I understand that Fran Dodsworth had to put up with a lot while husband Sam worked all those years, I just don't think it could have possibly been anywhere near as much as she thought. I did have to stop and think twice about that conclusion after I made the very bright move of pulling out A. Scott Berg's fantastic Goldwyn biography to see if he had included anything noteworthy from behind the scenes on Dodsworth. Sure did.
After Sam Goldwyn pulled out all the stops to sign on William Wyler as director, Wyler made several suggestions to writer Sidney Howard about Howard's screen adaptation of his own Broadway hit based on Sinclair Lewis' 1929 novel of the same name. What threw me for the loop was Wyler's insistence that "Fran should show those elements of her personality that appealed to her husband in the first place" (281). In other words a little something to stop me from despising her. Wyler said that attempts to accomplish this were "like pulling teeth" with Ruth Chatterton, who portrayed Fran, but he tried to get her to see that "Mrs. Dodsworth had a very good case for behaving the way she did."
With all due respect to Mr. Wyler, who received the first of his record 12 Academy Award nominations for Best Director with Dodsworth, I don't think he pulled quite hard enough. Could anyone else have turned the trick? Berg writes that Chatterton and Wyler fought constantly during the filming of Dodsworth with the actress even slapping Wyler in the face at one point! Mick LaSalle writes of Chatterton in Complicated Women "Short and slightly plump, Chatterton was convinced she was beautiful, and she convinced everyone else, too" (80). Well, that hocus pocus doesn't carry very far today for Miss Chatterton, though her main detraction for me is that terribly stagy finishing school accent, which ironically fits Fran Dodsworth to a tee.
So yes, I understood that Fran Dodsworth wanted to spread her wings a little, grasp a little freedom, but in her first flirtation she teases young David Niven's character so bad that he winds up scolding her for biting off more than she can chew. Besides using every ounce of her feminine charms on Niven's Captain, she turns viper on husband Sam in the younger man's presence. And all that's just during the Dodsworths' voyage across the Atlantic, before they even reach Europe where they plan to celebrate Sam's retirement with their first real vacation.
Fran's most sympathetic scene in all of Dodsworth comes just prior to her shipboard indiscretion, in her first scene where Sam comes home to her after having just completed the sale of his business. When Sam tells her he's "rarin' to go" having "always wanted to see London and Paris," Fran replies that she "wants much more than a trip out of this." She wants "a new life all over from the very beginning. A perfectly glorious free adventurous life." Then she takes a dig at their home town, Zenith, which Sam takes exception to and she responds with the perfect summary of her motivations:
Have you ever thought what Zenith means to me? You go down to the plant and deal in millions and have a marvelous time. I go down to the kitchen and order dinner. Then there's the ladies lunch and the bridge, always the same ladies. And dinner, same people we dined with last week. After dinner poker for the men and women for the women. There's talk of children and doctors and servants and the garden club ... I want all the lovely things I've got a right to. In Europe a woman of my age is just getting to the point where men begin to take a serious interest in her ... After all I've got brains and thank heavens I've still got looks. No one takes me for over 32, 30 even.
Now that's a convincing case for having a little fun and even Sam agrees vowing to enjoy life going forward. But while this points out twenty years of a level of previous neglect, she doesn't even give the poor sap a chance to remedy the harms done to her through those years of loyal service. She's dancing in Niven's arms the moment the opportunity presents itself. Why'd she even bother sticking to Sam this long then? My guess is that her status in provincial Zenith kept her loyal all those years, but her disdain for their town didn't escape Sam's oldest friend Tubby (Harlan Briggs), who pulls out all the stops in trying to keep Sam from taking this trip. Once an ocean separates her from home Fran takes open shots at Zenith and her old friends at every opportunity.
While her single scene set in Zenith showed warning signs, Fran's behavior on the ship broke my sympathies towards her and she never repaired them back going forward. Maybe if her actions were a little more subtle on the ship, but Chatterton takes it all to the extreme, fawning over Niven and snapping at Sam for no good reason. She keeps this up throughout, appropriately upping the emotional dosage as we go but always seeming a little bit ahead of where she should be. Once Niven teaches Fran her lesson and she has her feet firmly entrenched on European soil she continues to view Sam as nothing more than a safe haven as she conducts affairs with characters played by Paul Lukas and Gregory Gaye. When she finally receives her comeuppance I let out a cheer. When Sam relents a little later than I felt it worth his consideration to do so I cried out, "No, no, no!" Did I miss something? Fran fans, feel free to tell me below.
