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USA 1936
Directed by
William Wyler
101 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars


Although at the time William Wyler’s account of a disintegrating marriage was a critical success it looks rather antique today, both as a production and for its era-typical fascination with the lives of the idle rich. 

Walter Huston plays Samuel Dodsworth, a Detroit auto manufacturer who has just sold his business and entered upon a very comfortable retirement. His wife, Fran (Ruth Chatterton), persuades him that he should enjoy his “leezur” and see the world. She persuades him to take an educational trip to Europe but barely has their boat (the Queen Mary) left American shores than she starts flirting with the lounge lizard captain (David Niven). We see that she is afraid of growing old and seeking validation of her attractiveness in admiring male eyes.

Ol’ stick-in-the mud Sam is the antithesis of what she wants out of life. When he starts pining for home after a couple of months she sends him back to their hometown (the ironically-named Zenith ) so that she can have an affair with smooth-talking socialite Arnold Iselin (Paul Lukas).  Sam, who still loves her returns to Europe to bring her back home but she can’t help herself and in an all-out attempt to escape Midwestern provincialism takes up with a penniless aristocrat, Baron Kurt Von Obersdorf (Gregory Gaye). She asks Sam for a divorce but when the Baron’s Mama forbids their marriage, Fran yet again returns to Sam who is still sympathetic until eventually her social-climbing delusions disgust him and he dumps her for the genuine article, an understanding divorcée (Mary Astor) living in the South of Italy.

Based on a 1929 novel  of the same name by Sinclair Lewis and written for the screen by Sidney Howard from his 1934 stage adaptation the film preserves a stagey quality both in Wyler’s mise-en-scène (the film was shot entirely on sound stages) and Howard’s rapid back-and-forth dialogue. Despite this one can understand why the film was a success as it tackled in an adult way (or at least as much as the Production Code would allow) the matter of divorce which was far less common then than it is now.

Whilst the vast difference in manners and mores between then and now lessens the relevance of Wyler’s film a more significant problem is in drawing the character of Fran. Initially she appears to be a loving wife but gradually her superficial and calculating nature emerges, the conflict between the two impulses never convincingly established. Wyler apparently was aware of the problem and tried to get a more subtle performance out of Chatterton but evidently to no avail with the latter wanting her character to be an out-and-out villain.

In the final analysis Fran, if not the villain, is virtually demonized as the hysteria-prone architect of her own downfall in contrast to Sam who is rewarded for his steadfastness and dedication to the marital bond with Astor's idealized companionship.

If made today the film would have a very different take on Sam’s love of home and hearth (his surname tells it all) and Fran’s desire to experience life to the full. Indeed, it would bear her name not his.




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