Monthly Archives: March 2013

Walter Huston in ‘Dodsworth’ — Bravo!

Dodsworth Original Poster

Dodsworth Original Poster

And then you think, as these people go . . . these beautiful people go . . . You know, it’s going to be a new world; we’re not gonna have that same sort of person anymore.  Like when Claude Rains died . . . you couldn’t bear it.  You can’t find anybody that has . . . they’re all individuals . . . I’m not gonna sit around and moan for the past, because, you know, it’s past.  And of course, you also say, “Who’s going next?”  . . . This is a terrible thing that happens, because you say, “Maybe it’s I”  . . . it’s so terribly depressing.  Like when Walter Huston died . . . you can’t cast — you can’t get that kind of a man anywhere in the world today again.
— Bette Davis on The Dick Cavett Show, 1971

Walter Huston’s star turn in William Wyler’s “Dodsworth” (Goldwyn, 1936) is one of the great, unsung performances in movie history.  He first played Sam Dodsworth on Broadway (Fay Bainter co-starred as his selfish, straying wife, Fran; in the picture, Ruth Chatterton plays the role). The character — a combination of impulsiveness, innocence and ruthlessness — is so perfectly suited to Huston’s temperament and talents that he hardly seems to be acting — he simply is.  Even when an occasional line reading bears the traces of having been spoken by him many, many times before (the Broadway run lasted more than 300 performances), he never seems less than completely alive in the part.  His voice is immediately recognizable; nobody before or since has sounded anything like Walter Huston — his voice is easy to imitate, but his soulfulness cannot be copied.  Few actors have ever possessed such easy authority, humor and gravitas in equal measure and all at the same time.  There is never any fussiness about his acting, but he’s not perfectly realistic, either.  You always know he’s acting, but it’s hard to believe he’s not exactly like the guy he’s playing.  Yes, Bette Davis was right:  you can’t get that kind of a man anywhere in the world today.  In his time, he was one of the best-liked and most admired actors in America, but he rarely appeared in a major role in a first rate motion picture.  He won the 1949 Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” about which James Agee wrote, “I doubt if we shall ever see . . . better acting than Walter Huston’s beautiful performance.”  But as great as he was in that one, “Dodsworth” is, by a long, long chalk, his finest screen performance.  He won that year’s New York Critics’ Circle Award, but lost the Oscar to the odious Paul Muni in “The Story of Louis Pasteur.”  Huston was robbed.  Muni’s performance today is risible — not a believable or human moment in it; Huston’s Samuel Dodsworth was and is one of the high points of screen acting.  He’s among the four or five greatest actors in the history of motion pictures.  Stanislavski himself was one of his greatest admirers.

Walter Huston:  'Son, always give 'em a good show and travel first class.'

Walter Huston: ‘Son, always give ’em a good show and travel first class.’

Based on Sinclair Lewis’ novel, “Dodsworth” is the story of a wealthy automobile manufacturer who sells his company, takes an early retirement and takes his iron butterfly wife on a deluxe tour of the European capitals, where he hopes to rekindle their youthful passion; she has rather different plans of her own.  Things do not work out as either of them planned.  The portrait of a marriage heading for the rocks is one of the shrewdest, most penetrating examinations of marriage ever put on film.  Time has not diminished its effectiveness in the slightest.  Sidney Howard wrote the admirable script, which he based on his play.

The clip below shows the Dodsworths in Paris, entertaining a financier/gigalo, Arnold Iselin (Paul Lukas); an Austrian baron (Gregory Gaye — the banker whom Rick won’t let into his casino in “Casablanca”); an haute couture dress designer (Odette Myrtil, who was a designer in real life); and Edith Cortright (Mary Astor), an American divorcee/expatriate whom the Dodsworths met aboard the Queen Mary during their Atlantic crossing.  Mary Astor‘s little exchange with Ruth Chatterton is my idea of perfection, both in the writing and the playing.

