Oscar Vault Monday – Dodsworth, 1936 (dir. William Wyler)

I first saw this film as part of TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar in 2011 when I was living in the back of my parents’ house in the midst of a post-college life crisis. I cried a lot. After watching this film, I mean, but also in general. I rewatched it last night and I think I love it more than I had thought possible. It’s such an expertly executed film, from Wyler’s direction, to the script (adapted from Sinclair Lewis’s novel by Sidney Howard, who would go one to write the adapted script for Gone With The Wind), to the performances by the film’s entire cast. It’s just plain perfect. The film was nominated for seven Oscars, winning one: Best Art Direction (won), Best Sound, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress Maria Ouspenskaya, Best Actor Walter Huston, Best Director and Best Picture. The other films nominated for Best Picture that year were: Anthony Adverse, Libeled Lady, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Romeo and Juliet, San Francisco, The Story of Louis Pasteur, A Tale of Two Cities, Three Smart Girls and The Great Ziegfeld.


This is my 6th Oscar Vault Monday post on a film directed by William Wyler, so I’m not going to wax poetic on his essential contributions to cinema, but I do encourage you to watch as many of his films as you can. You will be a greater person for it.


The film opens with a beautiful sweeping shot of Samuel Dodsworth, an automobile maker who has just sold his company after twenty years, so he can retire and spend time with his wife. You can tell from this opening shot, that this is not a decision Dodsworth made lightly and it’s also not a decision he’s 100% happy with.


Dodsworth is confronted by his banker and longtime friend, Tubby Pearson (Harlan Briggs) about the magnet’s decision to leave the industry behind, despite a very lucrative offer from the company that purchases his. He says to him, “Americans like you and me can’t quit, Sam! It’s meant that we’re to keep on working until we die in harness!” That’s the American way, alright.


Huston’s Dodsworth explains his decision to his friend, “I’m out to see some of the world that I haven’t seen and get a perspective on the U.S.A. Why, I might get to know myself at the same time!” In a way, this film is a kindred spirit with George Cukor’s 1927 film Holiday. Huston’s character goes through this most amazing personal transformation as the film progresses and as much as I love Paul Muni (who won Best Actor for The Story of Louis Pasteur), I think this is one of the most overlooked and ahead of its time performances of all time. Dodsworth and his wife of twenty years Fran (Ruth Chatterton) then head out for London on a cruise ship.


While on board the couple meet the dashing Capt. Clyde Lockert (David Niven), who begins a flirtation with Fran (who is quite a bit younger than Dodsworth). I had forgotten Niven was in this film. He is just soooo attractive in this film I can’t even. Niven won an Academy Award  for Best Actor for 1958’s Separare Tables.


The night before the boat docks in London, Dodsworth first begins to really live, enjoying the sights of a lighthouse and becoming thrilled at the prospect of seeing “Mother England.” His wife doesn’t share his excitement, preferring to hob-knob with “cultured” people instead. While on deck Dodsworth meets Edith (Mary Astor), a divorcée and expatriate, confessing to her, “I’ve been doing things myself for a long time now, and now I thought I’d give things a chance to do something to me,” then asks her about her life as a traveller, to which she responds, “Drifting isn’t nearly as fun as it looks.” So much is revealed about the characters through their dialogue, but it never once feels false.


Ruth Chatterton gives a devastating performance as Dodsworth’s upwardly mobile wife Fran. Throughout the film we discover that she was 14 or 15 when the two were married (which is why, although they have been married for twenty years and have a grown daughter, she is only 35 years old.) It would be easy to dismiss her as a “loose woman” or as conniving, if it weren’t for the fact that we know she didn’t have the chance to be young and be free and all the things we take for granted now. She’s a complicated character and most definitely a victim of her time. Chatterton was nominated for Best Actress for her roles in 1929’s Madame X and 1930’s Sarah and Son.


“Fran’s flirtation with the Captain progresses so much so that they come close to crossing the “affair” line, when Fran shuns him. Miffed, but not heartbroken (he’s a real cad), Lockert says to her, “If I may give you one small word of advice: give up starting the things you’re not prepared to finish. It is quite evident they only lead you out of your depth. You think you’re a woman of the world and you’re nothing of the sort.” This piece of advice proves to be one of the most important things she will ever be told. Later when alone with her husband after the incident, she says to him, “I don’t trust myself. I’m afraid of myself.” She’s facing a freedom she’s never known and it’s scaring her to death. Later, Dodsworth proves to be more understanding of her needs than you’d think a man of his socio-economic class and age would.


