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"Dodsworth" has been on my short list of must-see films for decades,
and I finally had my chance to see it last night. I'm still in awe.
(Others have made cogent observations about the acting of the other
principals in the cast, so I will confine my comments specifically to
Walter Huston.) There are people who will complain that this film is
"slow," that it is "boring," that "nothing ever happens in it." Too bad
for them, because this is a master class in acting of the highest
It is difficult to pull off a film like "Dodsworth" without betraying its stage origins, but this one feels and moves like a movie, not a play. (Of course, its genesis is a lengthy Sinclair Lewis novel, but the contributions of the gifted Sidney Howard -- who adapted the novel for the stage and the screen -- cannot be overlooked.) Walter Huston, who also played Sam Dodsworth in the Broadway play, was that rarest of actors, equally adept at playing to the back row of the balcony and giving a quiet wink to another 20-foot-tall face on a movie screen.
Anyone can buff up and wield a sword or tumble from a parking garage after being shot eleven times. But it takes a truly gifted screen actor to make the mundane seem utterly real; to shade a line just so, to achieve perfect pitch with every gesture, every glance. Huston was just such an actor, who, if he is remembered at all today it as John Huston's father, or the "old guy" in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre." Too bad again, because Huston was one of the finest actors in the history of American movies. He was not a movie star, but he totally embodied every role he ever played, and never gave a poor performance.
The narrative of "Dodsworth" is mature, intelligently handled material. It is impeccably directed by William Wyler. No one has ever remade it, though remakes have been considered. There are directors working today who could handle "Dodsworth," but it really merits more sophisticated treatment than the extensive nudity and profusion of strong language that would inevitably be written into a new script. It's much better left alone, and it deserves a far larger audience than it has ever had in the 68 years since its release.
"Dodsworth" is a disarmingly honest and frank depiction of a failed
marriage, based on the Sinclair Lewis novel. Its naturalistic acting
and its refusal to make its characters anything less than full-bodied
human beings make it feel way ahead of its time. It's never mentioned
along with other classic films of the period--probably because it
doesn't have an epic scope--but it should be.
Walter Huston gives an absolutely flawless performance in the title role. His type is so recognizable, even today: the successful American business man who values the simplest and most traditional of American values, and who comes across as provincial and crass to the rest of the world. Ruth Chatterton meets Huston's performance every step of the way as Dodsworth's wife, glad of the material comfort her husband can provide, but embarrassed by him and aware that he will prevent her from joining the world of high culture to which she wants to belong. It is to the movie's distinct credit that neither of these characters is either hero or villain. Dodsworth is crass and unsophisticated; yet at the same time he's honest and never misleads his wife into thinking he's something that he's not. Mrs. Dodsworth has a right to be bored by the kind of life Dodsworth is content with, but she might have thought of that before so readily accepting his financial success.
I don't really know for sure, but I have a feeling this movie might have made people very uncomfortable in 1936. I doubt married couples were encouraged to turn too critical an eye on their own marriages back then, and I suspect that more people than not decided to stick it out in unhappy marriages rather than violate a sense of social propriety. Before the days when people dated for a few years before getting married, many people probably learned about the kind of person they were marrying only after the wedding day. "Dodsworth" beautifully captures the sad, melancholy feeling of waking up one morning and realizing you're not married to the person you thought you were.
Dodsworth is one of the best dramas of the 1930s. Walter Huston stars
as Dodsworth, a middle-aged auto tycoon who looks forward to
retirement. His wife--Ruth Chatterton--is not quite ready for the
rocking chair. They embark on a grad tour of Europe. From the start
Chatterton falls for the cosmopolitan airs of Europe and the attentions
of the debonair men. More and more she leaves Dodsaworth alone as she
flits among the cafe society. By accident he runs into a lonely
American widow (Mary Astor) living in Italy. As the husband and wife
drift farther apart, he moves closer to Astor. Yes it sounds like soap
opera, but the acting is so good and the characters so real you forget
the plot mechanics.
Huston has one of his very best film roles as the floundering Dodsworth who needs an anchor. Chatterton is excellent as the foolish wife (this was her last film), and Astor is a wonder as the American widow. The three stars turn in towering performances.
The rest of the cast includes Maria Ouspenskaya and the old countess, Spring Byington and Harlan Briggs as the best friends, John Payne as the son in law, David Niven as a gigolo, Gregory Gaye as the suitor, Paul Lukas as Arnold, and Odette Myrtil as the social leach.
