Dodsworth (1936) Review

Dodsworth (1936) Director: William Wyler


Dodsworth is a bittersweet film about a failing marriage. It is a simple picture –another triumph from producer Samuel Goldwyn– starring Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, Mary Astor, and even David Niven who makes a brief appearance. The film is based on the 1934 play of the same name by Sidney Howard, which is based on the 1929 novel by Sinclair Lewis. The film garnered the first Academy Award nomination for Director William Wyler (his first of fourteen), as well as the first nomination Actor Walter Huston (father of the great film director John Huston). In addition, Dodsworth was a Best Picture winner. The film was a commercial and critical success in the 1930s, and though I have my misgivings with Sinclair Lewis novels, I thought this was among his very best.

Dodsworth tells the story of Sam Dodsworth, played by Walter Huston, a business magnate of the automobile industry in the Midwest. He is from a small town called Zenith.  At the beginning of the film, he sells his successful company, Dodsworth Motors, and retires. At home, his wife, Fran, is longing for a new life. She has grown bored of the listless pace of life in the Midwest. They decide to travel to Europe together, where she soon begins to drift away from Sam in an effort to gain attention from other men who are “of the world.” She begins to see Sam as dull and backwards, and she starts talking more like European women, dressing like them, and staying out dancing all night.

She develops several romantic liaisons, all of which end in failure. Sam returns home at one point only to find his house and lifestyle are not the same without Fran. He returns to Europe in an effort to win her back, but it tragically fails as she has fallen in love with her new man, Kurt. She goes out dancing instead of calling home to her daughter who has just given birth to a grandchild. She decides to file for divorce, and Sam leaves to travel around Europe. He is despondent and alone until he comes upon an old acquaintance he had initially developed on the boat across the Atlantic. They fall in love while living in her Italian villa. However, in a twist of fate, Fran calls off the divorce as Kurt’s mother does not approve. She tries to make amends with Sam as they board a boat headed back to the United States, but at the last moment, Sam flees the boat and returns to his lover in Italy as the film concludes.

Notably, Mary Astor, the great former silent film star who plays Sam’s European paramour, was going through a messy and very-much public divorce at the time of this film’s release. It became a worldwide sensation, even bumping Hitler from the headlines briefly. In the course of the legal battle, it was discovered that she left behind a detailed diary of her affairs (known as “the purple diary”), in particular she had a liaison with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright George S. Kaufman. The lurid diary was notoriously confiscated by her soon-to-be-ex-husband, and it was handed over to the court but its contents were soon destroyed out of respect. It nevertheless cast a shadow over her life and career. The court drama and subsequent child custody battle raised the profile of this film while the press had a field day. Mary Astor worried that her career was over as a result of the scandal, however her performance in Dodsworth was met with praise and five years later, she won the Academy Award for The Great Lie (1941). It is also worth mentioning that Ruth Chatterton was entering her mid-forties by the time of this film’s release. Much like her character, Fran, she was on the cusp of entering middle age –perhaps she experienced some of her own desire for youthful escapism. Apparently, she struggled with playing the role of a woman chasing after young men.

It is a sad thing to see a marriage fall apart. Neither Sam nor Fran are made the villain here, though both make bone-headed decisions, blinded to the other’s needs, but Dodsworth offers an instructive lesson for those who decide to get married. Are your life goals aligned with your spouse’s life goals? In the case of Sam and Fran, their hopes and fears are woefully out of sync, one reaching forward, ready to settle into old age, while the other is desperate to reach backward and hold onto her youth a little longer.

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