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Sam Goldwyn, the most successful independent producer of his time, had a penchant for adapting great literary works to the screen (many of them directed by William Wyler) whether they were based on novels (Emile Zola's Nana (1934), Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, 1939) or plays (Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes (1941), Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, 1959). In 1936 he had one of his greatest successes, and scored a literary double whammy, by acquiring the film rights to Sidney Howard's play Dodsworth, based on the acclaimed novel by Sinclair Lewis. With this film and two others of the period, Come and Get It (1936), in production at the same time as Dodsworth, and Cynara (1932), Goldwyn pushed the limits of what was considered acceptable screen fare at the time, dealing as they did with marital infidelities and the desire for a last romantic fling as old age approaches.
The story follows the break-up of the marriage of a respectable middle-class Midwestern couple, Sam and Fran Dodsworth. Financially well off and their children grown, the wife seeks a little adventure in middle age and talks her husband into an extended trip to Europe. Flighty and snobbish, Fran begins to consider her husband a stuffed shirt and soon takes up with a Continental Lothario. Sam tries desperately to salvage his marriage but the damage is done and he eventually begins a new life with another woman, Edith (Mary Astor).
The film, one of the most mature and adult dramas of the period, was among the top 20 box office hits of the year and included in the New York Times Ten Best list. Richard Day's art direction won an Academy Awardreg; and nominations went to the picture, lead actor Walter Huston (recreating his 1934 stage role and resuscitating his ailing film career), supporting actress Maria Ouspenskaya, director William Wyler, Sidney Howard's screenplay and Oscar Lagerstrom's sound recording. Huston won the New York Film Critics Circle's Best Actor Award. In 1990, the film was chosen to be one of the motion pictures preserved on the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.
Huston, Ouspenskaya and Harlan Briggs were retained from the Broadway cast. Although Fay Bainter won praise for her stage work as Fran and had already established herself in films, Goldwyn chose to cast Ruth Chatterton in the role. A Broadway star by 1914 and a popular leading lady in films of the late 1920s and early '30s, Chatterton's career was waning by the time she made Dodsworth. But that didn't diminish some reportedly diva-like behavior during this production, and she constantly bucked Wyler's interpretation. "She played Fran like a heavy and we had momentous fights every day," Wyler later said. The director saw no reason why Fran should be totally unsympathetic just to make audiences relate more to her husband's plight. "You could make a case for Fran Dodsworth," he said, "a woman who for twenty-five years has been a good wife, taken care of her husband while he got rich, brought up their children and everything. Now he's retiring and she wants a fling; she wants to live." (From Goldwyn by A. Scott Berg).
Chatterton wasn't the only one Wyler had difficulties with during production. Although the two worked together on nine films between 1935 and 1946, Wyler and Goldwyn were often at odds despite Goldwyn's policy of rarely interfering with the talent he employed. When the producer came onto the set of Dodsworth one day, Wyler immediately shut down production, refusing to continue until Goldwyn left. From that point, the autocratic director put it into his contract that Goldwyn was never to be present during shooting. Forever afterwards, Goldwyn had mixed feelings about Dodsworth. Once he stated, "I lost my goddamn shirt. I'm not saying it wasn't a fine picture. It was a great picture, but nobody wanted to see it. In droves." Yet he was also known to say just the opposite and was once quoted as saying Dodsworth "was one of the biggest hits I ever had. It made a fortune!"
Wyler, for his part, was a known perfectionist in his approach to filming. One cast member recalled "one entire afternoon spent shooting a scene of a crumpled letter being blown gently along the length of a terrace. He wanted it to go slowly for a way, then stop, and then flutter along a little further." (From A Talent For Trouble by Jan Herman). Luckily, he had Rudolph Mate as his cinematographer and Dodsworth is full of stunning, deep focus compositions such as the scene where Sam and Edith accidentally meet in Naples at an American Express office.
Despite the prestigious casting of Huston and Chatterton, the cast member who garnered the most attention was Mary Astor, not for her work in the picture but for her private life. Ironically playing the "other woman," Astor was embroiled in a divorce and custody battle that erupted into one of Hollywood's biggest scandals. During the court case, her husband leaked portions of her diary to the press, in which Astor graphically described her affair with playwright and columnist George S. Kaufman. The scandal got so intense, Astor was forced to sleep in her dressing room at the studio to avoid reporters stationed at her house. "I know this is going to sound a little strange, but the person I clung to as a friend through all this was the character I was playing," Astor wrote in her autobiography. The trial ended in a split custody decision, and Astor's career miraculously survived. In fact, many audiences broke into applause over Astor's performance in Dodsworth, particularly during the emotional finale when Edith opens her arms ecstatically to welcome Sam home.
Remakes have occasionally been announced but never completed. Among the aborted attempts were a 1977 version that was to have starred Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor and a 1982 TV version that Gregory Peck planned to star in and produce.
Director: William Wyler
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn
Screenplay: Sidney Howard, based on his play and the novel by Sinclair Lewis
Cinematography: Rudolph Mate
Editing: Daniel Mandell
Art Direction: Richard Day
Cast: Walter Huston (Sam Dodsworth), Ruth Chatterton (Fran Dodsworth), Mary Astor (Edith Cortright), Paul Lukas (Arnold Iselin), David Niven (Capt. Lockert).
BW-101m. Closed captioning.