Tuesday, November 10, 2009


"Dodsworth" (William Wyler, 1936) "Why are Americans always such snobs?" asks David Niven's snobbish Capt. Clyde Lockert.

Well, the answer is that there are two kinds of people in this world: people who lump people together with presumptive generalizations and those who don't. And the best place to lump people together is a cruise ship. Just ask
the captain of "The Love Boat."

Sinclair Lewis's 1929 novel about "us" and "them," maturity of age or the lack of it, and the pull and drag of greener pastures was adapted for the stage, and then film, by Sidney Howard and directed both times by William Wyler.

The tale of
two small-town empty-nestershe's a retired auto manufacturer looking for a new challenge, and she's looking for a long-desired European vacation among the sophisticates—is a long, slow sunset of ships passing in the night and the attraction of what has been missed. For Dodsworth (Walter Huston), the trip is an adventure, eye-opening in the possibilities of what the world has to offer. For his wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton), it is an opportunity to move among the elite, whose charm and manners are nothing like her folksy husband's. Eight years her elder, she resents him for making her appear older than she is to the new crowd with whom she seeks attention and company. Attempting to catch a youth-enhancing lightning in a bottle, she begins to have affairs behind his back, risking their marriage and future. The difference between the two after a long marriage with children is the difference between living a life and living a lie—embracing life or avoiding it.

It's a tough movie, even tougher coming as it does from the "speak your piece" 1930's, and it still hearkens to values and the lure of the new and glitzy—of those who jump into life with both feet, and those who choose to remain in the shallow end of the pool. And it's interesting to see a movie that not only focuses on "Can this marriage be saved", but "Should it?" It's amazing how contemporary and timeless "old" movies can be. Their wisdom is always showing up the less mature output of its antecedents.

Wyler's direction is unfussy, placing the camera where it can do the most good, and with a large cast roaming about
that usually means some deep-focus shots of the entire "stage." The cast alternates between good actors that you like and you want to slap (although given Huston's robust characterization, what woman wouldn't want a bit of her own limelight?) and the performances, though never vocally subtle—gotta pick up that dialogue!—are helped by the director's intricate lighting and camera placement.

And it's always worth checking out a movie with
Walter Huston or Mary Astor.

Dodsworth" became a part of the National Film Registry in 1990—among the second 25 films chosen—and Time Magazine voted it one of its 100 Greatest Movies of the 20th Century.

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