Warner Archives has released William Wyler’s film Dodsworth on Blu Ray. Dodsworth produced by Samuel Goldwyn in 1935 was based on Sinclair Lewis’ 1929 novel of the same name. Dodsworth is a sensitive, intelligent look at a long-time marriage falling apart. The film underwent a restoration by The Film Foundation in 2019 and looks better than I’ve ever seen it on either film or video.
The Production: 4.5/5
Samuel Dodsworth (Walter Huston) is a midwestern automobile magnate. When the film opens, he has just sold his successful 20-year business. He is perhaps 55 years old and still robust. His workers admire and respect him and the company he has sold the business to wants to keep him on as a consultant for $100,000 a year. That’s a lot of money in depression-era America.
Sam’s wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton) is bored with small-town life and yearns to travel to Europe. Sam loves his wife dearly and wishes to give her all that she has sacrificed in raising their now married daughter while he was building his business. To give Fran what she wants, Sam has decided to retire and live a life of leisure.
Loyal friend and financial advisor Tubby Pearson (Harlan Briggs) and his wife Matey (Spring Byington) know that the pretentious Fran thinks of them as hicks and their town as provincial, but still, warn Sam about his plan. Tubby believes a man with Sam’s curiosity and energy would be happy being idle. Sam good-heartedly brushes off Tubby’s objections.
The Dodworths travel to England on the Queen Mary. Both are inexperienced travelers and commit several faux pas. Sam becomes childlike in his discoveries; Fran does not share Sam’s wonder of discovery and becomes increasingly embarrassed by Sam’s childlike exuberance.
Sam and Fran’s journey starts diverging onboard the ship. Fran coquettishly becomes involved with a younger man, Captain Lockert (David Niven). Fran plays with Lockert like a schoolgirl; Lockert is a professional seducer and is appalled when Fran reveals that she has no intention of sleeping with him.
Sam meets American divorcee Edith Cortright (Mary Astor). Edith is an independent woman who has more or less dropped out of society; she doesn’t concern herself with social norms and customs. She isn’t a wacky character out of a screwball comedy; she is reserved and views the world with clear eyes. Edith is charmed by Sam’s enthusiasm and the two become platonic friends.
Once in Europe Fran takes up with a number of sophisticates led by Arnold Iselin (Paul Lukas) who poach of Fran’s wealth. Fran encourages Sam to return to America alone as Sam becomes impatient with his newfound idleness. With the crude and unsophisticated Sam out of the picture, Fran moves into a villa in Biarritz.
Dodsworth is based on a 1929 novel by Sinclair Lewis, adapted by Sidney Howard based on his Broadway adaptation from 1934 which also starred Walter Huston. Its broader themes deal with social criticism, similar to the works of contemporary Theodore Dreiser (in fact, I often confuse the two). Both writers examine late 19th and early 20th century America, dramatizing its flaws and hypocrisies.
Howard does a good job cutting down a 400-page novel to a 100-minute movie. The only real flaw with the script that I can think of is the broad portrayal of the Pearsons. Not having read the novel, I assume that the reason for this is dramatic compression – the Pearsons are instantly recognizable types.
One of the surprises of the script, and one that makes it feel very modern is, to use the jargon of contemporary psychobabble, Dodsworth’s marriage is a relationship of co-dependency. The affluence of Dodsworth has emotionally arrested the couple.
Fran has been spoiled by Sam’s fatherly indulgence similar to an immature teenager who might say about her spouse, something like, ‘I love Sam, but I’m not in love with him.’ As stated above, while she may be embarrassed by him, like a spoiled child of its parent, Fran doesn’t seem to have any issues with taking his money/support when needed.
We see this with Sam when he is back home alone without Fran. This is the only sequence when Sam comes off unlikable. He is not so much upset at the physical loss of his wife but seems more frustrated that he isn’t being pampered the way he is accustomed to when Fran is present. Sam takes it out on his daughter who fails to provide the same level of solicitude as her mother.
I’ve also read that Wyler, obliviously working with Howard, made Fran more sympathetic than she is in the novel. I’m curious to read the novel because, in the film, Fran is experiencing a midlife crisis. She is not old (though attitudes about age have changed dramatically since the 1930s); perhaps 45 – potentially leaving her a lot of time left. She is finished raising a child and is bored with everything else has to offer in midwestern America. She longs for adventure and passion – desires not usually associated with middle age women of the era.
This is daring in that I can’t think of another example in film or literature of that era where this is explored. Male midlife crisis is a staple of post-war American art – to the point that it becomes comic in movies of the 60s and 70s as men late in middle age chase after young women and audiences are expected to buy it.
