"DODSWORTH" (1936) Review
I might as well place my cards on the table. William Wyler has been one of my favorite Old Hollywood directors for as long as I can remember. One particular movie that had impressed me as a teenager and a woman in my 20s was his 1936 film, "DODSWORTH". However, a good number of years had passed since I last saw it. Realizing this, I decided to view the movie again for a new assessment.
Based upon Sinclair Lewis' 1929 novel and Sidney Howard's 1934 stage adaptation, "DODSWORTH" tells the story of a Midwestern auto tycoon named Sam Dodsworth, who decides to sell his auto manufacturing plant and retire at the urging of his wife Fran. Feeling trapped by their small-town social life, Fran also convinces Sam to start off his retirement with a trip to Europe. Sam comes to regard the trip as an opportunity to see the sights. Fran has different ideas. She views the trip as an opportunity to escape her Midwestern life and enjoy the pleasures of European high society. She manages to achieve this with a succession of European Lotharios by her side. The different desires and expectations of the pair eventually fractures their marriage for good.
When all is said and done, "DODSWORTH" is basically a portrait of a failing marriage. A part of me wondered why "DODSWORTH" had never been filmed during Hollywood's pre-Code era. Sinclair Lewis' tale seemed aptly suited for that particular period in film history. I tried to remember how many movies I have seen or heard about a failing marriage and divorce and realized they were few in numbers. Another aspect of "DODSWORTH" I found interesting was director William Wyler and screenwriter Sidney Howard's attempt to portray the Dodsworths' marital breakup with as much maturity as possible. One could easily blame the Fran Dodsworth for the marriage's eventual failure, due to the character's vanity, infatuation with European high society and infidelity. But I read somewhere that both Wyler and Howard (especially the former) went out of their way to portray Fran with as much sympathy and complexity as possible - especially in the movie's first half.
I do believe that Wyler, Howard and the movie's cast did an excellent job in their attempt to create a realistic and mature film. I found scenes in the film that seemed to exemplify this attempt at mature melodrama. They include Ruth's embarassing last conversation with Captain Clyde Lockert, the good-looking British Army officer she had flirted with aboard the ocean liner that took her and Sam to Europe; the Dodsworths' last conversation before Sam returns to the U.S.; and their frank conversation about Fran's affair with aging playboy Arnold Iselin upon Sam's return to Europe. But the two best scenes - well shot by Wyler and superbly performed - featured Fran's even more embarassing encounter with Baroness Von Obersdorf, the elderly mother of the young Baron Kurt Von Obersdorf, whom she wished to marry; and Sam and Fran's last moment together in which the former decides to end their marriage permanently. Watching this movie, it was easy for me to see why "DODSWORTH" managed to earn seven Academy Award nominations - including a Best Director nomination for William Wyler and one for Best Picture.
Two of those nominations were for technical achievements. Richard Day not only earned a nomination for the movie's art direction, he also won. And I could see why, especially in the images below:
Day's work seemed to feature a clean, yet stylish look that was evocative of the Art Deco period of the 1920s and 30s.
At least two cast members earned Oscar nominations for their performances. Walter Huston earned a well-deserved nomination for his natural and down-to-earth portrayal of the very likeable and mature retired tycoon, Sam Dodsworth. A surprising Best Supporting Actress nomination was given to Maria Ouspenskaya in a small role as Baroness Von Obersdorf, the woman whom Fran Dodsworth hoped to call "mother-in-law". I cannot deny that Ouspenskaya was very effective as the frank and no-nonsense German aristocrat who crushed Fran's dreams of marriage to the younger Kurt Von Obersdorf. But I rather doubt if I would have considered her for an Oscar nomination. The movie also featured competent performances from Mary Astor, Kathryn Marlowe, John Payne, Spring Byington and Gregory Gaye. The two more memorable performances - at least for me - came from a young David Niven as the well-born British Army officer, who teaches Fran a lesson about flirtation and Paul Lukas as the much older Lothario, Arnold Iselin, who seemed amused by the chaos he causes within the Dodsworth marriage. But for me, Ruth Chatterton gave the best performance in the film. Despite the negative manner in which her character was written, her portrayal of the vain Fran Dodsworth provided the film with backbone, drive and a great deal of first-rate drama. "DODSWORTH" would be nothing without the Fran Dodsworth character . . . and Chatterton's superb performance. And yet . . . the actress did not receive an Academy Award nomination.
In the end, "DODSWORTH" is a very well made movie. Actually, it is quite superbly made. I can see why it earned those seven Oscar nominations. But despite the excellent direction, acting and writing .. . I ended up hating this film. I hated the unbalanced portrayal of the Dodsworth marriage. I hated how the story placed all of the blame for the marriage's failure on Fran. If Wyler was trying to portray Fran in a more flexible light, he and Sidney Howard failed miserably in the end. I hated how Howard's screenplay portrayed Fran's flaws in a serious light, whereas Dodsworth's flaws - namely his own penchant for self-absorption at home - was portrayed as comic relief. I hated the fact that Sam Dodsworth ended up with a younger and more beautiful woman who seemed to be portrayed as an ideal woman, despite her divorce status. I especially hated the fact that Dodsworth was portrayed as a nearly ridiculously idealized himself - the self made man who still adhered to good old-fashioned American values, while Fran was portrayed as an incredibly flawed woman who had failed to live up to American society's ideal of a married woman.
I realize there are many women moviegoers who really enjoyed this film. But this is one woman who disliked it. And "DODSWORTH" might be one of the few William Wyler films I may never have a desire to watch again.