Dodsworth (1936): William Wyler’s Oscar-Nominated Melodrama–Masterpieces of American Cinema

dodsworth_1One of William Wyler’s early triumphs, “Dodsworth,” is a mature, intelligent, extremely well-acted marital drama.

In an Oscar-nominated performance, Walter Huston (director John Huston’s father) repeated his stage role as an all-American mogul, an old-fashioned Midwesterner with a strong sense of self.

“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 but shallow 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.

dodsworth_posterSam 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), a young, 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.

dodsworth_6_hustonA 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 and commitment.  He shows effortlessly how a middle-aged man can find true love in the least expected place (Initially, he does not even realize tat his marriage is loveless and barren, clinging to it as a matter of habit).

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. Ruth Chatterton is effective at rendering vanity, pathos and pitty.  A selfish, shallow, not too-bright woman who never really learns from her past mistakes and failtures. In some scenes, she is overly theatrical but the style fits her screen role fo a woman who really does not know herself.

Decades later, the dialogue remains crisply sharp and the arguments between Sam and Fran heated, blistering and painful to observe–sort of a prelude to George and martha’s troubled relationship (albeit for a very different reason) in Mike Nichols’ 1966 marital drama, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” based on Edward Albee’s play.

The classy Mary Astor shines in a softer role than the ones she would become famous for (“The Maltese Falcon” with Bogart) or win her own Oscar (“The Great Lie,” opposite Bette Davis).

Recycling

Huston appeared in the 1934 Broadway production, which co-starred Fay Bainter as Fran. Huston played his role again for a Lux Radio broadcast in October 1937.

Artistic and Commercial Status

 

The film was one of the year’s Ten Best of the N.Y. Times one of the year’s top 20 box-office champions.

In 1990, Dodsworth was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry.

Detailed Plot (Narrative Structure)

dodsworth_5_huston_chattertonWalter Huston arguably 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 Sinclair 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 get involved in a flirt with a handsome officer (David Niven), only to retreat when he suggests it become more serious.  The flirt causes embarrassment to all involved.

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.

dodsworth_4_huston_chattertonFearing iof aging and losing her looks, Fran pretends to be much younger than she actually is and begins spending time on her own with other men to prove she is still alluring.

Fran becomes infatuated with cultured playboy Arnold Iselin (Paul Lukas). To have more time for her affairs, she suggests that Sam return home and allow her to spend the summer in Europe.  Feeling out of place in the urbane Old World, the good-hearted man, still in love with Fran, reluctantly agrees.

Back home, Sam 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’ mansion.  Soon, though, Sam realizes that life back home has left him behind. Angry and frustrated, everything seems to irritate him.  Things get worse, when his Dodsworth European manager confirms that Fran is dating Iselin. He decides to leave immediately to stop his wife.

Fran denies the affair, but breaks down when Sam reveals he had summoned Iselin to confirm. She begs for forgiveness, and Sam, still enamored of their shared past, decides to 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.

dodsworth_3_astorTraveling 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.

dodsworth_2_astorHowever, 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)

Baroness Von Obersdorf (Maria Ouspenskaya)

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)