Monday, December 19, 2011

At the (old) movies: 'Dodsworth'

Notes from another get-together of the local cinephile society…..

I first saw “Dodsworth” on cable TV some years ago.

I’d known nothing about it and hadn’t even read the Sinclair Lewis novel on which it was based. (Or any Sinclair Lewis novel, for that matter.)

But I knew that the 1936 film was directed by William Wyler and starred Walter Huston, so I suspected it might be worth watching.

Yet as I began watching it, I had a pretty good idea of where the plot was going.

It begins with Sam Dodsworth, a pioneer in the auto industry, selling his company and retiring – and planning to take a trip to Europe with his wife, who, unlike him, spent time overseas when she was younger.

Well, of course, I knew what was coming – a ham-handed satire in which Dodsworth, the American ignoramus, was going to make a fool of himself overseas and become an early embodiment of the Ugly American, or at least the Homely American.

So I sat back to watch this scenario play itself out.

But it never did.

Because I was wrong.

And when “The End” appeared on the screen and the picture faded to black, I was never so happy to be so wrong – once I was able to pick myself up off the floor.

If you’ve never seen the movie, I’m not going to discuss exactly how wrong I was because you should have the pleasure of seeing it for yourself.

But let’s just say that for its time, the movie is remarkably adult.

And by “adult” I don’t mean nudity or four-letter words.

I mean the kind of movie in which people behave and talk the way real people do.

So many of the older movie dramas, as wonderful as they are, had to make ridiculous compromises with the censors if they were to be released at all, and film buffs such as myself are used to just looking the other way.

But with “Dodsworth,” there’s no place to look but at the screen, at the performances: Huston, Ruth Chatterton as his wife, Mary Astor as a divorcee living overseas, and even David Niven, who was just starting out but who, even in a relatively small role, shows that he already deserves a place at the grown-ups’ table.

Huston, of course, is the standout – he’d played the role in the Broadway adaptation. He’s so good, you wish you could meet the guy and thank him afterward. (I rarely feel that way about performers; the only modern equivalent I can think of offhand is the late Jerry Orbach.)

But even though the whole film is wonderful, it’s the ending that knocked me out. It’s not the sort of ending you’d usually see in this kind of drama. Not that there’s anything censorable about it (although heaven knows the censors might have found some silly reason to object to it), but … well … without giving anything away, it’s the kind of ending that might well happen in real life as opposed to the way people usually behave in “domestic dramas.”

Then again, calling “Dodsworth” a domestic drama is like calling “Hamlet” a mere whodunit. (And as a card-carrying member of Mystery Writers of America, I feel obliged to add that there’s nothing wrong with that.)

It was obvious that many in the cinephile society’s audience had never seen the film, and it was great to see them paying such close attention to it. And afterward, after the lights came on, the audience members, who on other occasions usually get right up, put their coats on and leave, just sat in silence, almost an eerie silence, for a minute or two.

The president of the cinephile society later told me that some found the picture almost too intense and draining, comparing it to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

I wouldn’t go that far; whenever I see "Dodsworth" I’m exhilarated, not enervated, by the total effect: the performances, the settings and camera work, and, perhaps most important, the writing.

Matter of fact, “Dodsworth” contains one of my favorite all-time lines of dialogue, spoken by Huston to Spring Byington, who is excellent as a family friend.

I believe the line is:

“That the way they write sevens in Europe.”

I know, I know – you’re scratching your head, wondering why this is such a great line.

Thing is, you have to hear it in context.

Which means you have to actually see the movie.

Which is something I hope you’ll want to do now.

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