Note: This post is part of the Mary Astor Blogathon hosted by Silver Screenings and Tales of the Easily Distracted.
What are you after?
Recently retired, auto executive Samuel Dodsworth (Walter Huston) takes a final opportunity to survey the automobile plant that has been his life for the past twenty years. He was the founder and president of Dodsworth Motors and is now retiring and at last taking time to see what can do for him. Part of this new phase in life includes his younger wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton). Fran sees the selling of the company as a new-found freedom. She has been jealous of Sam who (in her mind at least) has been able to escape the boredom of their home in Zenith by going to the plant each day. Fran has felt tied down to their life in Zenith, and is bored with the same people and activities. Their daughter is on her honeymoon with her new husband, and the new empty-nesters are eagerly preparing for a trip abroad to Europe.
From the onset of the voyage Sam is interested in exploration and adventure, he is exuberant at the thought of learning and seeing new things and often forgets his place and manners. Director William Wyler often shows Sam as looking out, heading out, on the go and eager. He may pause to look back occasionally but decisively he moves forward. Sam looks outward seeking new opportunities that peak his interest. Fran on the other hand is concerned with appearances. She often criticizes Sam or comments to others about his common mannerisms and snickers at the bourgeois American “tourists” on the ship. Traveling to Europe is only the first part of their adventure, and it is on this leg of the journey that Sam will first meet the beautiful and sensitive expatriate, Edith Cortright (Mary Astor). Edith shares Sam’s frank nature and simple ideas, and seems immediately taken with Sam.
My dear don’t
Unlike Sam, Fran does not enjoy the typical tourist activities on the ship and in Europe. It is on this trip that we begin to see Fran’s true self as a narcissistic snob. She begins to create a new circle of friends for herself of Europeans that she finds are cultured, educated, and refined; everything she views Sam not to be. Fran also finds excitement in the new-found attention from other men. Sam will later excuse Fran’s behavior as a fear of getting older (i.e. Fran’s having a mid-life crises). Despite her behavior, Wyler was able to create some audience sympathy with the character of Fran, truly you do not want to complete hate her. Fran’s venture outside of the bounds of her marriage begins with an on board flirtation with Captain Clyde Lockert (David Niven). However, Fran is surprised when what she sees as a flirtation leads to Lockert making an attempt to take things further. She rebuffs his attentions and is humiliated when Lockert points out he only acted on what was expected of him in the situation and leaves her with a warning not to start things she is not prepared to finish. But as the trip moves along, Fran will continue to start things, and her reactions towards affairs outside of her marriage will change along with her growing narcissism. Though she had refused the advances of Lockert, she does not refuse the advances of Arnold Iselin (Paul Lukas) a European businessman who she met through one of her new European friends. Fran invites Iselin to a small birthday dinner with a few other friends. While people are beginning to leave, Iselin lingers speaking to Fran. Edith walks in on them together and simply tells Fran “don’t.”
You ought to be smart enough not to care what people think.
That night in the hotel Fran pleads with Sam to return to Zenith and she will remain in Europe alone for the summer. According to Fran, Sam is racing towards old age and she needs to be able to live. As much as Sam would like to believe that this separation is only temporary and is only to allow Fran some space to be her own person, Fran has changed. She transforms to who she needs to be for this new crowd, to be what she feels she was destined to be. Fran makes herself out to be younger and continuously reminds Sam that she was young when he married her as if to convince herself that she can be young again under the right circumstances. Her new friends know little (if not anything) about her life in Zenith, including her grown daughter that lives in Zenith. In contrasts, Edith, embraces her age (to note in real life, Mary Astor was 30 when she played the character of Edith) and does what is comfortable for her. She makes no excuses for the way she lives, for example telling Sam that the reason she lives in Italy is because it’s cheap. We would never find Fran making a statement like that, and in fact, if she cannot use Sam’s money she has some money of her own. Fran continuously criticizes Sam for maintaining his same routines and manners, and not assimilating into European culture.