Later the couple go to Paris and have  party for Fran’s 35th birthday. Fran has started a new flirtation with penniless aristocrat Arnold Iselin (Paul Lukas). Edith walks in on an intimate moment between the two and sweetly tries to warn her:

“My dear, don’t”
“You’re so charming.”

Earlier, the two had a little showdown wherein Fran tried to make Edith feel old and Edith let her insults fall like water off her back. It’s funny, too, because Chatterton is playing her actual age, but Astor is playing 40ish when at the time she was 30. Can you imagine an actress doing that these days? Astor would go on to win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1941’s The Great Lie.


There’s a really fascinating and intimate scene between the two right after Fran’s party, which takes places while the two undress for bed. If you look real closely I think Wyler managed to sneak in just a tiny bit of Chatterton’s boobs (pretty shocking for a film made in 1936 – a good two years after the institution of the Production Code). Dodsworth wants to know why his wife won’t join him at sidewalk cafés and taking in the city. She’d rather hobnob with people she thinks are high-class. He says if they really were high-class, they wouldn’t hang out with a couple of hicks like them. He also says, “You ought to be smart enough not to care what people think,” which is such an amazing piece of advice for anyone, really. She wants him to leave and let her have her “fling” in Europe alone for a while, ending the argument with, “You’re simply rushing at old age, Sam, and I’m not ready for that yet!”  It’s funny because Fran is acting like a schoolgirl and Dodsworth is the one trying to experience life. His idea of living life and hers are so different, which I think comes from the kind of lives married men and women had to lead in the twenty years in which they were married. They’re wealthy people, but they are from small town, U.S.A. and something tells me the “roaring Twenties” passed them both by without so much as a hello.


Dodsworth does what he wife asks and goes home to visit his recently married daughter, but finds life without his wife more difficult than he expected. Everything is different from it used to be and he’s feeling the pangs of her absence acutely. He is visited (again) by his dear friends the Pearsons. Upon receiving a letter from his wife informing him that she will not be coming back as soon as he thought she would, Matey Pearson and Dodsworth have the following exchange:

“She’s thoughtless.”
“No she’s not, Matey, she’s scared.”
“Fran, scared? What of?”
“Of growing old.”
“That’s very smart of you, Sam.” 

It’s very smart of him, indeed, and shows an understanding of his wife and her outlook on life that is far deeper than his wife realizes. Matey is played by none-other than Spring Byington, who would go on to receive a Best Supporting Actress nomination for 1938’s You Can’t Take it With You.


The reason Fran doesn’t want to come home is her flirtation with Arnold, which has intensified to a full on affair. Dodsworth goes to meet his wife in Paris, discovering their affair en route. He invites Arnold to meet him and has a confrontation between to three of them.  Arnold says to him, “Let me remind you, Dodsworth, Shakespeare’s Othello ends badly for the hero,” to which Dodsworth replies he is not Othello (meaning his suspicions are not just that). He then says to the two lovers, “Have you ever noticed how transparent people are when you really look at them?” Before Arnold leaves Fran’s life for good, Dodsworth says to him, “I’m sure you gave her things that she needed and wanted that she never got from me, but I’m interested in what I need and want and that happens to be peace of mind.” Again showing an understanding of his wife rarely seen in cinema. Paul Lukas would go on to win a Best Actor Oscar for 1941’s Watch on the Rhine.


Dodsworth and his wife have a shaky reconciliation, but when Fran finds out that their daughter is with child, things get even rockier. The way he puts it to her doesn’t really help: “We’ll have to learn to behave ourselves when we’re a couple of old grandparents in December.” The look on both their faces just kills me. It’s the kind of pain only people this intimate can really inflict on each other.


