Sunday, May 5, 2013

Dodsworth (1936) **

dodsworth
(This is my contribution to the Mary Astor Blogathon, hosted by Tales of the Easily Distracted and Silver Screenings. Please follow this link to find other great contributing posts.)

“Love has got to stop some place short of suicide.” What a great line to walk out on your selfish, self-involved, two-timing wife.  I rank it right up there with, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Still, director William Wyler’s Dodsworth (1936) is not a particular favorite of mine, but I do admire the performances of Walter Huston and Mary Astor.

Based on the 1929 Sinclair Lewis novel of the same name, Dodsworth tells the the story of the disintegration of an American couple’s marriage as they take the Grande Tour of Europe. After selling his motor company Sam t100_movies_dodsworthDodsworth (Huston) decides he and his wife, Fran (Ruth Chatterton), should enjoy life and learn the meaning of the word leisure. For over twenty years they’d spent their lives in a provincial Midwestern town called Zenith, seeing the same people week after week and doing the same respectable thing over and over. On the surface they seem like a happily married couple, but once they set sail for the Old World it soon becomes obvious that they want totally different things out of life. For one, Fran is afraid of growing old. As such, she has a habit of becoming involved in flirtations with young, penniless playboys (in this order: David Niven, Paul Lukas, Gregory Gaye) and socializing with washed-up aristocrats (Maria Ouspenskaya).  All the while, Sam is off sightseeing and really immersing himself in learning about the cities he is visiting.  By the time Fran decides she wants to run off and marry one of the playboys, you can’t help but be happy for Sam—even though he is miserable.  To quote Francis Preston Blair: “Good riddance to bad rubbish.” 

02_romanticmoviesDodsworth is a drawing room melodrama about the perils of extramarital affairs amongst the rich and fabulous (although Chatterton, in my opinion, is far from fabulous). Hollywood films of the 1930s liked to showcase the goings on of the wealthy to deflect the public’s attention for an hour or two from the misery of the Great Depression.  I personally prefer the comedies to the melodramas—it’s easier to laugh at the rich than feel sorry for them.  I suppose this is one of the reasons I’m not a big fan of Dodsworth.

However, the biggest reason I am not especially fond of Dodsworth is Ruth Chatterton. In every film I’ve ever seen her in she grated on my nerves. She was an accomplished stage actress who never made the necessary transition to movie acting.  What I mean by this is she always came across as stilted and affected—there was no naturalism whatsoever.  I suspect had they got a Myrna Loy or Billie Burke to play Fran I would have enjoyed the film so much better.

What I did like about Dodsworth was Huston and Astor. dodsworth_mary_astor_ruth_chattertonWhile her part was a minor one, Astor’s Edith Cortright is the most likeable character in the entire movie. One of the standout scenes finds Edith and Fran discussing age.  When Fran comments about wanting to look as good as Edith does when she’s her age the look on Astor’s face is priceless. Of course this only highlighted how desperate Fran was to appear young—especially when you consider that Chatterton was fourteen years older than Astor.  Then, later in the scene when Edith notices than Fran is on the verge of engaging in an affair she says one small word that speaks volumes by the look on her face: “Don’t.” After her turn as Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltest Falcon (1941) Astor was forever linked to playing an unsympathetic character, so it is always nice to see her in Dodsworth where she plays such an agreeable woman.

Whenever I see TCM host Robert Osborne introduce Dodsworth he always comments that people should give it a chance because Huston plays a completely different character than dodsworth-walter-hustonthe one he is most known for in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). This, of course, is true.  Sam Dodsworth is a stand-up guy with money and good manners. Huston plays him as a complex figure, who starts the film off as a confident man. By the middle of the film he has become a broken cuckold who needs to regain his confidence.  As such, Huston gives one of the best performances of his career (although Oscar picked Paul Muni in The Story of Louis Pasteur over him that year).

Overall, Dodsworth is a mildly entertaining drawing room melodrama. Fine performances from Astor and Huston somewhat make up for the fact that Ruth Chatterton is so freaking annoying in it.

34 comments:

  1. I liked this one far more than I thought I would--I was actually surprised at how much I liked Dodsworth as a character.

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    1. He's pretty sympathetic. Still, the film falls short for me.

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  2. I know this was for the Mary Astor Blogathon, but Miss Chatterton was amazing!!

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  3. Excellent write-up, Kim -- one of my favorites! -- and you made me laugh out loud at the end.

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    1. Thanks, Karen...it had to be said!

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  4. I wish this film had a larger role for Mary Astor, but I've learned to be content with her small but fabulous role. Walter Huston is a treat, too. I've never minded Chatterton here, but I can see how a person would find her annoying.

    Thanks for participating in our blogathon! :)

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  5. Nice write-up, though I'm sorry you didn't like it more. This was the first film I had ever seen Ruth Chatterton in (I've seen her in a few pre-Code films since), and I do agree she has a more theatrical style that isn't quite suited to films, but I think for this character and this film, it works because the character is so desperate to be seen as still being desirable. I did end up feeling sorry for her, even though I was rooting for Huston and Astor's characters to end up with each other. I also like how William Wyler shot the film. I am glad you at least liked the performances of Huston and Astor.

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    1. You have a point, Chatterton's overly-theatrical style is appropriate for Fran, but I still find her beyond annoying.

