Sunday, July 01, 2007


Turner Classic Movies has been running the William Wyler film Dodsworth for the past month. It's based on one of Sinclair Lewis' most popular novels. I assume it will now go into general rotation. I've seen it three times. I think it's that good.

Previously only two Wyler films interested me, The Best Years of Our Lives and The Letter. His other films never moved me. But now I see that the problem was mine not his. The power of the drama, the acuity of the social and psychological themes and the sheer beauty of scenes themselves make this for me a major film.

And was it ahead of its time. Walter Huston, always good but here great, plays Dodsworth, a wealthy automobile manufacturer who has just retired with his millions. His wife of twenty years, played with equal skill and range by Ruth Chetterton, admits she's "afraid of getting" old and wants to go to Europe. She is twenty years younger than her husband.

She likes Europe so much that she stays for a few extra months and sends her husband, who is content to stay in the midwestern town of Zenith, back home alone. She then proceeds to have two affairs with very "continental" men. One of whom asks her to divorce Dodsworth long distance so that he may marry her. In the meantime Mary Astor becomes Dodsworth's love interest. God she was gorgeous.

The writers clearly want us to identify with Dodsworth and we do. Huston and Wyler give him a simple goodness that we have to admire. And he is certainly indulgent of his wife. Even after seeing her through her affairs he loves her and wants her back.

But by the end I felt sorry for his wife, too. He was happy sitting in his home library in Zenith, playing golf and going to the same dinners and cafes the rest of his life. And she is younger and quite attractive and if she's foolish in some respects it's only because the mid-like crisis is not his but hers. Wyler emphasizes how much she fears getting old; and fears death.

I don't think I can oversell this movie. Most novelists complain that Hollywood films do them in. Sinclair Lewis had to be awfully proud of this one.

Sinclair Lewis (novel)
Sidney Howard (dramatised by)
Release Date:
23 September 1936 (USA) more
Drama / Romance more
Plot Summary:
A bittersweet tale of the increasing estrangement of a retired automobile tycoon and his wife. Increasingly... more
Plot Synopsis:
This plot synopsis is empty. Add a synopsis
Plot Keywords:
Affair / Divorce / Europe / Grandparent / Industrialist more
Won Oscar. Another 2 wins & 6 nominations more
User Comments:
They don't make such adult films anymore. more
(Complete credited cast)

Walter Huston ... Sam Dodsworth

Ruth Chatterton ... Fran Dodsworth
Paul Lukas ... Arnold Iselin
Mary Astor ... Mrs. Edith Cortright
Kathryn Marlowe ... Emily Dodsworth McKee

David Niven


Anonymous said...

I heartily agree with your assessment. The maturity of the movie, especially for its time, astounded me the first time I saw it.

One of my favorite parts: Dodsworth, having returned home from Europe without his wife, Fran, shows a family friend (Spring Byington) a letter his wife has just sent.

The friend points to something in the letter. "What's that?"

"That's the way they make sevens in France," Dodsworth says.

I always thought that line of dialogue was a neatly indirect way of telling the audience how Fran has changed -- and Huston's delivery lets you know exactly what Dodsworth thinks about that.

Ed Gorman said...

That IS such a great and revealing line. And has special meaning for me in that when I opened my little ad agency the first person I naturally hired was a bookkeeper. She made French sevens which bugged me enormously. We argued about it. The joke was on me, though. Healthy as she looked, she died three weeks after our opening from the cancer she never mentioned. One more asshole Gorman moment.

But the movie...I can't recall seeing an equivalently mature movie in our time. Wyler laid it out there just as Sinclair Lewis had. And the actors were up to it. The three leading performers were unerringly great, though for me Huston was best of all. The scene on the ship where he realizes that he's lost his wife forever, just the damp eyes, nothing more demonstrative...our era's directors would ham it up for sure.

Anonymous said...

Ah, Turner Classic Movies... Ted Turner has his numerous faults, but I forgive most of them for setting up this channel... one of our favorites.

And loved your last line, about how our era's directors would "ham it up." Ain't it the truth... and is there *anything* that's been released these past few years that will be considered a classic fifty, sixty or seventy years from now?


Anonymous said...

Dodsworth is perceptive and adult in ways few films are. Or attempt to be anymore.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Ed...

With you all the way on this one. Watched marveling at how well the movie played after so many years...and how fine a job Oscar-nominated Sidney Howard did converting Lewis' novel into a screenplay.