Sunday, September 25, 2011

Now Showing --- Dodsworth

The summer is officially over! I went back to my job as a high school math teacher on September 1st. Yes, I miss sleeping in late and having coffee on the patio each morning with my husband David. I miss the beach and road trips to Indianapolis too! However, fall does bring the new season of class film viewing at two great venues: Loews Landmark in Jersey City, NJ and The Lafayette Theater in Suffern, NY. Yesterday, David and I saw Dodsworth at the Lafayette Theater. As always, it is special seeing a classic film on the big screen.

I was particularly excited when I discovered this movie was part of the fall Big Screen Classics series at the Lafayette Theater. I have always loved this movie. To me, it is one of those beautifully filmed and perfectly cast movies. Samuel Goldwyn purchased this popular stage play by Sydney Howard (based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis). The drama opened on Broadway in 1934 to excellent reviews and ticket sales with Walter Huston in the lead role. Wisely, Goldwyn had Sydney Howard do the screenplay and cast Walter Huston as the title character. The crucial role of Dodsworth's wife was given to Ruth Chatterton. Chatterton herself was a stage veteran with the experience and depth needed to handle the complex role of Fran Dodsworth. The supporting cast was impressive and included: Mary Astor, Paul Lukas, David Niven, Maria Ouspenskaya, Spring Byington, and John Payne. The direction was placed in the capable hands of William Wyler. By carefully choosing all the right personnel both in front of camera and behind it, Goldwyn produced a timeless masterpiece.
Dodsworth opens with Sam Dodsworth(Walter Huston) looking wistfully out his office window at the factory which bears his name. Sam has decided to retire and take a second honeymoon to Europe with his wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton). Fran wants start a new phase of her life now their daughter Emily has married. She is also anxious to get away from her Midwestern surroundings. Fran tells Sam that she's still a young woman and wants to experience more than their provincial town has to offer. Sam's friend Tubby Pearson (Harlay Briggs) voices his concern  about Sam's retirement. After all, it is men like he and Sam who make the country prosperous. In addition, Tubby tells Sam that he is strong man except when it comes to dealing with Fran. Tubby believes that the whole European vacation will only further indulge Fran and her snobbish attitude. As the two men are talking, Fran and Tubby's wife Matey(Spring Byington) enter the room. Fran is not the least bit phased by Tubby's comments. It is obvious that Sam adores his wife and she always gets her way. This clearly shows the audience who is truly in control of the Dodsworth marriage.

The voyage to Europe gives the audience a chance to see how different Sam and Fran really are. Fran envisions herself as worldly and sophisicated. Therefore, she dresses to the hilt and does not want to appear to be a tourist. Sam, on the other hand, views this trip as way to educate himself further and he embraces all there is to see and do. While aboard ship, Fran and Sam meet Captain Clyde Lockert (David Niven) and Edith Cortright (Mary Astor). Sam chats with Mrs. Cortright very comfortably. It is obvious that he likes her directness and lack of pretense. Meanwhile, Fran enjoys the attention of the younger British man and leads him to believe she is interested in pursuing something more than friendship. When Lockert propositions Fran, she becomes angered. Lockert remarks that perhaps Fran is not as savvy to ways of world as she pretends to be. Sam interrupts the encounter and finds his wife still upset that Lockert would dare proposition her. Sam tells Fran that they are "hicks" and she should not have flirted so much with Lockert. Sam has no illusions about himself and is not ashamed of being a man from a small town. Fran refuses to accept the fact that she did anything wrong and just wants to avoid all contact with Lockert. Therefore, she demands they go immediately to Paris and avoid London altogether.

Fran becomes attracted to the European aristocrats and they apparently embrace her. However, it is the "naive" Sam who recognizes that it mainly Fran's wealth that these aristocrats truly enjoy. In spite of the Lockert incident, Fran goes back to her flirtatious ways. This time it is with Arnold Iselin (Paul Lukas). At Fran's birthday party in Paris, Edith warns Fran not to do anything foolish. However, Fran confronts Sam after the party with the fact that she has rented a house and plans to stay in Europe. Fran tells Sam he should return home without her. She believes they need time apart in order to save their marriage. Sam returns to America while Fran remains in Europe and has an affair with Iselin.

Back in the United States, Sam is visibly unhappy despite the efforts of daughter Emily (Kathryn Marlowe), son-in-law Harry (John Payne), and the Pearsons. Matey finally pulls Sam aside and he shows her one of Fran's letters. This is a powerful scene played brilliantly by both Huston and Byington. The expressions on each actor's face convey the thoughts of each one's character. Matey asks who Arnold Iselin is and that confirms Sam's suspicions. After his talk with Matey, Sam arranges a meeting with his wife in Europe and also arranges for Arnold Iselin to be followed. As Sam travels to Europe, he receives updates about Iselin's location. Sam finally is reunited with Fran who tells him some of the places she's been -- the same locations where Iselin spent time. Sam tells Fran he that has an appointment with a man in their hotel room. She's annoyed thinking he is conducting business again. The man arrives and it is Iselin. Sam confronts the pair and offers to divorce Fran if that's what they want. Arnold Iselin, like Sam, knows who he is. Iselin enjoyed his fling with Fran but it is clear he wants to move on -- which he graciously does. Fran and Sam decide to reconcile. Sam tells Fran she will want to start acting differently since she is going to be a grandmother.
This is a great moment for Chatterton who is intially happy that Emily is pregnant. Then, slowly Chatterton's demeanor changes as she realizes becoming a grandmother is further proof that she is aging.

