New Beginnings: Lessons from Dodsworth (1936)

DODSWORTH (1936)

At the end of every year I, like many people, take stock of the events that took place throughout the previous months. I reassess the bad moments, trying to find ways that I could’ve avoided them or handled them differently. I also try to reflect on all of the good moments, no matter how small. Although the difference between December 31st and January 1st is a mere 24 hours, there’s something exciting about starting with a clean slate. Of course, I feel compelled to make a bunch of resolutions that I’ll blow within a week, but it feels good to set them nonetheless. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to lower my expectations and set more realistic goals, attempt to live in the moment and try to appreciate every single day that I’m alive. I also look forward to sharing each day with my loved ones, as they are the source of my true happiness.

William Wyler’s Dodsworth (1936), currently streaming on FilmStruck, is the perfect film to pair with the beginning of a new year. The movie opens with an established married couple, Samuel and Fran Dodsworth (Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton) preparing for the transition from their working, child-rearing years, into retirement and old age. After selling his automotive company Sam enthusiastically embraces the next stage of his life; his plans include spending time traveling the world with his wife (at her insistence), starting new hobbies and dabbling in a possible second career. Sam faces this next chapter with boyish enthusiasm that many people find endearing, save for Fran. While on their voyage to England on the Queen Mary, Fran scolds Sam for being too excited, fearful that they will be pegged as small town hicks. Fran, on the other hand, is absolutely terrified of growing old. She rejects anything that might give away her true age to the many new acquaintances made during their travels. Fran is obsessed with becoming immersed into European life, perfectly content with leaving behind her Midwestern home, close friends and family. She also wants to spend much more time with her new friends than with Sam, and possibly have a romantic fling or two. Sam is fully aware that Fran is unhappy and wants a new adventure, and he is more than willing to give her the space she needs in order to find herself and a new perspective on life. After twenty years of marriage, Sam is confident that Fran will eventually come back to him and the life they have built together. After all he is happy to go through the next exciting stage, and he wants to share it with the love of his life. Unbeknownst to Sam, Fran has no intention of ever going back to America or anything resembling the life she had with him. This becomes painfully evident when Sam tells Fran the good news that their newly married daughter Emily is expecting a child. At first, Fran lights up in excitement, but that happiness quickly fades once Sam points out that they will be grandparents.

DODSWORTH, Kathryn Marlowe, Walter Huston, director William Wyler, cinematographer Rudolph Mate on s

Fran’s resistance to growing old, coupled with her constant attempts to distance herself from her past life backfire spectacularly. Her dyed hair, revealing evening gowns, flippant attitude and phony continental-sounding accent show her desperation. Many of the acquaintances she makes in Europe easily see through her shallow and vapid personality. One of these acquaintances is the American expatriate Edith Cortright (Mary Astor), a woman roughly the same age who is all the things Fran hopes to become but never will. One could argue that the unfair double standard often applied toward women is ultimately to blame for Fran’s stuffy attitude and pathetic overcompensation, but Edith’s positive attitude toward growing old proves otherwise. That cheery, carefree outlook is exactly what Sam has long desired but can’t share with Fran. Even at middle age and facing a major upheaval in his personal life, Sam faces the changes eagerly and with great optimism.

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Beyond being a terrific film with brilliant performances from Huston, Chatterton, Astor and a baby David Niven, Dodsworth is a lesson in accepting the passage of time, aging gracefully and being true to yourself and your innermost desires. Sometimes the life you thought you were meant to lead isn’t the right one after all. It takes courage and a positive outlook to face the unknown, to take a risk, to get a fresh start. Although many of us won’t experience such drastic changes, there’s still a lot to learn from Sam and Edith’s view on life. Here’s to a year of embracing (and adapting to) whatever comes our way.

Jill Blake

15 Responses New Beginnings: Lessons from Dodsworth (1936)
Posted By Chuck Berger : December 31, 2016 12:25 am

Great flick!!! A great cast with Ruth Chatterton quite convincing
as the wife not wanting to face the reality of having to grow old.

Posted By kingrat : December 31, 2016 12:39 am

Thanks for a lovely piece on a very fine film. The older man/younger woman romance turns up in several of Sinclair Lewis’ stories–DODSWORTH, CASS TIMBERLANE, ANN VICKERS, for instance–so the theme obviously had personal meaning to Lewis.

