“But what it boils down to, well, I’ve been doing things myself for a long time now. I thought I’d give things a chance to do something to me.”
-Walter Huston in Dodsworth (1936)
There is a scene at the beginning of Dodsworth that is the perfect expression of Samuel Dodsworth’s character. Dodsworth and his wife are on an ocean liner bound for Europe. While speaking with the captain, Dodsworth is told that from their current location they can see Bishop’s Light, a signal that indicates their proximity to Britain. Dodsworth, beside himself with excitement, runs to the deck to see the light. When it flashes across the ocean, he rushes inside to tell his wife. She shakes it off, not realizing the importance of the light. To Dodsworth, it is a symbol of a new life, of adventure, of romantic idealism. She, of course, sees only a light. Therein lies the film’s conflict.
Dodsworth is the story of a marriage, of a man and a woman realizing that at some point, without their knowledge, their paths diverged. The film opens with Samuel Dodsworth, played by Walter Huston, having just sold his company, Dodsworth Motors. We see him gazing out the window at the company he built over the span of twenty years. From these introductory moments, it is clear that he is a man who feels deeply, one who is not flippant with any decision or any emotion. He is a man in grief. All of this has been precipitated by his wife, Fran. Having traveled throughout Europe during her youth, she craves a return journey. To Fran, Europe is synonymous with the last moments of pure, youthful, uncomplicated joy in her life. She has persuaded him to go to Europe to chase this feeling of youthful bliss. Dodsworth recuperates from his pain by throwing himself enthusiastically into all Europe has to offer. He is beautifully impulsive in his desire to see the sites and to learn all that he can. These experiences give him sustenance. As they travel throughout Europe, they are faced with the realization that Fran’s motivation in returning to Europe, her need to chase frivolity and seduction, is an attempt to outrun her fears about age and mortality. This tears Fran and Samuel apart. She finds his joyful idealism increasingly nauseating. He, in turn, is annoyed with her excessive materialism and pretensions. He wants to see it all, to immerse himself in all the experiences available to him. This causes the final rift between them.
The character of Samuel Dodsworth resides in the pantheon of idealistic, romantic protagonists who are at odds with society. He sits alongside characters like Larry Darrell from The Razor’s Edge (1946) or Mac in Local Hero (1983). These are men who seek out a life that is not dictated by societal mores. They are men who, thrown head-long into conflicts that alter their values, are forced to search for meaning in the beauty around them. They are men who were not aware that they could build a life on more than money and prestige. When they begin to sense a life outside of these constraints, they grasp for it wildly, ultimately finding true contentment. Dodsworth, without his auto company, is free to explore the world and everything that it evokes for him. He is able to slow down in order to find excitement and joy in the mundane. He throws himself into this education without another thought, finding wonder, pleasure, and, by extension, himself. It is the story of the disintegration of a marriage, but also of the growing identity of a man who, until now, had thought that his life and identity were tied up solely in productivity and monetary gain. It is a reminder that in a largely aspirational, acquisitive world, there is still joy to be found in small things.
For this film, Huston reprised his role from the stage, as is clear from his intimate knowledge and understanding of the character. He is at once grave and cheerful, idealistic and practical. He is a man searching for answers to questions he had previously ignored. He is inquisitive and full of joy. He is rendered beautifully by Huston, who lends him both gravitas and relatability. We are drawn to him, we want him to find peace and contentment. This is a film full of what could only be described as moments of silent, unadorned beauty, moments that are not overly sentimental or saccharine, but vital and urgent. Dodsworth seems to be telling us that within a world as complicated and overwhelming as this one can be, the simple kindnesses of idealism can offer you not only solace, but inspiration for how to live the rest of your life. As we watch Dodsworth on his journey, we are inevitably drawn back to that early scene on the deck of the boat. We hope that Dodsworth is always able to keep that sense of unbridled joy and optimism within him, we hope that he is never forced to conform to his wife or society’s expectations, to the fatal pairing of happiness and monetary success. We hope that he is able to see Bishop’s Light in everything.