Sunday, June 24, 2012

Dodsworth (1936) - Directed by William Wyler


(Note: This post is in support of the William Wyler Blogathon which is being hosted by The Movie Projector, from June 24-29, where you can find more info and links to other reviews of William Wyler films.)




William Wyler’s masterful Dodsworth is the kind of film that even today rings so truthful. I find it is hard to find films from the 1930’s that reflect observant, realistic portrayals of marriage. Perhaps something like Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) would be the best contemporary from the era that broaches the subject of marriage with an observant eye. But there’s something so down to earth and devastating about Dodsworth. It’s not trying to be stylized or poetic (like Vigo’s film), or funny (like McCarey’s The Awful Truth). It just patiently observes marital interaction and tendencies, allowing the divide between the male and female to open up before us. There are no easy answers that this film provides for us and THAT is part of what makes the film resonate so well.



Dodsworth stars Walter Huston as Sam Dodsworth, head of a car manufacturing company who is retiring from his position. His post-retirement ambitions include traveling and seeing the world with his wife of 20 years. We follow Dodsworth and his wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton) as they travel by boat and begin to meet people who start to alter the course of their happiness. On the boat, Dodsworth meets a woman named Edith (Mary Astor) who without pretense appreciates Dodsworth’s curiosity and hunger for adventure. That same night, his wife Fran meets a man with whom she flirts and kisses. Feeling shame, she cries openly in front of her husband and admits her wrongs. Dodsworth is curiously not worked up about the event. Does he trust her too much? Does he not care? It’s hard to say for sure. He seems to love his wife, but he is also resigned to the fact that she is her own woman. She is obviously flaunting conventions by hanging around with other men and dancing away her evenings and she uses her husband’s trust as a cloak to engage in risky flirting. Soon, though, she flirts beyond her ability to relinquish it and invites a marriage proposal from a Viennese man. The devastating denouement of the film, involving Sam and Fran's separation and a potential reconciliation is handled so truthfully and compassionately, as Dodsworth prepares to move on from his wife by finding solace and companionship in the arms of Edith.




Walter Huston gives one of, if not his best performance of his career as Dodsworth. I am quite partial to his crotchety prospector role in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). But in Dodsworth, Huston’s understated performance is so good because he allows us a chance to question his behavior. He does not paint Dodsworth into a corner using broad strokes. He uses smaller facial expressions, changes in tone and dialogue to make us believe he is a complicated man. Perhaps a man that is a bit naïve? Perhaps a man that is blinded by high expectations of himself and his family status? Perhaps he’s a man with secret yearnings never expressed to his wife for fear that he would rock the boat? All of these and none of these may be correct about him. It’s such a well written role and brilliantly acted part that we enjoy the process of following Dodsworth on his path to self-discovery. Ruth Chatterton and Mary Astor also give particularly fine turns in this extremely well-acted film.




Yes the film takes some melodramatic turns (and I’m the biggest melodrama fan there is), but Wyler’s assured direction and ability to let a scene play out, perhaps longer than other directors of this era, allows the film to develop a lived-in feel, creating not a bubble of stylized emotions but a realistic examination of people. Wyler seems to find not just the cinematic truth of the moment, but also the underlying human nature behind the moment. It’s not hard to envision how Wyler’s work here connects us to later decades where the likes of Bergman (Scenes From a Marriage), or Cassavetes (A Woman Under the Influence) would take us to more harrowing places. There’s something about Dodsworth though, that is devastating in its own right. As Dodsworth and Edith tentatively realize that they are developing significant feelings for each other, there’s a scene where she realizes that he is going to get a call from his wife. She’s so fearful that he will pick up that phone and that he will be lured back to his old life that she tries to do everything she can to get him away from earshot of that phone. Her failed resignation when she realizes she may lose Dodsworth exemplifies this film's ability to project emotion and create drama through understanding human nature, through understanding people and the way we operate. Dodsworth is the era-defining masterpiece that examines marital discord in the 1930’s. It is still vital today and remains perhaps Wyler’s greatest film.

23 comments:

R. D. Finch said...

Jon, "Dodsworth" is one of my own very favorite Wyler movies, and you mentioned all the reasons why. All the performances are strong, but I'm especially fond of Astor's and Huston's. Between his work here, in "The Devil and Daniel Webster," and "Treasure of the Sierra Madre," I'd be hard-pressed to name one the best or even pick a favorite. Dodsworth, though, is less a character role than those other two and really lets him show the range and depth he was capable of when given a complex character like this one. But no matter what kind of character he played or how big the part, I always got the impression that he really enjoyed acting and was having a good time.