Later, after their daughter has had her child, Dodsworth wants to celebrate, but Fran insists that they don’t tell anyone. She asks him what’s the matter with him, to which he replies, “I’ve lost my bearings. I don’t know where I’m heading.” Later she says, “All our friends think of me as young. I was such a child when I married you. It isn’t fair.” We see again her obsession with youth. Which is bizarre considering having a grandchild doesn’t make her any older (35!) than she is; it’s the concept of being a grandmother that hurts.


Fran eventually meets a penniless Baron who claims to be in love with her. Fran has tricked herself that she is, too, which leads to a heartbreaking confrontation between the two characters:

“Will you get your divorce here?”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“I wish you’d put it off for a couple of months.”
“I’d like you to feel sure of Kurt, that’s all.”
“Well, it’s my funeral now, isn’t it?”
“Yes, I guess so. I’ll have to get used to that idea. I guess I can.”

Cynics will have trouble understanding why Dodsworth is so kind to his wife when she behaves so appallingly, but he just can’t help it. He loves her.


The two then have a tearless goodbye at the train station. Fran, who always manages to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, says to him, “All the same, you and I have had some good times together, haven’t we? I won’t forget them. Will you remember?” The look on his face speaks more than words ever could. As he gets on the train she says to him, “”Do try not to be too dreadfully lonely, will you?,” her voice cracking as she speaks those last two words, betraying her own confidence. He responds, “Did I remember to tell you today that I adore you?,” which is a repetition of a line from an early, happy scene between the two. If you aren’t crying at this point you might need to check your pulse.


Dodsworth then wanders Europe, aimlessly looking at ruins. He runs into Edith and discusses his rambling, to which she remarks, “I suppose most people travel to get away from themselves.” Maybe he is? Maybe he’s actually still looking for himself. Later, while the two dine together they have this wonderful exchange:

“Could you let yourself enjoy life for awhile?”
“Show me how.”
“I wonder if you could.”

We all hope she can, too.


The Baron (Gregory Gaye) brings his aging mother (Maria Ouspenskaya) to meet and approve of Fran, who is clearly of a lower class than both these people. The Baroness lowers Fran over and over, including mentioning that her son must marry someone who can give him children. The last straw is when she sys, “Have you thought what happiness there can be for the old wife of a young husband?” This is the biggest blow yet to Fran’s ego. Ouspenskaya was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her brief apparence in this film, though she lost to Gale Sondergaard in Anthony Adverse.


Living with Edith, Dodsworth begins to find an aim in his life again. He starts working with motors, that shine in his eye we saw when he first approached London is back and he’s making plans for both a new business and a new life with Edith. This all shatters when Fran calls and tells him she is stopping their divorce. Edith begs him to stay, not just for her, but for his plans, saying, “I won’t make you choose just between two women.” I like this part, because she truly loves him and she wants him to be happy and productive, she isn’t just concerned about her own happiness. Dodsworth can’t stay saying to her, “A man’s habits get pretty strong over twenty years,” but that, “It’s giving you up that hurts.” Again, if you are not crying at this part, you might not actually have a heart. You will probably also be yelling at the screen because Dodsworth is being so stupid and you don’t want him to give up his happiness either!


When we see the reunited couple on the boat headed back for America (it’s still docked), Fran is just as awful as always, this time with more airs of faux-sophistication than before, knocking on both her European “friends” as well as her friends back in Zenith. Dodsworth is clearly not having it. She then says to him, “I suppose I really ought to beg you to forgive me. I thought of it. But you always let bygones be bygones and this is such a wonderfully happy ending to out escapades. [laughs] Es-ca-pades.” And that’s all she wrote. Dodsworth realizes he can’t be with this woman anymore, despite his love for her. As he leaves she says, “And this is the man that I’ve loved for twenty years!,” to which he corrects her with, “This is the man who’s loved you!” He finally realizes she’s incapable of really loving anyone but herself and his love alone is not enough for the two of them.


The final exchange between the two of them as their marriage is over for once and for all will stick with you for a long time:

“Do you think you’ll ever get me out of your blood?!”
“Maybe not! But love has got to stop someplace short of suicide!”


Chatterson’s face says is all, as Fran realizes she’s lost everything and perhaps she should have heeded Lockert’s advice after all.


Then, of course, Dodsworth goes for his own happiness and he and Edith get the ending we all know they deserve.


About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on April 1, 2013, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. This movie angered me beyond belief.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: