Format: Internet video on laptop.
It occurs to me that in poor economic times, movies often reflect both the economic realities of the day as well as the fantasy. It seems that when I think of movies made during the Great Depression, for instance, most of them seem to feature the uber-wealthy. It’s almost as if these films offered a sort of money porn for the downtrodden. It also seems often as if the problems that occur in this films are the sort that plague only the wealthy and not the rank and file rest of us. And then, suddenly and out of nowhere for me in this collection of films about rich people being rich, comes a film like Dodsworth.
Our hero, Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) is the owner of a large automobile company, and as the film starts, he has sold it off to another company, effectively retiring. He’s decided, as many wealthy retirees might, to take this opportunity to travel to Europe with his wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton) for a sort of second honeymoon. But the ship over presents us with a few hitches in the Dodsworths’ plans. Fran, it soon becomes evident, is younger than her husband, and is desperately afraid of being old before her time. We get inklings of this in her encounters with Captain Clyde Lockert (David Niven), who romances Mrs. Dodsworth rather unsuccessfully, and forces the couple to France instead of England thanks to her potential embarrassment.
And things don’t change in Paris. Here, she encounters Arnold Iselin (Paul Lukas), a wealthy financier, who picks up where Lockert left off. This time, Fran is swept off her feet and she decides that she likes it in Paris, in no small part because of the presence of Iselin. Sam decides that he’s had enough, and returns home while his wife is left in the company of the man trying to steal her away. Once home, Sam becomes lost in his life without his wife around and confused by her lack of communication with him. Her returns to Europe to confront her and essentially offers her the chance to save their marriage by leaving with him for another part of Europe immediately. Again, she goes with him. The mood changes when he reveals that their recently-married daughter is pregnant, and Fran is overwhelmed with excitement until that moment when he says the word she dreads—grandparent.
The night of the child’s birth, when Sam and Fran are in Vienna, she forces him to hide the news from Baron Kurt von Obersdorf (Gregory Gaye) and Sam complies. He also spends the night in, allowing the baron to escort his wife out for the evening. Three is a charm, of course, so when Kurt confesses his love for her, Fran decides that this time it’s the real deal. She tells Sam that she will divorce him and marry the baron, living on in Europe as a part of the minor nobility and setting Sam spiritually adrift once again.
And so he travels, but never discovers precisely how he wants to live. In Italy he runs into Mrs. Edith Cortright (Mary Astor), a young divorcee living in Italy because it is cheap. He remembers her from his first crossing to Italy, and it’s evident that he is immediately smitten with her. Lacking direction and now on the verge of divorce, he moves into her house, deciding not to care what her neighbors think. Then Fran’s impending marriage to the baron falls through, leaving Sam with a quandary. Does he return to the life he had and the wife he loves despite her evident penchant for infidelity? Or does he remain with the woman who has discovered a better way to live, a woman truly alive and in the moment rather than simply running after her own faded youth?
Dodsworth is a film that could have quickly become melodramatic and maudlin, but it resists this temptation throughout. It does so in the best way possible—by presenting real characters with real emotions and who truly experience the passions and joys and problems expressed in the film. Sam Dodsworth may well be a wealthy industrialist at the start of the film, and there’s no loss of opulence as he travels around Europe or strides through his home library, which is roughly the size of my entire house. Regardless of this, he is at heart a real and simple man attempting to discover a meaning for his existence in his world post-career. Sam is not pathetic by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, he’s decent and caring. But he’s also vulnerable and fallible as a person, and easily wounded.
This more than anything is what surprised me about this film. Rather than fall victim to the standard Hollywood tropes, Dodsworth attempts to depict real people going through real emotional struggles, dealing with the pain and frustration of the couple growing apart and their marriage splintering as they realize that they both need and want different things from life, and that each one is incapable of giving the other what he or she needs. It’s poignant and painful, and very, very human.
I can’t say that I’m gobsmacked by this film, but five minutes in, I thought I was in for the standard “It’s good by old Hollywood standards” trope fest. By 15 minutes, I was hooked and buying into it completely. It’s as good and as true as story as you’ll find in any film, and it plays straight with the viewer as well as its characters. A higher compliment, I cannot give.
Why to watch Dodsworth: A story that aims for painful reality rather than Hollywood feel-good.
Why not to watch: Sometimes it seems like old Hollywood thought that only the wealthy could manage to have non-monetary problems.