Just maybe I wasn't too far off the mark though. New York Times period reviewer Frank S. Nugent is no fan of Fran himself blaming Lewis' character more than Chatterton. After summarizing Walter Huston's perfection as Sam Dodsworth, which I will get to momentarily myself, he writes:
"We cannot feel the same about Fran Dodsworth—either as she is in the novel or as played by Fay Bainter on the stage or Ruth Chatterton in the current screen edition. There is a basic impossibility in Mr. Lewis's premise that she and Dodsworth could have been married for twenty years before his retirement and their tragic grand tour abroad which revealed her to him for what she was—a silly, shallow, age-fearing woman of ingrained selfishness and vulgarity."
This seems to be exactly what Wyler was hoping to correct.
No doubt Fran's greatest weakness is her fear of aging. It is certainly the seed for much of her selfishness, though her overall shallowness seems to have sprouted out of her twenty years spent suffering in the sticks of Zenith craving the culture which was never there. When your best friend is played by Spring Byington, well, she's surely going to be super nice, but sorry, Spring's typically not holding open the door to a grand society entrance. But it's that fear of aging, a perfectly understandable and totally human worry, even obsession, which spins Fran's selfishness to unforgivable heights.
Sam actually leaves Fran in Europe, as per her advice, hoping she'll have this all worked out of her system after awhile. When it becomes apparent that Fran will never voluntarily return, Sam makes the trip back over to collect her. He brings a harsh weapon back with him, the happy news on her that their daughter, Emily (Kathryn Marlowe), is pregnant. Of course, Fran is thrilled and hurries to the phone to call Emily with her congratulations, but the call is never made because Sam unleashes his blow in making mention of their becoming grandparents with the happy event. Fran is stopped in her tracks by the terrible reality of her age while silently, with nothing more than a glint in his eye and a slight sneer, no need of dialogue, Walter Huston has his finest moment, finally landing a hard jab to his disloyal wife.
I find it difficult to refer to Sam Dodsworth as an everyman when he has just sold his auto company for a fortune, but Sam did come from humble roots and got in on the ground floor, so despite his fortune he remains a hick at heart. Now that Dodsworth has freed himself from the voluntary restraints of his business he's as wide-eyed as a child at every new experience. He first ruffles wife Fran's feathers as their ship nears Europe, interrupting her flirtations with Captain Lockert (Niven) in order to pull her up on deck and show her the ship's light indicating how close their journey is to an end.
Fran hob nobs with European society women and willingly throws herself into entanglements with upper crust men, while Sam takes in the sites and relishes common tourist attractions. All Sam needs to be happy is a drink at a sidewalk cafe and time to take in this unfamiliar world. Sam tolerates Fran's friends, even plays host to them, while Fran isn't interested enough in Sam to take the time to bother meeting him for a late afternoon drink. Their ideas of absorbing the culture couldn't be more different.
Walter Huston played the part of Sam Dodsworth in Max Gordon's 1934 smash Broadway production of Dodsworth and his intimacy with the role shows on film. Beyond his being Dodsworth, Dodsworth could be no one other than Walter Huston. Huston is completely in his own skin as the seemingly simple Dodsworth. But despite outer appearances Sam Dodsworth is not one to be trampled upon as he also uses his entrepreneurial skills in his private life and nobody gets as far as Dodsworth without having a little shark in them. He exercises patience with his wife's infidelities, confident enough in himself to believe that they're but a passing phase, but when Fran's problematic behavior doesn't straighten out he springs to action. Sam calls together his wife and her lover, Arnold Iselin (Lukas), for a no-nonsense confrontation whereby he explains his previous patience before bluntly stating that the time has come for him to take care of himself. Violence is never an issue and despite Fran's overbearing personality and Iselin's composed class, it's Huston's Sam Dodsworth whose personality dominates the room and forces his own will upon others.