If you haven’t seen the film, you may want to stop reading here.
The resolution is very complex and progressive. Sam is very patient and understanding with Fran. Life for Sam without Fran seems unbearable because of their mutual dependency. In contrast, Sam’s relationship with Edith is based on mutual respect. Neither needs the other but both enjoy being with the other. Sam grows to realize that his career was based on the need to give Fran whatever she wanted. With Edith, he grows to realize that he is free to explore new challenges.
Fran’s relationship with Kurt is shaping up to be similar to that of Sam and Fran, only with roles reversed. Kurt is looking for somebody to take care of him financially. Without Sam’s patronage, this would be impossible.
This is where conventional sexual politics of the era come to play; without Sam, Fran only has the illusion of independence. She always runs back to Sam when things fall apart – the scene of her meeting Kurt’s mother (Maria Ouspenskaya) is devastating. I believe the audience is meant to sympathize with Fran’s vanity and neediness.
Walter Huston was a great actor. He makes Sam entirely believable even when his behavior borders on masochistic. He is by turns boyishly charming and maddening in his pig-headedness. Ruth Chatterton is also effective as a woman unable to come to terms with aging. David Niven is appropriately callow, and Paul Lukas is reptilian as the scheming continental sophisticate. Next to Huston, the most moving performance comes from Mary Astor as Edith; she is worldly and dignified. She gracefully refuses to take the bait when the jealous Fran baits her. Astor’s scenes with Huston are wonderful in their maturity.
Dodsworth comes at the beginning of director William Wyler’s peak. Wyler started his directing career in the mid-20s at Universal making westerns – he was related to Universal founder, Carl Laemmle. Wyler was much despised by auteurists critics including Andrew Sarris, who put Wyler in his Less Than Meets the Eye category. He’s particularly vicious to Wyler writing, ‘Wyler’s career is a cypher as far as personal direction is concerned.’ That’s pretty rough stuff for a man responsible for as many great films as Wyler.
Wyler’s style is elegant, if not invisible. I’m always fascinated by his use (or non-use) of close-ups and he includes a very powerful close up at the climax of Dodsworth. His ‘style’ never gets in the way of the story. His films are consistently intelligent, which is strange because Wyler was notoriously inarticulate with actors, sometimes putting them through dozens of takes to get what he wanted but could not express to them.
Wyler worked in just about every genre. Yes, the films do get larger, and sometimes suffer for it, from the mid-50s onward. But Wyler wasn’t alone in Hollywood in that respect, as competition from television demanded giving audiences ‘bigger’ movies.
To me, Wyler is the ultimate commercial movie director. I mean that as a high compliment. While there are a couple of Wyler movies I don’t care much for, I can’t think of another Hollywood director who worked on the level and still produced not only intelligent but sometimes challenging movies for the masses as did Wyler – or for as long as he did.
3D Rating: NA
Warner Archives’ transfer of Dodsworth looks terrific. It appears that the restoration was done from reissue elements as the distributor in the credits is listed as Film Classics and not United Artists. Sam Goldwyn is maybe best remembered now for malaprops, but he produced a lot of important movies and tended to hire top talent behind the camera. Dodsworth is no exception. The great Rudolph Mate’s (Dante’s Inferno, Foreign Correspondent, To Be or Not to Be) camera work is excellent. The visuals are always at the service of the script. Blacks and greys look great with good contrast and grain present. Art Direction is by the underrated Richard Day. Day’s work starts in the 20s and ends in the early 70s and includes work with directors like John Ford, Jean Renoir, Raoul Walsh, and Elia Kazan. Dodsworth was edited by Daniel Mandell (Wuthering Heights, Meet John Doe, The Apartment) who worked for Goldwyn before becoming an Associate Producer for Billy Wilder.
Audio was restored by Deluxe Audio Services and the movie sounds very good as well. Dialogue and Alfred Newman’s (Young Mr. Lincoln, The Mark of Zorro, The Seven Year Itch) score are clean.
Special Features: 2/5
The only extra is a 1937 Lux radio adaptation also starring Huston.
Dodsworth for my money is Hollywood studio filmmaking at its best. The writing, directing, acting, photography, music, and production design are all terrific and mesh perfectly. It’s almost as if producer Sam Goldwyn put together an all-star team for this production. Sometimes this approach doesn’t work, but here it does, and the result is an enduring and sophisticated film for adults. I also believe that director Wyler is largely responsible for that success. I can’t recommend Dodsworth highly enough.
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