There was talk in the mid-90s that Harrison Ford would star in a new version of Dodsworth but he never followed through because he wanted to continue his "action" roles. Too bad. Ford has certain qualities that would have made him (or Warren Beatty) ideal for the part. But Ford and Beatty are too old now. Oddly only Huston and Ouspenskaya earned Oscar nominations. Hard to see how Chatterton and Astor got bypassed.
This is a great American film.
If you're tired of the actual Hollywood teenager productions, you have a chance to see some maturity watching "Dodsworth". The relationship of the Dodsworths are amazingly realistic, and the wonderful performances by Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton only improve the reality of the situation. He is amazing as a retired middle-aged industrialist and she is faultless as his futile, snob and frustrated wife. This film also got me some extra points because of Mary Astor, at the highest point of her beauty. It's masterly directed by William Wyler, and the cinematography is wonderful. One of the greatest films from the first decade of the sounded films.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
DODSWORTH (United Artists, 1936), directed by William Wyler, stars
Walter Huston (1884-1950) in what is rightfully acclaimed to be his
best screen performance in a motion picture career that spanned from
1929 until his death in 1950. Recreating the role he originated on
Broadway in 1934, and based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis, this Samuel
Goldwyn production is a perfectly transferred masterpiece.
The story revolves around Samuel Dodsworth (Walter Huston), a millionaire industrialist of Zenith, Ohio, president and founder of Dodsworth Motor Company, who, after twenty years of building up his automobile establishment, sells it over to Union Motors, and leaves the factory with fond memories of hard work behind him. Now retired, he finds that he must succumb to his wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton), whose main goal is to enjoy life starting with an extensive six month European vacation from London to Paris. While on their continental tour on the Queen Mary, Sam excites himself by seeing the world for the first time while his wife, yearning for a more sophisticated existence, tries to recapture her youth by winning admiration with younger or sophisticated men: Captain Clyde Lockert (David Niven), and Arnold Iselin (Paul Lukas), a suave international banker, each becoming short-lived affairs. As Fran entertains herself without Sam, Sam finds good company with Edith Cortright (Mary Astor) a American divorcée traveling alone. What was originally intended to be a sort of second honeymoon for this middle-aged couple, Sam and Fran find that, after years of marriage, they have become strangers, drifting apart. Fran becomes even more bitter when she learns that her now grown married daughter (Kathryn Marlowe) is expecting a child, making Fran to realize that she is to become a grandmother. Still deeply in love with Fran, Sam is unwilling to profess to himself that she is a selfish woman trying to hold on to her youth but reluctantly consents to Fran's request to get a divorce. Traveling around the world alone, Sam reacquaints himself with Edith Cortright. As for Fran, she finds love with the impoverished Kurt Von Obersdorf (Gregory Gaye), with whom she plans to marry. After meeting Kurt's aristocratic but strong-willed mother (Maria Ouspenskaya), who is totally against this marriage, Fran becomes mortified when she's asked, "Have you ever thought what it would be like to be the old wife of a young husband?" As for Sam, his life has become a renewed experience with Edith at her Italian villa until Fran informs him she wants to come back into his life again.
Walter Huston, more an actor than star, makes a perfect Dodsworth. He even delivers the film's most memorable line, "Love has to stop someplace short of suicide." Ruth Chatterton, a capable actress whose career by then was then on the wane, gives one of her best on-screen performances, in fact, her last great performance ever recorded on film. Her classic moment is telling her husband, Sam, "You're rushing at old age. I'm not ready for that yet!" Sadly, many of her previous screen efforts are overlooked and forgotten today. Years before cable television dominated the airwaves, DODSWORTH appeared to be the only Ruth Chatterton movie in circulation on commercial or late night television. While Fay Bainter, who co-starred opposite Huston in the stage version of DODSWORTH, would have been equally excellent in the role of Fran, Chatterton's performance nearly dominates without taking away from Huston's performance. At times she could become annoying, but that's the essence to her character.
Nominated for eight Academy Awards, Huston did get recognized for his performance as Best Actor as did the movie for Best Picture. Curiously, Ruth Chatterton performance was overlooked by the judges of the academy. What's even more ironic is that Maria Ouspenskaya, making her movie debut, in a performance that takes up no more than five minutes, earned an award for Best Supporting Actress, the nomination that should have been offered to Mary Astor, who not only has more screen time, but is more essential to the story. Aside from that, Astor, who was playing a woman some years older than her true age, is strikingly beautiful and shares the film's now many classic scenes, including the one where she looks eye to eye at Fran (who claims to be 35), and telling her, "Don't." Her one word says it all. What also makes the movie succeed, even after all these years, is the frankness and very adult-minded theme dealing with realities of mid-life crisis. Next to Paramount's MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (1937), DODSWORTH is the only known major motion picture of that time to bring out the realities of old age openly and honestly. The Alfred Newman underscoring which sets the mood and dramatic appeal is also an added plus as well as part of the Samuel Goldwyn trademark.
