Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Another superior drama from William Wyler
(The Best Years of Our Lives,
The Little Foxes), this Samuel Goldwyn
production raised eyebrows as one of the first Hollywood movies to look seriously at marriage
and divorce outside the confines of the Hays code. Still not forgotten, as late as the 1970s
it was regarded as one of the ten best American films ever made.
Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) sells his successful automobile company and
takes his wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton) on a European cruise. He's like a kid, excited about
travelling to places he's never been, but she seems intent on attracting sophisticated
associates and leaving behind everything she knew in the midwestern town of Zenith. Fran
also courts the attentions of younger men, and subtly pushes away her husband, who doesn't understand
what's happening to their relationship.
Hollywood movies about marriage, whether made inside or outside the Hays code, rarely
faced the no-no subject of divorce straightforwardly. Comedies were able to get plenty of satirical
mileage from the topic of divorce, but the Hays code outlawed scenarios that had previously
trivialized or mocked the sanctity of wedlock. Some credit Cecil B. DeMille's silent domestic
with popularizing straying husbands and man-crazy wives, and making it seem sophisticated. But by 1933,
when the Hays code put an end to the double-entendres and implied sex, all the majors were producing
The pre-code pictures did indeed treat marriage as if it were an obsolete
inconvenience ... even if they ended in cheap moralizing that reunited married couples with lessons such
as, 'Serve your man no matter what', or, 'Any woman who goes after a married man has something
seriously wrong with her.' Dodsworth's Ruth Chatterton was herself in a string of racy MGM
stories, such as Female, where she played a playgirl-industrialist who uses her wealth and
power to seduce a chain of eligible bachelors. She's eventually tamed by the sexist George Brent,
but until then the film revels in her brazen come-ons and one-liners. Mae West wasn't an isolated
After the Code came in, depicting adult subject matter in any but the most conventionally
strict way became a tough proposition, all the way into the 1950s. William Wyler was no stranger
to bucking this system, as evidenced by These Three, made immediately before. With the strong
producer Sam Goldwyn backing him up, and using an unimpeachably credentialed novel as his source,
Wyler had Sydney Howard adapt his play version. They made the first adult film under the Code that
ended with a man walking out of his marriage for another woman - and not being punished for it.
Dodsworth doesn't carry the usual baggage that a studio production would in 1936. A
Warner's treatment of the material would have a strong social conscience, yet overplay its hand.
Paramount would diffuse the lighting and reduce the drama to meaningful looks between
two overglamorized movie stars to whom nobody could relate directly. If MGM did it, there'd be an
emphasis on nice furniture, and probably a strong anti-labor statement inserted somewhere. What's
difficult to appreciate now about William Wyler's achievement in Dodsworth is that he approaches
the subject with a mature attitude that isn't concerned with anything exploitative. The cast was made
of big names, but not glamorous marquee bait. American
audiences weren't used to being treated like thinking adults very often back then (don't ask about now)
and responded to Dodsworth very positively.
It's the fair-handedness of the play that still wins people over. This is no soap opera, like the later
In Name Only, where one corner of the infidelity triangle is a heartless monster. Sam and Fran
Dodsworth have worked at business and marriage for twenty years. Sam's
retirement is a big change that forces them to reassess what they want and what excites them, and their
agendas no longer match. Fran is overawed by anything European, rebelling
against her hick roots back in Zenith. She's terrified of growing old, as she lies about
her age and encourages every slick operator in a tuxedo. Yet she never becomes a harpy - she's just
another insecure person trying her best to find happiness, and making mistakes. Ruth Chatterton
is particularly well cast in this part: old enough to be a youngish grandmother, and still
potentially attractive to single men.
Sam's not exactly a
prize either. He shows restraint and understanding when dealing with Fran's blatant flirtations.
But when around his wife, he doesn't show much willingness to change his habits. His midlife
crisis may be restricted to running around like a schoolboy excited by lights from the English coast,
but he can also be an unreasonable and overbearing grouch, as when he unhappily goes home to Zenith
and bullies and badgers everyone in sight.
