Tag Archives: James Agee

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?’

 

Katharine Hepburn in a Pair of Stinkers

I don’t think time is being kind to Katharine Hepburn’s reputation:  it’s incredible how many terrible pictures she made, how often she was bad in them, and how seldom she was in a good picture.  She’s terrific as Rose Sayer in “The African Queen,” and as Mary Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” She’s pretty good in “Summertime.”  She may be okay in “The Philadelphia Story,” but it’s a rotten, woman-hating picture, as is “Woman of the Year.”  I hate every one of those bum comedies she made with Spencer Tracy — the most overrated actor in pictures.

'I'll be a son of a bitch.'  You said it, buster.

‘I’ll be a son of a bitch.’ You said it, buster.

The last picture they made together — “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” — is so stupendously terrible that I sometimes find it hard to dial away from it when it’s on TCM — its dreadfulness creates something like a magnetic force field or an electrical charge, rather like the shock you can expect if you take a shortcut while monkeying with an electrical circuit.  It hurts like hell while it’s got you, and you know the ominous current will kill you, but it’s hard to pull free.  Hepburn’s especially terrible in the performances for which she won her four Academy Awards.  “On Golden Pond,” for example, is unwatchable.  I can’t think of it without shuddering.  Jane Fonda told a funny story about it.  Both she and Hepburn were nominated for Best Actress that year.  Hepburn already had three Oscars; Fonda had two.  And one of Hepburn’s was a tie (with Barbra Streisand).  So when Hepburn got the Oscar for “On Golden Pond,” she rang Fonda the next day and crowed, “You’ll nevah catch up to me now!”

Dragon Seed

Turhan Bey, Katharine Hepburn:  Me no rikee.

Robert Bice, Katharine Hepburn: Me no rikee.

A friend lent me his DVD of the expensive MGM 1944 epic “Dragon Seed,” based on the best selling novel by that Great Lady of China, Pearl S. Buck, and for my sins, I watched it.  It’s as bad as, perhaps even worse than, “The Good Earth,” the other lavish Chinese epic with no Chinese actors in major roles.  James Agee’s original assessment of “Dragon Seed” was  a b s o l u t e l y  correct.  He wrote that it was an “unimaginably bad movie,”  full of “such distinguished Chinese as Katharine Hepburn, Akim Tamiroff, etc.” all performing in Chinaman drag against “unearthly, sepia-tinted landscapes, speaking their inhuman language.”  (The prosthetic epicanthus folds over Hepburn’s eyes make her look like the Cowardly Lioness.)  Agee continued with a litany of complaint about how every last detail was wrong, including the shape of Miss Hepburn’s eyelids, and finished by observing, “Indeed, I’ve never seen another picture so full of wrong slants.”  He was a very funny writer, but not as funny as the authors of “Dragon Seed.”  Two screenwriters are credited:  Marguerite Roberts, who later wrote the screenplay for 1968’s “True Grit,” and Jane Murfin, who, after a long, prolific career (“Lilac Time,” “Smilin’ Through,” “Roberta,” “The Women,” to name but four of her 66 titles), never wrote another screenplay after this one, though she lived another eleven years.

Walter Huston, Frances Rafferty, Robert Bice:  Huston said, 'I'm paid to make to make the bad lines sound good.'  Not this time . . .

Walter Huston, Frances Rafferty, Robert Bice: Huston said, ‘I’m paid to make to make the bad lines sound good.’ Not this time . . .

Agee is right about the “inhuman language” spoken in “Dragon Seed.”  The dialogue in this wretched picture is terrible beyond belief . . . every minute there’s a new outrage.  For instance, in one scene Turhan Bey (a/k/a “the Turkish Delight”) looks upon a long parade of refugees and says, “We are an island in a river of fleeing people!”  And a minute later, comes the following bit of turgidity, with nary a syllable of overlapping dialogue (for these were the good old days when everyone politely waited his turn to speak, no matter how overwrought):  Henry (Clarence Oddbody, AS2) Travers, as Wise Old Chinaman No. Two (Wise Old Chinaman No. One is Walter Huston),  watches an endless line of coolies hauling heavy machinery on shoulder-borne litters across a rugged terrain, and asks Turhan Bey:  “Cousin, what are these?  They carry different burdens!”  Bey says noisily to the passing parade, “Only a fool would carry iron on his back when sacks of rice are so much lighter!”  An anonymous coolie on the line responds with considerable spirit, “This is not iron, but a factory, that we carry on our backs!  Behind us follows a whole city!”  Bey and Travers shake their heads in bewilderment.  Only Katharine Hepburn, with an inverted basket on her head, fully understands the social change that is taking place.  Out of the corner of her mouth, like a gangster, Miss Hepburn observes, sotto voce, “These are not as the others were . . . They seem to have a plan!”  Viva Hollywood!  Those big studios really knew how to make a stinker.  I laughed and laughed.

