Sinclair Lewis is one of those literary names I thoroughly recognize and assume must have been a culture-shaper in his day. Yet I can say nothing intelligible about him. In fact, this guttural reaction has more to do with my own ignorance with prose then it does with his fading into antiquity.
But regardless, he is the authorial power behind Dodsworth which was subsequently made into a stage play by Sidney Howard (also starring Walter Huston) before being brought to film by William Wyler. The film itself has always intrigued me as I have great esteem for the director who proved his longevity and ability to construct well-crafted, beloved works out of the Hollywood industry.
The prospect of an authentic examination of marriage circa the early 20th century also piqued my interest bolstered further by Walter Huston’s presence. He originated the stage role and carried it on for over 1,000 performances. In truth, the self-made automotive magnate, Sam Dodsworth, is meant to be the most benevolent of spirits and Huston is flaunting the charm that always made him a likable figure.
He falls seamlessly into the part of a simple man contented where he’s taken his business and ready to give it up to be a family man and devoted husband for once in his life. It is Ruth Chatterton who helps form the nucleus of the story with him, as husband and wife.
To celebrate his leaving the daily grind behind for the welcoming embrace of retirement, the couple plans a luxuriant trip to Europe. Mrs. Dodsworth is looking forward to the culture and fashionable circles to rescue her from the shabby town they hail from. Among the company she keeps is dashing Englishman, Captain Lockerhert (David Niven), who she willingly encourages until his advances get too brazen for her taste.
Meanwhile, Mr. Dodsworth is far more enchanted with the northern lights than the social gatherings, crossing paths with an amiable American, Edith Cortright (Mary Astor), currently residing in Italy. There’s little doubt who is more affable in the marriage or faithful, for that matter. Even when peeved and irascible, there’s still a lovable magnetism Huston seems capable of mustering up, easily seen as the victim of a wife who is trying to stave off old age and the horror of a banal lifestyle.
To be quite blunt, Dodsworth is full of monotonous quibbling. I’m apt to label it a dull showing and a generally sorry business but there you get at precisely what the issue is. Huston labels it “the old triangle stuff” as his wife keeps company with any number of men with varying degrees of seriousness and intent. Eventually, it gets to be too much.
A well-documented point of contention arose between Wyler and Chatterton about divergences in how Mrs. Dodsworth should be played. Chatterton wanted the character to be a full-on villain as it were while Wyler hoped to tease out the insecurities and fears of a woman trying to hold onto or at least reclaim her perceived youth.
It seems apparent upon watching the picture that the actress might have well been in the wrong because you watch her performance and even if it inched more toward the director’s intentions, it lacks any kind of the charisma easily attributed to Huston or even Astor’s performance.
Because they are both contemporaries and prime examples of older couples depicted on celluloid, I could not help but consider Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) in reference to Dodsworth. That film is heartbreaking because it shows two elderly people so faithfully in love and yet pulled apart by circumstance, all but forgotten by their families; the bittersweet nature is in the love story. It’s alive and sentimental in the finest way. We grow to love Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi.
However, in the case of Dodsworth, there’s rarely a moment that captivates in a similar manner. I’m ashamed to admit that I should care and I want to care but for some inexplicable reason, I don’t. Not that the dialogue is rubbish or even that the acting is mediocre. Far from it.
In fact, Astor proves a far more sympathetic heroine and so Wyler’s final decision to leave us focused on her effulgent countenance is probably the best shot selection of the film thus far because in her dwells all that is good and joyous about the picture. For our protagonist and for the audience. Of course, the other striking juxtaposition is Astor’s own real-life woes as she was entangled in a deleterious scandal at the time. In some strange way, while not completely parallel, the screen and reality overlapped.
Although, that still fails to truly reconcile with the troubling moral dilemma remaining within the storyline. We as an audience are far more content with Dodsworth leaving his wife for another woman. Because every delineation of the film suggests that by remaining faithful to his wife the man only gets hurt again and again. Surely, that’s not how the world works? Loyal people should be happy. Those sots prone to infidelity are the ones for which life becomes a shambles. And yet if there are meager conclusions to glean from the picture, the opposite would seem to hold true.
Life is often very unfair. Marriages do not live and die by monumental skirmishes between antagonized parties. Surely that can happen but more often they simply fall apart as apathy ingrains itself and two persons drift away like ships in the night. Because when you love someone you want to be docked by them forever. The banal and the mundane are the most pleasurable because they provide a proper excuse to just exist with the other person.
You know you’re in trouble when discontentedness begins to spring up. Duty, civility, even sexual intimacy are not the building blocks of marriage. They are good things, assuredly, but we need more. Do you actually relish spending time with your spouse? That’s one imperative. When you look at Dodsworth you come to the sad reality that this couple has lived by each other’s sides for 22 years seemingly just passing time. It all seems like a terrible waste. Both the film and the lives at stake. They were made for so much more than this.