Thursday 7 March 2013

Dodsworth (1936)

If anybody asked my right now why I am watching all these old movies from the list I would answer in one word: Dodsworth.

Warning: lots of spoilers!

It was a total surprise for me the first time I saw it a year ago and seeing it again confirms that my first impression was right. On paper the story sounds tedious, not something I would care much to see. A successful industrialist and his wife retire and go on the trip of their life to Europe. The wife, who is an idiot, flirts to the left and right in an eager and delusional attempt at being young again and eventually she sends her loving, but frustrated husband home. All attempts from his side to bring her home to their former life are in vain and eventually he gives up and waits out the divorce. During the wait he meets a kindred spirit and they take a liking for each other. When the wife’s sand castles crumble and she calls for his help he has to decide what he want to do with his life.

Does it sound a trifle boring? Well, it is not. Not at all. This is not a comedy, nor a tragedy, but simply a story of people. Well, well-off people with the means to do what they want on first class, but essentially just people. Samuel Dodsworth (Walter Huston) is the magnanimous and energetic former owner of an automobile company, which he built up from scratch. He is full of ideas and energy and a stand-up guy who speaks his mind. I suppose he embody many traditional American virtues, though I dare say that those virtues are pretty universal, at least today (well, maybe except for his loudness…). His only weakness as his friend Tubby exclaim is his blindness of his wife.

Fran Dodsworth (Ruth Chatterton), his wife, is vain and shallow. No, that is way too mildly put. She is obsessed with form, how people see her, status and crave attention. She is mightily impressed by titles and decorum and measures her own worth in her sexual attractiveness. In short, an idiot and a very annoying one at that. The way Fran and Sam fit together is that Sam takes care of her and she smirks when she needs something from him and otherwise treats him with superiority. Maybe it comes from being idle rich; her idiocy and his guilt at not giving her enough attentions, but he is fundamentally a good guy (and good guys accept their wives and do not give up on them) and she is fundamentally incredibly self-centered and narcissistic. No two ways about that.

The film indicates that European depravity leads Fran into her adulterous and decadent lifestyle, but she manages perfectly on her own. While the guys she finds are mostly well groomed scum they are also lead on by her as Captain Lockert (a very young David Niven) clearly tells her. She just baths in their attention and does not seem to realize that they want something in return. When they tell her that, she is deeply insulted and upset with them instead of listening to what they have to say. That counts for Lockert, Iselin and Kurts mother, the baroness (an always excellent Maria Ouspenskaya in a small part). Also a very narcissistic trait.

I could talk for a long time about how much Fran grates on me and how sorry I feel for Sam. An early peak was when he had arranged tickets for them to go home in time for when their daughter was giving birth, but she refused because it would remind her that she was a grandmother. I feel truly sorry for their daughter.

The last half hour is payback time. Early on Sam meet Edith Cortright (Mary Astor), an American expatriate taking it easy in Italy. As opposed to Fran she is an adult woman who knows what you can and cannot and though there is chemistry between her and Sam they perfectly remain friends, a grown-up relationship. When Sam ends up in Italy during the divorce however those restraints are cast aside and they get closer, yet still in that adult mature way and they experience their second youth. Finally Sam is happy again. And younger. It feels so good to see him that way.

At the same time Fran gets that definite slap from the baroness, uh it feels so good (the devil inside of me…) and she comes crying back to Sam. We get a few minutes of crisis then. Sam is still the responsible person, but he has learnt to see who Fran really is and she being her usual obnoxious self we end up with a very satisfying resolution.

I liked very much the portrayal of Sam and Fran. They are not as one-dimensional as they may sound, but we get a very good look at them and although the sympathy of the movie is clearly on Sam’s side Fran is not portrayed as a caricature, but quite realistic. You even feel a bit sorry for her because she is simply too stupid to really realize what she is doing and how it is affecting her surroundings. She does need some sort of protection, yet I still feel she gets as she deserves. She would probably go on telling people how unfair she has been treated and how stupid everybody are, but she will get more and more isolated and meanwhile Sam has been released from her and is enjoying life again.

The best part of the resolution is that their daughter is an adult and thus not a victim of the divorce.      

Mary Astor was not that lucky. At the time of filming she was involved in an ugly divorce that included heavy infight over custody over her four year old daughter. She came out stronger from this and became a big shot culminating in a headline appearance in “The Maltese Falcon”.

Dodsworth is one of the glorious highlights of the thirties. I wonder why I did not think of it when I listed the top ten of the thirties a few months back. That must be a miss.


  1. This is a hell of a movie, isn't it? I went into this one cold and not expecting much, and I discovered a film with real heart and emotional depth and (most important) real characters with real emotions.

    When I started watching The List, I had hopes I'd uncover a bunch of unknown (to me) gems. This was absolutely one of them.

    1. That is a very precise description of my own experience.
      My gut feeling after watching it closely resembles that of having eaten a very good (and healthy) meal. Utter satisfaction.

  2. Those damn European men leading American women astray. :-)

    In all seriousness, I agree that the wife is very unlikable. It was the scene where she refused to visit her daughter for the birth of her child that lost me. Up until then she had been silly, but that was just downright mean.

    1. That was the definitive point for me as well. She went from stupid to stupid and mean.

  3. I loooooooooooooove this movie, and just like you, it really surprised me. I don't know what I was expecting, but it wasn't this. It's just such an adult movie (in the non-pornographic way). These are ADULTS dealing with being ADULTS. They're not silly little kids. And I completely fell in love with Sam and Edith's plight.

    I think this was one of the first films I saw from the thirties. It's been years since I saw it, but I still remember being completely won over.

    1. Then I am looking forward to read your review. It must soon be time to see it again. Can you imagine that Edith and Brigid O'Shaughnessy is the same actor? so different characters.

  4. This is a good film. Fran is beyond annoying, but at least Mary Astor's Edith is divine. Most people remember Huston for his western roles, but this was a shining effort, too.

    1. I think he was better here than in most of his westerns. One thing I really liked about this film is that the characters are quite believeable and Hustons is in particular.