When the picture was made (1944), there were more than a half billion Chinese on the planet, yet to look at the credits, no more than a half dozen were in Hollywood.  There are four Wongs in uncredited roles (as Japanese soldiers),  Four Wongs don’t make it right.

 Song of Love

Several years ago, Renee Fleming was TCM’s guest programmer on Monday night and for the second movie of the night, she chose the 1947 MGM biopic of Clara Wieck and Robert Schumann called “Song of Love.” Katharine Hepburn plays Clara and Paul Henreid plays poor doomed Prof. Schumann.  I’d seen about ten minutes of it two or three years earlier and was appalled by what I saw, but when it was on again I happened to be in the mood for it — probably because of the bludgeoning my senses took from watching “The Great Waltz,” which was Miss Fleming’s first pick for the night.  Miss Fleming has a beautiful voice, but it appears that all her taste is in her mouth.

Song of Love:  Awful Wieck

Song of Love: Awful Wieck stuff.

“Song of Love” is every bit as bad as I had remembered, but I couldn’t stop watching it.  Brahms is played by Robert Walker, who gulps and stammers so much, you’d think he was playing Bashful the Dwarf.

Kitten on the keys.

Kitten on the keys.

The script was written by the doyenne of the Classical Music Cinema, Irmgard von Cube, who also wrote “They Shall Have Music,” which was one of the few times Heifetz ever appeared in a Hollywood picture.  Apparently, Miss von Cube was besotted with music, but her imagination was so trivial and vulgar that she turned the story of these great artists into one of suffocating, sit-com domesticity.  The story of Herr and Frau Schumann and their complicated friendship with Johannes Brahms unfolds as a series of silly little housekeeping turmoils, hardly worthy of “The Brady Bunch”:  how will the Schumanns get their important dinner party on after their maid walks out two hours before the guests arrive?  Clara is too featherbrained to have mastered any of the domestic arts, so Johannes and Robert agree to cook the meal themselves . . . if they can work up the nerve to kill the clucking chicken.  “Comedy” ensues.  Honestly, it was a scene straight out of “Ich Liebe Lucy,” minus the laugh track.

That ubiquitous Nellie from the forties, Henry Daniell, in an unbecoming Prince Valiant wig, is on hand as Franz Liszt, glowering over the keys and banging with all his might.  In one scene, he bangs away so hard that the strings snap as he plays, whereupon he moves to a second piano, stage left, and proceeds to bang even harder on that one.  (As a matter of fact, this is quite accurate:  before their plates were made of cast iron, pianos literally used to fall apart under Liszt’s hands in the middle of his concerts, as in a Warner Bros. cartoon.)

Henry Daniell as Franz Liszt:

Henry Daniell as Franz Liszt:  Flame on.

We can be grateful that Miss von Cube rarely allows any of her characters to say a word about music, other than things like Clara’s, “Your latest work is lovely, darling,” or the startled observation made by one of the Schumann children upon hearing his mother in concert:  “Her hands move so FAST, Mr Bwahms!”  There is one scene, however, in which Clara so abominates Lizst’s inventions on a piece of her husband’s that she complains about it during the performance and then noisily chastises him afterwards for ruining it with what she calls “glittering pyrotechnics.”  Daniell swallows the opprobrium like a good sport; when one of his friends leans into him and says, “She insulted you!,” Daniell replies in his nasal hiss, “She did worse than that:  she dessssscribed me!”

As Robert Schumann, Paul Henreid does what he always does:  nothing at all.  As he descends into madness, dark greasepaint is smeared on the bags under his eyes and when he attempts to conduct his own work, the orchestra is obscured by buzzing . . . ah, the poor loonie!  With all that buzzing, his music sounds like Varèse.  His final madness takes the form of benign reasonableness:  he goes about with a distracted, lopsided half smile and seems utterly resigned to failure.  Henreid’s Schumann is so meek and gentle, I couldn’t understand why anyone fretted over his mental health:  he didn’t need an alienist — he needed water and plenty of sunlight.  But I screamed with laughter when I saw that Clinton Sundberg of Appleton, Minnesota — an MGM contract player who always looked and sounded as if he’d just fallen off the turnip truck — was Schumann’s alienist and eventual coroner.

Henried, Hepburn:  'Come, darling, let's get you to the nuthouse.'

Henreid, Hepburn: ‘Come, Liebchen, let’s get you to the nuthouse.’

There was one lovely little exchange near the end of the movie, however:  after Schumann is in the cold, cold ground, Clara attends a gathering at which a violinist, hitherto unknown to her, plays the wedding music that Robert had specifically written for her.  Tears come into her eyes.  “That’s the first time I’ve had it played for me by someone else,” she tells the violinist.  “How did you happen to know it?”  The violinist replies, “I am a musician, madame.”