Friday, August 3, 2012

136. DODSWORTH (1936)

Based on Sidney Howard's play of Sinclair Lewis' novel, this is a surprisingly direct and humanistic drama for its time about a middle-aged married couple who sell off their company, suddenly have time for leisure and each other, and find themselves growing apart. Walter Huston stars as retired motor magnate Sam Dodsworth, who decides to indulge his younger fortysomething wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton) -- who only admits to being 35 and is not yet ready to accept the fact that she's about to become a grandmother -- in a continental tour of Europe that takes them from London to Paris and parts of Italy. As Fran embraces a lifestyle of high socializing, nightclub dancing, and the extramarital fling to which she feels "entitled" with Arnold Iselin (Paul Lukas), Sam tries returning home alone, then begins knocking about international tours on his own, until fate brings him back into contact with lonely but responsible widow Mrs. Edith Cortright (Mary Astor, as good as I've ever seen her), who invites him to share her cheap seafront Italian villa on purely platonic terms.

I haven't read the novel, but the film is a frank depiction of the circumstances that sometime occur in life when divorce becomes a necessary step, not for the selfish reasons usually depicted in movies, but out of the necessity to protect one's own standards of morality. Fran starts out as a sympathetic character, someone suddenly liberated from a life of servitude and eager to taste life while she still can, and director William Wyler stages a wonderfully candid glimpse of their marriage in an extended take where they ready themselves for bed, the camera slyly weaving to and from them depending on their states of undress; but as the film goes on, the life she has chosen to embrace is shown to be nothing more than a lie, which comes into bold focus when she can't suppress her own affected, high-faluting accent in a reunion conversation with her estranged husband.

Well worth seeing, with a treasure trove of occasionally surprising support players, including David Niven in one of his earliest credited Hollywood roles; Mme. Maria Ouspenskaya (at age 60) playing a venerable old lady who reminds Fran of the dangers of becoming the older wife of a young husband; John Payne (in his John Howard Payne days); and Spring Byington as a doting sister-in-law who gives Sam a surprisingly touching kiss in farewell, as if she's apologizing to him on behalf of all the good people in her family.

Viewed on a DVD-R of a Turner Classic Movies broadcast.    

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