Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Film Review: Dodsworth

"Dodsworth" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

It's rare to see a Hollywood movie so knowing about human behavior, especially a film made in 1936. And that is why William Wyler's "Dodsworth" (1936) is such an endurable masterpiece and what gives it an edge over other films.

The film follows a middle aged couple; the Dodsworths. Sam (Walter Huston) has built his own auto company which has just been bought by a big Detroit auto company. His wife, Fran (Ruth Chatterton) wants to travel to Europe and experience new things.

The couple's love is put to the test, in the most direct ways for a production code film. We know all we need to about this couple's marriage. Fran is worried about growing old. She is a heartless selfish whore. She constantly complains that she married too young, not to mention that Sam, we are lead to believe, is older than her. Fran wants to be seen as young and youthful. A woman men can lust after. She's not ready for that rocking chair just yet. And Europe is the place she feels will make her feel like a desirable woman again.

Sam on the other hand is learning to settle into old age. Now that he has retired he wants to learn to take pleasure in life and relaxation. Of the two characters Sam is the more sympathetic one. Now, that could be because I'm a man, and I have a male's perspective. It would be interesting if one of my female friends saw this movie and gave me their take. Regardless, I think Wyler is on Sam's side. He is not the one jeopordizing the marriage. Still, the film makes us understand Fran's point of view, even though we reject it and see her for what she is.

As soon as the couple head out on their cruise to London we can instantly see how this dyamic is going to play out. Fran is immediately taken by a young Englishmen, Capt. Lockert (a small role for a young David Niven). Sam clearly sees how the two flirt, but, lets Fran partake in her folly. Once they reach other destinations; France, Austria, the situations become worst.

"Dodsworth", which was based on Sinclair Lewis' novel, and adapted by Sidney Howard (who wrote "Gone with the Wind" (1939) seems to understand people so well. It is also able to show us the worst in people in realistic ways. Fran and Sam and even Edith Cortright (Mary Astor) a lonely American traveler living in Italy, all seem realistic. Never boring cliches. They respond almost the way we might in their situations. Needless to say, the acting in the movie is incredible.

I find it somewhat strange that William Wyler would direct such a movie. Wyler is a great director. He was nominated 12 times for the "Best Director" Oscar winning the award on three occassions; "Ben-Hur" (1959), "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946) and "Mrs. Miniver" (1942), incidentally, all three also won the "Best Picture" Oscar as well. But the movie doesn't feel like one of his usual films. It isn't as romantic as "Wuthering Heights" (1939) or "Roman Holiday" (1953). It has a harder edge to it.

But that isn't a criticism. Wyler handles the material well. The film was nominated for seven Oscars, winning one for "Best Art Direction". It had some tough competition that year with titles such as " San Francisco" (1936), "Libeled Lady" (1936), "Mr. Deeds Goes To Town" (1936) and the eventual Oscar winner, "The Great Ziegfeld" (1936) all nominated that year.

As I said, few Hollywood movies come close to dealing with their material in this direct way for the time period. Perhaps only Ernst Lubitsch's under-rated "Angel" (1937) with Marlene Dietrich comes close. When you think what the production code stood for and what "Dodsworth" gets away with, it is incredible. That might make the movie sound tasteless, but, it isn't. Not at all. Still, bedrock American values are put to the test.

Besides a young David Niven look out for a young John Payne and catch Maria Ouspenskaya's Oscar nominated cameo as Baroness Obersdorf. Also the great Hungarian actor Paul Lukas plays Arnold Iselin.