(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
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.