Dodsworth, under the direction of William Wyler, is one of the best pieces of cinema to come out of the 1930s and is available on Blu-ray.
Like so many films of its era, Dodsworth originated as a novel before taking to the stage. In this instance, playwright/screenwriter Sidney Howard adapted his play for the screen. None of this would ever happen without Sinclair Lewis’s novel, of course.
Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) founded Dodsworth Motors some twenty years earlier and is set to retire. Even though he is selling the company, no amount of money will bring him happiness. And yet, Sam heads off to Europe with his wife, Fran (Ruth Chatterton). Sam enjoys life in the small town but Fran feels trapped by their life in Zenith, Indiana. Hoosiers, don’t worry–the city is fictional. Despite being one of the richest men in the city, Dodsworth counts Tubby (Harlan Biggs) and Matey Pearson (Spring Byington) among family friends. Even when Sam and Fran are about to set sell for Europe, one can only wonder if either will truly be happy. Wouldn’t Sam rather be working?
It isn’t soon before Fran starts flirting with Captain Lockert (David Niven). Sam might not be worried but he certainly is not a fan of the friends that Fran is making on the ship. The final straw appears to be Fran’s affair with Arnold Iselin (Paul Lukas). While it is true that the affair ends, Fran will only go back to Sam if they stay in Europe. Not even becoming grandparents will get their affairs in order because Fran starts yet another affair. This time with Kurt Von Obersdorf (Gregory Gaye). Now estranged, Fran wants a divorce and Sam runs into Edith Cortwright (Mary Astor) in Naples. It’s a reunion since the two previously met en route to Europe. Edith sees the unhappiness in his eyes.
It’s not long before Sam asks Edith to marry him. At the same time, Fran’s life is falling apart! Kurt proposes but his mother (Maria Ouspenskaya) won’t allow it! Not long afterwards, Sam finds himself in a pickle when Fran comes calling back for him. Edith tries to talk him out of it but it’s to no avail. At least, this is what happens at first. All in all, it takes almost all of the film’s run time for Sam to realize that he is no longer in love with his wife.
Walter Huston, Maria Ouspenskaya, and Harlan Briggs were now strangers to the story having performed the play on on Broadway. Huston, the father of filmmaker John Huston, also would perform in a Los Angeles production of the play.
William Wyler is the king of perfection behind the camera. As a director, Wyler would request take after take from his performers. Upwards of forty times in some instances to the point in which actors would walk off the set. And yet, he has a way of making beautiful cinema in doing so. Even in the making of this film, Wyler went head to head with Chatterton. The two had differences in how they saw the role of Fran being portrayed. Wyler also had trouble with David Niven, too.
Richard Day’s art direction would earn the film its only Oscar win. The film earned six other nominations including Outstanding Production, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Sound Recording, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Interestingly enough, Sam Goldwyn didn’t want to bring the novel to the screen when Sidney Howard approached him in 1932. The early moguls like to think they have an idea of what audiences want but they are, well, wrong. Goldwyn didn’t think a middle-age love story would sale and he said as much to Garson Kanin according to Jan Herman’s biography of William Wyler. The producer changed his mind only after Howard turned the novel into a hit Broadway play.
There are several themes that play out in Dodsworth. Among them are aging, marriage, divorce, snobbery, and the differences between America and Europe. We especially see this through Sam and Fran. Fran would rather stay young than grow old. Howard’s play and film adaptation choose to focus on the marriage as it begins to fall apart. Fran sees herself as a sophisticated woman who would rather live in Europe than small town Indiana. I can see why–it is Indiana after all!
Dodsworth may be early Wyler but the film is a thing of cinematic beauty in all of its glory.
- Lux Radio Theatre: October 4, 1937 Broadcast
DIRECTOR: William Wyler
SCREENWRITER: Sidney Howard
CAST: Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, Paul Lukas, Mary Astor, David Niven