I  am still amazed that the scene got past the censors:  Mr and Mrs Dodsworth have separate beds, but they clearly undress in front of each other — and she’s not wearing a bra.  Later on, when the marriage is foundering, Fran takes a separate bedroom for herself and when her husband comes to her room late at night, she demurely covers herself up — but only after she sees him looking at her:  she no longer wants this man to see her naked.  How did Wyler ever get that past Joe Breen’s morality police?

“Dodsworth” is the most adult picture to come out of the 1930s or, indeed, the entire Production Code era.  By “adult,” I don’t mean that it is in any way dirty or prurient or what quaintly used to be called “shocking.”  No, it’s adult because the story is entirely concerned with middle-aged people, with infidelity, fear of growing old, alienation of affections, divorce and even the dreaded subject of menopause.  Here’s an example of what I mean.  In this clip, Fran has taken a place in Montreaux, and she is teetering on the brink of her first infidelity.  (The poetic last shot in this scene took an eternity to shoot before Wyler was satisfied.  It was worth the effort — a real stunner.)

Perhaps even more striking is this:  the story’s central theme is subversive — it flies in the face of the morality the Production Code was specifically put in place to promote.  “Dodsworth” argues that the only possible happy ending is one that ends in divorce — though until the very last shot, you don’t know whether their lives will end happily or miserably.  “Dodsworth” makes a persuasive argument in favor of smashing up a marriage that has ceased to work.  As the great exchange has it near the end of the picture:

Fran:  Do you think you’ll ever get me out of your blood?

Sam:  Maybe not, but love has got to stop someplace short of suicide!

Marriage is suicide . . . !  Is there another picture from the Production Code era that argues this point?  I can’t think of one that even comes close.  At the end of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” there is some question about whether or not Stella will ever forgive Stanley and return to him, but whatever she decides, they are going to be miserable.  “Dodsworth” is the only picture of its time to insist that an unhappy marriage is suicide and should be terminated.  How did they ever get approval from the Breen office?

Walter Huston, Mary Astor: Swell name, Samarkand!

Walter Huston and Mary Astor make plans for a better future: ‘Swell name, Samarkand!’

“Dodsworth” is one of the only first rate pictures Samuel Goldwyn ever made (he had a weakness for sentimental stories and kitsch) and is perhaps the only good looking picture to come from his studio.  The only Oscar win for “Dodsworth” went to Richard Day for his art direction (it was his second win of seven).

Dodsworth:  Walter Huston in opening shot.

Dodsworth: Walter Huston in the opening shot.  What a gorgeous deco set!

There are no bad performances in the picture, and many exceptionally fine ones.  Ruth Chatterton’s Fran has aged less well than all the others.  It’s hard to understand what Sam ever saw in this harpy.  But her performance probably made more sense and seemed less fantastically irritating in 1936 than it does today.  Her character is not a type we recognize anymore.  Selfish wives must surely still be thick on the ground, but they don’t look and sound like Ruth Chatterton, who at times seems a near-grotesque.  (It’s well to remember that Sinclair Lewis wrote the novel shortly after his acrimonious divorce from his first wife.)  The supporting cast is uniformly excellent:  Spring Byington, Harlan Briggs, Odette Myrtil, Mme Maria Ouspenskaya (who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her single five minute scene), Paul Lukas and David Niven — they’re all memorably wonderful.  As Edith Cortright, Mary Astor gives her best performance.  Her rapport with Huston is one of the wonders of the silver screen — a perfect match.  

For my money, “Dodsworth” is the best picture of the 1930s, and one of the greatest pictures ever made.

Ruth Chatterton, Huston:  'Did I remember to tell you today that I adore you?'

Ruth Chatterton, Huston: ‘Did I remember to tell you today that I adore you?’

 

Scene Stealers in ‘Rebecca’

Rebecca:  Original Poster.

Rebecca: Original Poster.

