Based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis and directed by William Wyler, the 1936 film Dodsworth is one of the best films ever made about a crumbling marriage.
Yes, every now and then we get lauded films on this subject (currently, Marriage Story), but I think few compare to Dodsworth.
Samuel Dodsworth (Walter Huston) is an American industrialist, living in a (fictional) Midwestern town called Zenith, about to retire after the sale of his hugely successful car company. His much younger wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton) is happy and excited that they are about to embark on a long European trip. Sam is far less enthused by the idea, but open to experiencing and learning new things.
On the crossing, they meet Captain Lockhart (David Niven), a young Englishman, and Edith Cortright (Mary Astor), an American ex-pat who lives in Italy. Lockhart immediately captivates Fran. However, when he tries to seduce her, she makes a scene and insists to Sam she did nothing to encourage him. Sam loves Fran but is not entirely blind to her foibles. He suspects she encouraged Lockhart, but agrees to forego a trip to England and go straight to Paris.
In Paris, Fran begins running around with some rather pretentious company, a Madame Penable (Odette Myrtil) and Arnold Iselin (Paul Lukas). Fran picks on Sam for being gauche and uninterested in her social climbing. Finally, she insists he go home and leave her in Europe with her friends for a while. Afraid he will lose her if he refuses, he goes back to Zenith.
He finds life at home not as gratifying as he imagined it would be and letters from Fran make him concerned that she is drifting even further from him. He has her investigated and soon learns she is likely having an affair with Iselin. He returns to Europe and ruthlessly puts an end to the affair. Fran acts contrite, but is soon embroiled in another affair with a much younger man in Vienna. Certain her lover Kurt (Gregory Gaye) will marry her, Fran insists they separate again, this time supposedly for good.
A devastated Sam begins drifting around Europe awaiting the divorce. In Naples, he runs into Edith Cortright. They begin spending time together and slowly develop a relationship. Just as they plan a trip to the Soviet Union so Sam can begin a new business venture, Fran calls and tells Sam her affair is over. Even though Edith begs him to reconsider, he agrees to return to her.
As the boat is about to depart for America, Sam realizes that Fran will never stop being the cruel, snobby, and childish creature who has captivated him for so long. He abandons her and returns to the ecstatic Edith.
It’s very rare for a film to devote itself to the lives of mature people, one who has just retired, and two women over the age of forty. It’s even rarer for a film of any era to portray the women as so complex.
Yes, Fran is a horrible person, but it’s not hard to see some things from her point of view. She declares, “It’s not fair!” when her lover’s mother (Maria Ouspenskaya) breaks up her marriage plans because she is beyond childbearing age. If Sam chose to, he could start over again with a younger woman and have a second family. She may be youth-obsessed, but she lives in a society that sees a woman’s value in her youthful beauty and ability to have children. She believes that because she gave Sam a home, raised his daughter, and helped him flourish in his career, she is owed a second chance at a more exciting life. Trying desperately to stay relevant so she won’t be put on a shelf, she willfully wrecks her marriage and her life.
Edith Cortright is a divorcee who has found a way to carve out an independent life on her own terms. She is excited and happy to join Sam on an adventure without creature comforts. However, the film does not make the error of portraying her as sickly-sweet nice, which is done way too often in these kind of love triangle stories. She puts Fran down in the most exquisite manner when Fran pretends she’s younger than Edith. She’s also not above keeping Sam from answering Fran’s phone calls so she can keep him for herself.
Sam Dodsworth is a truly iconic American character (played, ironically, by a Canadian). He is a man who has made riches but can’t stop defining himself by the work he does, so retirement is a chore for him. It’s clear that he is much more in love with Fran than she is with him, and his inability to let her go almost leads him to lose a chance at true happiness. (In the book, even though he ends up with Edith, he still can’t stop thinking about Fran entirely.)
The acting is uniformly superb. Sadly, Chatterton decided to retire from film acting soon after completing Dodsworth. Astor was going through a nasty custody case while the movie was being filmed. She literally had to go from the set to court, which was held at night to accommodate the studio. You would never be able to tell that she was going through such a terrible personal time from her performance, which hits every note perfectly.
Then there is Huston’s performance as Dodsworth, a flawless portrayal of a man who loves his wife a little too much.