A tremendous post. Thanks for providing such a great start to the Wyler blogathon!

Judy said...

Jon, a great piece - this is one of my favourite Wyler movies too and I agree that Huston is wonderful, with Chatterton also giving a fine performance. Her character at first seems unsympathetic, but gradually becomes more so. I feel this is a very grown-up movie - as you say, there are melodramatic moments (and I'm a big melodrama fan too), but the reasons for the marriage falling apart are quieter and more realistic, as this couple just grow apart. A great start to the blogathon!

Classicfilmboy said...

I haven't seen Dodsworth in years but remember it for two reasons that you mentioned: Huston's performance and the realistic handling of a marriage. I think it's a film that requires the viewer to have some life experiences and a certain level of maturity to appreciate. Terrific review!

John/24Frames said...

I love your opening paragraph! I don't think Walter Huston has ever given a bad performance. I am going to have to search for this film. I think I many have seen it many years ago as a kid but that was so loooong ago another viewing would be like seeing it for the first time! An excellent review to kick off this blogathon!

Grand Old Movies said...

Thanks for such a terrific post on this lovely film. You make such great points on how this film confronts the emotional tangle of marriage and how its influence can be seen in later filmmakers. 'Dodsworth' is a rarity: a film made by and for adults.

Sam Juliano said...

Walter Huston has delivered some of the finest performances of an any American actor, and his work in DODSWORTH is pretty much the equal of what he accomplished in ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY, THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE and THE FURIES, but his work in this quartet is so extraordinary that any one can be posed as a favorite. Huston was married to the role to the extent that he also starred in the Broadway version of Sidney Howard's play which in turn was adapted from a novel by Sinclair Lewis. Great points about the film being vital today and about the 'lived in' feel that Wyler is able to realize, which trasnforms the stage material and does indeed make on think of the later work of Cassevetes and Bergman in this sense.

This is an utterly brilliant opening salvo in the Wyler blogothon Jon!

FlickChick said...

This is one of my favorite Wyler films and was bummed when someone else (namely YOU) had scooped it up! That being said, you did a much better job than I would have! I love the performances of the 3 principles here, especially Mary Astor, whose artistry is so subtle. I am new to you blog and like it very much!

Caftan Woman said...

"Dodsworth" is a film of such emotional honesty that you would have to be made of stone not to be moved and not to have it hold a special place in your heart.

silverscreenings said...

I agree with everything you've said. This truly is a remarkable movie.

Rick29 said...

Jon, I saw DODSWORTH for the first time a couple of years ago. I agree that Huston's performance is wonderfully--and effectively--understated. It's easier to play showier roles like in SIERRA MADRE. I also think this is the most successful adaptation of a Sinclair Lewis novel (my Dad favored ARROWSMITH, but mostly because he was a Ronald Colman fan). Loved your review!

Jon said...

@R.D. - Thanks for the support and for inviting me to join in this endeavor. It was quite a privilege to write on such a special film. Huston as you've noted is tremendous, but Astor may also have given maybe her finest performance ever in this film.

@Judy- Yes agreed on the grown-up movie aspect. It is a very mature film and probably one I wouldn't have appreciated as much when I was younger. I'm glad I waited until my 30's. Thanks!

@Classicfilmboy- Thanks for the support. I also agree on the maturity level and I mentioned this above as well and the life experience thing is a good insight here.

@John- Strangely this film is a bit hard to track down. I think it's out of print at the moment? I had to scrounge through the library system in my state to find a copy. Hope you check it out again. I'm sure it will be like seeing it for the first time. Thanks!

@Grand Old Movies- Thanks for the support! It's definitely for grown-ups and likely hard to appreciate as a younger viewer.

@Sam- Thanks for the support as always my friend. You add great insight here and your knowledge of the background of the film is first rate. I did not know about the Broadway turn which is something to note here for sure. Thanks!

@FlickChick- Sorry I took your film! But thank you for the encouragement! Thanks and I hope you return! Astor is very good here and gives maybe her best performance.

@Caftan Movie- Yes I was terrifically moved by the film and it's hard to imagine anyone not being so moved by the film. Thanks!

@silverscreenings- Thanks!