What I like most about Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” (Selznick International, 1940) are the performances by the half dozen character actors in the smaller roles.  Pauline Kael complained that it was one of Laurence Olivier’s rare bad performances; I think he’s actually better than he was in a lot of his other pictures (he’s best in “Henry V” and “Richard III”).  He doesn’t have much to work with as Maxim de Winter, but he looks good and sounds right — he’s just not terribly interesting.  Joan Fontaine plays awkwardness quite well, but she can’t resist the urge to telegraph emotions as a sort of semaphore (e.g., Quizzical Look 6(a):  raise left eyebrow, cast eyes downward, count one, then cock head) — once you crack her simple code, she’s rather touching.  Later on in her career, she hardened up and was no fun to watch, except in as an object of ridicule:  her by-the-numbers acting made the Method seem a breath of fresh air, when it came along about a decade later.

Fontaine, Laurence Olivier

Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier:  Mr and Mrs Maxim de Winter of Cornwall.

Judith Anderson’s sepulchral housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, is the character most people remember, and with good reason.  I doubt Miss Anderson ever was better suited to a role, but I find that the character practically plays itself:  it’s to Anderson’s credit that she stays out of the way, neither over-emphasizing Mrs Danvers’ creepiness nor commenting on her apparent lesbianism and necrophilia.  She plays her as a blank, with her cards close to her chest, as it were.  In those scenes where she tips her hand and we see her malevolence, her words betray her cruelty, not Anderson’s performance.

Joan Fontaine, Judith Anderson:  'You've nothing to stay for. You've nothing to live for really, have you?'

Joan Fontaine (sporting Quizzical Look 6(a)), Judith Anderson: ‘You’ve nothing to stay for. You’ve nothing to live for really, have you?’

Florence Bates, in the small, but important role of Edythe Van Hopper, gives a truly great performance.  The dreadful Mrs Van Hopper is a cartoon of the selfish, overfed society matron who treats her servants badly and fawns on her social betters.  It takes great skill to play this sort of character.  Mrs Van Hopper is hateful in every conceivable way:  she’s suspicious, venomous, gluttonous, dishonest, vain, bad-tempered, and perhaps worst of all, a cracking bore.  Yet her nastiness must do more than merely appall us:  it must also make us laugh.  She must horrify us, but we shouldn’t be anxious to be rid of her before she has served her purpose in the story’s clockwork.  We must enjoy hating her.  Florence Bates has no equal when it comes to this sort of battleaxe.  Her trick is always to be as imaginative as possible.  She’s never a generalized harridan:  she’s always specific.  Look at her in this scene:

It helps that the scene is so cleverly written, but a lesser actress would miss the hints of humanity in the old gorgon’s reactions to the coldness of Maxim de Winter’s replies to her maddening chatter and especially to his abrupt retreat.  At the end of the scene, when she scolds Fontaine (“By the way, my dear, don’t think that I mean to be unkind, but you were just a teeny-weenie bit forward with Mr de Winter:  Your effort to enter the conversation quite embarrassed me, as I’m sure it did him”), it is obvious that Mrs Van Hopper is in the process of shifting the blame from herself to her innocent, pretty, young paid companion.  It’s a nasty thing to do, but Mrs. Van Hopper is wretched and lonely and though she is wealthy, she knows the world has passed her by.  I’m particularly taken with the way Bates phrases the line:  she begins in her lower register and rattles off the first several words — the preface — as quickly as possible.  Then she draws a breath, fixes Fontaine with a “sneer of cold command” and draws out “teeny-weenie” while shaking her wattles imperiously.  This is no accident:  Bates knows exactly what she’s doing. Those wattles remind us of the dragon’s beefiness and age, and by lingering over “teeny-weenie,” she makes her rebuke more intolerable, because it suggests that she feels she must use baby-talk vocabulary to ensure her companion will understand the criticism.  Moreover, her mid-sentence change of tempo adds variety and renews our interest in what the old bitch has to say.  This is the sort of attention to detail that makes Florence Bates so funny and infuriating in battleaxe roles.

Here are two other shorter examples of Florence Bates in full sail.  Notice in both clips how clever she is about changing tempo and vocal register.  When she goes into her head voice — like an elderly opera singer — she’s particularly peremptory and exasperating.  All Bates lets you know in advance is that Edythe Van Hopper is going to be extremely unpleasant, but she keeps you guessing about how she’ll do it.  You can never predict what new angle she’ll swoop in from.

