William Wyler’s 1936 adaptation of a Sinclair Lewis novel deals was unusual for Hollywood: a portrait of a rocky marriage in middle age.
Dodsworth, a 1936 film directed by the great Hollywood filmmaker William Wyler, is an adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel of the same name. It’s a cut above the usual drama of the period because it’s so adult. Sidney Howard adapted his own stage version of the book, and it has the solid, intelligent quality of a good play. Sam Dodsworth, played by Walter Huston, is a hard working man who has put all his life into his business, He says he wants to travel to get to know himself, but he gets more than he bargained for. Essentially he is comfortable with himself and his American provincial background. But this is in contrast to his wife Fran, played by Ruth Chatterton, who is ashamed of being an unsophisticated American tourist, and wants to attain to a sort of high society gentility in Europe. She’s beautiful, a little younger than Sam, and manages to attract various men on her trip whose attentions encourage her in full flight from middle age. This puts her in conflict with her husband, who eventually seeks solace with a sympathetic “other” woman played by Mary Astor.
Huston is just about flawless in the title role—he played the part on Broadway, but there’s nothing rote about this performance. Sam is such a well-rounded, lovable creation—tender and gruff, childlike and knowing, independent and loyal—and Huston inhabits the character with perfect assurance, making everyone else shine with him. Chatterton is really fine in a portrayal which manages to be sympathetic, despite the way the script tends to make Fran a merely superficial and vain person. Watch her in the scene where she tells her husband that he must let her have her fling—you can really see the years of pent-up energies yearning to break free. Astor’s part is really quite small, but she makes the most of it. There’s a great scene where the phone keeps ringing at her villa, and she doesn’t pick it up, knowing that it’s probably Fran. When her character suffers a sudden reversal, Astor portrays the devastation beautifully, with a light touch.
Wyler has a smooth, seamless style here. Nothing very flashy, but the rhythm and camera placement are impeccable. This was an unusual story for Hollywood—a portrait of a rocky marriage in middle age. Yes, even then pictures tended to focus on younger people. Dodsworth was a risk, and in fact it barely broke even at first, only making money after it was revived in theaters following its Oscar nominations for Picture, Actor, and Director. It remains one of the most sophisticated dramas of the 1930s.