Saturday, March 07, 2009

Actress Profiles: Ruth Chatterton in Dodsworth (1936)

Dodsworth opens to ambitious, rectilinear art direction and luscious cinematography. It's a prelude to the European glamour that will inevitably follow, Samuel Dodsworth's sale of his own motor company in favour of retirement and a journey to Europe with his beloved missus the end of the line for the working man. His friend picks up on this in the film's opening minutes, more than hinting that Mrs. Dodsworth, Ruth Chatterton's Fran, is leading this dynamic businessman into a life of smoke and mirrors. It's an accusation that we deem as rather harsh in the beginning. After all, this woman has (presumably) stood by him since marriage, looked after his home, raised his kids, and so isn't she entitled to some me-time with her husband? As it turns out Dodsworth's friend isn't too far away, and one of the many effective realities of Ruth Chatterton's enthralling performance is that her betrayal is such an instinctively long-lasting one, and yet by the time it comes seems completely unpreventable. This film works wonders in allowing us to see husband and wife both for what they are, despite aligning us very much with the male party.

Chatterton, like all thirties leading ladies, has immeasurable beauty, and her character is refreshing in the sense that she knows and is able to exploit this beauty instead of it being relayed to her by a handsome knight in shining armour. Not that she doesn't need affection, in fact she craves it, but more through the fear of an unknown future than body hangups. She's rather like Scarlett O'Hara, navigating the male population of Seven Oaks for ninety minutes, assuredly desired but never wanting to think about tomorrow. But while O'Hara was young and understandably carefree there is an err of desperation to Fran's self-preservation and fascination with her own lofty image. An antidote to Huston's direct, honest and upfront hero the film is keen to place her at its main focus point, and it's a brave move of Chatterton to make Fran so unsympathetic. Her dismissive gaze renders spouse Samuel (and us) as powerless voyeurs to her vanity, and as she revels in the newfound power and freedom afforded through ascension from housewife to playgirl, Chatterton and Dodsworth become especially valuable, offering up different perceptions about the meaning of marriage, and how those vows concerning love, honour, and forsaking all others can become diminished or moulded with time.

Fran is not a particularly likeable character but shares the fate of fallen women like Stanwyck, Signoret, Taylor et al. that fished a line out to AMPAS and duly received a chomping response, which in turn makes it all the more surprising that she was passed over for other Actresses, most unfathomably Luise Rainer's bizarre turn as a jilted performer whose repertoire features a song about bumblebees nonetheless. It's also strange that Dodsworth was able to grab other nominations for picture, director William Wyler, actor Walter Huston, and supporting actress (Maria Ouspenskaya for a three-minute scene with Chatterton), but not for its leading lady. Alas, you can't win them all. Ruth Chatterton is more than worthy of her fancy flick, emanating the insidious desires of Fran without drawing attention to them, and believably, palpably wrestling with time.


Dave said...

I wish I could make a more interesting comment, but: how did you see this?!

Cal said...

I know. I too thought that this film was out of reach, but my friend pointed me in the direction of some youtube channels and it popped up here:

It's really good quality. Especially if you click the HQ option, which makes all the difference. There's some other channels actually with Dangerous, A Free Soul and other thirties nominees that I haven't seen online or on TCM. Here are a couple:-

When you watch it let me know your thoughts! :-)

RC said...

Wow...impressed your watched this. I really feel like my 1930 film viewing is so limited. It's been on my agenda for this year...but I haven't kicked it into action yet.

Dave said...

Ah, thanks for those. I've actually watched a couple of things on there before- if you haven't seen The More the Merrier you must. And will certainly let you know what I think whenever I get around to it... which will probably be longer than I'd like.