The center of the film is a study of a marriage in crisis. Recently retired auto magnate Samuel Dodsworth and his narcissistic wife Fran, while on a grand European tour, discover that they want very different things out of life, straining their marriage.
The film was critically praised and nominated for several Academy Awards. Dodsworth was nominated for AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies in 1997 and 2007.
In the Midwestern town of Zenith, Samuel "Sam" Dodsworth (Walter Huston) is a successful, self-made man: the president of Dodsworth Motors, which he founded 20 years before. Then he sells the company to retire. Although Tubby Pearson, Sam's banker and friend, warns him that men like them are only happy when they are working, Sam has no plans beyond an extended trip to Europe with his wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton), who feels trapped by their boring small-town social life.
While on the luxury liner to England, Sam meets Edith Cortright (Mary Astor), an American divorcee now living in Italy, who is sympathetic to his eagerness to expand his horizons and learn new things. Meanwhile, Fran indulges in a light flirtation with a handsome Englishman (David Niven); but when he suggests it become more serious, she hastily retreats and asks Sam not to spend time in England as planned, but go on directly to Paris.
Once there, Fran begins to view herself as a sophisticated world traveler and tries to develop a high-class social life, also pretending to be much younger than she is. Sam says that people who would socialize with hicks like either of them are not really high-class, but she sees him as increasingly boring and unimaginative; he only wants to see the usual tourist sights and visit car factories. She becomes infatuated with cultured playboy Arnold Iselin (Paul Lukas), who invites her to Montreux and later Biarritz. She suggests Sam return home and allow her to spend the summer in Europe; feeling rather out of place in the urbane Old World, he consents.
Sam is happily welcomed by his old friends as well as his daughter (Kathryn Marlowe) and new son-in-law (John Howard Payne), who have moved into his and Fran's mansion. Before long, though, Sam realizes that life back home has left him behind—and he is tormented by the idea that Fran might have, as well. He has a Dodsworth manager in Europe confirm that she is in fact seeing Iselin, and returns to Europe immediately to put a stop to it. Fran tries to deny the affair, but he has summoned Iselin to confirm everything, She breaks down and begs for forgiveness. He still loves her and agrees to patch up their marriage.
However, it is soon evident that they have grown far apart. In Vienna, news of the birth of their first grandchild arrives; although initially excited, Fran is displeased with the idea of being a grandmother. She eventually informs Sam that she wants a divorce, especially after the poor, but charming, young Baron Kurt von Obersdorf (Gregory Gaye) tells her he would marry her if she were free. Sam agrees.
Sightseeing aimlessly throughout the Continent while the divorce is being arranged, Sam encounters Edith by chance in an American Express office in Naples. She invites him to stay at her peaceful, charming Italian villa. The two rapidly fall in love. Sam feels so rejuvenated that he wants to start a new business: an airline connecting Moscow and Seattle via Siberia. He asks Edith to marry him and fly with him to Samarkand and other exotic locales on his new venture. She gladly accepts.
Meanwhile, Fran's idyllic plans are shattered when Kurt's mother (Maria Ouspenskaya) rejects his request to marry Fran. In addition to divorce being against their religion, she tells Fran that Kurt must have children to carry on the family line, and Fran would be an "old wife of a young husband". Kurt asks Fran to postpone their wedding until he can get his mother's approval; but Fran sees that it is hopeless, and calls off the divorce.
Feeling a duty to Fran, Sam reluctantly decides to sail home with her, leaving Edith. However, after only a short time in Fran's now critical and demanding company, Sam realizes their marriage is irrevocably over. "Love has to stop somewhere short of suicide", he tells her. At the last moment, he gets off the ship to rejoin Edith.
Walter Huston appeared in the 1934 Broadway production, which co-starred Fay Bainter as Fran. Huston recreated his role again for a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast in October 1937.
The film was in production during Mary Astor's custody battle; during part of the production, to avoid the press Astor lived in her dressing room bungalow, working on the film during the day and appearing in court in evening sessions.
In his review in the New York Times, Frank S. Nugent described it as "admirable" and added, "William Wyler . . . has had the skill to execute it in cinematic terms, and a gifted cast has been able to bring the whole alive to our complete satisfaction . . . [the film] has done more than justice to Mr. Howard's play, converting a necessarily episodic tale . . . into a smooth-flowing narrative of sustained interest, well-defined performance and good talk."
Time said it was "directed with a proper understanding of its values by William Wyler, splendidly cast and brilliantly played."
The film was named one of the year's ten best by The New York Times and was one of the top twenty box office films of the year.
In 1990, Dodsworth was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. In 2005, Time named it one of the 100 best movies of the past 80 years.Wins
Best Art Direction: Richard Day
Outstanding Production: Samuel Goldwyn Productions
Best Director: William Wyler
Best Actor: Walter Huston
Actress in a Supporting Role: Maria Ouspenskaya
Best Sound Recording: Thomas T. Moulton
Best Writing (Screenplay): Sidney Howard