Dodsworth (1936)

Dir. William Wyler. Starring Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, Mary Astor

In The Razor’s Edge, a novel which postdates Dodsworth the film by a little less than a decade and Sinclair Lewis’ novel Dodsworth by fifteen years, Somerset Maugham creates a rather memorable character named Elliott Templeton, an American who long ago forsook his uncultured native land for the pleasures and sophistication of Europe. Elliott is telling Maugham (a character in his own novel, which is both charming and extremely him) that he believes he can introduce a shared acquaintance, the young Larry Darrell, into the best of European society:

“…Believe me, my dear fellow, the average American can get into the kingdom of heaven much more easily than he can get into the Boulevard St. Germain. He’s twenty and he has charm. I think I could probably arrange a liaison for him with an older woman. It would form him. I always think there’s no better education for a young man than to become the lover of a woman of a certain age and of course if she is the sort of person I have in view, a femme du monde, you know, it would immediately give him a situation in Paris.”

“Did you tell that to Mrs. Bradley?” I asked, smiling.

Elliott chuckled.

“My dear fellow, if there’s one thing I pride myself on it’s my tact. I did not tell her. She wouldn’t understand, poor dear. It’s one of the things I’ve never understood about Louisa; though she’s lived half her life in diplomatic society, in half the capitals of the world, she’s remained hopelessly American.”

Elliott ultimately receives a cruel comeuppance when he finds that European society, especially after the twin indignities of the Great War and the Great Crash, has passed him by. All the niceties which he believed solidified his place in fact go by the wayside during his own lifetime, and the pretentiousness he used to be able to exhibit with some charm becomes pretentiousness addled by resentment. In the end, there is something “hopelessly American” about Elliott, too, an inescapable fact of his life that he cannot overcome. He is a relentless snob, a man who devotes his life to ingratiating himself into upper-crust European society, but at least he is only posing a little. Compared to Fran Dodsworth (Chatterton), a relentless snob who devotes a few months of her life into her own pseudo-European pretensions, Elliott is Voltaire.

Sinclair Lewis is as difficult an author to evoke in film as there is because of his absolutely ruthless narrative asides. Film doesn’t do well with narrative asides, as a general rule, and certainly not with the kind of endless gutting Lewis typically submits his characters and places to. (Only once does Dodsworth light one of its characters on fire in the way that Lewis did on just about every page. Ruth Chatterton tells Mary Astor she hopes she looks as good as Astor does when she reaches Astor’s age. Astor replies, “You’re almost sure to, my dear,” which might be the sickest cinematic burn of the entire 1930s.) No single place takes the brunt of Lewis’ surgery more than Zenith, Winnemac, sort of a low-rent Chicago or alternate Minneapolis in an essentialized Wisconsin or Iowa. It is in a Zenith stripped of George Babbitt, Martin Arrowsmith, and especially Elmer Gantry that we begin the photoplay, though the film does well enough at expressing the Detroit-ish feel of Sam Dodsworth’s (Huston) recently sold automobile company. Nor does it take long for the movie to make it clear what kind of people pass for nice company in Zenith. In Dodsworth, the most reliably Lewisian character in word and deed is Sam’s banker and confidante, Tubby (Harlan Briggs), who gives Sam a piece of his mind about leaving a profitable company essentially because his wife wants a vacation. Certainly Fran makes it sound like she does need it. She’s tired of the same people, the same topics of conversation, the same complaints. Zenith is stale and Europe is something else entirely. Sam, though he likes Zenith, goes along; perhaps he realizes that his work was exciting and fulfilling while his wife’s time at home was stultifying.

Granted that Lewis is a difficult writer to bring to the screen, there are few directors who were more qualified to do so in his time than Wyler. Wyler has an adult’s eye on his subjects, a maturity about the people in his stories and a willingness to dig into their motivations. More than once in the movie it seems that he’s playing with a different set of rules not just morally or subjectively, but cinematically as well. He has a willingness for longer takes than many ’30s directors, even at the risk of focusing on one face during a conversation. I have in mind the scene where Kurt’s mother brings the hammer down on Fran, where Wyler holds back on giving Fran the screen, even when she’s speaking, because he knows that the words of the mother-in-law she won’t have are simply more important. Likewise, cutting back to Fran’s reactions in moments of great strain rather than moments where she merely speaks charges the scene with far more power. Wyler is not the only director in the ’30s to understand the power of editing, obviously, but he still seems a rarity. He is able to temper Lewis’ vitriol, give us someone to root for in the old Hollywood style, and still call into question their basic competence and/or morality over the course of the film.

