Dodsworth: midlife crisis among the bourgeoisie

Paul’s Crème de la Crème Festival rolls on.  Last night Kimmie and I screened the third entry in my chronological festival of the best films, the 1936 production of Dodsworth, directed by William Wyler and starring Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton. The screenplay by Sidney Howard was adapted from his 1934 play, which in turn was an adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s 1929 novel. The story is about an automotive industrialist who, having retired wealthy at a relatively young age, decides to rediscover himself and his marriage by taking his wife on a grand tour of Europe–only to find that his wife is bored, restless, and embarrassed by his provincialism. And upon this second viewing I have to confess that the movie was not as good as I remembered.

Dodsworth entered my Crème de la Crème Festival by a circuitous route. For when we originally watched it in 2009, I rated it 8/10 on IMDb—too low to make it into the Crème de la Crème. But later, thinking about the movie and about my admiration for William Wyler as a director, I had a change of heart and upgraded it to a 9. Now, having watched it again, I’ve moved it back down to an 8; and if I were to rate it out of 100, I would give it a 77.

Wikipedia, in its article about the original work by Sinclair Lewis, describes the novel as a satire on the differences in ideas and morals between Americans and Europeans. I have not read the novel, but the film adaptation is no satire; it’s a family drama—a story of marital strain and dissolution resulting when one of the partners, in this case the wife, enters midlife crisis. For Fran Dodsworth (Chatterton), when she discovers that European men can still find her attractive, wants nothing more to do with the Midwestern town where she has lived in such comfort and luxury. Her husband Sam (Huston), modest and plainspoken, more than once refers to themselves as “hicks,” and this now stands for everything that she can’t bear to be associated with. It all hits home when Sam reminds her that their daughter is about to have a baby—that Fran is about to become a grandmother.

I think the reason I originally upgraded the movie from an 8 to a 9 was because of its adult tone. As I mentioned in my review of Counsellor at Law, William Wyler excels at the sensitive portrayal of mature content. In this film too there are nicely observed scenes that stand out from the adolescent level that most movies rest at. The Dodsworths’ marriage is in trouble, but they handle it, for the most part, like mature adults.

The Europeans come off less well. Fran has at least three suitors in the course of the story, and they all come off as effete and parasitic—caricatures of snobbish aristocrats. Maybe this was the “satirical” part of the story, but if it was, it came off as clunky and ordinary.

My attention wandered while watching this movie. The marital strain being depicted has become familiar ground in many novels, movies, and TV shows since that time. This one may have seemed new and special at the time, but now it has been surpassed. Accordingly, I’ve removed it from the Crème de la Crème Festival, and the total number of films in it has dropped from 91 to 90.


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