Dodsworth is such a tone deaf movie. Even for the Depression era, it’s weird to have a domestic fantasy about wealthy people being tempted to cheat on each other. Seriously, over the next 101 minutes you’re going to watch two 50s/early 60s rich people debate whether or not they should get separated so they can sex up others. David Niven has a superb early role as one of Mrs. Dodsworth’s would-be boners.
What’s really odd is how Sam and Fran Dodsworth are positioned. Sam is a rags to riches automobile mogul, while Fran is a status grabbing biddy. The old husband doesn’t believe he is happy from his wealth, meanwhile Fran is all about that money. So, they pal around Europe and points in-between to become inspired again. Mind you that at the same time, America was in Year 7 of the Depression.
The film restoration is stunning for a movie that became dated by the start of the 1940s. It’s not a prestige picture or fantasy. Dodsworth wants audiences to sympathize with people who have never been more non-relatable. It’s a class based romantic conundrum movie in a time where people were surrendering their children to the state. Basically, if you thought Hollywood was clueless now, rest assured…they’ve always been out of touch.
Many contemporaries of Wyler at the time called it a naturalistic romance picture. When compared to Andy Hardy and flapper girls, I guess it was subdued and natural. However, that doesn’t make the material work in historical or present day context. I get that Walter Huston gave one of his best performances, plus the art direction was sublime. That still doesn’t make sense of why Samuel Goldwyn released this movie that kind of global audience.
Love has to stop somewhere short of suicide is the famous quote from the film. But, it takes 90% of the movie to arrive before we get to that point. Before that, it’s a misery affair of watching older people fall apart as everyone is left to spectate. That isn’t fun or entertaining. Especially, when nobody learns anything until all options are taken off the table.
Modern film students will go out of their way to paintbrush Fran as being a sexist caricature. I’m not sure if that’s fair. Status can warp a lot of people’s minds, especially a woman in the first half of the 20th century with limited options. She likes their life and is willing to do whatever it takes to stay there. So, she tries to get married off to someone who isn’t flaking like Sam.
While Sam isn’t a bad guy, his decision to shirk off into retirement has a wide impact. This kind of movie has been shown multiple times, but history makes it into something quite different. Fran can be as sympathetic and a gold digger. Sam can be seen as an early rejection of the American work ethic. All the while, film-goers were lucky to eat every day while sitting in a rustic theater watching this film.
Time has a way of changing everything. Luckily, kind benefactors were able to save this film from rotting away in the dustbin. While the Blu-ray doesn’t have any special features, the X-Factor here is that lovely restoration.
The Blu-ray comes with a George Lucas Family Foundation funded restoration. Due to its historical impact on film in the 1930s, I was required to watch this on an antiquated laserdisc back in the early 00s. What Warner Archive has managed to do is create a perfect format to watch this 2019 restoration based off the AMPAS archival print. Releases like this are why Blu-ray matters.