Reel Infatuation: Walter Huston as DODSWORTH
Who’s your cinematic someone—the movie character you’re most in love with?
For me, it’s Walter Huston’s Dodsworth.
When first we meet him, he’s gazing out the window of a great office. But this is no corporate overlord—you get the feeling he’d rather be out there on the floor.
“The men are ready,” his secretary says softly. And so they are, some standing on boxes, straining to see him stride through the plant to greet them one last time. After 20 years, the man who built Dodsworth Motors has sold the works to someone else, and seems to regret it already. As he makes his way through the adoring mob—”I hate to see you go Sam!” “Goodbye Sam!”—he seems to get slower with every step nearer the gate.
Back home, his sudden freedom weighs heavy on him, but he’s determined to relax: “I want to sit under a linden tree with nothing more important to worry about than the temperature of the beer—if there is anything more important.”
But his wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton) has other ideas. To hear her tell it, she’s been trapped all her married life in an endless cycle of bridge games, garden shows and parties “where after dinner, it’s cigars for the men, and women for the women.” And if there’s one thing this woman can’t stand, it’s other women…
Fran is hellbent on a long ocean voyage abroad—it seems that in Europe, “a woman my age is just getting to the point where men take a serious interest in her.”
And I’m thinking, What about the man right in front of you? Cuz, you know, if you’re not doing anything with him…
“I’m begging for life!” she tells her husband, as if she’s just done a 20-year stretch in Leavenworth. “No, I’m demanding it!” Sam half-smiles at her drama without a smidge of condescension. Then he wraps his arms around her, pulls her tight and pats her like an old horse. “All right,” he laughs. “I’ll enjoy life now if it kills me, and it probably will.”
Once aboard the Queen Mary, Fran pulls out one tragically spangled frock after another—apparently she didn’t leave a single sequin for anyone else in the Midwest—and hectors her husband about dressing formally for dinner the first night out. Which, unbeknownst to this brewer’s daughter, simply isn’t done.
But when Sam strides down the dining room stairs in his tux, it doesn’t matter if he’s overdressed. He’s at home anywhere, with anyone, in anything. (And for my money, he’s just as fetching later on in his shorts, socks and garters, with a little paunch peeking over his boxers. But again, I digress.)
Fran, on the other hand, is restless, insecure and already on the prowl, batting her eyes at a British officer (David Niven at his David Niven-est) before she’s even glanced at her martini.
And once on the continent, she gets bolder. At her birthday party in Paris, clad in an explosion of bows from head to heel, she starts up with an oily industrialist, Arnold Iselin (Paul Lukas). Sensing what looms ahead, an American expatriate they met shipboard discreetly takes her aside. “My dear, don’t,” warns Edith Cortright (Mary Astor). “You’re so charming.” Frankly, she isn’t, and the gentle Mrs. Cortright, in a simple Grecian gown, pretty much blows her off the screen. (I’m guessing that, to underscore Fran’s fear of growing older, designer Omar Kiam deliberately put Fran in clothes that were too young for her, but actually they’re too awful for anyone.)
The headstrong Fran pursues an affair with Iselin anyway, going so far as to jettison Sam back to the States. “Fran, my darling, you’re not drifting away from me?” he pleads when she tells him she’s taken a villa on Lake Geneva with a friend for the season. “If you and I are going to go on together,” she demands,”you’ve simply got to let me alone this summer!”
With that he crumples like a man who’s been punched, and so much flickers across his face—pain, confusion, loss, almost shame. But mostly love. He worships this woman. We may not understand why, but we don’t need to. Such is our faith in him that if he loves her, he must know something we don’t. Mostly, as it turns out, it’s not what he knows—it’s what he remembers and tries to hang on to.
When Sam finds out about the affair, he does something remarkable, or maybe crazy—but again, we’re talking about love here. He takes her back and fights harder for their marriage than she does. But this is no cuckolded sap. This is a strong, clear-eyed man, facing down fifty, who still has the heart and the courage to put everything on the line for his dreams. And one of his dreams remains the faithless Fran.
But no sooner do they reunite—with separate bedrooms—than she falls for an even more vapid suitor, Baron Kurt von Obersdorf (Gregory Gaye), who quickly proposes. (Did uber-American Sinclair Lewis, who wrote the novel, view all European men as nothingburgers with a side order of bland?) During a vicious row, Fran spits out the news to Sam—who urges her to put off any decision until she’s sure of Kurt. He can’t stop protecting her, even—or maybe especially— from herself. But reckless as ever, she insists on a divorce.
At the train station as they say goodbye, he’s clearly falling apart. “Sam, do try not to be terribly lonely, won’t you?” Fran says as he boards. With tears in his eyes, he repeats something he’s told her often: “Did I remember to tell you today that I adore you?”