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  6. I caught this movie for the first time about 2 months ago. I believe it was the first time I had ever seen Ruth Chatterton. I did quite enjoy the movie (4 stars for me). I have to admit that I was completely taken aback by how lovely Mary Astor is in that film. Never have I seen her look as pretty as she did in "Dodsworth."

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    1. You know me, Patti, it takes the jaws of life to get extra stars out of me. Astor is rather pretty here, but in a refined manner.

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  7. I am sorry to say I disagree with you both on Dodsworth as a film and Ruth Chatterton. As it was mentioned above, the Fran character I think is meant to be grating. She pushes the strings on that marriage until breaking point until it is clear to anyone what a delusioned idiot she is. The film is really about Sam who get to know his wife in a new way and has to move from trusting and loving her to finally take the battle and break with her. It is a huge journey for someone like him and I feel with him all the way. It is for the depiction of this journey and the man who takes it that I really love this film.
    If on the other hand you would insist on rooting for Fran and hope that somehow she will come around this film will be very hard to see. She makes it very hard to like her.
    Think of how few films of the era presents divorce as a happy and right outsome? That makes this film very rare indeed.
    Astor is a darling. She shines here.

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    1. TS, we have been down this road before: not everything shines as brightly for everyone. As such, you obviously really liked this and I just thought it average. You are right, few films (even today) portray divorce in a happy way.

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  8. I enjoyed watching the film Dodsworth, even with the emotional sad ending of a marriage.. David Niven, does a wonderful job with one of his first performances. Mary Astor, gives a wonderful performance, as always. The costumes are absolutely beautiful in a film that you will not soon forget.

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    1. Did you like the costumes? I didn't really see anything that caught my eye, except the fact that Fran's wardrobe was not especially age appropriate for the most part.

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    2. Yes, I loved the evening gowns..

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    3. I wasn't all that impressed. I did like Astor's fur, though. Please don't tell PETA.

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  9. Dodsworth floored me when I saw it, so I disagree with your rating, but I do agree that Chatterton was annoying. However, as TSorensen says, I think she's meant to be that way, especially as a reflection of Huston's character. I also think her awful demeanor is her going through a midlife crisis and not handling it well in the slightest. She and her husband are changing and in opposite ways - it's got to be grating on both of them.

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    1. We can't agree on everything, Siochembio. But, you and TS are right, Fran was probably meant to be grating.

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  10. I thought Chatterton came across as affected too, but I thought her character was supposed to be that way. Then again, I've never seen her in anything else.

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    1. I expect Fran was supposed to be affected, but Chatterton was always affected so it makes it difficult to tell.

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  11. This is a film I have yet to see, since I'm a huge fan of the 1930s. Thanks for highlighting the performance of Walter Huston, when I finally watch it I'll be sure to pay attention to him!
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Kisses!

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    1. Thanks for stopping by and I hope you enjoy Dodsworth when you finally get to see it.

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  12. Thanks for the review. I agree with you absolutely about preferring the Depression-era comedies to dramas. As someone who would follow Mary Astor and Walter Huston anywhere, I enjoyed hearing your thoughts in their performances.

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    1. Thanks, Gwen. I always thought Depression Era comedies were more appropriate and interesting.

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  13. Kim, sorry to hear you didn't like 'Dodsworth' more, as I am a big fan of it and think both Huston and Chatterton are excellent - must agree with you that Chatterton's character is annoying to start with but I think she becomes more understandable and easier to sympathise with as the film goes on. She's an actress I've gradually warmed to as I've seen more of her films - I love her in the pre-Code Lilly Turner. It's a pity Mary Astor doesn't get more screen time, but as usual she is great even in a smaller role.

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    1. I think a lot of people start to sympathize with Fran as the film goes on, but I just can't get to that point.

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  14. Kim, I recently watched this for the first time just a while back and thought it one of the best films on marriage and how it can change as the years go by. Huston na Chatterton were both wonderful. Enjoyed reading your take on it though we disagree.

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    1. John, as you know, everyone has their own unique view on what makes them like a film. I didn't hate this, but I didn't think it was all that special, either. Still, Huston is quite good and Astor, too.

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  15. Aww..too bad Ruth got on your bad side! I actually liked her performance and yes - it is so nice to Mary as a good person (especialy since we know what a great bitch she could be!).

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    1. FC: Ruth got way beyond my nerves.

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  16. We agree on much of this, though I'm pretty sure I liked the overall movie more than you did. Huston is amazing! He had played the part on stage and winds up very at home in his Dodsworth skin in the movie. (You also singled out my favorite line at the top!) I also disliked Chatterton here, though I do like her a little more in some pre-Codes (saw Lily Turner recently and she was great!). I know we're supposed to dislike her Fran, but as Chatterton played her I was left wondering what Sam could have ever seen her. Would have liked her to have a couple of good qualities to go with her faults. Love Astor (in a part played on stage by Huston's wife). I wrote about this one awhile back myself and mentioned that I would have liked to have seen Astor and Chatterton swap parts. I like my Mary less sweet and thought Fran Dodsworth would have been right up her alley! Enjoyed your review, thanks for posting!

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    1. Cliff, I think Astor would have been compelling as Fran, but it was nice to see her play against type. I agree about Huston being very comfortable with Dodsworth--as you noted, he'd played that part on stage. Thanks for stopping by!

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