Arrowsmith (1931)

The movie Arrowsmith was based on a novel of the same name, written by Sinclair Lewis.  I had read and enjoyed Main Street, Babbitt, and Elmer Gantry, but despite that and despite the fact the the novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1926, I did not care for it.  And despite the fact the the movie was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1931, I did not care for that either.  The movie took a lot of liberties with the novel, leaving out stuff and changing things around, most of which did not bother me one bit.  However, the movie is better than the novel, because there is an absurd event that is described in the novel that the movie wisely, or perhaps fortuitously, left out.

In the novel, Martin Arrowsmith, who is a medical student, becomes engaged to a woman named Madeleine. During the summer, Martin goes Canada, where he meets a nurse named Leora.  He proposes to her, and she accepts. But Martin is still not sure which woman he wants to marry. So, he invites both of them to have lunch with him, and when they arrive, he announces that he is engaged to both of them, and he will let them decide whom he will marry. Madeleine leaves in a huff, but Leora stays and clinches the engagement.

When I reached this point in the novel, I threw it aside in disgust. It was one of the stupidest things I had ever read, especially in a well-known novel by an otherwise good author. I had no interest in reading a novel about a man who is that ridiculous. I would say the same about Leora, since any self-respecting woman would do what Madeleine did, which is to get up and leave, but I suppose she was so desperate to get married that she was willing to swallow the insult. It was the better part of a year before I could bring myself to finish the novel.  But the damage had already been done and was irreparable.  On account of that scene with the two women, I despise the novel to this day.

Years later, the movie turned up on television, and I remember wondering to myself how it was going to handle this business with the two women. I was pleased to see that the Madeleine character was not in the movie, thereby eliminating the scene that caused me to dislike the novel. As for the rest of the story, Martin (Ronald Colman) is interested in medical research. In testing a new medicine, the standard procedure is to have a control group that gets a placebo to compare with the group that gets the experimental medicine. That way the researchers can tell whether the medicine makes a difference, and whether there are side effects. This is especially emphasized in the novel, where the students are portrayed as being obsessed with controls.

When the bubonic plague hits the West Indies, Martin decides to go there and try out his new serum. This requires the use of a control group. But if the serum is effective, this will mean that most of those in the control group will die on account of having only received a placebo. He ends up giving the serum to everyone. Martin’s humanity triumphs over his desire to establish the efficacy of the serum.

As the movie came to an end, I finally realized the point of the lunch date with the two fiancées. Madeleine was essentially acting as a control for Leora. By comparing the reactions of the two women, Martin was able to assess Leora’s love for him by contrasting it with Madeleine’s. The idea was to show just how obsessed Martin was with the need for controls, that he would even try to apply it to love and marriage.

That may have been the idea, but it is still absurd. And it is unnecessary. A man will typically have enough experience with women in general to be able to decide whether he should marry one woman in particular. Every woman he has ever dated is a control of sorts. Likewise, a woman will have had enough experience with men to know that if the man she is engaged to turns out to be engaged to someone else as well, she can be glad she found out before she married the jerk.

In a similar way, the same could be said about the bubonic plague.  We have had plenty of experience with epidemics involving this disease, so much so that a control group was not really necessary.  If everyone in the West Indies is given the serum, and the epidemic comes to an abrupt end, that is sufficient proof of its efficacy.

It may be that Sidney Howard, the man who wrote the screenplay, left Madeleine out of the movie for the simple reason that most movie versions leave stuff out that was in the novels on which they were based. But I like to believe that Howard thought the lunch date with the two fiancées was as preposterous as I did, and he mercifully gave it the ax.

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