Bucket List Movie #440: Dodsworth (1936)
Another wonderful winner by William Wyler!
Sorry, I like alliteration.
Dodsworth was one of the top 20 box office hits of 1936, and it would certainly be considered an oddity now, and all but impossible to remake. Why? Because it’s a movie for adults, about adults with actual adult problems. No, these are not 30-year-olds who still look and act 10 years younger, but legitimate adults who grapple with issues such as aging, the ennui of unwanted retirement, and the true meaning of love and living life to the fullest. Based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis (who also wrote Elmer Gantry), Dodsworth was adapted for the stage and screen by Sidney Howard (Gone With the Wind). If nothing else, Dodsworth proves that all people weren’t looking for Art Deco escapism during the Depression, but were willing to face cold, cruel reality if the story was good enough. Dodsworth certainly is that; a sometimes touching, sometimes frustrating, never boring look at middle-aged wasteland.
Our hero is Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston), a wealthy, Midwestern auto industrialist whose company is bought, effectively sending him into retirement (the terms “early retirement” or “forced retirement” are never used). He isn’t that happy, but isn’t that sad, either. After all, he’s set for life, and now has all the leisure time he needs to spend with his wife, Fran (Ruth Chatterton), who is desperate for a change of scenery from the small town she has grown to hate. They go on a European tour together, but along the way, a rift forms between them. Sam is restless and eager to return home, but Fran, faster than you can say “Emma Bovary”, embarks on a series of affairs, desperate to avoid the reality of encroaching age (the news about their grown daughter’s pregnancy certainly doesn’t help matters any) and reinvent herself as a woman of the world. Things are further complicated when Sam meets a classy divorcee, Edith Cortwright (Mary Astor), who takes a shine to him.
Having spent her prime years as a small-town wife and mother, Fran’s thirst for adventure snowballs into the midlife crisis from Hell: shameless flings, exorbitant shopping sprees and makeovers, putting on ridiculous airs, and making a show about hedging her age. In one of the most famous scenes in Dodsworth, she and Edith share this exchange:
Edith: I hadn't realized it was your birthday.
Fran: No? Wish I hadn't. No woman enjoys getting to be 35.
Edith: When you're my age, you look back on 35 as a most agreeable time of life.
Fran: I hope I look as young as you do when I'm your age.
Edith: You're almost sure to, my dear.
Edith, to her credit, isn’t trying to be catty, but she isn’t exactly tolerant of Fran’s foolishness, either. It’s unclear how old Edith actually is (in case you’re wondering, Chatterton was 44, and Astor was 31), but she is head and shoulders above Fran in poise and maturity. When it comes to worldliness, Fran is a poseur, Edith is the real deal. Eventually, Fran decides to divorce Sam to marry the handsome young Curt (Paul Lukas), and Sam struggles with not only retirement, but the loss of his marriage. With Edith’s help, he rediscovers his purpose in life, while Fran is not so lucky.
Dodsworth is a bracingly adult film (no, not that kind of “adult”), where the main cast is-gasp!-over the age of 30... even-gasp!-40! Though the film is ostensibly about Sam, it is equally about Fran. Apparently, Wyler and Chatterton clashed on how Fran should be played; Wyler thought she needed to be more morally complex, while Chatterton thought she should be more black and white. However you look at it, Fran represents a very common, visceral fear we all have to face: growing old and looking back with regret at all the experiences you believe you were denied. Fran married young, made a home and family for Sam, and isn’t thrilled with the prospect of official middle age, much less early golden years. What’s so disheartening is that Fran’s feelings are completely understandable and even sympathetic: it’s just that she handles them the wrong way. Instead of simply enjoying Europe, she instead uses her insecurities as an excuse to run roughshod over Sam’s feelings and behave like a spoiled teenager. Watching Chatterton’s boldly unlikable performance as a champion narcissist in denial, I was reminded of this quote from The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis:
“Her whole idea is to race to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can."
Yet as awful as Fran can be, I couldn't help but understand how she felt, and this is a point that no film, then or now, ever really addresses: getting older for men is not the same as getting older for women. The fact that Sam's older than Fran and should have at least a few of the same concerns is never brought up. In fact, Sam is allowed to start life anew with restored vitality, whereas Fran is humiliated in a memorably painful scene with Curt's brutally honest mother (Maria Ouspenskaya, Oscar-nominated for her only scene in Dodsworth), where she asks, through narrowed eyes and a voice blended with sympathy and disdain:
"Have you thought how little happiness there can be for the old wife of a young husband?"
One could make the argument that Sam and Fran are simply the recipients of their own karma, but I can’t help but view it as very typical in fiction: men are allowed to be okay with aging, and women aren’t. Think about it: how many plays, novels, movies are about women who just can’t handle getting older? A Streetcar Named Desire, Separate Tables, Ship of Fools, Blue Sky, and those are only a few I can think of off the top of my head. Men can still enjoy life after age 30, but women? According to society, we reach our expiration date at that age, like jars of mayonnaise to be tossed out. Stories about women who have a zest for life after a certain age are definitely the exception, not the rule. Fran is never once framed as having a point, she is just horribly behaved all the way, an object of ridicule and disparagement. I’m not saying Fran shouldn’t have been the antagonist, but a little more complexity would have made it go down easier.
Even with all that said, though, Dodsworth is still an excellent film. It is one of the most exquisitely shot films of its time: in one scene, Fran, in a prelude to a dalliance, burns a letter from Sam, and the wind blows it away, and the camera follows the burning letter as it dances in the breeze, then plummets to the ground and smolders. A textbook example of narrative within cinematography. Walter Huston is in fine form as Sam, though Sam is rather unchallenging on the whole: he is genial, principled, and nonjudgmental. He's basically like a less sanctimonious version of the typical Frank Capra character, Mary Astor is the “other woman”, but she is lovely and understated, making Edith a flesh and blood human being, not a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. With her raven hair, sad eyes, and shy smile, Astor reminded me a great deal of Andie MacDowell (only Astor is a much, much, much better actress). You care about Edith, and in a scene where it seems Sam will go back to Fran, she vehemently objects, even going so far as to say “think of me!”. Any other actress would sound hateful delivering that line, but Astor nails it, and you even find yourself thinking, “yeah, Sam, think of her!”. But it is Chatterton who steals the movie, and I was astonished to discover that she wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. Fran is one of the most maddening yet vulnerable characters this side of Blanche DuBois, and Chatterton plays her with numerous subtle touches, whether it’s her constant hand-wringing, her accent getting more posh when she’s around her socialite friends and lovers, or her nervous primping. Anyone who thinks acting was more stylized and phony back in the 30s should take a look at Chatterton’s brave performance as a woman who’s hard to like, but easy to understand. Considering that so many people were forced out of their jobs during the Depression, Dodsworth gives a spark of hope that rejuvenation and reinvention are possible, so it is at least optimistic in that respect. Sam decides to go back into business, no longer content to rest on his laurels, and I've no doubt that audiences must have cheered his attitude.
Dodsworth is about adulthood, with all its joys and miseries, and how life goes on, even after retirement, divorce, and, yes, age.