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.
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?
“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).
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.