New Beginnings: Lessons from Dodsworth (1936)

Dodsworth (1936) Directed by William Wyler Shown from left: Walter Huston (as Sam Dodsworth), Ruth Chatterton (as Fran Dodsworth)

At the end of every year I, like many people, take stock of the events that took place throughout the previous months. I reassess the bad moments, trying to find ways that I could’ve avoided them or handled them differently. I also try to reflect on all of the good moments, no matter how small. Although the difference between December 31st and January 1st is a mere 24 hours, there’s something exciting about starting with a clean slate. Of course, I feel compelled to make a bunch of resolutions that I’ll blow within a week, but it feels good to set them nonetheless. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to lower my expectations and set more realistic goals, attempt to live in the moment and try to appreciate every single day that I’m alive. I also look forward to sharing each day with my loved ones, as they are the source of my true happiness.

William Wyler’s Dodsworth (1936), currently streaming on FilmStruck, is the perfect film to pair with the beginning of a new year. The movie opens with an established married couple, Samuel and Fran Dodsworth (Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton) preparing for the transition from their working, child-rearing years, into retirement and old age. After selling his automotive company Sam enthusiastically embraces the next stage of his life; his plans include spending time traveling the world with his wife (at her insistence), starting new hobbies and dabbling in a possible second career. Sam faces this next chapter with boyish enthusiasm that many people find endearing, save for Fran. While on their voyage to England on the Queen Mary, Fran scolds Sam for being too excited, fearful that they will be pegged as small town hicks. Fran, on the other hand, is absolutely terrified of growing old. She rejects anything that might give away her true age to the many new acquaintances made during their travels. Fran is obsessed with becoming immersed into European life, perfectly content with leaving behind her Midwestern home, close friends and family. She also wants to spend much more time with her new friends than with Sam, and possibly have a romantic fling or two. Sam is fully aware that Fran is unhappy and wants a new adventure, and he is more than willing to give her the space she needs in order to find herself and a new perspective on life. After twenty years of marriage, Sam is confident that Fran will eventually come back to him and the life they have built together. After all he is happy to go through the next exciting stage, and he wants to share it with the love of his life. Unbeknownst to Sam, Fran has no intention of ever going back to America or anything resembling the life she had with him. This becomes painfully evident when Sam tells Fran the good news that their newly married daughter Emily is expecting a child. At first, Fran lights up in excitement, but that happiness quickly fades once Sam points out that they will be grandparents.

DODSWORTH, Kathryn Marlowe, Walter Huston, director William Wyler, cinematographer Rudolph Mate on set, 1936

Fran’s resistance to growing old, coupled with her constant attempts to distance herself from her past life backfire spectacularly. Her dyed hair, revealing evening gowns, flippant attitude and phony continental-sounding accent show her desperation. Many of the acquaintances she makes in Europe easily see through her shallow and vapid personality. One of these acquaintances is the American expatriate Edith Cortright (Mary Astor), a woman roughly the same age who is all the things Fran hopes to become but never will. One could argue that the unfair double standard often applied toward women is ultimately to blame for Fran’s stuffy attitude and pathetic overcompensation, but Edith’s positive attitude toward growing old proves otherwise. That cheery, carefree outlook is exactly what Sam has long desired but can’t share with Fran. Even at middle age and facing a major upheaval in his personal life, Sam faces the changes eagerly and with great optimism.

DODSWORTH, Walter Huston, Mary Astor, 1936

Beyond being a terrific film with brilliant performances from Huston, Chatterton, Astor and a baby David Niven, Dodsworth is a lesson in accepting the passage of time, aging gracefully and being true to yourself and your innermost desires. Sometimes the life you thought you were meant to lead isn’t the right one after all. It takes courage and a positive outlook to face the unknown, to take a risk, to get a fresh start. Although many of us won’t experience such drastic changes, there’s still a lot to learn from Sam and Edith’s view on life. Here’s to a year of embracing (and adapting to) whatever comes our way.

This piece was originally published at StreamLine, the official blog of FilmStruck on December 31, 2016 and can be found archived here

About Jill Blake 65 Articles
Jill Blake is a writer and researcher based in Atlanta, GA. She is the co-editor of The Retro Set and the co-host of the podcast DWT: Drinking While Talking. Jill has written for various outlets including Indicator, Netflix Film, Turner Classic Movies, and FilmStruck. She is currently writing a book on stage and screen actors Fredric March and Florence Eldridge.

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