@Rick29- Thank you for your comment and for stopping by. I have not seen Arrowsmith so not sure about the Sinclair Lewis adaptation comparisons but it's hard to believe anything beating this one.

Brandie said...

A very entertaining read! I saw this movie a few years ago and I think it's one of the films that first made me fall in love with Mary Astor. Considering everything that was happening in her personal life at the time, it's remarkable that she was able to ultimately deliver such a beautiful performance.

Ken Anderson said...

Your post echo a great deal of what I experienced the first time I saw "Dodsworth" a little over a year ago. I had to check the year on IMDB because the film seemed entirely too contemporary and emotionally frank for what I usually associate with the era. Love Walter Huston in this film, and I very much enjoyed reading your insights.

Marlowe said...

Terrific post. Your warm sincere heartfelt response to this film is clear throughout. Wyler, by my lights,made four masterpieces. No small achievement, and this was the first of them. (The others are The Letter, The Little Foxes, and The Heiress) An unforgetable film that I've seen three times and I'm more than ready for a fourth visit. Congratulations!

KimWilson said...

I remember watching this and thinking how stark a portrayal of marriage it was for the 1930s. Most films of the period dealt with martial discord with comedy--this was all drama. Huston does a great job in a role that was so unlike his others. I'm not a fan of Chatterton, though, and I find her character annoying beyond measure. Interesting post.

KimWilson said...

I remember watching this and thinking how stark a portrayal of marriage it was for the 1930s. Most films of the period dealt with martial discord with comedy--this was all drama. Huston does a great job in a role that was so unlike his others. I'm not a fan of Chatterton, though, and I find her character annoying beyond measure. Interesting post.

Kevin Deany said...

Jon: "Dodsworth" is one of the great films of the 1930s, and one of the most adult. Based on this film, I picked up the Sinclair Lewis novel at a book sale, but have yet to read it.

I'm shocked it hasn't been the subject of a remake. The clothing styles may change, but the themes remain ever universal.

Jon said...

@Brandie- Thanks for your comment. Yeah Astor is great in this and her performance is quite a revelation here and she plays off Huston so well.

@Ken- Hey thanks for the support. Yeah I too had the same feeling....1936? Really?

@Marlowe- I haven't yet seen The Letter. I see that it's on TCM in a couple days so I will be DVRing that one. I think most would probably add Ben-Hur to that list but fair enough.

@Kim- Yes I can understand your reaction to Chatterton....see seems like a woman caught up in a great deal of excess and her character can appear rather flightly.

@Kevin- I hadn't thought of reading the book, but perhaps I should. Might give me more insight into the background of the film. Hope you get to it!

The Lady Eve said...

Jon, I thoroughly enjoyed your take on "Dodsworth." It is one of my favorite of all of William Wyler's films (along with "The Letter") and no matter how many times I have seen it, I know I'll happily watch it again and again. An all-too-human story, wonderfully cast and beautifully filmed. Walter Huston was quite an actor - a revelation for me in "Dodsworth," "Sierra Madre" and "The Devil and Daniel Webster." In "Dodsworth," of course, his is the central role and he has the chance to portray a fully fleshed-out, complex character. No surprise that he was Oscar-nominated. Mary Astor (a favorite) is, as always, very fine in a supporting role. And Ruth Chatterton is almost too effective in the thoroughly unsympathetic part of selfish and, by turns, pathetic and cruel Fran Dodsworth.

"Dodsworth" is one very good reason Wyler was known as "the great adapter" during his association with Goldwyn.

Jon said...

Hello Lady Eve!
Thanks for your thoughts. Actually I haven't seen The Letter yet and have just DVRd that so will get to it shortly I hope. Yes Ruth Chatterton's character is difficult to sympathize with, which makes Mary Astor's character all the more poignant I think. And Huston is tremendous.

Karen said...

I greatly enjoyed your thoughtful and insightful look at this film. I've only seen Dodsworth a couple of times -- it's always been rather intriguing to me; it's kind of like two separate movies in one, there's so much going on. I share your fondness for Huston in "Sierra Madre," but I totally agree that he was really outstanding in "Dodsworth"!

Jon said...

@ Karen- Thanks and I think this is definitely a film that is one that would reward the viewer for repeat viewings. I'm already looking forward to seeing it next time. Yeah Huston is a tremendous actor. Love him.

vinnieh said...

Great review, Haven't seen this film but want to after reading this excellent post