Automobile tycoon Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) has sold his business and is taking his wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton) on a second honeymoon around Europe to fully enjoy life for the first time after a lifetime of hard work. But while in Europe, Fran gets easily caught up in the glitz and glamour of the socialite life and has an affair. Sam is willing to take her back, but a second affair leads Fran to file for divorce, and Sam is left to travel aimlessly around Europe until the divorce is final.
Dodsworth is the type of film you rarely see: a drama about adults and geared toward adults that doesn’t pander to a lowest common denominator or insult the intelligence of its audience. It does not feel the need to gloss over the hard truths of the subject matter, but tells us the story straight, without sentiment. In a lot of ways it’s similar to Closer (2004) and Scenes from a Marriage (1973) in its handling of sensitive issues such as estrangement and reconciliation. It perhaps isn’t the most original of stories, and for that we can blame humanity more than a group of filmmakers. Happily married people get divorced all the time. But sometimes they are better off for it.
It’s telling that near the end of the film, when Ruth realizes her error and wants to give up the divorce claim, we want Sam to run as far away from her as he can. I don’t know if it’s more important that we want this to happen or that the film wants this to happen, as I can’t imagine this was a popular sentiment in 1936. We all know the template: spouse is unfaithful, realizes error, begs forgiveness, other spouse forgives with open arms, all is forgotten (or at least ignored). It’s a bit surprising, though, when a film deviates from this standard, especially when it sets up the happy ending and fails to deliver. Here we’re thankful for that failure.
We’ve seen how Ruth has treated Sam, how she’s walked all over him with little regard for his feelings, and we’ve seen how Sam has reacted, largely allowing her to do so. He understands that his wife is sowing some wild oats, and is waiting for her on the other side, but when she goes too far, he takes measures to end the affair. He confronts her and her lover in a hotel room with fire in his eyes. If this were a mob movie, the lover would be dead. But Sam is really little more than a loving husband put through the wringer by the woman he loves, and it gives Walter Huston the opportunity to show the full range of his acting ability. He layers his performance with levels of hurt and betrayal over an unwavering love. Most actors would kill to have this film in their resume.
William Wyler does a fine job directing, as he’s mostly directing actors here, but along with cinematographer Rudolph Maté, does an exceptional job of telling the story visually, particularly in a couple of key scenes. The shots are the type that sneak up on you, their impact registers slowly, which is exactly the type of thing Hollywood used to do better than anyone. These days it registers as a minor shock when they do it at all.
starring: Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, Paul Lukas, and Mary Astor
written by: Sidney Howard, based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis
directed by: William Wyler
NR, 101 min, 1936, USA