True story! My personal copy of Dodsworth was bought from a local video store (remember them!?) that went out of business. When I arrived at the sale, the “Classics” shelf had been picked clean. I mean, every single film was gone, except for Dodsworth. Someone even purchased Anatole Litvak’s Mayerling (with Charles Boyer and Danielle Darrieux), so you know we weren’t dealing with average video clientele!
Anyway, despite my giving it a good home, the sight of Dodsworth sitting alone, sad and dejected, still haunts me (Go on. Say it. “If that’s all that haunts you, you’ve lived a charmed life!”). Mainly, because I never thought we’d reach a point where overlooking anything of William Wyler’s would be commonplace behavior. But I suppose it has, since hardly anyone talks about this film, despite its having been a 1936 blockbuster and recipient of 6 Oscar nominations.
Based on the book by Sinclair Lewis, Dodsworth tells the story of Sam (Walter Huston) and Fran (Ruth Chatterton) Dodsworth, empty-nesters awash in the pieces of a crumbling marriage. Sam is a newly retired automobile tycoon, who at the behest of his wife has left the office in favor of a more leisurely life. The couple embarks on a tour of Europe, hoping to rekindle the passion of their youth, only to find that in middle-age, they are now, sadly, incompatible.
What unfolds is a tale told a million times over. She was young when they married, and gave him “the best years of [her] life.” (Yes, we’ll talk about that film some other time). He was neglectful and unaware. Without realizing it, they were living two separate lives. Now, the collision of who they have become in the interim has created an imbalance neither is able to cope with.
As their European jaunt gets underway, Fran find herself increasingly fascinated by a set of ne’er do well social elites. They know all the right places, all the right people, dress smartly, and often do so on the dime of naive Americans. Flattered by the attention lavished on her, Fran grows increasingly embarrassed and frustrated by Sam’s rough-hewn provincialisms. He prefers puttering around with a guide book. His French is atrocious. He insists on ham and eggs for breakfast each morning. When it becomes clear that she cannot change him anymore than he can change her, Fran shuns her husband in favor of a series of romantic interludes. First, with a flirtatious Englishman (a young David Niven!), next a blackguard art collector (Paul Lukas), and then an impoverished Austrian baron (Gregory Gaye).
In a scene so typical of Wyler, the use of a mirror is employed to visually chart the point of no return, which Fran steps across when she decides to leave Sam for the Baron. Wyler frames her back in the middle of the focal field, using a lamp as the foreground, with the mirror off to the left. As she receives the Baron’s declaration of love, Wyler continues to show only her back. There is no need to shoot her face, as her reaction is not one of genuine emotion, but instead a calculated response to her desire for social respect and personal excitement. While Fran considers her options, the camera pans to the right as she paces, coming perilously close to Sam’s bedroom door. Wyler then shows her back, reflected in the left-side mirror, as she cautiously opens the door to see if he is still asleep. He is.
She has made her decision.
While Fran is engaged in extra-martial folderol, Sam has erstwhile made the acquaintance of an America expatriate, divorcee Edith Cortwright. Edith has been living in Italy for some time, and projects a world-weary attitude toward the kind of societal glitz that Fran is fascinated by. The contrast between the two women could not be clearer in the first, and only, scene they share. At a party ostensibly for Fran’s birthday, she makes a to-do about feeling old at the ripe age of “thirty-five.” Not taken in for a minute, Edith plays along, sympathetically telling her, “When you’re my age, you’ll look back at thirty-five as a most agreeable time of life.” As Edith leaves the party, she catches Fran in an illicit embrace. Without a note of hysteria, she simply tells Fran, “Don’t,” in a voice that is both instructive, yet saddened by a scene she has doubtlessly witnessed many times before.
Although Sam feels that Edith is something of a kindred spirit, he does not regard her as anything more until Fran leaves him for the Baron. Indeed, during his parting scene with Fran, he still professes to love her, despite the pain she has inflicted on him. “Did I remember to tell you today that I adore you?” he asks wistfully, as the train pulls away from the station. In a beautiful shot-reverse-shot, her reaction says it all. “No.” Sadly, his concern and interest is coming at a stage much too late to be of any good.
As the divorce proceedings get underway, Fran goes to Vienna with the Baron, while Sam restlessly combs the globe for solace. He eventually finds himself in Naples, where Edith resides (in an enormous villa that she rents for $50 a month!). The two reacquaint themselves, and with little care for local gossip, Edith invites Sam to stay at her home, telling him, “That doesn’t mean that it would have to be so, or that I’d have it so, even if you wanted it so!”
It’s not long before Sam feels he is fully recovered from the heartbreak of his impending divorce. He takes up fishing, delights in fixing the motor of Edith’s houseboy’s sailboat, and begins making plans for a new business venture (An airline flying from Moscow to Seattle!) In his own words, Sam is excited to get back to “doing things,” and he asks Edith in no uncertain terms whether she would be willing to do them together. It is clear, at this point in the film that the two have fallen in love, despite not having shared a kiss or even the slightest embrace on screen. The ease with which Huston and Astor interact, both in body and tone of voice, conjure up an intimacy bordering on the domestic. It is obvious that they belong together.
