Best Actor of 1936 – Walter Huston (Dodsworth)

Other Notable Performances:

Charles Chaplin (Modern Times)

William Powell (My Man Godfrey)

Charles Laughton (Rembrandt)

Spencer Tracey (Fury)

Rex Ingram (The Green Pastures)

Jean Gabin (The Lower Depths)

Paul Muni (The Story of Louis Pasteur)

Warner Baxter (The Prisoner of Shark Island)

Ken Uehara (Mr. Thank You)

Charles Boyer (Mayerling)

Gary Cooper (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town)

Sacha Guitry (The Story of a Cheat)

Walter Huston (Dodsworth):

Sam Dodsworth is finally retiring.  After decades of nearly continuous work the automobile manufacturer (loosely based on Henry Ford from Sinclair Lewis’s novel) is giving into his wife Fran’s demands to retire.  There hasn’t really been a reason for Dodsworth to work for some time; his plant has been remarkably successful, garnering the man a massive fortune.  But Americans aren’t supposed to be idle – work makes us what we are.  When we get older though, retirement is expected.  The Dodsworths celebrate Sam’s retirement with a whirlwind tour of Europe.  However, it is on this trip that their marriage begins to crumble.  They spent so many years apart that they never had a chance to examine their relationship to see how far apart they had grown while Sam was busy at the office and Fran hosted tea parties at home.  We in the audience immediately understand that they want different things out of the trip, an early indication that their marriage relies more on routine than romance.

Sam is almost childishly giddy over the historic sites and European manufacturing.  His wife is more interested in mingling with European nobility – much classier than society in Zenith, Winnemac (Lewis’s fictional city and state in which many of his later novels took place).  Of course they grew apart long before the trip.  Neither of them knew this until they passed sustained periods of time together, but it isn’t long before Fran (marvelously played by Ruth Chatterton) is dazzled away from her husband by a young nobleman.  Soon Sam has to face the once unthinkable: that his marriage is over, but what does he, a man who assumed the presence of his wife in the future, do now?  Director William Wyler’s Dodsworth is a sensitive and intelligent examination of a marriage’s slow end in a way that would have made Henry James, one of my favorite authors, proud.  (James’s novels are chalk full of naïve Americans being seduced by wicked, worldly Europeans.)

They're excited for two completely different reasons...

Walter Huston breathes such life into Samuel Dodsworth that we never notice acting is in progress.  The evolution of his character is remarkably convincing – from a reluctant retiree to an excited traveler to a disillusioned husband to a happy, complete human being.  Huston made the part so much a part of himself that we can’t imagine Dodsworth without Huston’s gentle gruffness, wide smile, and expressive eyes.  This is one of the least remembered of all the great performances of 1936, but it is one for all movie lovers to rediscover and treasure.

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11 Comments

Filed under 1936, Yearly Best Performances

11 responses to “Best Actor of 1936 – Walter Huston (Dodsworth)

  1. A marvelous performance, not nearly as celebrated now as it ought to be. I think people mostly remember Walter Huston as the old man in The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, but he had a great career and Dodsworth might well have been his best work.

    • I absolutely agree. I think Huston was a great actor and though he did a fantastic job with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, it certainly isn’t his only great work. Randomly I like what he did in Clair’s And Then There Were None.

  2. He’s a great actor, and this is most definitely a great performance. Is it the best of 1936? It’s a tough call, but I can’t fault you for chossing him, especially with this wonderful essay you’ve penned defending the selection. Yes, we all remember him in TREASURE, but several others (including this one) do shine.

    Charles Chaplin gets the nod narrowly over Charles Laughton (REMBRANDT) from me for what is probably his acrombatic performance in MODERN TIMES, his finest as an actor (though THE GOLD RUSH pushes close)

    Your runner-up list is magnificent, and I especially applaud you on Sacha Guitry, whom many will fail to recognize.

    I’ll add these:

    Edward Arnold (Come and Get It)
    Lionel Barrymore (The Devil Doll)
    Raymond Massey (Things to Come)
    Roland Young (The Man Who Could Work Miracles)
    Raimu (Cesar)
    George Darnoux (Une Partie de Campagne)

    • I have Huston narrowly edging out Chaplin, Powell, and Laughton. (It’s eerie how similarly we often think.) Sacha Guitry made some uneven movies, but he was always fun to watch.

      I like your runner-up list, though I had “The Man Who Could Work Miracles” as a 1937 release. I was intending to include Roland Young there, but there more I look online the more confused I get. I can’t figure out if it is a 1936 or 1937 release.

      I like Lionel Barrymore in “The Devil Doll” but he didn’t quite make my cut. I also thought Raymond Massey was fine, but he just didn’t quite make it. And Raimu was wonderful in “Cesar” but I think he has more to do in “Fanny” (1932). I had him come in second place to Paul Muni and I think that when I rethink this list for the 1930s, Raimu might take the top spot away from Muni.

      Thanks as always Sam!

  3. grammar mistake made in sentence explaining my Chaplin choice, but I know you understand what I am saying.

  4. I still need to see this one – as I also need to see loads of other titles you have mentioned for 1936. I’ll be hoping to do so before too long. Great stuff, Jason.

    • Thanks as always Judy. The joy of being a movie lover is there is always something we haven’t seen. I think you will enjoy “Dodsworth” and many of the other I have highlighted here. I look forward to hearing what you think when you get around to seeing them.

      • I actually didn’t wait very long – I watched this movie last night while your comments were fresh in my mind. Thanks very much for highlighting this great movie, Jason. I do agree that Walter Huston gives a fine, multi-layered performance in this, and like the way you describe his character’s development.

        I also thought Chatterton’s performance was great – I’m remembering guiltily that a few months ago I commented on my blog that she was an actress I didn’t particularly warm to. That has now changed, largely as a result of seeing her in Wellman’s ‘Lilly Turner’, and I like her a lot more. In this I found it a pity really that her character has to be quite so vain and silly by the end – since in other sections of the film it is made clear that there is fault or misunderstanding on both sides in the breakdown of the marriage.

        There’s a telling scene where Sam has returned home to the US without Fran and is making a fuss about the way his daughter runs the house because it isn’t exactly how his wife did it. Huston is great here at creating a flawed character who is still likeable, and you get a glimpse of how much of the last 20 years Fran has spent concentrating on little things like where his letters are placed and where the keys to the drinks cabinet should be kept.

        Just to add that I also really like David Niven’s brief role as a gigolo-type character – I think I’ve only seen him play noble and heroic characters, so it is interesting to see him cast against type like this.

        • I’m glad you enjoyed it. I thought you would. I have to admit that I have never been terribly fond of Chatterton either, but I did like her in this movie. (I haven’t seen “Lilly Turner.”) And that is a great scene you highlight. There are so many scenes like that showing off Huston’s underrated acting abilities.

          The more I watch movies from this period the more David Niven pops up in unexpected places. If you want to see him play an utterly non-heroic character, check him out in “Bonjour Tristesse.” He’s kind of an awful person but in his typically suave, debonair, charming way. He’s the worst kind of rotten character: likable.

          Thanks for your thoughtful comments Judy!

  5. Dodsworth seems to be really underrated. It’s celebrated, certainly, but usually overlooked in round-ups of thirties greats or clip shows on the Oscars or the like. Not sure why, but it’s one of my favorites though I’ve only seen it once.

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