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Thursday, April 24, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Dodsworth (1936)

Director: William Wyler
Starring: Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, Mary Astor

If your only familiarity with Walter Huston is through The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Dodsworth might come as a shock to you. In fact, Dodsworth is a film that is kind of shocking regardless. A thoroughly adult story about a middle-aged couple discovering that they aren’t so compatible, after all, this is a film that approaches its characters with such candour and sincerity that it’s like a breath of fresh air. It isn’t the most technically innovative film, and it’s influence can’t be read in a thousand films that followed it, but as pure character study, I can think of few films that can top it.

It begins with Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston), an automobile tycoon taking his last look around his office before retiring. His employees look upon him with reverence as he says his goodbyes and makes his exit, and we’re already aware that he’s not your typical millionaire. He’s not a faceless money-grubber or a tyrannical despot who will do anything to maintain his power and influence. Instead, he’s the most average of Joes, a regular guy who would fit in easily with his employees, were it not for the fact that he’s worth millions. Following his final day at work, he and his wife, Fran (Ruth Chatterton), leave for Europe and we see more of Dodsworth’s “everyman” qualities in the way that he’s thrilled not by the fact that he’s about to experience the decadence that Europe has to offer, but instead by the mere fact that he’s crossing the ocean and seeing things he’s never seen before.

Dodsworth’s excitement, demonstrated here in his desire to wait up on deck as they approach the land so that he can see it, is undercut by the first signs of distress in his marriage. We see Fran beginning to distance herself from him, embarrassed by what she sees as his provinciality. He may be a millionaire – self-made, no doubt – but she obviously sees herself as coming from a higher social caste then him and makes it clear that she finds his ways unsophisticated as she aligns herself with a fellow passenger, the British Captain Lockert (David Niven), who embodies the type of person – charming, refined, and most certainly above being excited by the fact of seeing a light that is the first sign of land – she wants to be associated with. She and Lockert flirt and seem on the verge of having an affair, until he realizes that she’s in over her head and makes it apparent to her that he thinks she’s just as provincial as her husband. It’s the worst kind of insult for Fran, whose humiliation will lead her into two affairs before she's finally able to work herself up to leaving her husband.

The break comes while the pair are touring Austria, when Fran and the much younger Baron Kurt Von Obersdorf (Gregory Gaye) fall into an affair and Fran decides to throw Dodsworth over for her new man. Dodsworth lets her go and wanders aimlessly around Europe, seeing things for the sake of seeing things but not really enjoying them, until he runs into Edith Cortright (Mary Astor), an acquaintance from the journey across the Atlantic, and falls in love himself. However, before the Dodsworths’ divorce can be finalized, Fran comes running back, her plans to marry Kurt having been thwarted by his mother (played marvellously by Maria Ouspenskaya). Dodsworth is willing to give his marriage another chance until he realizes that Fran hasn’t changed at all, that she’s learned nothing about herself from these events, and that she hasn’t grown to appreciate him or their marriage any more than she did before she left him. Fran is the sort of character that you really want to see get her comeuppance – she’s vain and flighty and completely unwilling to take responsibility for her own actions (the withering look that Dodsworth fixes on her when she explains to him that her affair with Kurt was partly his fault is a thing of beauty) – and Dodsworth delivers by allowing her to be thoroughly served not once, but twice, first by the Baroness and then by Dodsworth himself.

Huston is fantastic as Dodsworth, playing this simple, ordinary guy in a very simple, no-frills kind of way. Through Huston, Dodsworth isn’t simply a character, but a man with character who exudes without having to say as much, that the qualities he values most are hard work and loyalty. Because he values loyalty, he’s willing to give Fran another chance, and because he’s such a strong character, he doesn’t seem wimpy for it. It’s also important that Dodsworth, while not necessarily a man of the world in the sense of being well-travelled, is a very intelligent man who is able to assess the situation clearly enough to know that his loyalty isn’t valued, but taken for granted, and that it’s time to call it a day. As Fran, Ruth Chatterton shines in what is an unforgiving role, playing as she does the film’s “villain,” if a film like this can be thought of as having a villain. However, there’s enough shading to her character that, even though you want her to get knocked down, you still feel sorry for her. She’s a woman clinging desperately to her youth, perhaps all the more fiercely because the Dodsworths’ daughter is about to make them grandparents. “You’re simply rushing at old age, Sam, and I’m not ready for that yet,” she tells her husband. Given how society tends to value women less the older they get, it’s easy to understand why she feels so much anxiety about aging, even though that doesn’t excuse the way she treats Dodsworth.

Dodsworth may very well be the most underrated American film ever made. I’ve never seen it included in any Top 100 and I’ve yet to meet anyone else who’s heard of it, let alone seen it. Perhaps because, like its title character, it is so simple, so straightforward, that it’s bound the blend into the background and take a backseat to flashier entertainments. But its simplicity is also what’s kept it fresh, and while Fran spends the movie worrying about getting older, the movie itself hasn’t aged a bit.

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