Sam will leave Fran alone in Europe, and she will begin an affair with Iselin. Sam will confront Fran about the affair. But, Fran is not prepared to leave Sam. There is a rainbow on the horizon for this couple. However, finding out that her daughter Emily is expecting a child, sends Fran further over the edge. Though she is with Sam she is frequently spending time with a European associate of his, Baron Kurt Von Obersdorf (Gregory Gaye). It is her relationship with Kurt and the prospect of marrying him, which finally resolves Fran to leave Sam.
Drifting isn’t nearly so pleasant as it looks.
However, till the divorce is finalized Sam must remain in Europe. He now travels Europe alone, finding it difficult to find the same joy in the adventure that he had before. While in Italy, he reconnects with Edith. Sam had commented to Edith at the beginning of the trip that he only planned on staying abroad for about six months, after that he would homesick. This trip appears to have well reached past the point of Sam’s amusement. Recognizing his loneliness Edith invites him to stay with her. At the villa we see Sam flourishing again, without him realizing it he and Edith have falling in love. They have begun to build a new life and make new plans for the future. But Edith worries that someday Sam may fall back into Fran’s trap.
The old triangle stuff.
Sam had commented during the Arnold Iselin affair about “the old triangle stuff,” and now Sam is involved in a triangle of his own. Fran with her admires created most of the emotional triangles in the film. There are not only script triangles, director William Wyler places the scenes where the characters are in this literal-physical triangle, typically with Fran playing a role. However, reviewing this marriage it is safe to say that even before the trip, there were three in the marriage, Sam, Fran and the business. With the business out of the picture, it is necessary for something to be between them, least they have to face each other. Sam is often the out-of-place piece in the trip, where Fran was the third wheel in Zenith. But even when Sam returns alone to Zentih he is still the third wheel despite being in his own home. His daughter and new husband are now living in the home, while waiting for their home to be built. Sam’s son-in-law has now taken over many of the household duties and luxuries that were normally reserved for him, this includes the key to liquor cabinet and receiving of telegrams. Sam doesn’t appear to find his place again till he reconnects with Edith. Fran on the other hand, even with Sam gone is still involved in triangles, this time with Kurt and his mother the Baroness (Maria Ouspenskaya would win an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her brief, yet memorable role as the Baroness).
That marriage is working out alright.
This film can be seen as a study in marriage. Simplistically, we see the ending of a marriage and the beginning of a new one. There is a wife in the middle of a mid-life crisis, and a husband who is embracing his new roles in life. We also see their daughter, recently married and beginning a new family with her husband. They are so dreamy-eyed and full of possibility it makes us hope that the turmoil in the Dodsworth marriage will not be a reflection on her and her husband.
Would you like to enjoy life for a while?
It is really hard for me to stop there without going on and telling you the end of the movie. I will just leave you wondering what Sam’s future will be, whether it be with Fran or Edith.
But, before I end, something must be said for the partnership of director William Wyler and producer Sam Goldwyn. Dodsworth would earn a Best Picture nomination, and Wyler would win his first Best Director Academy Award for this film. Besides Dodsworth, they would partner on two other films Barbary Coast (1935) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Not having seen Barbary Coast I cannot really comment on it. However, for the many that have seen The Best Years of Our Lives and enjoy Wyler and Goldwyn’s storytelling and respect for characters and their development and changes in a film will enjoy Dodsworth. The dialogue of the characters is what shows the audience who they are, their motivations, and their flaws. It even helps the audience find some sympathy for the most unsympathetic characters (i.e. Fran Dodsworth). Mary Astor had said that the character of Edith Cortright was one of her favorite characters. At the time this film was in production, Astor was in the middle of a nasty divorce. She credits Edith as her inspiration for her demonstration of strength and determination during the trial. On a final note, Walter Huston originated the role of Samuel Dodsworth initially on Broadway in the stage production of Dodsworth. He would reprise the role in the Lux Radio Theater broadcast on October 4, 1937.
Images from: Dodsworth. Dir. William Wyler. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1936. DVD.
Tagged: Barbary Coast, David Niven, Dodsworth, Gregory Gaye, Maria Ouspenskaya, Mary Astor, Mary Astor Blogathon, Paul Lukas, Ruth Chatterton, Samuel Goldwyn, Samuel Goldwyn Productions, The Best Years of Our Lives, Walter Huston, William Wyler