Tag Archives: Stanislavski

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?’


‘The Bad Seed’: Evil under the Scuppernong Arbor

Patty McCormack as The Bad Seed:  'I've got the loveliest mother . . . '

Pippi Wrongstocking: Patty McCormack as The Bad Seed. ‘Mother, when we move into our house, can we have a scuppernong arbor? They’re so shady and pretty . . .’ Say what?

It’s hard to imagine it, but Maxwell Anderson’s wonderfully foolish horror melodrama, “The Bad Seed,” was taken seriously when it was first presented on Broadway in 1954.  Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times wrote a favorable notice and singled out Nancy Kelly’s performance as being exceptionally fine.  “Miss Kelly acts it magnificently — beautiful and cool in the beginning, but gradually succumbing to a harrowing ordeal that tragically destroys her.  Miss Kelly’s performance is one of ordered tumult.”

One of the chief pleasures of the Warner Bros. picture (1956) is the spectacle of what mid-20th century theatrical acting looked like before the Actors Studio and “The Method” (Lee Strasberg’s variation — many would say violation — of Stanislavski’s approach to acting) came into vogue and swept away the older style that had been in place since the early part of the century.

Eileen Heckart goes at it hard and heavy as the wretched Mrs Daigle:  Ham on wry.

Eileen Heckart goes at it hard and heavy as the wretched Mrs Daigle: Ham on wry, Rye in ham.

For the picture, director Mervyn LeRoy retained most of the original Broadway cast; the picture was shot in a hurry and on the cheap (it’s one of the few post-1953 big studio pictures to be shot in square, rather than rectangular, format).

Round up the usual suspects.  The original Broadway cast:  Henry Jones, Evelyn Varden, Nancy Kelly, Patty McCormack.

Round up the usual suspects. The original Broadway cast: Henry Jones, Evelyn Varden, Nancy Kelly, Patty McCormack.

After a successful year-long run on Broadway, “The Bad Seed” had a successful year-long national tour, also with the same cast.  So by the time the picture was made, the principals had given nearly a thousand performances — and all of them played to the last row of the second balcony.  One thousand repetitions of a poorly written role can do terrible things to an actor’s performance.  LeRoy did nothing to tone down the theatricality of the acting.  In the picture, what Nancy Kelly does can hardly be called “ordered tumult”:   she’s certainly tumultuous, but “orderly” doesn’t come close to describing the tricks she gets up to.  Her acting is so mannered that it’s almost kabuki, and her vocal cords sound as if they have been tempest-tossed for years upon the billowy main of gin, under lowering clouds of tobacco.  It’s a husky voice that sounds best in its lowest register, but Kelly favors her upper register, which produces an asthmatic rasp, like the last few drops of bathwater being squeezed out of a rubber duck.

I have to say I love what she does with the role, but mostly for all the wrong reasons — except for one:  I’m interested in it as an historical curiosity.  Kelly won the Tony for this performance and was nominated for an Oscar (Heckart and McCormack were also nominated).  So this was what “great acting” looked like in the mid-50s.  Her Broadway co-stars (McCormack, Heckart, Varden and Jones) all give similarly theatrical performances — all absolutely artificial and tremendous fun to watch.  On Broadway in 1954 and in movie theatres in 1956, all of these big, hammy theatrical performances were highly celebrated and almost universally admired.  Within five years, this style was over.  Ever since 1960, “The Bad Seed” has been considered camp.  And so it is.

Henry Jones as the conniving, doomed handyman, LeRoy.  'Now I got yer number, miss!  I bin hearin' things about you that ain't nice . . . !'

Henry Jones as the conniving, doomed handyman, Leroy. ‘Now I got yer number, miss! I bin hearin’ things about you that ain’t nice . . . !’

Thirty years ago, when The Method was still the pre-eminent acting style, Kelly’s old-fashioned, declamatory acting looked not merely artificial, but also crazy.  But acting styles go out of fashion, just like everything else.  Nowadays, the supposed realism that Strasberg’s Method actors brought to their roles looks as artificial as the style it replaced.  To be sure, Nancy Kelly luxuriates in bathos (which I’ve heard described as being “pathos after three martinis”), but as artificial as she is, she means every word that she exaggerates, and she keeps the train on schedule.  Kelly delivers long expository speeches at a stunning breakneck pace; she’s as fast as John Moschitta, the guy who used to do the rapid-fire patter on the early FedEx commercials — and you never lose a word.  Taken purely as a technical achievement, her speed and precision are amazing.  She’s as funny as Ethel Merman was when she sang “I Got Rhythm” to Johnny Carson and clearly enunciated every word while her mouth was full of peanut brittle.  One could reasonably argue that such speeches aren’t intended to be funny, but I don’t see it that way.  The writing is terrible — really unbelievably lazy.  Here’s a passage that gives Kelly an intense workout in high-speed elocution.  On the DVD, Kelly’s express train pulls out of the station at 51:40.

Rhoda . . . when we lived in Wichita, Rhoda, there was an old lady who lived upstairs, Mrs Clara Post.  She liked you very much.


And every afternoon you used to go upstairs and visit the old lady and she used to show you all her treasures.  And the one you admired most was a . . . a . . . a crystal ball in which a little fish floated.  And old Mrs Post promised this to you when she died.  [Pause] And then one afternoon when her daughter was out shopping at the supermarket and you were alone with the old lady, she managed somehow to fall down the spiral backstairs and break her neck.  You said she heard a kitten meowing outside and went to see what was the trouble, and accidentally missed her footing and fell five flights to the courtyard below . . .

Yes, it’s true.

And then later you, you asked her daughter for the crystal ball and she gave it to you and it’s still sitting on the top of your treasure chest.

Yes, mother.

Rhoda, did you have anything . . . I don’t care how small it was . . . did you have anything to do with the way he got drowned?

What makes you ask that, mother?

Now look me in the eye and tell the truth, because I must know!

This whole passage takes just under a minute, and the intrepid Miss Kelly rattles off the long speech about Mrs Clara Post’s “accident” in exactly twenty-five seconds — complete with a pause and some stammering to “indicate” thought . . . and she acts up a storm all through it . . . and all the while, she’s on her knees.  (Nobody but actresses of the old school ever kneels in real life, except in church.  But old fashioned actresses did it all the time — especially if their knees cracked on the descent.)  You don’t believe a word of it, but she does . . . and she’s giving the folks a good show.

Yet for all the bravura phoniness of Kelly’s hamming, James Dean’s performances are more mannered and silly looking today than hers.  The difference is she’s far more accomplished — and  she’s much more fun to watch.

Nancy Kelly:  Sturm und Drang . . . und gin.

Nancy Kelly: Sturm und Drang . . . und gin.

Below is a montage clip from YouTube that gives a clear sense of the lunacy that goes on in this picture.  Alex North’s score is hilarious . . . Variations on “Itsy Bitsy Spider” (a/k/a “Au clair de la lune”) . . . I love the Halloween orchestration.