Dodsworth (1936)

Directed by William Wyler

When it comes to movies, there is nothing I find more exciting and rewarding than stumbling on a film I have no expectations of, know little or nothing about, and discovering it is utterly wonderful.

It’s like being broke and finding money in an old coat pocket.

That was my experience watching Dodsworth. All I really knew about the movie was its title, which I had heard mentioned off and on over the years.

Last night I watched it and only by accident.

I had intended to watch something else. But I had turned to TCM, just to see what they might have on. They were running Dodsworth and after a few moments I was hooked.

Walter Huston as retired businessman Sam Dodsworth.

Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) is an American automobile tycoon. He retires and intends to spend more time with his wife of twenty years, Fran (Ruth Chatterton).

They aren’t the most sophisticated couple — Sam in particular is a meat and potatoes kind of businessman.

The pair take a trip to Europe as a kind of second honeymoon … and their marriage goes off the rails.

Sam’s wife Fran has life crisis. She is terrified she has become old and becomes fixed on the idea of staying young. (I believe she is younger than Sam.) This involves a good deal of denial, such as trying to avoid facing the reality that their daughter back in the United States is due to have a baby, making Sam and Fran grandparents.

Her crisis leads to much more than denial — it leads to infidelities and later divorce. The relationships she finds help her feel young as well as allow her to discover the more elevated culture of Europe (as she sees it), something she feels she has been denied and that Sam has no appreciation of.

Ruth Chatterton as the mid-life crisis experiencing Fran Dodsworth.

The movie becomes a wonderfully nuanced portrait of a relationship coming apart after decades of life. It  manages both sympathy and empathy. Sam’s wife Fran, while ostensibly “the bad guy” in the movie is presented in such a way by both Chatterton and Wyler that you can both understand her and appreciate her problem even while anxious for Sam to toss her aside.

Chatterton is excellent in her performance. Your feelings toward her keep teeter-tottering between love and hate. She is so shallow one moment, then the next you sense the surface hiding something much deeper.

Huston’s Sam is also presented in a very detailed and nuanced way. Initially appearing a bit obtuse as far as his wife’s behaviour goes, he slowly reveals that he is completely aware of it but simply not sure of what he can do — though you suspect he knows what he should do.

There is a great scene after he returns home, leaving his wife on her own in Europe, when he has a temper tantrum as he complains about his study having been rearranged. He focuses his anger on the condition of his desk, where his liquor has been moved to and so on. It’s clear his anger is really about his frustration and anxiety over his marriage.

In the end, what we get is a very complete, very realistic and human portrayal of a marriage coming apart. It’s a sad movie in this respect yet the way Wyler directs the film makes it move briskly, fluidly and even lightly so that the somber subject isn’t oppressive but rather charmingly engaging.

One of many confrontations between husband and wife, Sam and Fran Dodsworth.

Many scenes almost have the feeling of a drawing room comedy. In fact, I think that is often how Wyler and screenwriter Sidney Howard seduce us into the more dramatic and emotionally rocky scenes.

The movie also gives us David Niven in a supporting role as the the charming, sophisticated and frankly smarmy Captain Clyde Lockert, who in one scene tears a strip off Fran in a very urbane and withering way.

And there is Mary Astor of The Maltese Falcon fame (that would come later, in 1941). Here, as Edith Cortright, she is very sweet and kind, almost too much so, as she becomes the one life-preserver Sam Dodsworth can hang on to as he treads water in the unknown and turbulent ocean of his crumbling marriage.

Dodsworth also gives us Maria Ouspenskaya as Baroness Von Obersdorf who, as she often did, almost steals the film in a single scene.

This is such a fine film and there are just so many aspects to it that help it achieve that high level. For example, the sets are magnificent. I loved Edith Cortright’s Italian home.

A somber Sam Dodson as he leaves his wife for the first time.

One of my favourite scenes is towards the end when Sam and Fran separate for the penultimate time.

She is chattering away, hiding her anxiety, trying to tell Sam everything will be fine, that this is all for the best and the usual nothings people say when they speak at such moments.

Throughout, Sam doesn’t respond. He listens silently.

Then he gets on the train and, just before it pulls away, he says flatly, “Did I tell you how much I adore you, Fran?”

Throughout the movie, this is Sam’s albatross. While Fran is struggling to hang on to youth, he is struggling with the reality that he loves his wife, even if it is making him miserable.

A description such as “a movie about a failed marriage” is apt as far as being accurate but it is like a lie of omission in that it doesn’t overtly mislead with an untruth but rather with what it fails to say. There is so much more to this movie.

In the end, it is just one helluva a good film, one I plan to watch again as soon as possible.

Also directed by William Wyler:

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