Prior to Dodsworth my own favorite Walter Huston roles were, not unexpectedly, Mr. Scratch in The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) and his whooping prospector Howard in son John's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) for which he won his Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Both stand out as over the top character roles, much different from Huston's earlier screen work. I enjoy him in pre-codes, but that's mostly story or action that I'm really enjoying, such as in The Beast of the City (1932) or The Wet Parade (1932), not necessarily Huston himself. I really loved his wacky side in the first ten minutes or so of Gabriel Over the White House (1933), but despite a strong overall performance by Huston, who does dominate this particular film, the movie as a whole is at best uneven. But my viewing of Dodsworth crowns a new winner in my personal Hall of Huston. Sam Dodsworth isn't over the top or just there, replaceable by numerous other competent actors the way Huston is in several of those pre-code offerings, Sam Dodsworth just is. The character is alive, just an ordinary man, so perfectly portrayed that you feel this is Walter Huston behaving as Walter Huston typically behaves.
With a year's experience in the part on stage behind him it is no surprise that Huston owns his every moment on the screen. The character's only weakness is that he may be too reasoned, too willing to forgive. There are moments where Fran is definitely trying to prod Sam towards a jealous fit, but he doesn't bite. While I understand Fran's motivations in this regard I don't for one second believe Sam could have done more than momentarily win her over with such a fit. She just doesn't seem to give a damn about anything but herself. In fact, Chatterton takes Fran so far over the top that her part practically plays as camp. I'm left to wonder how much better the entire film would have played had Chatterton, or another actress altogether, listened to Wyler. Instead she's the villain of Dodsworth.
Despite her own excellence at villainy in other films that is one thing that Mary Astor is not as Mrs. Edith Cortright. If she were not so fine as Mrs. Cortright I'd suggest Astor should have been cast as the younger Fran Dodsworth as she certainly would have brought more nuance to Fran's actions. Fourteen years younger than Chatterton in real life I can only imagine Astor biting her lip when dispensing advice to young Fran referring to her own past experiences and where Fran might find herself in a few years upon reaching Mrs. Cortright's advanced age. Astor figures mostly towards the end of Dodsworth but has her finest moment when preparing to leave Fran and Sam's party upon catching Fran in a somewhat compromising position with Lukas' Iselin. "Don't," she advises a shocked Fran, who's offended by the (correct) implication.
Fran's suitors, played by Niven, Lukas, and Gregory Gaye, don't do much to distinguish themselves to anybody but Fran. Really the cast boils down to Huston, Chatterton, and Astor, with one exception, Maria Ouspenskaya's Oscar nominated Baroness Von Obersdorf, mother of Gaye's Baron Kurt of the same surname. Ouspenskaya makes the Baroness' disdain for Fran clear from the moment she enters the room for her single scene, a rejection of Fran which is clarified all the more when the Baroness dismisses her son from the room to take the dressing down up a notch. Perhaps it's no coincidence that Ouspenskaya, like Walter Huston, was reprising her role from Gordon's Broadway production* (as does Harlan Briggs who plays Dodsworth pal Tubby Pearson).
*The IBDB lists Dorothy Raymond in Ouspenskaya's part of the Baroness in both runs of Dodsworth at the Shubert Theater, however both TCM.com and the A.F.I. catalog mention Ouspenskaya as having served in the stage production. On a related note, Dodsworth would be the first of stage veteran Ouspenskaya's well remembered and well regarded character roles in Hollywood.
Besides Ouspenskaya, Huston and Wyler received Academy Award nominations for Best Actor and Director respectively, the film was nominated for Best Picture, Howard for Best Writing (Screenplay), and Oscar Lagerstrom for Best Sound Recording. Richard Day was the only Oscar winner associated with Dodsworth, winning the Academy Award for Best Art Direction. For a simple tally that's one win, six further nominations. Despite the critical praise, including a wire from Dodsworth author Sinclair Lewis to Sam Goldwyn expressing his highest regard for the production (Berg 285), the picture flopped at the box office. Even with Sam's down to earth nature I can only imagine Depression era audiences weren't all that interested in the troubles of the elite. I mentioned my hesitation to accept Sam Dodsworth as everyman, I fear 1936 theatergoers weren't biting either.
Taken out of its era Dodsworth plays excellently today as a complicated slice of married life and is well deserving of its status as one of the classics of the 1930's. Despite Chatterton's histrionics there are definite motivations towards her dive off the deep end and it remains interesting to see how much a man will take before he stands up for himself. As Walter Huston's Dodsworth says in his most famous line, "Love has got to stop some place short of suicide."