It is fortunate for filmgoing audiences that Sam Goldwyn was a stubborn man, for without his obstinacy, Dodsworth might never have been made. Even though his studio turned out many entertaining products year after year, Goldwyn wanted very much to do movies of importance; and the highly successful Broadway play of Sinclair Lewis' novel was one in which he was particularly interested. Against the recommendations of his advisers, who told him that Dodsworth would not have any appeal because it was about middle-aged people, Goldwyn proceeded to pay $160,000 for the film rights and brought Walter Huston, who had played Dodsworth on the New York stage, to Hollywood to star in the film.
Part of the appeal of Dodsworth lies in its uncomplicated story. Sam Dods-worth (Walter Huston) is an automobile industry magnate who has retired. At the urging of his wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton), he takes his first trip to Europe aboard the Queen Mary because she wants him to see the world. He is not particularly enthusiastic,. and goes more to please her than anything else. The trip, however, becomes a psychologically fatal voyage: after much pain, anguish, revelations of true character, and selfish upheaval, their marriage is ruined. Fran Dodsworth is caught up with the desire to experience "life" before life leaves her behind. She wants the party to go on forever, without her getting old. Because of this, her husband becomes a constantly distasteful reminder that the years are passing; so she turns to younger men, first on the ship and then in cities throughout Europe.
Sam Dodsworth is an uncultured but devoted husband who is ready to stand almost anything once, even adultery, and who cannot rid himself of the deep sense of responsibility he has accumulated in twenty years of marriage. However, he is also human, and while his wife is pursuing various younger men with exotic accents, he meets a genteel, understanding widow, Edith Cortright (Mary Astor), who is capable and willing to give him the affection and company his wife will not. Their relationship is based on living life for the day without expectations on the future, but their idyll is shattered by a phone call from Fran. Rejected by her last suitor and his baroness mother, Fran says that she is ready to go home and settle down. Sam's sense of loyalty and honor leave him no alternative but to go with her; she is his wife, representing the life he has known. As their ship prepares to leave port, however, Fran's shallow repentence for what she has done quickly evaporates and her mean self-centeredness surfaces. It takes only moments for Sam to realize that his wife and the life back home are no longer what he wants. As Edith Cortright stands watching the luxury ship pull out to sea, a small dinghy ties up at the dock with a beaming Sam aboard, returning to the new life he has chosen.
Dodsworth is an extremely well-made and well-acted film. Sam Dodsworth is a man we understand and respect, if not altogether believe for there is a basic improbability inherent in the story, and therefore, in Sam's character; how could he and Fran have been married for twenty years before he realized what a priggish, selfish, vain woman she was? Perhaps all his years spent building his automobile business kept him from really knowing his wife; or perhaps he simply cannot believe that she is the woman he married.
Dodsworth is a very personal story which gives the impression of a film of large scope, mainly because of Walter Huston's portrayal. Since he com¬manded the role on Broadway for two years prior to the movie, it was a role in which he was as comfortable as any actor could be, and yet the acting is entirely fresh. Huston's Dodsworth is a man of sympathy, humor, irony, and delicacy, and it is sometimes impossible to tell what in Dodsworth is Huston and what is Sinclair Lewis, since the actor fits the character perfectly.
As Fran Dodsworth, Ruth Chatterton creates one of film's most despicable women; her dialogue spews forth venomously and she is consummate in displaying the character's embittered egotism through the way she holds her body, tight and self-conscious, like someone always on display. The character of Edith Cortright is as far removed as possible from the usual "other woman," and Mary Astor plays her with remarkable grace and intelligence. Also adding to the character of the film is the casting of a young man named David Niven as Major Clive Lockert in his first role for Goldwyn, although he had had a contract with the studio for some time.
Although Dodsworth is essentially a static and talky film, William Wyler has directed it skillfully in cinematic terms. It easily could have been a visually confining piece, but it is not; the pace flows evenly and is dramatically balanced to sustain the impact of important scenes, then eases naturally back into the expository. The.look of the film is grand, expensive, and very Con¬tinental, although most of the major shooting took place at the Goldwyn studios in Hollywood. Only a small secc1nd-unit was sent to Europe to film the exteriors which give the film such a colorful background.
Goldwyn's insistence that Dodsworth was important and thus had to be perfect almost kept Dodsworth from ultimately being filmed. Sidney Howard's dramatization of the novel was submitted; according to those involved, it was well-constructed and, in fact, expertly concealed some of the story's basic flaws. Goldwyn, however, brought in another writer, who was then embar¬rassed because he could find no way to improve upon Howard's adaptation. Over the next two years, Goldwyn hired and fired five more writers and accepted, then rejected, eight different drafts before he finally realized that he could not improve on Howard's version, and that adaptation at last became the official screenplay.