Dodsworth (1936): William Wyler’s Masterful Marital Melodrama, Starring Oscar Nominated Walter Huston

One of William Wyler’s early triumphs, “Dodsworth,” is a mature and intelligent marital drama, in which Walter Huston (director John Huston’s father) repeated his stage role as an all-American mogul.

“I want much more than a trip out of this, Sam,” Fran Dodsworth (Ruth Chatterton) tells her husband on the eve of their first journey to Europe. “I want a new life, all over from the very beginning.”

In this adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel, Huston plays Sam Dodsworth, a wealthy mid-Western industrialist who sells his auto plant and travels abroad with his restless wife. Fran wants out of their Michigan suburb; she has her sights set on places like Paris and Vienna, where her vanity and frivolousness will be better appreciated.

Sam gets bored, but Fran proceeds with her goal of becoming “femme de monde.” In France, she takes up with a coterie of pseudo-aristocrats, including a rou named Lockert (David Niven), which embarrasses Sam. When Fran flirts with an adventurer (Paul Lukas), Sam gets hurt. Gradually, good old Sam, with his quick handshake and nasal twang, becomes excess baggage.

But Fran doesn’t learn from her mistakes or failures. Rather selfishly but ultimately stupidly, she asks Sam for a divorce so that she can marry baron Kurt von Obersdorf (Gregory Gaye), who turns out to be a young and weak mama boy.

Though European in origin, Director William Wyler shares Mark Twain’s disdain for pretension; although Sam has trouble pronouncing “Louvre,” he’s solid and genuine and able to see through the phoniness that sets his wife’s heart aflutter. In the end, Sam triumphs when he meets in Venice a sensitive, understanding widow, Edith Cortright (Mary Astor), while Fran, humiliated, takes the steamship home alone.

A subtle marital drama for mature viewers, “Dodsworth” makes a statement about the “Ugly American Abroad.” Edith observes that people travel to get away from themselves, but Fran ultimately learns the lesson of all unhappy travelers: her miserable self follows her wherever she goes.

Rendering a dominant performance, Walter Huston excels as a simple but honest man, who believes in the value of marriage. Cited by the N.Y. Film Critics Circle as Best Actor of the year, Huston was nominated for Best Actor by the Academy, but lost out to Paul Muni, who gave a flashier performance in the biopic “The Story of Louis Pasteur,” the kind of which tends to grab the Academy’s attention.

The two women in Sam’s life are equally impressive, particularly Mary Astor, in a softer role than the ones she would become famous for (“The Maltese Falcon” with Bogart) or win her own statuette (“The Great Lie,” opposite Bette Davis).

 

Detailed Plot (Narrative Structure)

Walter Huston gives his strongest dramatic performance as “Sam” Dodsworth, the wealthy, successful,confident, self-made but unsophisticated head of Dodsworth Motor Company, an American automobile parts manufacturing firm, based in the small Midwestern town of Zenith.  (Zenith also serves as the setting for Lewis’ Babitt).

Wife Fran (Chatterton), feeling suffocated and entrapped by the boring social life of their small-town existence, convinces her spouse to sell his interest in the company and take her to Europe. Sam disregards the warning of Tubby Pearson, his banker-friend, that men like him are only happy when they are working.

While on the luxury cruise to London, Sam meets Edith Cortright (Mary Astor), an American divorcee living in Italy, who is sympathetic to his eagerness to expand his horizons and learn new things.

Meanwhile, Fran indulges in a light flirtation with a handsome officer (David Niven), only to retreat when he suggests it become more serious.

In Paris, Fran deludes herself that she is a suave and sophisticated world traveler, in contrast to Sam, who’s only interested in the usual tourist sights and inspecting foreign auto works.

Fran pretends to be much younger than she actually is and begins spending time on her own with other men. She becomes infatuated with cultured playboy Arnold Iselin (Paul Lukas). She suggests that Sam return home and allow her to spend the summer in Europe.  Feeling rout of place in the urbane Old World, the good-hearted man still in love with Alice, reluctantly agrees.

He is happily welcomed by not only his old friends, but also his daughter (Kathrun Marlowe) and new son-in-law (John Payne), who have moved into her parents’ old mansion.  Soon, though, Sam realizes that life back home has left him behind. His Dodsworth manager in Europe confirms that Fran is dating Iselin, which makes him immediately go to Europe.

Fran tries to deny the affair, but breaks down when Sam reveals he has summoned Iselin to confirm. She begs for forgiveness, and Sam, still enamored of their shared past, decides give their marriage another chance.

However, it is evident that they have grown far apart—not least when news of their first grandchild arrives.  Initially excited, Fran is dissatisfied with the idea of being a grandmother. She eventually informs Sam that she wants a divorce after all, after the younger Baron Kurt von Obersdorf (gregory Gaye) tells her he would marry her if she were free.

Traveling aimlessly throughout the Continent while the divorce is being arranged, in Naples, Sam encounters Edith by chance. She invites him out to stay at her villa. The two fall in love, and the rejuvenated he decides on a new business, an airline. He asks Edith to marry him and come with him to Samarkand and other locales.

Their idyllic plans are shattered when Kurt’s mother, Baroness Von Obersdorf (Maria Ouspenskaya), refuses to give her blessing to Fran marrying her son. In what is one of the harshest and cruelest scenes in Hollywood melodramas,  the Baroness tells Fran that in addition to the problem of religion and that she is divorce, Kurt must have children to carry on the family line, and Fran would simply be an “old wife of a young husband.”   The Baroness acknowledges that they have been poor since the war and could use Fran’s money, but she doesn’t change her mind about Fran.

Kurt, a mama’s boy (“I must consider my mother”)  asks Fran to postpone their wedding, before leaving the devastated woman alone (“My mother is waiting”).  Fran finally realizes that the situation is hopeless.  In a state of desperation, She calls Sam to call off the divorce.  Sam, still loyal to Fran, decides to sail with her for home.

However, after only a short time in Fran’s company, Sam realizes their marriage is irrevocably over. “Love has to stop somewhere short of suicide,” he tells her.  He gets off the ship at the very last moment to rejoin Edith.

Cast

Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston)
Fran Dodsworth (Ruth Chatterton)
Arnold Iselin (Paul Lukas)
Edith Cortright (Mary Astor)
Lockert (David Niven)
Kurt von Obersdorf (Gregory Gaye)
Madame de Penable (Odette Myrtil)
Emily (Kathryn Marlowe)
Matey Pearson (Spring Byington)

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