Posted By Marjorie J. Birch : December 31, 2016 7:44 am

Was this a pre-Code movie? Few endings have surprised me as much. I was gloomily resigned to a Hays-code mandated and less-than ecstatic Sam/Fran reunion/reconciliation — and then (spoiler) he went back to Edith! Definitely a “YAY!” moment.

Posted By Susan Doll : December 31, 2016 1:28 pm

Am doing a piece on Ruth Chatterton for TCM’s Backlot this month. Apparently, RC was sensitive about playing this role because as an aging beauty coming to grips with the passing years, the role hit close to home. She was difficult on the set, but RC was a really interesting actress now forgotten. After her Hollywood career was over, she returned to the theater, becoming a decent stage director. Coincidentally, I am reading Christopher Plummer’s autobiography, and he talks about the older Chatterton and her talents as a director.

Posted By Helen : December 31, 2016 3:34 pm

You know this is in my top 5 favorites of all time, probably because I saw it when I’d already turned 40+. It’s one of the best acted films of the 30′s especially by Huston, Chatterton and Astor. In fact, I think it’s Huston’s finest hour, even surpassing his Oscar winning role in Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Wyler surely knew how to get the best out of his casts.

Great article.

Posted By Jill Blake : January 1, 2017 9:10 pm

Marjorie– No, not a Pre-Code since it was made in 1936, 2 years after the code went into effect (July 1934), but it definitely plays like one at times. There’s one scene where Fran and Sam are getting dressed for bed that definitely pushes a bit.

Posted By Jill Blake : January 1, 2017 9:12 pm

Susan– Very interesting about RC. I find her to be a fascinating presence on the screen, and it’s unfortunate her film career was cut short. Absolutely love her in SARAH AND SON. (Originally typed SUSAN AND GOD. Don’t know what I was thinking there! Ha!)

Posted By Pamela B Porter : January 2, 2017 4:03 pm

Apparently, Astor was going through the “Purple Diary” scandal while filming “Dodsworth” – it was heartening to read that both Huston and Chatterton were incredibly supportive of her during the time; Chatterton even attended the trial as emotional support.

Posted By George : January 2, 2017 4:14 pm

I love DODSWORTH. It’s the sort of adult drama that would have a hard time getting financing today.

Posted By MikeD : January 2, 2017 4:26 pm

I recently stumbled onto the fact that Ruth Chatterton is interred in the same New Rochelle NY cemetery as my aunt. So after my annual Christmas pilgrimage to visit my aunt’s gravesite, I stopped by Ruth’s crypt to let her know that she has not been forgotten.

Posted By Chris Wuchte : January 3, 2017 2:04 pm

A great movie that I might have easily overlooked had I not read about it some years ago, I believe on this very blog, or at least its previous incarnation.

Great performances, and surprisingly adult for its time. After years of only knowing Walter Huston for Treasure of the Sierra Madre, it was nice to see why he was in the industry to begin with.

Posted By Jill Blake : January 3, 2017 3:42 pm

Helen– I agree, re: Huston’s finest performance…and that’s saying a lot, considering the man was great in every single film he made.

MikeD– How lovely. You know, I always wonder what many of these old Hollywood stars would think about us still talking about their performances 70+ years out, especially the ones who died before movies found second lives on television.

Chris Wuchte– I first saw Dodsworth about 10 years ago and have been in love with it since. If you’re a fan of Huston (and Wyler), check out A HOUSE DIVIDED (1931). I saw it for the first time at the TCM Classic Film Festival last April. Whoa, what a film.

Posted By Theresa : January 3, 2017 4:58 pm

Timeless story beautifully acted. I could see Warren Beatty recast as Dodsworth
today

Posted By George : January 14, 2017 12:02 am

I also recommend A HOUSE DIVIDED. I saw it for the first time just a few days ago. It’s pretty extraordinary. One of my best recent discoveries, along with Griffith’s maligned THE STRUGGLE (also from 1931).

Posted By Mauricio Exenberger : March 24, 2017 12:50 am

Ruth Chatterton was very talented. Dodsworth was all built into the new conservative moral rules established by the Hays Code (or Motion Picture Production Code). In this film the message is as follows: woman who tries to change her old husband for a younger one falls in disgrace.

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