Situations like this are never in balance, and it's true that Sam's devotion and thoughtfulness
strongly outweighs Fran's. She wants to be sophisticated but is outmatched by the first lothario
she runs into. (He's well-played by David Niven, with a purposeful lack of charm.) She encourages both
Niven and Paul Lukas, and in Lukas finds herself overwhelmed. Did she intend to be unfaithful? Not
exactly. She's just out of control.
Contemporary reviewers were knocked out by the maturity of Dodsworth's story. The various
crises sneak up on the
characters as they might in real life, instead of being the hokey contrivances of most '30s melodramas,
initiated by accidents or illness. 2
Sam doesn't catch Fran in any sensational en flagrante situations, the kind of thing that
movie advertising always promised. They separate, come back together, separate again. There's no
screaming or suicide attempts, just a relationship finding its way to a finish. By the time the curtain
falls, a dog would decide that Sam is making the right decision.
Whether or not it was the Hays code that kept any of Fran's dalliances from being overtly shown,
Dodsworth takes pains to avoid typical American self-righteousness about Europeans. Hollywood
producers often depended on stock 'Continentals' for the sex in their salon melodramas, but
usually typed them as pompous & oily faux-sophisticates. These are exactly the kind of people you'd
expect the Henry Ford - like Sam Dodsworth to be predisposed to dislike. Astaire-Rogers musicals
always included an accented, moustachio'ed European lounge lizard to be the butt of jokes.
Hollywood in general went easy on the British but never had a problem
pretending that American values were always superior, every day in every way. And we never grew out
of this; take a look at the Unwatchable, I mean,
The Unsinkable Molly Brown again
sometime. It's practically a remake of Dodsworth that takes all the wrong turns, from the
first step forward.
In all fairness, the idyllic pairing of Sam and the expatriate divorcee played by Mary Astor is
a bit too spotless. They meet on the square and start a completely chaste relationship.
They share a house in the paradise of Naples, kind of a Shangri-La where they're roughing it away
from the rat race, yet have servants and get to indulge their simplest pleasures. Mary Astor is
quite a beauty, but her desires are so discreetly sublimated, that when she finally expresses them,
we have the tendency to conclude that even her selfishness is
selfless. A couple of details here do have dated aspects; Sam replaces a local fisherman's charming
sail with a noisy modern gas motor. And his idea of a new business endeavor is to go into business
with Russians (1936, Stalinist, Purge-happy Russians) in an airline deal .... who thought up
Dodsworth is absorbing to watch. It's the strange exception to the rule; a movie made 65
years ago that not only hasn't dated, but is more balanced than many modern movies on the same
subject. William Wyler would move on to many superb movies (starting immediately with one of
Savant's very favorites, Come and Get It with Frances Farmer) but pictures like Dodsworth
put him at the very top rank of directors, a position few have disputed.
Besides David Niven, actor hounds will find nice character turns
from Maria Ouspenskaya as a German matriarch, and Spring Byington as a sympathetic friend of the
family. John (Howard) Payne shows up as Sam's son-in-law; he looks like he's 19 years old.
MGM's DVD of Dodsworth is a good but not remastered or perfect transfer, b&w and flat, of
course. Like most of their other Goldywn library acquisitions, the materials are in very good shape,
and there's a French track that gives 55ish Walter Huston the voice of a man half his age. There
are no other extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: December 16, 2001
1. Which I am told look as though they were made by a totally different
man than his later, bloated epic films - most of his output after 1935.
2. Savant's favorite of these is the 'The baby's sick!' gambit, always
guaranteed to resolve any complicated emotional impasse in two seconds flat. The noirish Mildred
Pierce effectively killed off that tangent: there, the kid dies!
Savant Reviews of other William Wyler Movies:
The Children's Hour
The Best Years of Our Lives
The Little Foxes
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson