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.’
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 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 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?’
The Family Circle: George Brent, Olivia de Havilland, Frank Craven, Billie Burke and Bette Davis
It’s the only time John Huston worked with Davis. It’s an absurd melodrama, with Davis as a mean, mean, mean mantrap. Quite hilarious. That big piece of solid timber from Ireland known as George Brent is also in it.
Brent, de Havilland: On the bum.
Halfway through the picture, when Brent’s life is on the skids, he wears the most amusing greasepaint whiskers . . . I love that sort of stuff. And not in a cynical, sneering way: I genuinely like a certain amount of blatant artifice — it’s in keeping with the steamed-up nature of melodrama. Huston doesn’t hold back or go for realism — a whole lot of fur flies in this one. The last fifteen to twenty minutes are wonderfully over-the-top . . . and include one of the silliest car chase sequences I know — day for night shooting, which always looks phony; process shots, which look even phonier; and the speed of the cars has been increased by omitting every third or fourth frame, a technique that always makes me laugh.
About George Brent: except for his performance in “Jezebel,” when he played a charming bounder of the Old South, he was almost always stolid to the point of catatonia. Yet he came to America as a refugee from Ireland. He lammed it out of the Old Sod with a price on his head: he was a courier/hit man for the Sinn Fein when it was led by Michael Collins. A guy with that sort of past should have been a livelier actor, it seems to me.
There are a lot of good performances in this one. Frank Craven, who was the original Stage Manager in “Our Town” on Broadway, plays Davis and de Havilland’s put upon father. Charles Coburn plays a rapacious businessman who lusts after his febrile niece (Davis). Billie Burke, in a rare dramatic role, plays Lavinia, sister of Coburn and invalid mother to evil Bette and goody-two-shoes de Havilland. Burke gives a remarkable performance as a silly, selfish, sentimental neurasthenic. It’s essentially the same thing she always did, but this time, she’s pathetic and a little bit terrifying. Ernest Anderson makes an impressive debut as an ambitious, intelligent young black man, accused of a crime he didn’t commit. He conveys a beautiful combination of decency and shrewdness; when he finds himself in trouble, and understands that his innocence is meaningless in a Whites Only world, his despair is devastating. A wonderful performance — and no sentimentality in it. There’s a musical lilt to his speech that makes him a pleasure to listen to. He’s a very warm presence and he gives a seriousness to the melodrama that it would entirely lack without him. Hattie McDaniel plays his mother; she, too, is beyond reproach. Quite apart from the great moral authority and skill McDaniel brings to the role, it is a relief to see her play a role that gives her more to do than jumble her syntax and mispronounce big words to make white folks roar with laughter.
The commentary on the DVD is by Jeanine Basinger, who’s knowledgeable and straight-forward. She wrote a biography of Davis a few years ago. She reminds me of a younger, stouter Leonard Maltin, minus the beard — she gets her facts straight and she knows a lot, but her analysis rarely is very impressive. Still, she’s well-informed about the studio system, and appears to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the various sound stages on the Warner lot. That counts for a lot.
Davis didn’t want to play the bad girl; she wanted to play the sweet one, and argued that she was too old for the part. Then she hated the hair and the costumes (she took charge of both, and had her costumes redesigned by Orry-Kelly, her favorite designer, who did nearly all of her costumes while she was at Warners). She also thought the script was terrible, and an insult to the novel, which she said was “brilliant.” The author of the novel was equally appalled by the “phony” script. Moreover, during filming, Davis’ husband at the time was hospitalized in Minneapolis with pneumonia. Davis held up shooting by going to visit him (her friend, Howard Hughes, provided her with a private plane to take her there); shortly after she arrived, she received a cable from Jack Warner, ordering her to get her ass back to the lot. Between her concern for her husband and her fury at Warner, her own health suffered; her doctor ordered her to return by train (rather than air) and to get plenty of rest before returning to work. It was Davis who discovered Ernest Anderson. Huston couldn’t find a young black actor to play the role to his satisfaction, so Davis recommended Anderson. She had seen him waiting tables at the commissary and thought he had the right look for the part. That was about the only thing Davis liked about the whole picture. A few weeks before production wrapped, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and Huston went off to war. Raoul Walsh finished the picture, but received no credit. He and Davis clashed immediately; she developed laryngitis from screaming at him, and in no time, refused to take any of his direction. The preview was a disaster. Audiences were in no mood for this sort of picture at the beginning of the war; the subplot that dealt with racial discrimination offended many people, and the picture was almost universally panned in the press.
