- Historic Sites
October 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 5
Its greatness begins with what we would now call “the underlying property.” For once Lewis relented in his satire on Mid-western go-getters. His eponymous hero is a lovely man—wry yet taciturn, gently self-satirizing yet a hard and dutiful worker who has made a fortune manufacturing automobiles. He was a perfect fit for Walter Huston, who won great acclaim playing him on the stage. Huston was a man who could portray integrity without seeming to congratulate himself on that virtue, and in this film, dragged off on a European grand tour by his social-climbing wife, he gives us the American abroad with perfect Jamesian aplomb. He’s there to absorb, to understand, not particularly to judge a culture exotic to him. His wife, Fran (Ruth Chatterton), is the opposite. The actress fought with Wyler, thinking she should be an overt bitch. But the director won. She is giddy and heedless and soon swept up by a circle of aesthetes and aristocratic poseurs, among whom she finds a lover. Sam Dodsworth, meanwhile, has met Edith Cortright (Mary Astor, who was, I think, the sexiest woman in the movies at the time). She’s a self-sufficient expatriate. Her sensibility is, in its way, Sam’s mirror image, open to new experience but never seeking it out merely for its own sake.
They become lovers. But Sam is haunted by guilt—and duty, of course. He returns to his wife, determined to make the best of things. Then, aboard the ship that will take them home, her brittle, empty chatter begins. Sam is suddenly on his feet, leaving for good, and speaking the movie’s (to me) immortal line: “Love has to stop short of suicide.”
Indeed it must. Sam has now symbolically embraced modernism. He’s going into the airplane business, with this beautiful, sensible, sexy woman at his side. Except that she doesn’t make too much of her sexiness. It is an implicit force in Astor’s performance, but never an explicit one. She lets it steal over us. It’s the same way with the rest of this movie. Its wish is not to épater la bourgeoisie ; it wants to understand it. It has some sympathy even for the socially bedazzled Fran. It is, in all respects, a beautifully measured movie, mature in its attitudes, mature even by the standards of our own, more freely spoken age. It is like the best of Lubitsch, or Charlie Chaplin’s great, virtually unknown A Woman in Paris , a movie that wears its sophistication gracefully, even occasionally gravely, and so transcends the manners and mores of its moment (1936), retaining its ability to speak to us as freshly, as poignantly, and as immediately as the day it was made.