Adapted from Sinclair Lewis’ satirical novel by playwright Sidney Howard (“Gone With the Wind”) and directed by three-time Oscar winner William Wyler (“Mrs. Miniver,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Ben-Hur”),” Dodsworth” is one of the forgotten treasures of American film. Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton star as Sam Dodsworth and his wife Fran, two middle-aged Americans vacationing in Europe. Sam, a recently retired auto parts manufacturer, is the man he’s always been, but Fran is in the midst of a mid-life crisis and is terrified of growing old. As old world gigolos start following her around, her capacity for self-deception becomes boundless and Sam drifts into the orbit of Mrs. Cortwright (a luminous Mary Astor), an American ex-patriot living in Italy.
Chatterton’s performance is particularly gripping as Fran is foolish, vain, and delusional. The actress was 43 when she took on the role and her film career was almost finished, but she made of the self-destructive pseudo-sophisticate the kind of woman whose sad, lonely future is pitiable but her own fault just the same.
Astor, who won the Supporting Actress Oscar for “The Great Lie” in 1942, is probably best remembered for her role as the duplicitous, creepy Bridget O’Shaughnessy in “The Maltese Falcon,” but if Bridget exists in a middle-earth between camp over-acting and a total contempt for the intelligence of Bogart’s Sam Spade, Edith Cortright is the nearly perfect woman for a man like Sam Dodsworth. She says she’s living in Italy because it’s less expensive than living in the states, and yet she appears to have enough money to cross the Atlantic in style whenever she wants to. There seems to be something sad in her background, and yet she’s getting over it. Cortright/Astor’s face in the film’s last shot is radiant and nearly as memorable as Chaplin’s at the conclusion of “City Lights.”
When you see enough of Walter Huston’s movies—“The Virginian,” “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy”—you’ll lament again over the way Hollywood takes its great character actors for granted. He won the National Board of Review’s Best Actor award for “Dodsworth,” copped the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and supplied a nifty in-joke, uncredited cameo to “The Maltese Falcon.” In this picture, he brings an underplayed seriousness and melancholy to Sam Dodsworth, matching Chatterton’s edgy tension with a quiet understanding that is heartbreaking.
When the 70-year old “Dodsworth” was showcased at the Telluride Film Festival in 2006, the festival program planners called it “a redemptive tale of American self-revulsion and the quest for eternal youth,” and said of it that it is “a high point of Wyler’s fruitful, 20-year-long partnership with producer Samuel Goldwyn. “Dodsworth” proves that sharp-witted, literate films never go out of style.”