Friday, March 19, 2010

Film #16: Dodsworth (1936)

Director: William Wyler

Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: none

The Story (In which I shamelessly give away the entire plot, spoilers and all. Fair warning):

Sixty-ish American industrialist Sam Dodsworth has just sold the auto company that he created and has operated for 20 years. He decides to follow his forty-ish wife, Fran's pleas to go with her to Europe, where she wants them to expand their horizons and enjoy life. While the very blue-collar Sam is a bit concerned about being lost in the sophistication of Europe, he acquiesces, goes along and even begins to enjoy the cruise across the Atlantic.

Before long on the ship, it becomes obvious that Fran is just as interested in delving into a more "worldly" realm of flirtation and possible affairs with European men. She sees herself as meant to be in with what she sees as the more cultured Old World of Europe. As such, she drifts away from her brusque, though undeniably kind, honest, and capable older husband. Eventually, Fran chooses a young German man who wishes to marry her, and requests divorce from Sam. Sam still loves his wife, yet realizes that her path has become totally different from his. They separate and await divorce.

The 3 main players plus one: random sleaze #1, Fran, Sam, and Edith
During the separation, Sam reconnects with Edith Cortright, a divorcee whom he met on the initial cruise to Europe, and who is roughly the same age and has the calm wisdom that goes with it; wisdom that Fran sorely lacks. During a stay at Edith's modest coastal village in Italy, the two fall into gentle and mature love and are on the cusp of embarking on some adventurous globe-trotting when Fran enters the scene again. She calls and informs Sam that her fiance, Kurt's baroness mother has disapproved of their union, pointing out with brutal honesty that she will not allow her thirty-ish son to marry a forty-ish woman. The tables have now been turned, and Sam is moved to abandon his plans to take up with Edith, instead agreeing to rejoin Fran on a return cruise to America. Edith is crushed.

Just when it seems that Sam is going to swallow his own desires, forgive Fran's selfishness and thoughtlessness, and go back to taking care of her again, things take a final turn. When the two meet on the ship, Sam begins to listen to Fran's petty gossiping and back-stabbing. Upon realizing that she has learned nothing and is still the same immature snob from whom he had separated, he quickly leaves her and returns to Edith for an emotional reunion.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done upon 1 viewing, before any research):

Ahhh. This one was a breath of fresh air after the effort of The Awful Truth. Dodsworth is a really solid film, with all of the sophistication and maturity that screwball comedies eschew. Right from the get-go, I could tell that Dodsworth was going to be more to my liking. The scene opens with Sam Dodsworth forlornly looking out over his auto plant, contemplating what he's going to do with the rest of his life, now that he's moving past his life's work. This early quiet moment hints at the depth to come in the rest of the movie. Here's the opening.

Jump right to 1:00 in to see the forerunner of Welles' opening to Citizen Kane:

There's a great balance to everything in this story. It takes no time to see that Sam Dodsworth represents the American dream - a man who has worked extremely hard to create a successful company, yet has not lost his zest for life. The only thing missing at the beginning of the story is his ability to enjoy leisurely pursuits. Once in Europe, we see the stark contrast between a man like Sam and the upper-crust Europeans who are wealthy from their ancestors' deeds rather than their own; people for whom the mere pursuit of leisure and culture has been the point of their entire lives. They have education, wit, and worldly sensibilities, but none of the grit or character of Sam. Sam soon comes to realize this, but his wife falls under the spell of the Old World sophistication and European charm. The rift between the two is not immediately apparent, but it is masterfully revealed through a series of near-affairs, full-blown affairs, and subtle culture clashes.

Unless you've read the Sinclair Lewis novel that's the basis for the film, it's very difficult to imagine just how things will turn out. Not because of weak storytelling, but because the tale represents the very real complexity of differing philosophies regarding fidelity and the purpose of one's life. It's obvious that the older Sam desperately wants to make his wife happy, which makes it all the more upsetting when he finally realizes that the divide between them cannot be bridged.

Beyond the engaging plot is the cinematography. Between the carefully crafted long shots and the unwavering still shots of certain scenes, the director gives you plenty of moments to drink in the situations and ponder the gravity of the characters' thoughts. I noticed a few scenes like this is Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, but Wyler uses it more often and to great effect. There are several excellent scenes with Sam, and a particularly powerful scene with Fran and her finance Kurt's baroness mother. Here's the scene, with less than a minute chopped from the beginning, but the power of it is in the first 3-4 minutes. It's awesome:

The acting is excellent. While Ruth Chatterton's turn as the snobbish Fran Dodsworth is appropriately annoying with her New England affectation and selfish arrogance, Walter Huston is awesome. I completely buy into his salt-of-the-earth persona who is, in turns, sensitive and tortured, calm and commanding, and exuberant. Even the minor roles are exceptional, especially Mary Astor as Edith Cortright, the mature soul-mate whom Sam eventually finds. With this movie, I'm finally seeing consistently relaxed and more naturalistic acting.

If I have any complaints about this film it's that there are a few moments in which the melodrama gets laid on a bit thick. During several scenes between Sam and Fran, there's a swell in the orchestral score and a lot of "Oh, Fran!" and "Oh, Sam!" kind of dialogue. During these scenes, I felt a touch of the impatience that I feel when watching films like Camille.

Overall, this one was a treat to watch, and I'd see it again. Anyone who enjoys classic movies with more depth than your standard Hollywood romance would be well served to check this one out. 

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (done after some research):

Apparently, for very much the same reasons I enjoyed it so much - the maturity. In the midst of many light-hearted and fancy-free movies of the day (understandable, being in the middle of the Depression), Dodsworth stood out for its thoughtful and skilled handling of the topic of mature marital distress. I'm apparently far from the first to notice the consistently excellent acting, as well. Here's the original TIME magazine review from 74 years ago.

The modern fellows at TIME also have some really interesting points about how Wyler was from Germany, yet managed to direct the tale of an all-American protagonist with whom the viewer sympathizes. Here's their quick-capsule write-up.

Also of note is the source material. Sinclair Lewis certainly had much more famous novels, but Sam Dodsworth is noted as being a rare thing for Lewis - a self-confident and self-assured man. The novel goes much more into the courtship and early marriage of the Dodsworths, but even critics agree that the meat of the tale begins with Sam's selling of his Revelation Motor Company (not exactly a veiled name, that). It looks like the adaptations (it was a play before a film) made the right call in trimming away these background elements.

There seemed to be some kind of ground-swell support for Mary Astor's appearance in the film too, due to personal battles that she was dealing with. It's described vaguely in the TIME review above.

That's a wrap. 16 shows down. 89 to go.

Coming Soon: Olympia (1938):

This one should be interesting - the 1936 Olympics, which took place in Nazi Germany, filmed by a phenomenally skilled director with heaps of cash to work with. Come on back in a little while, if for no other reason than to see Jesse Owens ram it up Hitler's sheise hole.

Please pick up all empties on the way out.