Art Reflects Life in Dodsworth

Art Reflects Life in Dodsworth
Mr. and Mrs. Dodsworth are a happily married couple who have made the necessary sacrifices for each other in their 20 years of marriage. Now, Sam Dodsworth is in his fifties and it’s time to sell his beloved Dodsworth Motors so he and his wife Fran can travel the world as planned.

It’s time to enjoy living instead of making a living, and although Sam will miss his work, he doesn’t mind the sacrifice because he knows it will make Fran happy. Sam embraces this new phase of his life and is especially looking forward to rekindling romance with his wife.

As he bids his employees goodbye, the tune Auld Lang Syne gently plays underneath signifying it is time to say goodbye to the old life and welcome the new.

Fran Dodsworth is excited to finally leave the small, nowhere town of Zenith so she can start living like the upper-class sophisticate she has always envisioned herself to be. She has spent the last 20 years as a dutiful wife and mother, feigning interest in the local ladies’ clubs and dull afternoon teas. Her dream to live a life of leisure among the affluent has finally come to pass with Sam’s retirement.

Once shipboard, a younger man (David Niven) attempts to seduce Fran, and she begins to feel the rush of youth again. Although Fran refuses to follow through with this affair, fears of aging are awakened in her which motivate her to make some painful, life-changing choices regarding her marriage.

In several instances, director William Wyler weaves in subtle but poinient additions, adding breathtaking layers to the characters and their story.

Watch for the scene where Fran’s newest flirtation helps her set fire to a letter from Sam demanding she return to him immediately. As it burns, it floats away in the breeze signifying that Fran is letting go of her old life and committing to the new one.

Walter Huston plays Sam Dodsworth as an everyman – often folksy, sometimes old fashioned, and always honorable. He’s a likable man who is content with his life and the choices he has made. He recognizes his wife’s character flaws, but loves her anyway. Even as she begins to grow in a different direction, he believes he knows her well enough that life will eventually return to normal.

Ruth Chatterton, in one of her best performances, plays Fran as a woman conflicted. Chatterton, herself, was dealing with many of the same issues that Fran Dodsworth was experiencing. She too was in her forties and she too was desperately clinging to maintain her youth.

Mary Astor plays the small but critical role of Edith Cortright, a polished, kind, but world-weary ex-patriot living in Italy. She possesses all of the qualities that Fran lacks. She is secure with the person she has become, and accepts her own failures as life-lessons through which she has become stronger.

With the few scenes she is in, it is impossible to envision anyone else but Astor developing such a fully rounded character in a relatively short amount of screen time.

Her character is divorced and it is implied due to infidelity. At the time of filming, Astor was actively fighting for custody of her only daughter in a very public divorce from her husband Dr. Franklyn Thorpe under similar circumstances.

Astor stated that if it had not been for the strength she found in the character of Edith Cortright, she would not have made it through the court proceedings. One might also conclude that Edith Cortright benefited from the strength of Mary Astor.

One of the intriguing things about this film is that the Dodsworths are not bad people; they are simply vulnerable to their feelings and decidedly human.

Dodsworth was released in 1936, but the story is timeless and if anything, it is a study in how even the best relationships can crumble when making sacrifices for each other is no longer a worthy option.

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