It's been a while since I've blogged, and I did promise I would post here my contribution to The Great Breening Blogathon. So, with the promise that I will contribute here more frequently, here goes...
The Technical Stuff (courtesy of Wikipedia)
Directed by William Wyler
Produced by Samuel Goldwyn
Written by Sidney Howard
Based on Dodsworth 1934 play by Sidney Howard
Dodsworth 1929 novel by Sinclair Lewis
Starring Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, Paul Lukas, Mary Astor, David Niven
Music by Alfred Newman
Cinematography Rudolph Maté
Edited by Daniel Mandell
Samuel Goldwyn Productions
Distributed by United Artists
Release date September 23, 1936
Running time 101 minutes
Box office $1.6 million
Caution: this article contains spoilers.
Sinclair Lewis was just about my favorite author in high school and college. I read many of his works: MAIN STREET, BABBITT, ARROWSMITH, IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE. And of course, DODSWORTH. I haven't read the book in many years, but I have seen the film more recently. Sidney Howard adapted the screenplay from his own Broadway adaptation, so I presume those two versions are faithful to each other, if not to the original book (Howard's dialogue is excellent). One of my favorite quips is when Mary Astor mentions its her 40th birthday. Sincere felicitations abound, and Ruth Chatterton (clearly on the other side of 40) comments she hopes to look as good as Mary Astor when she turns 40. Mary replies, "My dear, you're almost sure to."
Here's the Reader's Digest Condensed Version of the plot: Sam Dodsworth is an automotive industrialist who's made his pile (and has sold his company). His goal is to see the world, "now I'm retired" (as he often says) with Fran, his somewhat younger wife (mature in years, if not emotions). They embark on a tour of Europe. As they approach England, Sam is excited to see the land of his ancestors. He strikes up a friendly conversation with Edith Courtright, an expatriate divorcee (Mary Astor). Meanwhile, Fran flirts with a young swain (David Niven). It's clear that Fran has a flirtatious nature, still considers herself the belle of the (small-town) ball, but is woefully unprepared for the European style of perfidy. Somewhat frightened by this first unsuccessful attempt at infidelity, she insists they continue on to Paris immediately.
Sam is dismissive of what we would today call "Eurotrash", while Fran is eager to hobnob, especially with bon vivant Arnold Iselin (Paul Lukas). Fran makes it clear that Sam is cramping her enjoyment of the continent and suggests he return home while she continues to travel. Sam does so, but finds you can't go home again: his daughter and son-in-law have settled in his old home. Sam feels like the odd man out, and realizes that Fran may have left him behind, too. He returns to Europe, confronts Fran about her affair with Iselin. She confesses, they reconcile.
They get word in Vienna that their daughter will soon have a child. Sam is delighted, and needles Fran about settling down. She realizes she's not ready to be a grandmother yet. By now, Fran has taken up with Baron Kurt (Gregory Gaye), a younger man who wishes to marry Fran. She asks Sam for a divorce, and Sam regretfully accedes. Sam embarks on a glum and lonely solo tour of the great sights. While in Italy, he again encounters Edith Courtright. Over time, they fall in love, and make plans to join in an airline business together.
Of course, this is a cue for Fran to cry out for help. Kurt's mother (Maria Ouspenskaya, everyone's favorite gypsy) strongly objects to the marriage: for religious reasons, and, more pointedly because Fran will be the old wife of a young husband. ("He will want children to carry on the family name. Can you give them to him?") With much reluctance and a heavy heart (shared by Edith, who is willing to fight for Sam), he goes to Fran and prepares to sail home. Unfortunately, Fran can't leave well enough alone, and her petty and pretentious nature soon come to the fore. Sam realizes there isn't any hope, and leaves. In a great send-off, Fran cries out, "Do you think you'll ever get me out of your blood?" To which Sam replies, "Maybe not, but love's got to stop somewhere short of suicide."
In a beautiful ending, Fran wanders sadly around her villa, and goes out to watch the sea. A small sailboat approaches and we see Sam waving furiously. As we move in on a close up of a radiant Mary Astor, waving with a glowing look of love and joy, we fade out for THE END.
Overall, the major plot threads are a sterling example of how to circumvent the Breen Office. Just the subject of divorce itself would seem to be taboo. This is, after all, the same system that changed the Broadway musical GAY DIVORCE to THE GAY DIVORCEE. (The observation's been made that while the subject must remain unpleasant, the participants can sure have fun). Fran is clearly to blame for the breakup: she comes across as quite selfish, and embodies a few of the characteristics of the nouveau-riche, who don't realize that money can't buy you class or gratitude. Fran is clearly heading for affairs and the subsequent breakup, while Sam just as surely is not. The entire encounter with Edith in Italy is purely by chance, and Sam goes farther than many screen husbands would in trying to salvage his marriage. I have found it hard to wrap my head around TWO divorced people being rewarded with happiness, but perhaps if you take it from this perspective it makes sense: Sam didn't instigate the divorce, he fought it off as long as possible. While we don't know Edith's circumstances, she seems to have led a somewhat lonely existence post-divorce. Perhaps that was her penance, and a life as Sam's partner is the reward.
The point has been made that Fran should engender some sympathy, as she clearly wants to prolong what's left of her youth, rather than rushing into old age with Sam. Parallels have been drawn to Ruth Chatterton, who was nearing the end of her own film career, and may have had the same feelings. (I think this may be hyperbole). I'm not sure I buy all this. While you can feel sorry for her, Fran is her own worst enemy, as she, as opposed to Sam, is willing to throw away all she's gained for a lifestyle that will give her temporary excitement, at best.
Ironically, production took place while poor real-life divorcee Mary Astor was in the middle of a custody trial, when the infamous "purple diary", detailing (and what detailing!) her affair with George S. Kaufmann became public. Reportedly, Goldwyn was advised to drop Astor, using a morals clause. To his credit, he made the observation, "No - a mother fighting for her child - this is a good thing." I'm glad he kept her too. Theoretically, she's a co-respondent in a divorce, but she is so sympathetic that you come away thinking her ex must have been a boob. Edith is genuinely sophisticated, yet UNpretentious. While we remember Mary Astor's more brittle or neurotic characters, she was often so lovely, warm, and a calm way-station in the midst of chaos. DODSWORTH is a great example of what I mean.
Ruth Chatterton has an extremely difficult part, but I think she's able to convey a character who must have been delightful in her youth, but like many people we know, didn't make a change for the better. It's almost tragic to watch her make a fool of herself and attempt to play a game for which she is lacking in skill.
Walter Huston is wonderful. In so many films, he's the personification of the mature American. Sam Dodsworth is clearly a self-made man, rough around the edges, but a success nonetheless. He has a realistic view of the world. While Sam seems to have settled too quickly into becoming an elder statesman, it's clear that he feels this is the nautral thing to do.
Overall, DODSWORTH is a wonderful example of the best Hollywood had to offer in its golden age: production value, a mature and compelling story, and first-rate acting by people who really knew what they were doing.