May 6, 2020

On Blu-ray: Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton in William Wyler's Dodsworth (1936)

I have revisited director William Wyler’s Dodsworth (1936), a film based on a Sinclair Lewis novel, many times over the years and the older I get, the richer it becomes. While any movie can change meaning with repeat viewings, this is a production that particularly reveals new facets with time. Now beautifully restored and available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, I recently enjoyed this drama of aging, love, and loneliness anew.

Walter Huston stars as Sam Dodsworth, a small-town auto magnate who sells his factory and plans to settle into retirement with his wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton). His significant other is much younger than he is and not so eager to sink into old age. After years of provincial boredom in the proper social circles, she is ready for some excitement.

The pair embarks on a cruise to Europe, where Fran struggles with the politics of shipboard flirtations (David Niven is sleek and charming as her shipboard suitor) and Sam meets a friendly and frank divorcee named Edith (Mary Astor), who has been living on the cheap in Italy. Life on the Continent strains the already weakening bond between the Dodsworths. Fran wants to sow her oats, but she doesn’t fully understand her needs, nor does she live in a society that supports her desires. Sam is eager to explore the local culture and can’t understand his wife’s frantic behavior.

Though Sam initially tries to force Fran to return home to meet her new grandchild and accept the reality of her age, he eventually realizes that she must have her freedom. While she embarks on a shallow adventure among posh, but cash-poor hangers on, he tries to keep busy at home and abroad. A chance meeting with Edith starts to point him on the right track, but his sense of marital duty complicates matters.

When I first saw Dodsworth, I viewed Fran as the villain of the piece. I focused on the vain, snobbish, disloyal aspects of this woman who could so easily discard her husband at the first opportunity. In subsequent viewings I have developed more empathy for this unhappy character. Even as a wealthy white woman, she is limited by societal expectations that are at odds with her desire for a vibrant life. You can sense her feelings of imprisonment in the requirements of convention.

In a way it is understandable that the Dodsworths were once drawn to each other. Each of them possesses a big spirit; they’re both hungry for adventure. It’s just that their concept of what that means has changed over time. Sam loves his wife, but in his refusal to try to truly understand her perspective, he is as toxic for Fran as she is for him. Edith sees this relationship for what it is, and tries to coax both the Dodsworths to see themselves with more clarity.

It was, and still is rare for a film to so thoroughly and effectively explore these adult, existential matters. In an industry so often focused on youthful adventure and romance, there’s something deeply satisfying about looking at what happens after marriage, parenthood, and retirement. It is a process of facing the truth and finding it devastating, beautiful, and full of the complexities that make life fascinating.

The Blu-ray includes a Lux Radio Theater production of Dodsworth from 1937, co-starring Huston and his wife Ninetta “Nan” Sunderland.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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