lot more); but there's not really a "John Ford look" or "John Ford style" to study or pay attention to, making a close study of his oeuvre less of an interesting journey and more just a collection of random films that seem to have nothing to do with each other. Certainly I'll keep checking films of his off my life list as the months and years continue; but Arrowsmith itself is decent but nothing special, a film only to be specially tracked down by the most hardcore completists of 1930s cinema.

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