#408) Dodsworth (1936)

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#408) Dodsworth (1936)

OR “Huston, We Have a Problem”

Directed by William Wyler

Written by Sidney Howard. Based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis and the stage adaptation by Howard.

Class of 1990

No trailer, but here’s a clip.

The Plot: Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) retires as head of his motor company in a small Midwestern town, and agrees to take his wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton) on an extended vacation through Europe. The down-to-earth Sam is interested in seeing the common tourist spots, while the vain, youth-obsessed Fran is more focused on becoming a socialite and leaving her boring home life behind. The Dodsworths’ marriage is put to the test when Fran begins flirting with a trio of young European men (David Niven, Paul Lukas, Gregory Gaye), and Sam connects with an American divorcée (Mary Astor) living in Naples. Can their marriage be saved!?

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “highly acclaimed”, but offers no other superlatives, opting instead for a detailed (and spoiler-ridden) plot synopsis, as well as a rundown of the film’s Oscar stats.

But Does It Really?: “Dodsworth” is just shy of a minor classic. On the plus side, it’s a well-made, impeccably acted character piece, but through no fault of its own, its status as one of the greatest films continues to wane. The movie rarely gets referenced nowadays (even by classic film buffs), and over the years has been overshadowed by William Wyler’s later, superior films (“The Best Years of Our Lives” and “Ben-Hur”, to name just two). Like many movies whose cultural significance has diminished, the inclusion of “Dodsworth” on this list is welcomed, though far from essential.

Everybody Gets One: Ruth Chatterton was one of Paramount’s biggest stars in the late ‘20s, and found fame in the ‘30s as an aviator! Unfortunately, her time making “Dodsworth” was not pleasant, as she and Wyler frequently clashed over their interpretations of Fran. This is also the only NFR appearance for dashing leading man Paul Lukas, just a few years shy of his Oscar winning turn in “A Watch on the Rhine”.

Wow, That’s Dated: Mostly the film’s depiction of international transportation methods (the Dodsworths travel to Europe on the still operational Queen Mary, and are wary of aeroplanes). There’s also a “hilarious” joke about spousal abuse. The ‘30s!

Seriously, Oscars?: A critical hit, “Dodsworth” received seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. The film tied for most nominations with “The Great Ziegfeld” and “Anthony Adverse”, both of which beat out  “Dodsworth” in several categories, but “Dodsworth” picked up one win for Richard Day’s Art Direction.

Other notes

  • Walter Huston reprises his role from the Broadway production, and does an excellent job of reigning in his work for film. He’s a charming, relatable leading man; a full 180 from his more famous turn as a grizzled prospector.
  • Easily the film’s most cited production note: While shooting “Dodsworth”, Mary Astor was going through a very public divorce and custody battle with second husband Franklyn Thorpe. To avoid being hounded by the press during production, Astor slept at the studio (some sources say in her bungalow, others say on the “Dodsworth” set). Ultimately, Astor was granted the divorce, as well as custody of her daughter Marylyn. By court ruling, Astor’s diary (which contained details of her affair with playwright George S. Kaufman) was dismissed as evidence, impounded, and eventually destroyed. Any personal stress that Astor was going through does not come through in the final film.
  • I’m always surprised when David Niven shows up on this list. I guess I wasn’t expecting him to have so many classic films on his resume. Speaking of, when’s “Candleshoe” making the cut?
  • With the exception of specially filmed background projections, the entire movie was shot at Goldwyn Studios, including replicas of Paris, Vienna, and Naples. Richard Day earned the hell out of his Art Direction Oscar.
  • I appreciate that this is a movie about a long-married couple who are recognizing their relationship troubles for the first time. It’s a very adult premise, done without the kind of melodramatics I expect from studio films of the era. The excellent acting overcompensates for the somewhat static staging. Despite its impressive sets and occasionally liberating cinematography, “Dodsworth” is still very much a filmed play.
  • “Dodsworth” is the film debut of John Payne, seen here as Dodsworth’s son-in-law, and about a decade away from legally proving the existence of Santa Claus.
  • This is the second movie from the ‘30s I’ve covered that has a sad farewell scene at a train station. I didn’t realize what a trope that was. “Airplane!” was on to something.
  • Maria Ouspenskaya gives what I can only describe as a “Beatrice Straight/Judi Dench turn”. In less than five minutes of screentime – most of it sitting down – Ouspenskaya schools Ruth Chatterton in the Stanislavsky Method. She even got an Oscar nomination in the brand new category of Best Supporting Actress.
  • [Spoilers] As much as I was disengaged from this movie, I came around at the end. Huston and Astor have a natural chemistry that made me root for them to get together. And can we talk about how this is a ‘30s movie in which a couple gets divorced and doesn’t reunite at the end? Talk about groundbreaking.

Legacy

  • The stage version of “Dodsworth” has not been seen on Broadway since its initial 1934 engagement, and there has only been one other major adaptation: a 1956 teleplay with Fredric March, Claire Trevor, and Geraldine Fitzgerald.
  • Various remakes have been announced over the years, with such stars as Rock Hudson, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Gregory Peck, and Harrison Ford attached to headline. None of these came to fruition, but something about a William Wyler movie in which Gregory Peck finds love in Italy sounds familiar…

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