Friday, August 01, 2008

Dodsworth


William Wyler's 1936 drama about the dissolution of a wealthy American couple's marriage is one of his best efforts, may be only slightly below The Letter, Best Years of Our Lives or The Heiress (of the ones that I have seen). It is refreshingly mature and unsentimental in tackling a host of subjects and themes - American provincial life, European vs American culture, snobbery, gender, aging etc.

Walter Huston plays the title character, an auto mogul, who after selling his business, decides to go on a European tour with his wife Fran, played by Ruth Chatterston (who is very impressive in the role). In Europe they both realize that they want different things from life, though in their own ways they both are uncomfortable with the onset of old age. Fran gets herself involved with a bunch of rich and faded aristocrat type men but all her affairs come to nothing. Many of these scenes very subtly criticise European mores, it portrays these people as if they were still just pretending to believe in Old Europe. Fran's final lover is an Austrian aristocrat but has actually lost all his wealth and on top of that he is a hopeless mama's boy!

She also soon gets impatient with her husband's provincial and stubbornly "American" way of life, which as the film presents it, is much more "authentic" and devoid of hypocrisy. It doesn't however trumpet the triumphalism of American culture or even get self-righteous about it. It would have been tempting to turn the wife into a villain but Wyler manages to avoid that. He shows that their marriage, though outwardly successful, has been dull and lifeless all along, specially for Fran who has spent her entire life living as a model provincial wife. There is also a subplot involving Mary Astor who plays a seemingly happy widow with whom Dodsworth tries to imagine a life of meaning and adventure.

Huston deservedly got an Oscar nomination for the role. He is really pitch-perfect for the part and so is Ruth Chatterston in the role of the wife. We can see how subtly they are transformed from self-confident, happy, even smugly satisfied to dejected, anxious and fearful old couple. One of the better romantic dramas of classic hollywood.

3 comments:

puccinio said...

''Dodsworth'' is among Wyler's best and one of Walter Huston's greatest performances. I haven't seen it in years. It's a kind of mature cinema that people don't expect from Hollywood(Past and Present) it's a lot like some of Ophuls' films.

Wyler was a master of a kind of continental(Lubitsch inspired) dramas of opposing viewpoints, cultures and barriers. Yet he isn't really an auteur in that he needs certain material to bring the best out in him rather than transform the material into a platform for his own personality. Which goes to show that you don't need to be an auteur to be a great director.

His other great films include ''The Little Foxes'', ''Dead End'', ''The Collector'', ''Roman Holiday'' and ''Carrie''. His ''Wuthering Heights'' is ruined by Samuel Goldwyn's toothless interference as producer and the tragic miscast of Merle Oberon as Cathy but Olivier is great as Heathcliff and Gregg Toland's DP is stunning and in moments it captures some of Bronte's spirit amid all the Hollywood kitsch.

Wyler's films are interesting in that he's one of the few American directors that really confronted class issues. That is he looked at American society as a society containing class barriers instead of the long-cherished belief that America's society is classless.

Alok said...

I agree about his political acuity, I was specially surprised by The Best Years of Our Lives when I saw it early last year. I always thought it would be sentimental, patriotic picture full of nostalgia and warm sentiment. Instead it takes a very sharp and critical look at American society and institutions, which actually leaves you feeling very sad. It is still a little too schematic and too self-serious and over-earnest but nobody can deny that it is a film with a heart. I was actually surprised to learn that Wyler was not born in America which I came to know only recently, though he did come to US quite early in his career.

That comparison with Lubitsch is interesting. I hadn't thought about that. Lubitsch is said to have brought a "continental" view of gender relations into hollywood - more frank, open and individualistic and less fixated on social roles. Dodsworth actually quite clearly shows the contrasts but seems to side a little with the american view - emotional restraint, common decency, pragmatism, indifference to social status. This kind of cultural essentialism is of course always debatable but from the perspective of general perception this does seem to be a valid contrast.

I also agree with what you say about him not being an "auteur" - it is a useful definition I think. Stylistically he generally prefers long takes and long shots... there are very few close-ups, the background is always in focus, all this give his films a realism which was though may not be in the league of Welles or Ford was still ahead of its time. Bazin admired some of his films greatly too.

puccinio said...

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Bazin admired some of his films greatly too.
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Until ''Ben-Hur''. After that film when asked about Wyler, he'd always begin by saying, "the Wyler I speak of is the one that long preceded Ben-Hur." Wyler's own cheeky response to the film, "It takes a Jew to tell a story this good." It's a very bad film but I very much like it as a guilty pleasure.

Wyler's greatness was what David Lean described as "solid shots". There's rarely a wasted shot, wrong camera placement in his films.

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Instead it takes a very sharp and critical look at American society and institutions, which actually leaves you feeling very sad.
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It's about the end of an America that went with the war. The price America had to pay to win the war I guess. In the long run it meant as great a victory as the one at the end of ''Seven Samurai''. Many films of the 40's touched on that. Even ''It's A Wonderful Life!''. Another one is Raoul Walsh's ''The Man I Love''. Then there's the bleakest of all MGM musicals, ''It's Always Fair Weather'' which deals with a similar story.

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I was actually surprised to learn that Wyler was not born in America which I came to know only recently, though he did come to US quite early in his career.
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He came to America as a young man. Wyler could speak fluent German as a result. This allowed him to befriend many emigres like Lubitsch and Wilder. Wyler and Wilder(they were often confused for the other) upon Lubitsch's funeral had a famous exchange. Wilder said, "No more Lubitsch."
Wyler said, "Even worse, no more Lubitsch films."

Wyler's ethnicity was only brought up once. In a famous DGA meeting of the 40's where Cecil B. DeMille, showman turned McCarthyite demagogue insisted on a loyalty oath among all DGA members. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, then president was against it and then DeMille made a point about the many "foreign" directors and apparently affected an accent to talk about "Vyler and Tzinnemann and Vilder." And this after Wilder gave him a benevolent cameo in ''Sunset Blvd."? Thankfully John Ford put CBDeMille in his place.

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Lubitsch is said to have brought a "continental" view of gender relations into hollywood - more frank, open and individualistic and less fixated on social roles.
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Ernst Lubitsch's view was almost anarchic. He believed that people made too much a big deal about marriage, about politics and about money. All that mattered to him was for human beings to have fun. But at the same time Lubitsch's view was also serious. He was serious but also funny. His ''The Merry Widow'' is a fairy tale and lightweight fluff by definition but it's also about how much chance true love has to stay uncorrupted by society.

Wyler was more sober than Lubitsch and more realistic in his characterization. Look up Lubitsch's ''Design for Living''.

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I also agree with what you say about him not being an "auteur" - it is a useful definition I think.
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Well nowadays any director who directs a halfway interesting scene(leave alone film) is called an "auteur". That was a category that was intended to be a very rarefied club. Most talented directors need the help of gifted collaborators or the right material to really unlock their talents because most of them don't have much to say despite technical abilities. I'm not saying Wyler doesn't but it's a general statement.

Auteurs have a distinct vision that ultimately is superimposed over the material, the collaborators and even budget considerations. Here's where you have Ford, Hitchcock, Welles, Renoir. Or in modern times, Tsai-Ming Liang, Edward Yang and others.