Dodsworth

Released:  1936

Cast:  Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, Paul Lukas, Mary Astor, David Niven

Oscar Wins:  Best Art Direction (Richard Day)

Oscar Nominations:  Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler), Best Actor (Walter Huston), Best Supporting Actress (Maria Ouspenskaya), Best Sound, Recording (Thomas T. Moulton), Best Writing, Screenplay (Sidney Howard)

SUMMARY:  Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) is an American automaker who has recently sold his (very successful) company, thus retiring.  Since their only child, Emily, has recently gotten married, the Dodsworths have no more responsibilities at home.  Sam and his wife, Fran (Ruth Chatterton) intend to go to Europe for an extended vacation.  Sam is excited to go and be a tourist, seeing all the famous attractions; Fran is looking forward to being part of a higher-class society, having been stifled for twenty years in a small Midwestern town.  On the trip across the Atlantic, Sam and Fran spend little time together.  Fran fraternizes with the wealthy people aboard, and becomes close to a British officer (David Niven); Sam tours various parts of the ship, and in the process meets Edith Cortright (Mary Astor).  Edith is an American who is living in Italy after getting divorced, and unlike Fran, she understands his excitement about seeing and learning new things.  While Sam and Edith’s relationship remains purely platonic, Fran and the officer’s does not.  However, when he mentions Fran getting a divorce, she vehemently refuses, and sees no more of him.  Once arriving in Europe, the Dodsworths quickly travel to Paris (on Fran’s urging).  Again, they spend little time together:  Sam amuses himself by going all over the country sightseeing, while Fran goes to parties and society functions.  It becomes clear that Fran is trying to regain her youth:  she pretends to be younger that she is, never mentioning her adult daughter, and she flirts openly with any man who shows interest.  One of these interested men is Arnold Iselin (Paul Lukas), who is both wealthy and cultured.  Fran loves his societal standing and his understanding of culture, and he indulges her greatly.  Fran so enjoys her new life that when Sam mentions returning home as planned, she convinces him to go home without her (while she stays in Paris).

Though he felt out of place in Europe, Sam finds that he also now feels out of place at home.  His daughter and new son-in-law have moved into the house, and in his absence have established new habits.  This, coupled with the fact that Fran is not there, leave Sam feeling very unsettled.  He also begins to worry about Fran’s relationship with Iselin.  When he learns through a friend that they are still spending time together, he decides to go back to Europe and confront her.  When he does see her, Sam also has Iselin come to the apartment; he has confirmed his beliefs with the man already.  Fran apologizes profusely and begs Sam to take her back.  Based on their long marriage and family, the two decide to stay married and try to make things work (while still living in Europe).  While Sam seems committed to this, Fran soon seems to tire of it, and begins to berate Sam again for his lack of culture and interest in every aspect of her life.  Things get even worse after Emily has a baby – being a grandmother does not make it any easier for Fran to pretend she is younger than she really is.  She also falls into another affair, this time with Baron Kurt von Obersdorf.  Kurt is considerably younger than Fran, and in fact does not know that she has a grandchild.  Kurt begs Fran to leave Sam, saying that he wants to marry her.  Finally, Fran decides to ask Sam for a divorce – though he is against the idea, Sam agrees to give Fran what she wants.  Until the divorce goes through, Sam must stay in Europe, but he quickly leaves Paris.  He travels to famous city after famous city, seeing all the landmarks but not really enjoying anything.  Eventually he ends up in Naples, where he runs into Edith one day.  When she learns that he has no real plans, Edith invites him to stay at her country villa.  Sam agrees, and finally begins to enjoy himself.  He even makes plans to start a new business, an airline running from Seattle to Moscow.  During this time, he and Edith fall for each other:  when Sam tells her about his airline plans, he asks Edith to marry him and join him on the business trips that will be involved.  Meanwhile, things are not going well for Fran.  When Kurt’s mother learned of their engagement, she demanded to meet Fran.  Kurt obliges her, but the meeting does not go well:  Kurt’s mother obviously disapproves of Fran, and Fran is put off by her suggestion of having a child to provide an heir for Kurt.  Rather than get married right away, Kurt asks to wait until he receives his mother’s blessing.  However, Fran has reconsidered, and calls off the engagement.  She also wants to call off her divorce – she calls Sam and tells him that she wants to get back together.  Though Edith begs him not to go back to a loveless marriage, Sam feels that he is responsible for Fran, and returns.  The two prepare to sail back home, but while they are waiting for their ship Fran’s nagging begins again.  Sam finally realizes that nothing has changed, nor will it ever change.  He leaves Fran at the dock and hurries back to Edith.

MY TAKE:  This is the story of an extremely good and committed man, who is married to a flighty pain in the ass.  It’s hard to believe that after twenty years of marriage Fran could have so little regard for Sam’s feelings (then again, quite a few marriages seem to have that problem anymore).  I was amazed at two things:  first, that Sam could repeatedly trust Fran implicitly, when she clearly flirts with any handsome man in the room; secondly, that he was so devoted to her that he would repeatedly take her back, even when it meant sacrificing his own happiness.  She really didn’t deserve him, which played out in the end.  It is a pretty unusual topic for a movie, especially because all of the main characters are older than normal – they actually become grandparents during the film.  It was adapted from a play, which Walter Huston (director John Huston’s father, Anjelica Huston’s grandfather) had actually performed several times on radio.  He was not one of the favored choices for the movie role, but ultimately ended up getting the part.  This is one of those times that the studio’s forced casting (since their desired actors couldn’t or wouldn’t do it) worked out in their favor – Huston is great, making believable both the excited, naïve tourist and the beaten down, resigned husband.

RATING:  Pretty good.

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