Davis had a similarly low opinion of “Deception,” which is far from her best performance, but is one of my favorite pictures. She was a superb actress, but I find her opinions of her own work totally unreliable. She was hardly more reliable about other actors’ performances. She always insisted that Errol Flynn was no actor, and was furious when he was cast as her co-star in “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.” (That clumsy title was jury-rigged. Originally, it was to be called “Elizabeth the Queen,” after Maxwell Anderson’s play, but when Flynn was cast in it, his box-office power made him demand that the title be changed to include his character’s name.) If you ask me, Flynn not only holds his own against her in that picture, but he gives the better performance. He was also great in “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” No actor since has come close to matching his ease and grace in that part. He was terrific in many of the other swashbucklers (e.g., “Captain Blood,” “The Sea Hawk”). He makes it look so easy, but the artificial, bombastic dialogue takes a lot of skill to put across. Flynn spoke that sort of claptrap better than anyone else. He also turned in a nice performance in “Gentleman Jim.” His range was not terribly broad, but he was a fine leading man — a hell of a lot better than many with higher reputations. The drinking and hard living made him unreliable and wrecked his looks by the mid- to late-forties, but he was a much better actor than Davis (and many others) ever gave him credit for.
Bette Davis as high maintenance mantrap: Whooping it up all by herself. Walter Huston tends bar.
You shouldn’t read the rest of this if you haven’t already seen the picture and are planning to do so.
“In This Our Life” verges on camp — maybe even crosses the border in a few places, as, for example, Davis’ stolen interview with Charles Coburn before her final flight from justice: “You’re not even listening! You don’t care what happens to me any more than the others! You’d let me go to prison! All you’re thinking of is your own miserable life! Well, you can DIE for all I care! DIE!” It has all the makings of camp: both characters are irredeemably wicked and both are in extremis: he, under sentence of death from his doctor; she, trying to escape justice after killing a child in a hit and run accident (which she has, for good measure, pinned on their maid’s (Hattie McDaniel) virtuous son (Ernest Anderson)). The physical setting is extreme, as well: the room is a nightmarish clutter of late Victorian kitsch: hideous, elaborately carved furniture and massive display cabinets; heavy, excessive window treatments; busy wallpaper. And Huston stages the scene in front of a roaring hearth, which lends a ghost-story-by-campfire atmosphere to the scene, and an adumbration of the fires of Hell that await these two monsters. Yet it’s not camp. Both actors are totally committed to the material; Coburn is almost touching in his snivelling terror: his panic is completely believable; Davis gives a huge performance, with all cylinders firing, but what she does is not camp: for one thing, her choices are too specific — she plays each beat of the scene, each change of tactic, with great clarity and finesse, and she keeps building the emotional intensity so that she doesn’t peak until that final “DIE!” She gives a showy, out-sized performance, yet I wouldn’t call it hamming: the emotionalism is certainly extreme, but it’s too grounded in reality to be considered fake, and her absolute control over how much to give and when is so ideally suited to the dramatic structure (in this scene and throughout the rest of the picture) to be dismissed as ham acting.
Fay Bainter and Bette Davis “Julie, but you cain’t fight marriage!”
“Jezebel” was Bette Davis’ second Oscar win, but the only one (as far as she was concerned) that she earned fair and square. She won her first in 1936 for “Dangerous,” a dim-bulb soap in which she gives a rather silly histrionic performance (histrionics are what she did, but it wasn’t until a year or two later that she learnt how much is enough and how much is too much). At the time, it was widely thought that her Oscar win for “Dangerous” was a consolation prize for not having won the year before for another histrionic (but truer) performance as the slattern in “Of Human Bondage.” For that one, she wasn’t even nominated, yet she received so many write-in votes from Academy members that she very nearly won.
Fay Bainter, who plays her Aunt Belle in “Jezebel,” won the Best Supporting Actress for the role, and she gives one of her typically fine, subtle and nuanced performances. Nobody much remembers her today, but I hold her in almost as high esteem as I hold Claude Rains.