Supporting players include Spring Byington, Odette Myrtil, and John Payne, billed as John Howard Payne, making his movie debut, as Harry, Emily Dodsworth's husband.
DODSWORTH became one of many Samuel Goldwyn features to be distributed to video cassette. Aside from its many revivals on commercial television since the 1970s, DODSWORTH did enjoy frequent showings on cable television's American Movie Classics in 1993, and more than a decade later, premiered March 1, 2004, on Turner Classic Movies.
DODSWORTH, winner of one Academy Award, for which best art direction by Richard Day, is the type of movie once seen, it's hard to forget, and improves itself with repeated viewing. Producer Samuel Goldwyn accomplished in transporting a stage play into a cinematic achievement. Not once during its presentation did DODSWORTH have the appearance of a filmed stage play. In spite that DODSWORTH in not becoming as better known as it deserves to be, it still ranks one of the finest and most adult stories ever to be produced in the 1930s. Huston, Chatterton and Astor, all deliver excellent performances under William Wyler's superb direction. (****)
Some years ago, I read a short piece in TV Guide by the critic and screenwriter Jay Cocks, in which he listed ten 'great, underrated films'. One which I had never heard of before was Dodsworth.I trust Jays taste in films, so i decided to take a lot at it. I promptly saw it on Video and was enthralled.Once more, William Wyler reveals why he has to be ranked among the great Hollywood directors. Dodsworth is that rarity, a film for adult people. In addition, it boasts a literate script, fine acting by an superb cast, and an very fine design. One of the favorite themes of the fiction of Henry James,. the conflict between American innocence and European sophistication, is here explored with a concision and an empathy James only occasionally managed. In addition, the film is a profoundly moving love story. One can only wonder why this exquisite movie was not even nominated for the AFI list of great American films.
It's impossible to do justice to this work, which chronicles the complex breakdown of a long and successful marriage that cannot adjust to new challenges. Unlike many movies of the 1930s with high production values and a feel for old, glamorous Hollywood, the drama remains focused and disciplined. Aside from its subtle analysis of the end of a relationship, the movie does a superb job of contrasting the differences between the new, powerful go-getter culture of 20th-Century America and the more restrained, skeptical traditions of Old Europe. The movie in some ways represents a dialogue between these two cultures, which at time clash, most poignantly when an old Austrian baroness speaks frankly to the wife of an American industrialist. A great overlooked classic.
Dodsworth is one of those Hollywood treasures that the insiders and historians worship but that the general public knows nothing about. There are more famous classic films from the 1930's but not one is any better than Dodsworth. Dodsworth belongs in the class of Lost Horizon, Mutiny on the Bounty, Gone With the Wind, etc. as one of the greatest films of the thirties. It also deserves to be recognized as an old movie that plays well today. This movie does not seem nearly as dated as so many other 70 year old movies. Much of the credit goes to the great novel by Sinclair Lewis, but many great books have been turned into inferior films. The screenplay, direction, acting, photography are all outstanding. The cast is simply extraordinary, one of the best ensembles ever assembled. Just look at the number of soon to be major stars in the supporting cast. Watch it!
We're taught to "take kindly to the counsel of the years, gracefully
surrendering the things of youth." [Desiderata.] While most people allow
maturation to occur naturally and be at peace with their physical
evolvement, some do not.
Like Sinclair Lewis' heroine, people who doggedly resist change may end up disappointed and bitter. Such resistance is the basis for this perceptive adult drama on marital strife.
Ruth Chatterton is ideally cast, looking young while obviously no longer in her early thirties. Her frivolous banter provides a dramatic clash with Walter Hutson's aging hero.
While I find "Dodsworth" strangely depressing, it's a personal reaction, for this is a very well conceived and produced film, securely directed by William Wyler, and solidly scripted by Sidney Howard.
Mary Astor shows warmth as "the other woman" and Spring Byington offers an emotional balance to the proceedings. With excellent cinematography and art direction, "Dodsworth" remains a telling adult drama of the dangers which may transpire by not surrendering youthful matters to advancing years.
It is hard to believe that this film is 64 years old. Walter Huston gives a performance of depth and understanding. He is matched by Mary Astor. The acting seems much more 'modern' than other films from that era, and the story will definitely hold comtemporary audiences. One of my choices for one of the greatest films of the 1930s.
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