Sunday, March 10, 2013

Dodsworth (1936)

Director: William Wyler


It is a less extravagant picture when compared to the usual fluff seen coming out of the Hollywood system at the time, about the ugly side of marriages and divorce, but Dodsworth is a wonderful motion picture filled with great acting, tremendous directing, and classic motion picture class. Out of the independent Samuel Goldwyn Productions comes a feature with emotions that go deep into audiences about a failed marriage and is done so with great quality, in part to its director William Wyler, creating a wonderfully received picture for 1936 and for all cinema history to enjoy.

Dodsworth is a drama about a self made man and his relationship with his restless wife who fears the idea that they are growing old causing a deterioration of their long marriage. Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston), the successful founder of a great automobile manufacturer, sells his company to sets sail on a European excursion with his wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton). Increasingly fearful of the idea she is growing old and stale Fran begins to resent her loving husband as his ways and actions as a retiring magnate only makes her think she too is no longer youthful. To live a more sophisticated and active life she begins to philander in the ideas of affairs, first with another rich, sophisticated man (Paul Lukas), then with a wealthy Baron (Gregory Gaye), finally informing Sam that she is leaving him for the Baron. A saddened Sam befriends Edith, a divorcee he meets while on his travels in Europe, and through their friendship begins to forget about his divorce proceedings with his estranged wife, but when Fran’s proposed marriage crumbles because of her divorce Sam is loyal to return to her, at the behest to the growing friendship and growing love with Edith. In a final moment of realization as Sam and Fran are about to embark for home, Sam recognizes this marriage is truly over, finally leaving Fran on the ship while he returns to Edith.

It is such a simply done film about the complications of two growing apart. It’s a touchy subject, but makes for a wonderful picture. We follow the story of this man that had everything that made him content in life try to please his ever more restless wife, only to lose her and discover new things that make him happy in both lifestyle and people that he would have never have known it was not for his selfish wife and the pain of losing what he thought was a good marriage. To ground the look on the relationship on more down-to-earth terms Sam and Fran even have a grown up daughter that attempts to help her father with his transition in life from career to retirement. This daughter bares a her parents a grandchild, which at first delights Fran until she realizes that gives her the title of “grandmother,” causing her only to grow further away. It’s a tragic tale that is gripping, and even though this man loses what he once had in life and family, he gains a new, refreshing perspective on living.

This would be the first real masterpiece of director William Wyler. Once a lowly stage hand on the Universal Studios lot grew into a directing role, but with his move to Samuel Goldwyn was allowed to flourish with his skill behind the camera. He would become known for his perfectionism, at times using several dozen takes to get a shot right. This over-care for the details in his film would pay off well in this picture and it would in his future in film. In this feature Wyler is said to have shot dozens and dozens of takes on the singular shot with Fran burning a letter from Sam as it needed to blow perfectly away in the wind for it signified the ending of the marriage for good from Fran’s perspective. It is this care that was used for nearly everything in his filmmaking process, coaxing wonderful performances from his actors and landing him his first nomination for best director, which would one day be the longest list of nominations for any director’s career.

Walter Huston would reprise the role he first played on the stage version of the Sinclair Lewis novel. His Middle America style and innocent charm makes for his wonderful performance. To play his wife was the veteran of critical fame during the early 1930s Ruth Chatterton. Her role as the shallow, restless wife creates the tension of the picture, making the audience feel pain when Sam returns to her after her failed affairs. Giving one of the finest performances on screen for the year 1936, and what she would say was her favorite and finest performance ever, it is amazing she did not receive an Academy Award nomination for best actress.

In a supporting role Mary Astor makes for the most interesting notes to the film. Her role as Edith is a sweet performance as she plays a divorcee who understands the pains of Dodsworth and helps him heal of his wounds while slowly realizing that she is in love with him and must make him realized he is too in love with her. Astor was in fact going through a very nasty and very public divorce at the time of the picture. This perhaps enhanced her performance and how audiences at the time thought of her in the picture. Her divorce, despite her great performance in Dodsworth, would slow down her acting career, but only for a short time, as great roles started to appear again for her within a year.

Dodsworth would only make a modest profit in theaters, but would get good reviews from critics. Many critics seemed to find the picture admirable, but not one of the years elite, but in further review of all of what the critics had to say one would come the realization that in fact Dodsworth was one of the finest films of the year, but due to the lack of flash or major stars it was not given its proper respect at initial release. When awards season would come around Dodsworth would be one the greater nominated pictures of the year, including seven Academy Award nominations (best picture, best actor, best director, best supporting actress [for Maria Ouspenskaya, in her short role as the Baron's very strict mother], best sound, best screenplay), while winning for best art direction and being noted as one of the top films by many other critics and associations for 1937. In time it would be honored as one of the very best in American cinema with the 2005 election into the National Film Registry.

It is one of those pictures that come on so innocently, but wow you with it amazing under spoken power. Dodsworth is simply a great picture and should be discovered and enjoyed by contemporary audiences who have never acquainted themselves with movies of the 1930s. It would mark the beginning of an era for director William Wyler, a noteworthy performance by a member of the fames Huston family, and simply one of the very best for 1936.

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