Sunday, October 01, 2006

1936: The Overlooked -- MARY ASTOR in “DODSWORTH”


Mary Astor was a successful leading lady in silent films, starring opposite Barrymore, Fairbanks and other prominent names. She made the transition to sound with distinction, although Astor herself preferred supporting status to stardom. And it was as a superb supporting player that she enjoyed a long, distinguished career. Her work in “Dodsworth” is not just accomplished. It’s rich and luminous. The picture was a big hit. And the quality of her performance was recognized at the time. So Astor’s failure to land an Oscar nomination for the role is a puzzler. Unless, maybe it’s because she was involved at the time in a highly publicized scandal and was momentarily considered too hot to handle by the guardians of Hollywood’s morality. No matter. To this day, first-time viewers of “Dodsworth” are invariably bowled over by Astor’s work in it. The film’s maintained its sterling reputation for seventy years now. And certainly Mary Astor’s contribution is one of the reasons why.


Sam and Fran Dodsworth (Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton) are at a crossroads in their lives. He’s an affluent Midwestern businessman. She’s a restless, aging Bovary who’s talked him into early retirement so they can chase off on a glamorous spree abroad. Sam’s a clear-sighted, plain-speaking man – Will Rogers with a lot more snap in his suspenders – while Fran has her eye on the perfumed salons of Europe. Although she doesn’t fully realize it at first, Sam’s unlikely to fit into her plans. But the only area in which his usual horse-sense deserts him is in his devotion to his wife. So she gets her way. And they’re off.

“You have the most childish misconception of yourself. You see yourself as a woman of the world and you’re nothing of the sort.”

So says shipboard gigolo David Niven, delivering the first of several buckets of ice water to be dumped on Fran’s pretentions. Sam is boyishly excited when he spots the lights of England from the deck. But Fran’s only response is flibbertygibbety impatience. And she scoots back to the dance floor with Niven in tow.

Enter Mary Astor as American widow Edith Cortwright.We hear her before we see her. She’s been sitting alone on a deck chair in the background unnoticed till now. Observing Sam’s excitement, she good-naturedly prescribes something soothing. Prophetic words. Because that’s just what Edith’s going to bring to Sam’s world. As a matter of fact. Her gentle assimilation into his life has already begun. We didn’t know. He didn’t know. But she’s been there for awhile, observant and interested, already quite up to speed on some of the dynamics and specifics of his situation.

In a few words and gestures, exquisitely captured by Astor, Edith reveals herself to be kind and sophisticated in a way Fran will never be. A true cosmopolitan – but, in spite of the polished veneer, basically a plain-speaking person like Sam. She has no inflated sense of herself.

“I live in Italy by the thousands – it’s cheap!” And she has no trouble cutting to the heart of the matter. “One drifts for the lack of a reason to do anything else.”

Meanwhile Fran’s in a royal huff at Niven’s failure to play by her rules. As a result, she announces to Sam they’re going to skip England. The fact that he’s been genuinely looking forward to going there doesn’t even register on her radar. They’re off to Paris. Fran is all girlish.

“You’ve got to look after me, Sam. I can’t trust myself”

She abdicates all responsibility for her actions. If anything goes awry now, it’ll be Sam’s fault.

Once in Paris, of course, Fran’s swept up in frippery and frivolity, busily dropping French phrases like anchors crash-landing on concrete. And Sam is pretty much left to his own devices. Lounge lizard Arnold Iselin (Paul Lukas) hovers around her. He’s Johnny-on-the-spot at a dinner party Fran throws. Edith’s there too, looking elegant and relaxed. Fran, on the other hand, is trussed up in a busy frock with what appears to be a cellophane Christmas ornament on her head. Edith is interested in everything Sam says. Fran, as usual, spends most of the time shooting embarrassed, condescending looks in his direction, under the mistaken impression she has to do damage control for him, when it’s she doing all the damage.

Fran stops the party cold by baldly claiming to be thirty-five. Edith scarcely misses a beat before responding with a compliment. And Fran doesn’t know quite how to reply.

“I only hope I look as young as you when I’m your age”

“You’re almost certain to, my dear”, says Edith with a barely detectable trace of castor oil in the cordial.

Fran clearly doesn’t know how to react. The best she can do is to call Edith a frump behind her back a little later.