As usual, Fran manipulates Sam into doing what she wants. The couple goes to Vienna where Fran renews her friendship with Baron Kurt Von Obersdorf (Gregory Gaye). The young Austrian feeds Fran's ego by taking her all the places Sam dislikes such as night clubs. On the night in which Fran discovers she has become a grandmother, Kurt professes that he is in love with Fran and wants to marry her. After Kurt leaves the Dodsworths' hotel suite, Sam confronts Fran. She tells him that she wants a divorce so she can marry Kurt. As he waits for for his divorce to become final, Sam travels all over Europe. He finally meets a familiar face in Naples, Edith Cortright. She invites Sam to lunch and he tells her all about the divorce. Edith invites Sam to stay at her villa while the divorce is being finalized and he accepts.

Back in Vienna, Kurt brings his mother (Maria Ouspenskaya) to meet Fran. This is truly one of the great moments in the film. In fact, the audience at the Lafayette Theater reacted immediately to Ouspenskaya when Chatterton opens the door to greet the Baroness. You could hear the "OOH"s from the crowd anticipating the imminent confrontation. Fran has finally met her match. The Baroness tells Kurt she needs to speak to Fran alone. After Kurt leaves, the Baroness does not mince words. She tells Fran she will not give her permission for Kurt to marry Fran. The Baroness tells Fran that although the family is no longer rich, they still have pride and need to continue the family line. The Baroness tells Fran that she knows Fran is probably unable to fulfill this need. In addition, she bluntly tells Fran there is no future for the old wife of a young man. Fran calls Kurt back into the room and expects him to take her side. Kurt is a traditionalist and thinks the marriage should be postponed until his mother can be won over. Fran recognizes she is defeated and sends the Von Obersdorfs on their way.

Meanwhile, Sam is a new man in Naples. Edith is everything Fran is not -- a friend and supporter of Sam and his ideas. In fact, Sam wants Edith to join him as he scouts locations for an airline. He makes it clear that he wished to marry Edith once his divorce is final. Edith is genuinely thrilled telling Sam she'd follow him anywhere. Their happiness is short lived as Fran phones the villa and tells Sam she wants a reconciliation. He tells her that he'll book passage on ship back to America. Sam tells Edith he's going back to Fran. It is obvious that he loves Edith. However, he is old- fashioned and feels a responsibility to his wife of 20+ years.

Sam and Fran are aboard ship ready to head home. Fran is unrepentant. In fact, she tells Sam that he is partially to blame for what happened. She then precedes to go back to her gossiping ways -- speaking badly about Kurt, his mother, and even friend Matey Pearson. Chatterton is brilliant portraying the self absorbed Fran who truly believes she is the center of the universe. Huston's facial reactions of disgust are perfect. Therefore, the audience cheers when he tells the porter to get his bags because he's disembarking. Fran is in shock! She can only keep repeating "He's going ashore! He's going ashore!" Never has Sam stood up to Fran before and Chatterton conveys Fran's disbelief beautifully. The film ends with Edith looking out of the villa's terrace where she ses Sam returning to her in a sailboat. A close up of Mary Astor's joyous expression is a glorious way to end a great film.
All the performances in this film are excellent. However, Huston and Chatterton were particularly outstanding. Huston perfectly depicts the unassuming, All-American man. Sam Dodsworth has achieved the American Dream but is still humble enough to realize that he just a simple Midwesterner. I don't mean that in a condescending way -- I mean simple in the sense that he is without pretense and what you see is what you get. The audience admires Sam for being proud of who is and where he comes from. Chatterton to me was extremely brave. She makes Fran a vulnerable woman but does not try to make us like her. Fran is a shallow and vain person. Chatterton is brilliant in playing her as a woman who can be charming and accomodating but ultimately wants to be taken care of. I find it shocking that Ruth Chatterton was not even nominated for the Oscar that year. Her performance still rings true today.

If you have not seen Dodsworth or wish to see it again, tune into TCM's The Essentials on November 26, 2011. The film will be shown that evening. It is a truly timeless masterpiece. Its themes of fear of aging and hiding behind pretense are even more revelant today than they were in 1936. Plus, I doubt you could find better cast, screenwriter, director, and producer to tell such a story today!


  1. Beautiful job of telling the story in short, giving little glimpses of the characters as they develop in this profound tale .

    Lots of great info backed with lots of entertaining bits ! Well done once again honey !

    Your blog makes me want to see it again ! :)

  2. I saw this film many years ago, I remember thinking at the time, that it was one of those "great, underrated films". Dodsworth, has a great cast and a very moving love story. I can not wait for it to be aired on TCM in Nov. How wonderful that you and your husband were able to enjoy such a great film on the big screen.