Kathy Shaidle was a big hit as our summer movie columnist last year. So we’re pleased to welcome her back for her unique take on films old and new:
Dodsworth (1936) is set in part on the Queen Mary, and even has a Dennis Miller connection, so what better choice for my first guest movie column of 2019, since many of us will soon be cruising through Alaska’s Inside Passage with the great comedian?
If you’ve never heard of William Wyler’s Dodsworth, don’t feel dumb. It’s routinely described (when it’s discussed at all) as a “forgotten classic” and “one of the most underrated American films of all time.” (Makes you wonder how frequently anything can be called “underrated” until it’s obviously not: that word punctuates each of the multiple TCM “Essentials” essays about this “forgotten” movie… which, nevertheless, was picked for the Library of Congress National Film Registry, and made TIME‘s definitive “100 Best Movies.”)
Dodsworth‘s thudding dud of a title sounds like a forgotten brand of foul-tasting lozenges. The posters are hideous. The cast is base-camped on the middle slopes of Hollywood’s Mount Olympus. Despite the movie’s many Oscar nods, producer Sam Goldwyn lamented, “It was a great picture, but nobody wanted to see it. In droves.”)
Alright, but what’s it about? A typical TV Guide-style summary, duly crowned by four or five stars, will read:
“Two rich Midwestern Americans go to Europe for the first time.”
Great. The Beverly Hillbillies Do the Grand Tour. Don’t tell me: The Yankee hicks wonder why somebody doesn’t “fix” Venice, then order hot dogs at Maxim’s?
Then ten years ago, Dennis Miller sat in as a Turner Classic Movies guest programmer, and one of his three picks was Dodsworth. Being a loyal listener to his radio show, I eagerly tuned in.
When we “discover” a great old film, we often regret not having watched it sooner. But when I saw Dodsworth that night, I was grateful that its creaky title and unpromising plot had prevented me from bothering with it until that precise moment in time.
Had I, as younger movie buff, stumbled across the film during a very rare TV airing or on a rep cinema schedule, I doubt I’d have made it through the first reel.
But the night Dennis Miller presented Dodsworth, I’d recently turned 45.
And I cannot stress this enough:
Do NOT watch Dodsworth unless and until you are middle-aged. (Think of it as something to actually look forward to…)
Now let’s start again…
Fifty-something tycoon Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) — “surely the most lovable industrialist ever put on film” — has just sold his eponymous motor car company, headquartered in fictional Zenith, Wisconsin. One imagines that the town fathers christened the burb aspirationally, and Sam’s success would seem to have borne them out, but his wife Fran (who insists she is “35”) would probably have dubbed the place “Nadir” instead.
“Have you ever thought what Zenith means to me?” Fran (Ruth Chatterton) asks Sam as the story begins:
“You go down to the plant and deal in millions and have a marvelous time. I go down to the kitchen and order dinner. Then there’s the ladies’ lunch and the bridge, always the same ladies. And dinner, same people we dined with last week. After dinner poker for the men and women for the women. There’s talk of children and doctors and servants and the garden club. I want all the lovely things I’ve got a right to. In Europe a woman of my age is just getting to the point where men begin to take a serious interest in her … After all I’ve got brains and thank heavens I’ve still got looks. No one takes me for over 32, 30 even.”
No wonder she’s so eager to travel abroad now that her husband has retired. But Sam, we sense, has talked himself into taking this voyage, to please his beloved wife. After her speech, he replies, “All right, I’ll enjoy life now if it kills me, and it probably will.” (Watch.)
Alone and away from home for the first time since their honeymoon, their trip exposes marital fault lines long papered over by duty and routine. And you come to realize that this was the very outcome Fran was half-hoping for all along: She treats this “second honeymoon” more like a last-ditch, peri-menopausal “spring break.”
Once aboard ship, she affects a refined accent and (what she thinks are) “continental” manners, all the better to test her theory that “foreign” men – like David Niven’s Captain Lockert — will “take a serious interest in her.”
Meanwhile Sam, blind to Fran’s flirtations, befriends (but nothing more) another passenger: expat divorcee Edith Cortright (mid-career Mary Astor, never lovelier.)
When their paths cross again at a Paris party, Edith’s effortless and understated elegance stands in stark yet subtle contrast to Fran’s gaucherie.
Mrs. Dodsworth’s gown, while no doubt costly, is nevertheless frou frou and unflattering, especially on a woman her age. With a floppy girlish bow (the approximate size of a summer squash) shoved into her hair, Fran looks like an ice cream sundae with too many toppings. One that’s melting…
Fran’s latest would-be conquest is Arnold Iselin (“One of THE most famous living financiers!”) and again, Sam seems oblivious. But Edith, a genuine sophisticate, is not. (I apologize for the poor quality of this video, but Dodsworth clips are hard to come by):
When Sam finally realizes that Fran’s flirtations have become fully-fledged affairs, he’s stung but stoic. He still loves Fran in his way, but that’s the point:
“His way” is no longer enough. Maybe it never was. Fran wants something that stolid Sam, with all his millions, can’t give her: the impossible — that is, the chance to be young and carefree and desirable again, just one more, final time. (Watch.)
It’s easy to mock, and even despise, a woman like Fran, until you too turn “thirty-five.” (Female viewers may notice, while men may not, that mousey brunette Fran gets blinding blonder as the film goes on…)
Divorce being a more arduous and scandalous endeavour in 1936, the couple part (watch) to permit the legal machinery to grind away. When a lonely and dejected Sam miraculously runs into Edith again, in Naples…
I’ve already gone on too long, and yet, left so very much out — I’m bursting to share the movie’s soaring, heart-skipping finale.
Shamefully, Dodsworth has never received a much-needed restoration by Criterion, and there’s no word of one in the works. Amazon sells the 20-year-old, pre-Blu-ray DVD for $99, but it’s “currently unavailable” for streaming on either Prime or Netflix.
Luckily, Dodsworth remains in regular rotation on TCM, having been resurrected by Dennis Miller. Sure enough, the next airing is August 26 at 10pm ET.
Consider watching it as a kind of Mark Steyn Cruise prep!
But keep some Kleenex close, and remember:
“Love has gotta stop some place short of suicide…”
Those joining us on the Mark Steyn Cruise’s second voyage, this time to Alaska, will be pleased to know Kathy Shaidle will be returning to talk about all things classic film and much more. Alas, this one has sold out, though consider checking out our third Mark Steyn Cruise, which sails the Mediterranean next year and is already booking up.
Another way to keep in touch with Kathy and other like-minded souls is to join the Mark Steyn Club – the only club that gets you front row access to both civilizational collapse and live music, all the while having at it in the comment section.