Performance of the week: Walter Huston in Dodsworth (1936)

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Walter Huston received his first out of four Oscar nominations for playing Samuel Dodsworth in William Wyler’s Dodsworth. The movie also has the distinction of being Wyler’s first film for which he received his first best director nomination, as well as Samuel Goldwyn’s first best picture nominee.

I was wondering how Dodsworth was going to be like, given that it was made not too long after the production code was in place, which means that most films of this era are incredibly cheesy and “safe”. Thankfully, the film is actually very good (of course, it’s William Wyler!), but like Jezebel, it’s not one that got me terrible excited. The story is focused on a couple’s failing marriage as they go on a European trip following his retirement. They learn that they have different values and outlooks in life, such as his wife Fran’s (Ruth Chatterton) refusal to accept her age, as well as her love for the European way of life. It’s interesting this time to note how the film portrays the wife as the one who is fooling around and having affairs, instead of the husband (following by teary-eyed supportive wives invading corner of classical cinema). Overall, it is a movie that is easy to watch and handled with very minimal sentimentality and melodrama, but it does get a little bit repetitive with Fran’s various affairs. The story is ahead of its time though, given how it doesn’t throw you the usual unrealistic happy ending. The same can be said for the acting; it’s nice to see a young David Niven given an effective performance in his small part (what a great actor he was!). Ruth Chatterton is an actress who has a bad reputation because of her 2 Oscar nominated works but over here she’s really good and might even have deserved a nomination. The same can be said for Mary Astor’s supporting role. Maria Ouspenskaya’s nomination, on the other hand, is just ridiculous imo, as she only appears for 5 minutes towards the END of the film to insult Fran before disappearing again. I get that the supporting actress category has always been wonky  during this era (their idea of “supporting” = cameos), and Ouspenskaya was very respected, but I just can’t wrap my head around this recognition. And not to mention, her delivery was a bit robotic, the way she recites her lines WORD-BY-WORD (Gladys Cooper? Eh? :D).

Still, the best performance here is still by Huston, who plays the cheated husband Dodsworth. Walter Huston was such a terrific, yet nowadays rarely talked about actor. He has this naturalism in his performances that is very rare for its time, even when he is playing characters like Mr Scratch in The Devil And Daniel Webster (discussed here). His performance as Dodsworth is often regarded as one of his best (either this, or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), although I don’t quite share that enthusiasm as I prefer his Mr Scratch. To me, this role is a bit one note as he basically reacts to what’s happening around him instead of driving the story forward, and yet he creates such a sympathetic portrait of the character without making him seem pathetic. Dodsworth is basically a man who gives up his factory to go on a trip with his wife and “enjoy life for once”. Naturally, the way they see things caused them to drift apart, with his wife starting to have more and more affairs with the men she meets due to insecurities about her fading youth. To me, the naturalism and subtlety of his performance is easily its greatest strength, as he doesn’t play on the sympathy of the audience, which is certainly a risky yet effective move. Every emotion is played with such honesty that it is actually quite moving. Huston’s gradual realisation about his wife’s nonsense is excellently portrayed, and their various confrontations are well-handled. To be honest, there are times where I can see Chatterton veering into melodramatic territory (though not terribly), like the way she throws herself on the bed and covers her face, and yet Huston keeps it under control by showing proper restrain without losing the energy needed. Their chemistry is excellent as well, and you do find yourself believing that they were a couple once in love. The sadness and pain as his wife chooses to leave him is one of the best parts of his performance: can anyone forget their parting train scene, where he says “did I remember to tell you today that I adore you”? Fantastic.

My issue with the performance, however, is that it is a bit limited part but I feel like Huston approached it with so much detail and nuances that it becomes a saddening and realistic portrait of a failed marriage. You find yourself feeling for the character, be it when he decides to travel around by himself following their split, or when he meets Mrs Cortwright (Mary Astor) and learns how to love all over again. Although Dodsworth isn’t a complex character, Huston still handles his developments well, making him a character you root for as he finds his new happiness with and rejects his wife’s offer to reconcile. Their fiery breakoff at the end of the film was great, and I especially loved the way he said “love has got to stop someplace short of suicide” to her face – it was a “hell yeah!” moment, if you get what I mean. More importantly, he doesn’t make the whole thing seem like a cliché, playing the role with honesty and simplicity. I understand how some might find the performance underwhelming, but I think it’s an impressive performance by a truly great actor.   He takes an ordinary role and does wonders with it.

 

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