Blog Directory CineVerse: Pushing the boundaries of the Hays Code

Pushing the boundaries of the Hays Code

Monday, April 5, 2021

For a classic film, Dodsworth doesn’t get much attention nowadays, even though it’s arguably one of the finest Hollywood works of the 1930s. CineVerse tried to correct this oversight by studying the movie last week and arriving at the following observations (to hear a recording of our group discussion, click here):

What struck you as noteworthy, different, unforeseen, or curious about Dodsworth?

  • This is a rare example of a Hollywood film in the early years of the Hays code that addressed controversial topics like infidelity and divorce. In fact, Dodsworth is credited as the first picture of the early censorship era that permitted a male character to leave his marriage for another woman without being punished for this action. Typically in movies of this era, philandering while tied to the bonds of matrimony ultimately resulted in major repercussions or comeuppances for that character.
  • Dodsworth is credited for avoiding a soap opera approach to an otherwise soapy type of story. It boasts a screenplay and direction that is sophisticated yet subtle and nuanced without being sensationalistic. If the filmmakers could have chosen to include melodramatic subplots or sudden twists like a suicide attempt by Sam or a miscarriage that would have left grandma Fran feeling guilty. Instead, they kept faithful to the source material by Sinclair Lewis and presented both Sam and Fran as flawed yet approachable, understandable characters who each have good and bad sides, although Sam comes off as much more sympathetic because he doesn’t cheat on his spouse or indulge in immoral flirtations.
    • Film scholar Glenn Erickson wrote: “What's difficult to appreciate now about William Wyler's achievement in Dodsworth is that he approaches the subject with a mature attitude that isn't concerned with anything exploitative. The cast was made of big names, but not glamorous marquee bait. American audiences weren't used to being treated like thinking adults very often back then (don't ask about now) and responded to Dodsworth very positively.”
  • The filmmakers likely got this material past the censors thanks to its impressive pedigree: It was presented as a prestige picture made by an A-list producer, Samuel Goldwyn, and a highly respected director, William Wyler. And the book on which the story was based was written by Lewis, a revered figure in American literature. Because they were trying to adapt his tale faithfully, the Hays office likely let things slide.

Themes at play in Dodsworth

  • Fear of aging and living life to the fullest
  • Taking things for granted—like your spouse and her interests
  • The overriding power of love and familiarity. Despite being cuckolded by his wife, Sam can’t let her go and is willing to take her back until the very end of the story.
  • The ugly American abroad, and how Americans often can’t properly appreciate or adopt European culture and sensibilities; consider how Sam can’t pronounce Louvre, and how Fran doesn’t quite realize what her flirtatiousness can lead to. Also, think about how Fran is perhaps unfairly and callously but accurately sized up by Kurt’s mother.
  • Americans need to hold onto their values abroad. Fran yearns to live a carefree cosmopolitan lifestyle of infidelity overseas, courted by promiscuous Continentals, but ultimately ends up spurned and unhappy. Sam, meanwhile, finds love not with a European woman but instead an American expatriate living in Europe who doesn’t try to seduce him.
  • Karma and comeuppance.
  • To thine self be true. Sam ultimately learns to look after himself.

Other films that Dodsworth reminds us of

  • The Unsinkable Molly Brown
  • Summertime
  • Heartburn
  • Take This Waltz
  • Screwball comedies featuring the idle rich and their romances and remarriages like The Lady Eve, The Awful Truth, and Holiday

Other movies directed by William Wyler

  • Ben-Hur
  • The Best Years of Our Lives
  • Roman Holiday
  • Wuthering Heights
  • Mrs. Miniver
  • Jezebel
  • The Little Foxes

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