William Wyler’s Dodsworth comes with the highest of pedigrees, being the favorite film of TCM’s immortal host, Robert Osborne. It’s aired several times in the years since his death and I can’t tell you a reason why I never sought it out before. Maybe because the bar was set so high I didn’t want my thoughts to be any less than Osborne’s. But when Warner Archive was putting Dodsworth out on Blu-ray, I figured there was no better time than now to watch it. And I can’t say there is any better way to experience such a beautiful, emotionally wrought feature!
Dodsworth is the story of a retired auto magnate (Walter Huston) who wants to see the world with his devoted wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton) by his side. But as the two travel Europe together, Dodsworth and his wife start to realize how different they are. And the arrival of a divorce named Edith Cortright (Mary Astor) leads to further questions and complications.
Let me say, right off the bat, what an utterly spectacular package Warner Archive has assembled. I watch a lot of restorations and the like, but this is the first time in recent memory where I saw the glow and glitter of something that felt like watching nitrate on-screen. There’s an inner luminosity to the presentation that it breathtaking. If you can, watch this on the best television or computer you have at your disposal.
As far as the film goes, I’ve heard it said this is one of the first truly “adult” films to exist. And I don’t mean adult in the sexual sense, but in the themes that it’s examining. We meet Huston’s Sam Dodsworth as he’s just sold his company for millions and can finally get down to the business of relaxing. Sounds simple, right? The problem is what the word “retirement” means to him and Fran. Dodsworth has no problem with slowing down, watching his daughter prepare for the birth of her baby, becoming a grandfather, and essentially getting old. Fran, who is younger than her husband, has a harder go.
What Wyler and screenwriter Sidney Howard accomplish is the story of defining how we spend our lives, and the sad truth about people who naturally drift apart. It would have been ridiculously easy to present Fran as a vain, bitter young woman who only seeks pleasure, and Edith as the kindhearted, simple woman who better suits Sam. That’s not the case, in fact both women are remarkably complex (and that’s aided by the fact they’re played by two wondrous actresses).
It’s surprising that, in a movie that’s over 90-minutes, that Mary Astor does feel like a supporting character. Sam meets Edith for the first time briefly while he and Fran are crossing to Europe, and then she’s gone for a key portion of the feature. And once she finally becomes a feature player, toward the final 20 minutes or so, you can’t believe she hasn’t been around this whole time. In such a brief period, Astor makes you believe you know everything about Edith and demand she be in Sam’s life. It’s more remarkable to realize that, while Astor was filming this story of love and connection she was battling her ex-husband in a very public divorce and custody proceeding.
But as best remembered as Astor is, the MVP has to be Ruth Chatterton. I’m certain I’ve watched her in other features but she blew me away. The sad truth found within Dodsworth is how two people can love each other and realize they no longer know each other. For Chatterton’s Ruth, she isn’t actively seeking to wander away from Sam, though she does engage in flirtations (including with an incredibly charming David Niven). Part of it is the female equivalent of a mid-life crisis, but there’s an unspoken element to her character that she attempts to explain to Sam.
She’s younger, and pretty, but she’s also been defined as a wife and mother while Sam’s been creating an empire and legacy. His retirement, for the first time, is an opportunity for both of them to be their own people (and, boy, does that go all the way). But in this desire to flex individuality, Fran discovers she wants to be her own person, single and finding a love she might have been initially denied. You never come to hate any of the characters. Instead you mourn their choices. Sam, for knowing he’ll always love his wife, but needs to pursue a relationship with a woman who truly loves him the same way. And for Fran, you hope she’ll find true satisfaction along the way.
Interestingly, considering the Hays Code and all that, this movie’s ending is also unique in that the couples are instigating divorce, but aren’t by the end. The romance between Sam and Edith is encouraged, though legally Sam is still bound to Fran.
And I haven’t talked about Walter Huston, yet. I’m used to seeing Huston as a villain, a la The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941). Here, he’s an incredibly stand-up and patrician figure whose magnanimity you revere. He’s similar to characters I’d expect to see in a Frank Capra movie, with a moral code of his own. At the same time, he also has a great sense of dry, comedic timing, particularly in an argument sequence between Harlan Briggs’ Tubby Pearson. He’s a man for which time has no meaning and yet time has all the meaning in the world.
Dodsworth is a dramatic film, and not in the sense of where action and secrets are being thrown at the screen. The drama comes from the nature of life itself. Everyone is in fine form and it’s just a deep, all-encompassing story of humanity. I can see why Robert Osborne loved it so. Warner Archive’s Blu-ray is lacking in bonus material but it doesn’t matter, the presentation is worth it.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.