There’s nothing like lighting a room with blacklights to see the stains, and Dodsworth works on the same basic principle: change the location of a reasonably happy married couple with oodles of money in the bank and a recently married daughter, and you’ll see how fragile the foundation is. The Dodsworths probably have about ten years of difference between them, and that makes all the difference. In Europe—or heck, on the Queen Mary—the still handsome Fran seems bent on flirtations with younger men who like what they see. First among them is Clyde Lockert (a young David Niven), who dances with Fran while her husband exults over seeing the light from a British lighthouse on deck. He expects her to carry through to the next natural stage of this flirtation, but all of a sudden Fran is hesitant, insulting. If I may make a suggestion, Clyde says as he’s about to leave. He is now the very picture of propriety, toothpick thin and every bit as straight in the back. Don’t start what you aren’t prepared to finish. It’s rather good advice; it’s advice so good that I don’t even think of it as hackneyed. It’s also advice that Fran doesn’t take, despite the qualms of her conscience. Twice more she will start a flirtation and meet Lockert’s advice halfway; she will take it further, but she will not take it to a conclusion.

The first, with financier Arnold Iselin (Paul Lukas), goes as far as Sam as willing to close his eyes to it. (I don’t know whose idea it was to change the novel’s “Arnold Israel” to the film’s “Arnold Iselin.” I don’t know that it wasn’t the play that Dodsworth was made into which did it first, but doubtless that was a very good change, especially given the situation in Europe in 1936.) The second, with penniless nobleman Kurt Von Obersdorf (Gregory Gaye), goes significantly further but is headed off by Kurt’s stern and unexpected mother. Both times it is the immutable fact of Fran’s age which keeps her from finishing what she starts. Sam invites Arnold up to let him know that he’s not willing to allow the affair to go any further, and then twists the knife by telling his wife that she is now a grandmother. Kurt’s mother, aside from the fact that her presumptive daughter-in-law would need a divorce, finds it distasteful that her young son would have an “old wife.” She even says this with some kindness: what joy can there be for an old wife to have such a young husband? she asks, and this rends Fran all over again. The film is certainly not generous to Fran; it makes the collapse of her marriage into her own fault, essentially, the result of her vanity. If it is not her age which makes her protectively vain, it is her desperate desire to appear European and cosmopolitan which doubles it. She is not the facsimile of the kind of woman Elliott has in mind, but in her time with younger men, particularly Kurt, one can imagine her filling the role of sexual teacher that Elliott imagines Larry needs. Yet Fran is not interested in being someone’s sexual teacher—she can’t imagine the act without love, or at least without some middle-class propriety—nor would she be able to fulfill the role of the older woman when she wants to be much younger. (The ghost of Joe Gillis is already here, explaining in a tired whine: “There’s nothing tragic about being fifty…not unless you’re trying to be twenty-five!”

Sam is, at heart, a nice fella, and this is a striking and varied performance from Huston. One wonders throughout the movie how much blame must be put on him for the failure of his marriage, and in truth it seems like there’s quite a lot which he could shoulder. The unseen two decades of marriage must have been largely unfulfilling for Fran, certainly in the past few years as marital rigor mortis began to set in. Why did he wait so long to take a trip to Europe? His American simplicity, so distasteful to Fran and so fun for us at home, is evinced in a line where he says that he wants his biggest concern to be the temperature of the beer he’s drinking. Where was his willingness to take the foot off the gas pedal during his marriage, to slow down and counsel a wife who can’t possibly have just decided to fight turning forty? Late in the film, once Sam has figured out that Edith (Astor) is the woman for him, he begins to talk about working again, planning a trans-Pacific airline through Russia. There’s vigor in him once again, presumably because his wife is no longer sucking all the blood out of his veins, but it may just as well be that he’s taken the past several months off to get inside his head and look at the many ancient ruins. The film is not quite sure what to do about Sam’s culpability, choosing again and again to assume that the fault is mostly Fran’s; it is true that her pretension is more obnoxious than Sam’s folksiness. All the same, the movie seems a little hesitant to grant that the iceberg’s most dangerous parts are the ones submerged, not the ones towering over the ocean.

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