'Dodsworth' Blessed by 'Wyler Touch'

William Wyler's deserved reputation for turning literary stage works into top-notch movies (such as "The Little Foxes" and "The Heiress") was borne out early with the 1936 "Dodsworth," an adaptation from Sidney Howard's Broadway play based on the Sinclair Lewis novel.

Though a little dated at first by conventions of the era, "Dodsworth" quickly becomes a fluid, graceful film about a married couple in conflict. Its theme is serious and mature but never solemn. And scenes are typically dappled with light humor characteristic of the fabled "Wyler touch."

What's more, the movie provides the chance to watch the great Walter Huston (father of John and grandfather of Anjelica) in one of his most celebrated and expansive roles, a repeat of the performance that more or less crowned his Broadway career.

You'll also catch a gracious Mary Astor in her pre-"Maltese Falcon" days at the height of her beauty, not to mention her charm; the former Paramount star Ruth Chatterton in a one-note "comeback" performance that demonstrates why her career couldn't be revived; Maria Ouspenskaya in a chilling cameo, and the young David Niven in one of his earliest Hollywood roles as a gay blade.

The story centers on Sam Dodsworth (Huston), a recently retired Midwestern automobile magnate. His wife, Fran (Chatterton), has persuaded him to take her to Europe so they can begin to "enjoy life." But enjoying life turns out to mean very different things to each of them.

Sam has an innocent sense of adventure, an unpretentious love of simple things. Fran, however, is anxious to be admired by the sophisticated Continental crowd. Her snobbism--merely an inversion of the social insecurities of a small town matron--compounds her real problem: a neurotically overwhelming fear of growing old.

Inevitably, Fran seeks the attention of men with polished manners and/or a title. How Sam copes with this and what ultimately happens to their marriage is the movie's emotional payoff in an ending that pulls no punches.

"Dodsworth" (1936), directed by William Wyler. 101 minutes. Not Rated.

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