There are many things in “Jezebel” that are particularly fine: the staging of the fatal waltz is brilliant — the way all those white dresses sweep away from the encroachment of the red dress — like drops of oil flying away from the center when a drop of vinegar is dropped into their midst (I also love Steiner’s melody for the waltz). Also the staging of the scene with Fay Bainter, when she comes to the full realization of her niece’s wickedness . . . “I’m thinkin’ of a woman called Jezebel, who did evil in the sight of God.” How many actresses could resist the temptation to overplay that moment? Bainter is perfection itself in that scene, as she is when she is introduced to Amy Bradford (“Pres, your wife . . . My dear, Pres’ wife would naturally be welcome here . . . but you are for your own sake.”) But the greatest of the great is Davis’ apology followed by her own introduction to “Bradford . . . Amy Bradford . . . from New York . . . ” Never were those goggle eyes put to better use. And the way that Fay Bainter watches her receive the news as if she’s waiting for the dynamite to go off . . . ! Quite incredible. The whole sequence is so invisibly edited, for years, I imagined it was all done in a single take, but of course it’s not. There are lots of edits — more edits than Wyler usually allowed into a single sequence — but they’re all so ideally placed and the continuity is so seamless, you don’t notice them unless you’re looking for them — and even then, I find myself so caught up in the action that I forget to count how many there are. Henry Fonda’s not as good in his part as many of the others, but he’s perfect in that scene, because his natural diffidence and awkwardness are exactly what the scene demands.
Davis apologizes. “Pres, I’m kneelin’ to ya.”
Fay Bainter and Claude Rains starred together in one stupendously stupid picture, “White Banners” (1938, same year as “Jezebel”) — spiritually uplifting “pass-it-forward” treacle by Lloyd C. Douglas (who also wrote “Magnificent Obsession” — same theme as “White Banners” and for my money, the funniest camp picture ever). She and Rains are so fine in that otherwise execrable picture, I’m happy to endure (though not accept) Douglas’ creepy proto-Christian folderol. She was nominated for Best Actress in that one, making her the first actress to be nominated in both acting categories in the same year. Fay Bainter gave many excellent performances, and never a bad one. The trouble is, with the exception of “Jezebel,” she was nearly always in lousy pictures. Her last picture was “The Children’s Hour” (1961, directed by Wyler). Stupid picture, great performance — I may even say, quite awesome. When the vicious little schoolgirl whispers the libelous gossip into Bainter’s ear in the backseat of a taxicab, Bainter’s wordless reaction is stunning — you can see a lifetime of experience and know-how in that moment. Here was an actress who knew her job! In every bad picture Bainter was in, she was always worth watching. On Broadway, Bainter played Walter Huston’s straying wife, Fran, in “Dodsworth.” What a shame she didn’t play it in the picture! I’ve resigned myself to Ruth Chatterton’s fussy performance, which works in its way, but I can’t really admire it. Wyler tried to force Chatterton, over her strong objections, to play Fran as something more than a hateful bitch, but Chatterton outlasted him. (Even Bette Davis never got her way when Wyler objected!) Chatterton does Hateful Bitch to perfection, But is it Art? How I should have liked to see Fay Bainter in that part! (Incidentally, both Davis and Bainter were under contract to Warners at the time. Davis’ weekly salary was $650 when she starred in “Jezebel”; Bainter’s was $2,000.) Bainter’s last major stage role was as Mary Tyrone in the first national tour of “Long Day’s Journey.” What a performance that must have been. Throughout her career, she appears to have followed Huston’s sage advice to a young actor: “Son, give ’em a good show and always travel first class.”
Another unjustly forgotten character actress, Spring Byington, gives a witty performance in the small role of Mrs Kendrick in “Jezebel.” Mrs Kendrick is a foolish old busybody whose polite conversation consists entirely of platitudes and old saws, which she speaks as if she had freshly minted them (“Well, I always say, ‘Better late than never’ “; “I always say, ‘Spare the rod and you spoil the child!’ “; “I always say, ‘Punctuality is the politeness of kings!’ “; ” ‘Business before pleasure,’ I always say . . . “; “I always say, ‘Let sleeping dogs lie.’ “), while everything she says to her daughter is a reproof (“Stephanie, your manners!”; “Well, we still do [curtsy] in New Orleans: no call to take up with Yankee manners.”). Mrs Kendrick is a one-joke character, but Byington brings her fully to life. A sweet little gem of a performance. Byington is also in “Dodsworth,” by the way, and gives a beautiful performance. She and Bainter represent a type of supporting actress — solid, reliable, but totally individual — that barely exists anymore. Before the Method came along and shook all the refinement and grace out of American acting, such supporting actors and actresses were thick on the ground. They spoke well, looked well, moved well, and gave wonderfully detailed performances that supported the stars’ performances without calling attention to themselves. How I admire that old technique!