True story! My personal copy of Dodsworth was bought from a local video store (remember them!?) that went out of business. When I arrived at the sale, the ‘Classics’ shelf had been picked clean. I mean, every single film was gone — except for Dodsworth.
— film blogger “Mildred Fierce”
If you read a typical TV Guide-type description of Dodsworth (1936), I doubt you’d find it any more enticing:
“Two rich Midwestern Americans go to Europe for the first time.”
Great. Who wants to endure two hours of archaic, sarcastic Continental snide about “ugly Americans” and “innocents abroad”? Don’t tell me: the Yankee hicks wonder why somebody doesn’t “fix” Venice, then order hot dogs at Maxim’s.
That’s what I thought on the rare occasions Dodsworth (heralded by some equally off-putting synopsis) popped up on the small screen. I was all for watching “a fearlessly mature drama” about a disintegrating marriage as long as it was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or something similarly “daring” and drunken, with plenty of shattering glass.
But a homely middle-aged couple in stiff evening clothes — on a steamship? I’d stick with yet another broadcast of Die Hard.
Yet as I explained in the first installment of this series, my tastes in movies evolved once I hit middle age. Many “boring” movies suddenly made sense. Dodsworth became one of those films for me when Turner Classic Movies aired it as one of their “Essentials” about three years ago.
Theories abound as to why this movie remains “unjustly neglected” decades after cinephiles first started calling it a masterpiece. TCM’s main article about the film speculates:
It may have been simply too serious, too subtle, and too sophisticated for the taste of the general public.
Certainly, it flopped at the box office. (“I lost my goddam shirt” on Dodsworth said producer Sam Goldwyn. “I’m not saying it wasn’t a fine picture. It was a great picture, but nobody wanted to see it. In droves.”)
“It might have to do with the fact that the MGM DVD is out of print or the lack of big-name stars,” mused Dan Hofstra of MovieManiacMadness. “It could just be that it stands too close to reality.”
Hofstra adds that, well, the thudding title “Dodsworth” doesn’t help, and he’s right. It’s as poetic as – to steal from W.C. Fields – “a bubble in a bathtub.”
(And the less said about the posters, the better.)
While the movie isn’t at all political, it’s interesting to note that two famous “recovering liberals” count the movie among their favorites: playwright David Mamet, and comedian Dennis Miller, who chose Dodsworth when he served as a TCM “Guest Programmer.”
The story concerns Sam Dodsworth — “surely the most lovable industrialist ever put on film” — and his wife Fran, played by Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton. The couple have spent their whole lives in the same Midwestern city, building a successful business and a happy family. Now with the business sold for millions and the children married off, restless Fran (who fancies herself a sophisticate) wants to see the world. Sam is less enthusiastic, but obliges.
“So from the beginning, you’re shown how this trip will play out. Fran talks a good game about wanting the refinements of Europe. ‘Oh, you’re hopeless. You haven’t the mistiest notion of civilization,’ she snaps at her husband. Retorts Sam, ‘Yeah, well, maybe I don’t think so much of it, though. Maybe clean hospitals, concrete highways, and no soldiers along the Canadian border come near my idea of civilization.’
“Yet Dodsworth, not a man to putter around enthusing over cathedrals and graves, still will find much in his travels to fire his imagination.”
Indeed, as the ship approaches the English coastline, Sam finds himself overcome with excitement, which he shares with Edith Cortwright (Mary Astor), an ex-pat divorcee he meets on deck:
The meeting proves a fateful one. Alone and away from home for the first time since their honeymoon, the voyage jostles open fault lines in the marriage that were previously papered over by routine and familial duty.
Sam considers the trip a second honeymoon, but Fran treats it more like a last-ditch, pre-menopausal “spring break.”
News that Fran is about to become a grandmother for the first time doesn’t help, as you might guess:
Being “a woman of a certain age,” I felt embarrassed for Fran, and myself, as I watched her trying her new “self” on for size: dying her hair blonde, putting on airs (along with fussy, flashy clothing she’s too old to pull off), fishing for compliments, and, eventually, taking flirtations too far.
When the Dodsworths meet up again with Edith in their travels, the difference between the two women is jarring. Painfully self-conscious Fran has turned into a pretentious phony, while Edith, her near contemporary, is ethereal and effortlessly elegant.
She’s also wiser and more gracious, first parrying Fran’s insult about her age with a subtle thrust, then trying gently to warn Mrs. Dodsworth – with a single, exquisitely chosen and uttered word — that she’s making a fool of herself.
“Edith has been living in Italy for some time, and projects a world-weary attitude toward the kind of societal glitz that Fran is fascinated by. The contrast between the two women could not be clearer in the first, and only, scene they share. At a party ostensibly for Fran’s birthday, she makes a to-do about feeling old at the ripe age of ‘thirty-five.’ [Note: Fran is in her early 40s].
“Not taken in for a minute, Edith plays along, sympathetically telling her, ‘When you’re my age, you’ll look back at thirty-five as a most agreeable time of life.’ As Edith leaves the party, she catches Fran in an illicit embrace. Without a note of hysteria, she simply tells Fran, ‘Don’t,’ in a voice that is both instructive, yet saddened by a scene she has doubtlessly witnessed many times before.”
Fran ignores Edith’s advice. Her flirtations turn into affairs.
Sam is hurt but stoic. He still loves Fran in his way, but that’s the point: “his way” is no longer enough. Fran wants something Sam, with all his millions, can’t give her – another chance to be young and carefree and desirable again.
It’s easy to mock, and even despise, a woman like Fran, right up until the day you too turn “thirty-five.”
Divorce being a more arduous (and scandalous) affair than it is today, the couple part as they wait for the legal machinery to run its course. When a lonely and dejected Sam miraculously runs into Edith again… well, I won’t ruin Dodsworth for you by rehashing the entire plot.
OK: Here’s the finale anyhow. I can’t resist. I’ve rarely been so thrilled by a movie ending that didn’t involve disarming a ticking bomb or battling zombies:
If you didn’t watch, I’ll just say that the final irony is that it is Sam, not Fran, who gets that “second chance” to “do things” in life – an opportunity he never realized he wanted or needed.
Meanwhile, Edith, who, unlike Fran, was always more or less resigned to middle age, seems transformed back into a young woman, even a child, in the last shot.
Fans of the film are fond of quoting Sam’s last lines to his wife, but they neglect the brutal “couplet” that comes before them:
Fran: What’s going to become of me?
Sam: I don’t know. You’ll have to stop getting younger some day.
Billy Stevenson writes that Dodsworth presents “a series of penetrating emotional observations” on, among other things, “the shame of age.” Perfectly put.
But that’s only small comfort when, like me, you’re 47.