YAY I FINALLY SAW DODSWORTH!
If you’re thinking this sounds familiar – yes, this was based on a book by Sinclair Lewis (or, more accurately, based on a play that was itself based on the book). The titular Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) is the founder of an auto manufacturer in staid Zenith, Ohio, and has sold it at the start of the film so that he can retire and take his wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton) on the grand tour of Europe he’s always promised her they would do one day. But like many couples find when they retire, sometimes being thrown back together 24/7 forces them to confront the fact that they want different things now. In Sam and Fran’s case, Sam just wants to do a little traveling before returning home to his dotage where he can play indulgent grandpa to their daughter Emily’s baby boy, while Fran is looking for more of a “Got Her Groove Back” thing, where she can move among the smart set and hobnob with socialites, like she did during her years in an exclusive Swiss boarding school.
Fran is especially self-conscious about her age, which leads her to flirt with several European playboys, with varying degrees of seriousness. This is of course a slap in the face to the faithful and devoted Sam, who’s already smarting from Fran’s sudden critique of their stable Midwest lifestyle. Their growing discontent threatens to break the couple up once and for all.
I mention that this was based on a play inspired by the book. Interestingly enough, I’ve seen that play, done at one of my old favorite theatrical stomping grounds, so I had a soft spot for this already. I also pretty much knew what was coming throughout. Then again, it’s hard not to predict how things are going to end – early on Sam and Fran are devoted enough, with him seeing her foppishness as an endearing quirk and her seeing his stolidness as “kind but boring”, but the change in their routine brought about by Sam’s retirement upsets the balance, bringing out the worst in Fran’s frivolity and forcing Sam to confront that his wife’s values have changed (or worse still, that maybe she’s felt this way all along and he just never knew).
We’re clearly meant to sympathize with Sam, as well – Fran has a couple affairs, and even asks for a divorce at one point to marry a German boytoy, but she always runs back to Sam crying and asking for help when each affair crashes and burns. Meanwhile Sam just sort of muddles along touring Europe for its own sake – marveling at each of the landmarks and boyishly exploring. Even so, Fran’s dissatisfaction with their predictable life in Zenith makes perfect sense when she’s speaking to him at the top of the film. Any sympathy we have for her vanishes quickly, though, when they’re barely on their steamship and she’s already nagging him to “dress for dinner” because “that’s what the smart people do”. ….She’s wrong about that, and Sam is still indulgent over it, but it’s a precursor for how she is going to be behaving throughout.
There’s some eye-catching cinematography and art direction in spots – the whole film opens with a hell of a gorgeous shot of Sam standing reflectively in his office, staring out the window where the side of the building is emblazoned with his name, preparing himself to leave forever. But most of the “European scenes” ignore the specific scenery there, with all of the action taking place in hotel rooms or or steamship cabins or post offices, nary a sexy location shot in sight. Most likely this is a holdover from the play, but it wisely focuses your attention on the story itself, making you bear witness to what is ultimately a long and drawn-out breakup. And while Sam does finally come to a happier place in the end – and you don’t blame him in the slightest – it’s still a tragic tale.