Unfortunately, all is not well with Fran in Vienna. She clashes with the Baron’s pragmatic and old-world mother (Maria Ouspenskaya), who sees the relationship for what it really is: frivolity. For the entirety of the picture, Fran has projected her illusions of vanity out in the world and had them readily reflected back to her. Now, it seems she has met her match. The climax between these two titans ends with one simple, yet crushing blow from the Baroness “Have you thought how little happiness there can be for the old wife of a young husband?”
With her dreams of becoming European royalty dashed, Fran wastes no time and running back to the safety of her marriage. Out of a sense of duty, Sam leaves Edith to reconcile with his wife. As they board a ship back to America, Fran doesn’t seem to be able to “strike a congenial” note. She blames Sam for her own indiscretions, criticizes the quality of their fellow passengers, and jabbers on about the beautiful clothes she has managed to collect during her time abroad. With dawning comprehension, Sam finally realizes that there’s nothing left between them but bits of wreckage.
Just as the gangplank is being lowered, Sam jumps on it, intent on getting back to Edith, getting back to “doing things.” As he descends to shore, Fran hysterically yells after him in this immortal exchange:
Fran: Are you going back to that washed-out expatriate in Naples?
Sam: Yes, and when I marry her, I’m going back to doing things!
Fran: Do you think you’ll ever get me out of your blood?
Sam: Maybe not, but love has got to stop someplace short of suicide.
As a director, William Wyler excels at filming the alienation of people who suffer from very common life-ills. The beauty of his work is that he treats everyone in his narration with a degree of respect and sympathy. Even the characters one might term “villains” for genre’s sake, are regarded with care. Here, it is clear that Fran is being painted with black brushstrokes, however Wyler goes out of his way to give her character depth. It is important to him that the audience understands her motivation, that they know it comes from a place that is rational, yet misguided. So while we root for Sam and Edith, we are still able to find pity for Fran.
It always amazes me when auteurists deny Wyler for lack of discernable style. His obsession with finding the frame within the frame aside, there’s a fluidity in his camera work that while muted, remains almost lyrical in my estimation. When I think of him, I think of a quiet storm. The emotion he is able to capture by being an observer, from a distance, is unbelievable. Right now, I’m thinking not only of Dodsworth, but also The Best Years of Our Lives and The Little Foxes , although you could certainly add other titles to the list. I also believe that when it comes to social commentary, Wyler is someone who really cannot be beat. Yes, Dodsworth is about the dismantling of a marriage, but the interplay between American and European mores is a dominant force driving the narrative.
On a completely different note, it’s interesting to see the comparison of Ruth Chatterton and Mary Astor through the eyes of Huston’s character. In a strange play of art imitating life, Astor’s star was beginning to eclipse Chatterton’s, much as her character replaces Fran in Sam’s affections. Mary Astor claims that Chatterton hated Wyler and hated the part of Fran. She did not want to play a woman desperately clinging to youth, for as Astor surmised, the role hit a little too close to home.
As for Astor, she was thrown into an enormous scandal during the filming of Dodsworth when she entered into a contentious custody battle over her four-year old daughter. Determined to paint Astor as an immoral, unfit mother, her ex-husband produced a diary that allegedly held graphic entries regarding her affairs with writer George Kaufman and a host of other, unnamed Hollywood actors. Astor, who had a morality clause written into her contract, denied the veracity of the diary, but was convinced she was about to be fired from the film anyway. However, the media frenzy surrounding her trial only served to make her more popular, giving credence to the old-adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
All of these incidents (and more!) can be read in Mary Astor’s wonderful book, A Life On Film. It is a superbly entertaining and informing chronicle of not only the actress’s career, but the evolution of the film industry from silents to sound, through color and beyond. Truly a marvelous read, I can’t recommend it enough.
And if you, like me, are an Astor fan, you might also want to hunt down her autobiography, My Life. Again, it is beautifully written and painstakingly honest. Following a half-hearted suicide attempt and nervous breakdown, she wrote the book while in care of a psychiatrist. Unsurprisingly, it plots many of the more painful aspects of her life; growing up under the rule of iron-fisted stage parents, losing her first husband, Kenneth Hawks (brother of Howard Hawks) in a freak plane crash, shattered love affairs, bouts of alcoholism. . .you name it, it’s in this book, and to her credit, she makes no excuses for her failings.
It is sad to think of how much this woman went through, especially when you watch the last scene of Dodsworth, where Edith stands forlorn, on her terrace, gazing out to sea. Suddenly, a small fishing boat comes into sight. Sam is on it.
Her whole face breaks into unrestrained happiness. Dialogue is dismissed as redundant, and you hope with your whole heart that the radiance projected by Astor is an emotion she’ll carry long after the screen fades to black.