Automobile mogul Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) sells his company to a corporation so that he can travel the world with his wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton) and "learn to enjoy his leisure." Fran views their upcoming travels as a chance to temporarily escape from her comfortable but unexciting life as Mrs. Sam Dodsworth. As Fran begins to emotionally drift away from Sam during their trip, they both consider romance with other people and start to question whether their future happiness is possible within the confines of their marriage.
L.P. Hartley once wrote, "The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there." Old movies seem to illicit a similar response from the friends and relatives I recommend films to. I know it's hopeless when their first question is, 'It's not black and white is it?' That question never fails to annoy me, but it does indicate one of the sticking points for modern viewers. The technical aspects of filmmaking have become so revealed and celebrated in recent years that the slower, simpler, less technologically-enhanced (and, yes, less colorful) filmmaking of the past seems mundane in comparison. While that is a deterrent for some people, the disconnect for most viewers is just a result of the passage of time. Moral attitudes, ways of speaking, notions about comedy and drama, etc. are constantly evolving, making many older movies socially obsolete or "foreign" to the modern audience. That is why it is all the more gratifying, as a fan of classic film, to turn people on to older movies that still resonate with our lives today; films that carry the wisdom of what it means to be human on this planet. Made more than 70 years ago by the most perceptive of Hollywood studio directors, William Wyler, Dodsworth remains a truthful examination of a disintegrating marriage and a subtle affirmation of American character.
Family is a big part of Sam's values and he is able to leave his life's work because he looks forward to spending more time with Fran and their daughter, who is married with a child on the way. This makes it all the more crushing for him when Fran uses their vacation to sew the wild oats that she feels were robbed of her in her marriage to Sam. There's no question that the material is slanted to make the audience sympathize with Sam, but Wyler makes sure that the audience can at least understand Fran's restlessness. She's quite a bit younger than Sam (though not as young as she says she is) and is enamored with the class, elegance, and formality of European life. Wyler juxtaposes this with scenes of Sam's distinctly American gaucheness, and Ruth Chatterton's embarrassed reactions to it are priceless. She loves her husband but can't bear the idea of looking like "a couple of hicks" as Sam likes to say. Her impatience with him seems harsh at times, but Sam dishes it right back to her by needling her insecurities. Check out the sly look of
Still, the foundation of a great script always makes directors and actors look good, and Dodsworth has several beautifully written scenes. In one pivotal scene in their hotel room before bed, Fran tells Sam that she needs a few months apart to live freely and experience life. Sam is walking around in his underwear and Fran is removing all her makeup. They are, in essence, stripped of all artifice and the honest exchange of feelings between them has the feel of reality rather than the slickness of Hollywood dialogue. Even that most cliched of all movie scenarios, the romantic train station farewell, is beautifully done in Dodsworth. At various points during the film Sam says to Fran, "Have I told you today how much I adore you?" It's his way of telling her that he loves her. After she has made her choice to leave him for another man, he says this to her as he is boarding the train which may take him out of her life forever, and the effect is genuinely heartbreaking. Huston and Chatterton are at their best in this scene, distilling the emotion of twenty years of marriage into a few words and a pair of parting looks.
Wyler was known as an actor's director (a record 31 Academy Award nominated performances in his films attests to that) and the supporting players in Dodsworth are given just as much opportunity to shine as the leads. A young David Niven is dryly funny as a flirtatious Englishman who puts Fran in her place after she leads him on and then rejects his advances. Paul Lukas somehow manages to seem dignified and classy as a French playboy who openly tries to seduce Fran away from Sam. Harlan Briggs is memorable as Sam's crotchety friend Tubby, especially when he grouses about the "European liberties" Sam takes by kissing his wife on the cheek. Best of all is Mary Astor as a fellow American abroad who rekindles Sam's zest for life. She was never more beautiful than she is in this film, and her character's transformation from slightly cynical, world-weary traveler to a woman alight with the possibility of loving and being loved by a kindred spirit is made believable by the palpable change in Astor's eyes and voice.
I have barely scratched the surface of the riches to be found in this film. Its timeless blend of entertainment and human understanding offers different meanings depending on the viewer, and hopefully it shows those that are averse to watching classics that the past is not such a "foreign" place. Lucky for us, The National Film Preservation Board awarded Dodsworth a place in the National Film Registry in 1990 so that generations to come will be able to discover it for themselves.
The collector’s edition of the DVD includes an interview with Maureen O’Hara where she reminisces about filming The Quiet Man, and is well worth watching.