Edith, for her part has no trouble sizing up Iselin. And though Sam’s welfare is her main concern, there’s genuine kindness in her discreet short-hand advice to Fran.

“My dear …don’t.”

Fran only bristles.

Before she leaves, Edith passes on her address in Naples. It’s clear she hopes to see Sam again. Certainly the audience hopes to see her again too.

Ruth Chatterton, by the way, gives a brave and resourceful performance. She’s willing to appear unsympathetic and silly, but she captures the touching and desperate elements in Fran’s character too – and she’s never less than convincing, often riveting. Providing another puzzling Oscar oversight, this one in the Best Actress category. She plays one of her best scenes wrestling with chin strap and cold cream.

“I’m sick of apologizing for you to my friends”

“You’re simply rushing at old age and I’m not ready for that! You’ve got to let me have my fling!”

She more or less orders Sam back to America for awhile so that youth can have that fling. And now, encumbered only by what little’s left of her good sense, she rents a villa in Switzerland. Iselin and other Continental phonies dance attendance on her. At this point, she’s dyed her hair and her general look’s an uneasy blend of late Marion Davies and not so early Fanny Skeffington.

We discover her on the terrace, sporting a sort of clear plastic dust cover over her dress. The sense that she’s transparent to those around her is pretty much inescapable. And Iselin removes even that. With no Sam around, Fran’s defenceless. She lets Iselin burn Sam’s last letter to her. And as it disintegrates in flames, the die is cast. She’s running as relentlessly at youth as she claims Sam is at old age. But he’s got a chance of reaching his goal. She hasn’t.

Sam returns; she’s momentarily ashamed of her behaviour and they set off for Vienna. But her semi-repentance is short-lived. When young Kurt proposes to her, she rails at Sam for her freedom.

“I’m fighting for my life! You can’t hold me back!”

With a divorce in the offing, Sam drifts around Europe, ending up in Italy. Which is Mary Astor’s cue to reappear. She and Sam bump into each other in Naples and both are delighted. Across a table, she sits back assessing and responding to his situation with tact, concern and generosity.

“Could you let yourself enjoy life for awhile?”

She makes no romantic claims on him. But offers warm companionship. He blossoms in her company. We see her gardening – a clear reflection of the nurturing environment she creates for him. That nurturing reawakens Sam’s energy and enthusiasm. He dreams of new projects, new adventures – and of sharing them with Edith. She’s become his compass and his anchor. Fran had only been a millstone.

Edith realizes that Sam loves her. And Astor makes the moment memorable. Her face really does glow. And it’s not just clever technicians at work. Astor has an inner light – and it’s something to behold.

As a matter of fact. Astor, always a handsome and regal-looking woman, never looked so utterly beautiful as she does throughout “Dodsworth”. The first time we hear Sam actually call her “Edith”, he takes her hand and lifts her up into what promises to be a wonderful new beginning for both of them. She wouldn’t be human if she didn’t try to keep him from answering the frantic phone call from Vienna. It’s Fran. She’s been Ouspenskayed. And she wants Sam back, pronto.

Now Edith fights openly for their future.

“I won’t let you! I won’t let you go back to her! I won’t see you killed by her selfishness! I love you and she doesn’t! You’re content with me. You’re miserable with her!”

He knows she’s right, but he’s still bound to Fran by invisible chains.

Cut to shipboard: The Dodsworths prepare to head back to America. But it’s becoming clear that Fran has gone past the point of no return with her silly, selfish discontent. She hardly even feigns repentance.

“You know, as I look back,I can’t blame myself. You were a good deal at fault yourself.”

The invisible chains shatter apart once and for all. Sam resolves to disembark.

“You’ll have to stop getting younger someday!”

Fran is flabbergasted – and hurls shrewish imprecations at him.

“Are you going back to that washed-out expatriate?”

“You know you’ll never get me out of your blood!”

“Maybe not”, says Sam, ‘but love has to end someplace short of suicide!”

It’s Independence day for Sam – as Fran crumbles with rage, frustration and finally
cold fear.

Cut to a lovingly photographed Astor, leaning against her balcony wall, looking out to sea. She’s disconsolate – till she spots Sam’s sailboat skimming over the water towards her. He’s waving – and the heavens instantly lift her right arm in a soaring gesture of hope that takes the audience with it. Astor’s is the final face we see onscreen – an image that’s glowing, infinitely optimistic and absolutely indelible.

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