At this point, if I’d ever been lunkheaded enough to let this man go, I’d be running alongside the train like Jennifer Jones in Since You Went Away until he scooped me up beside him. But Fran stays put on the platform, as a trace of pity crosses her face. (Save it, sister. You’ll need it.)
Biding his time on the continent waiting for the divorce, Sam runs into the wide-eyed, elegant Mrs. Cortright at the American Express office in Naples. “You might have looked me up!” she scolds him gently. “I’ve gotten out of the habit of looking people up…” he mutters. Sensing how lonely he is, she does exactly what I would do: she takes him home.
Suddenly he’s alive again, puttering with motors, tinkering with boats, and she’s glowing, like an exiled queen in her open-air Italian villa. (I want that house. And Jinx, her giant spotted horse-dog. And I want to look like Mary Astor in those simple cotton shirtdresses with the rolled-up sleeves.)
Sam’s even making grand plans, for a Moscow to Seattle airline…
“I’ll buy my own plane and the day after the divorce comes in we’ll hop on and go straight across…”
“We, Sam, we?”
“It’ll be tough on you, though, in one little suitcase in the coldest places. Do you think you could stand it?”
“Are you taking me with you?”
“Well don’t you want to go?”
“Sam all my life I’ve been waiting for something exciting to happen… I’ll fly across Siberia on one suitcase, I’ll go through life with you on one suitcase if you give me a chance!”
“Edith, I’ve spent six short weeks in this house with you and I can’t imagine ever being without you again.”
“I can’t imagine being without you either. I think I must love you a great deal, Sam.”
“God bless you for that.”
But then… Brrring! The most ill-timed phone call ever. Back in Vienna, Fran had run straight into a buzzsaw in the form of her would-be mother-in-law (Maria Ouspenskaya). Draped in a giant crucifix that would’ve come in handy for The Wolfman, first she chided Fran for divorcing. Then she really lowered the boom: “Have you thought how little happiness there can be for the… old wife of a young husband?” Ouch. Exit the spineless Kurt, stage right. Now Fran’s calling Sam in Naples—and calling off the divorce. She’s sailing home—and expects him to buy two tickets.
Heartbroken and frantic, Edith pleads her case but knows it’s hopeless.
“What is this hold she has over you?” she cries.
“I’ve got to take care of her,” he says. “A man’s habits get pretty strong in twenty years.”
Fran’s habits are even stronger. Like the scorpion who stings the frog carrying him across the river, she can’t help herself. Once they’re aboard ship, she makes Sam fetch and carry for her. She whines about their cabin. She dishes about the other women on deck and the ones back home. And in a moment of gasp-inducing gall, she carps about Kurt to the man she betrayed for him.
But when she tries to fob off the blame for their disastrous marriage on Sam, his eyes narrow furiously. And suddenly he’s up and out of there—pulling off a last-second escape just as they’re lifting the gangplank…
… Leading to one of the happiest endings in all of film, as he sails back to Edith.
If we were happy to see the back of Fran Dodsworth, so was the woman who played her. Chatterton may have feared that age would cost her good roles (this was her last major film), but that’s where she and Fran emphatically parted company. The actress—who took up flying (eventually going solo across the Atlantic) and writing when her movie career waned—had little use for a woman obsessed with reclaiming her youth, and wanted to play Fran as even more of a shrew. She and director William Wyler fought so violently over her interpretation of the role that she once slapped him in the face. Luckily, Wyler—who didn’t suffer one-note performances gladly—prevailed, bruised but unbowed.
Astor, on the other hand, loved slipping into the skin of her character, which gave her a refuge from her scandalous divorce and custody trial, unfolding across town—where her personal diaries, including intimate details about her affair with George S. Kaufman, were submitted as evidence. (Chatterton, an absolute brick offscreen, was a character witness for her and sat in the gallery almost every day.) “When I went into court and faced the bedlam that would have broken me up completely,” Astor wrote in her memoirs, “I kept the little pot boiling that was Edith Cortright.”
And Huston was Sam Dodsworth. “No acting ruses, no acting devices, just the convincing power that comes from complete understanding of a role,” Wyler said of his star, who’d originated the role on Broadway. I think Huston understood it because it’s basically who he was: strong, kind and true, with a great sense of adventure, a wry good humor and no patience for artifice. And somehow he managed to make sheer decency insanely attractive.
Dodsworth marked the first time since the launch of the Production Code that a man could leave his marriage and not come to ruin for it—and in fact pretty much get a standing ovation. As he says upon fleeing Fran for the last time, “love has to stop someplace short of suicide.” Even if you’re the gallant, loyal, ever-honorable Sam Dodsworth, the love of my movie life.
This article is part of the Reel Infatuations Blogathon, hosted by the fabulous Ruth at Silver Screenings and Font & Frock. For other articles, click here. And in comments, please tell us who your all-time movie character crush is!