Again, the writing gives her a lot to work with, but the point is she brings the good material fully to life.  Also, as hateful as the old bitch is, she doesn’t know she’s hateful.  It’s clear that she believes she’s a charming woman of the world:  she describes the de Winters as old friends, but in the earlier clip, we know he endures the garrulous old parlor snake only to be close to her young companion — and even then, he lasts only a minute before the barrage of her loquacity drives him off.  The self-delusion that runs through her performance grounds the character in reality; it doesn’t make her any less abominable, but it does arouse a little pity.

Her putting out her cigarette in the cold cream is in the book.  It’s one of the few details about the novel that stayed with me.  It’s wonderfully vivid.  You can practically extrapolate the rest of Mrs Van Hopper’s character from that one piece of damning evidence.

Also in a small role is the legendary former beauty, Gladys Cooper, who would go on to play a succession of imperious old cats herself.  In “Rebecca,” she plays the no-nonsense, but kindly sister of Maxim de Winter, Beatrice Lacy.  She had nothing like the imagination and resourcefulness of Florence Bates, but she had style and authority.  This was her first Hollywood picture.  Miss Cooper knew when Hitchcock cast her in the part that she was no longer a young woman, but she was horrified by her appearance on film, completely unprepared for how she looked.  It must be said that neither Hitch nor his director of photography, the great George Barnes, did anything to light her in a flattering way.  She was, after all, in a small role and served an almost entirely expository function.  Yet she does well with the little bit of humor that she is given to do.  She has a nice exchange with Robert, the footman, who serves luncheon, while helping herself and never once looking in his direction.

Gladys Cooper, Philip Winter, Olivier:  'How are you, Robert?'

Gladys Cooper, Philip Winter, Olivier: ‘How are you, Robert?’

Beatrice:  How are you, Robert?

Robert:  Quite well, thank you, madam.

Beatrice:  Still having trouble with your teeth?

Robert:  Unfortunately yes, madam.

Beatrice:  You should have them out.  All of them.  Wretched nuisances, teeth.

Robert:  Yes, madam.  (She finishes helping herself and he moves off.)

Beatrice:  Ooh, what a plateful.

Cooper, Olivier:  'Ooh, what a plateful.'

Cooper, Olivier: ‘Ooh, what a plateful.’

Nigel Bruce is also along (as Cooper’s husband, Major Giles Lacy), harrumphing and doing his bumptious, befuddled country squire bit.  Hitchcock allows him to be a bit broader than is really necessary or advisable, but it’s hard to dislike him.  Like Cooper, he’s there mostly for purposes of exposition, which generally come in the form of his putting his foot in his mouth, usually after he has just stepped into another cow-pie.  He gets the job done, though not with much wit or imagination.

And then there is the incomparable professional cad, George Sanders, who gives the most George Sandersesque performance of them all.  If the word insouciant had not existed before Sanders grew to manhood, it would have to have been invented to describe his droll presence and deft handling of a witty line.  His range was extremely limited; he’s ill-served in serious roles, but he plays suave bounders with as much authority and imagination as Florence Bates plays bejeweled scolds.  Everything Sanders does, including the way he eats a chicken leg, is hilarious.  He has one of the most mellifluous bass baritone voices in pictures.  (At one point, he was invited to play the Ezio Pinza role in the National Tour of “South Pacific,” but he backed out at the last minute.  What a shame.  He played the romantic foil to Ethel Merman in the movie version of “Call Me Madam,” and sang beautifully.  A friend asked me to describe his sound.  After some thought, I answered, “Ezio Pinza without the garlic.”)

In “Rebecca,” Sanders is not only a cad, but a blackmailer as well, and he’s unbelievably funny every second he’s onscreen.

George Sanders:  'You know old boy, I have the strong feeling that before the day is out, someone is going to make use of that expressive, but rather old-fashioned term, "foul play" . . . '

George Sanders: ‘You know old boy, I have the strong feeling that before the day is out, someone is going to make use of that expressive, but rather old-fashioned term, “foul play” . . . ‘