Sam Dodsworth is an auto magnate who, at the start of the film, has sold his automobile company and retired to a life of leisure. The whole idea came from his wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton), who is younger than Sam but herself middle-aged and bored with life in the small town of Zenith, Ohio. Sam appears to have mixed feelings about a trip to Europe but indulges Fran.
The Dodsworths board the boat to London, where Ruth immediately starts flirting with an officer (played by a young David Niven) but breaks it off when he starts to get serious. On the same voyage Sam strikes up an acquaintance with Edith (Mary Astor), an American divorcée who lives in Italy. In London, Fran starts getting obsessed with the European sophisticates she hangs out with, and more and more embarrassed with her plainspoken, unpretentious Middle American husband. She demands that he go home and let her tour Europe alone. He does so, and she proceeds to embark on an affair with a German playboy (Paul Lukas). Sam finds out, goes back to Europe, confronts her, and promptly forgives her. However, she embarks on a new affair with a German nobleman, and demands a divorce. A heartbroken Sam crisscrosses Europe alone—until he runs across Edith in Italy.
This film provides example of:
- Benevolent Boss: Dodsworth seems to have been a nice boss, judging from the warm goodbye he is given by his factory workers.
- Chekhov's Gunman: Dodsworth meets Edith in passing on the boat to Europe. It seems like a chance encounter but due to a Contrived Coincidence they meet again in Italy and a romance develops.
- Contemplative Boss: The opening shot of Dodsworth lost in thought, looking out of the window of his office. Justified as he is recapping his past 20 years with the company.
- Contrived Coincidence: Europe is a pretty big continent, but Sam still manages to run into Edith.
- Downer Beginning: Sam is pretty clearly depressed about leaving Dodsworth Autos, but Fran strongarmed him into it. (Note that after she leaves him, he gets the idea to start up an airline business.)
- Easily Forgiven: After Fran finally admits to her affair with Arnold, Sam says "I'm ready to wipe the slate clean if you are."
- Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: Fran's multiple affairs are played as shameful. Sam's final decision to leave her for Edith, after Fran left him twice, is portrayed as triumphant.
- Good Hair, Evil Hair: Arnold, the first German to seduce Fran, has a foppish pencil mustache.
- Happy Ending: Sam rejects his faithless wife and goes back to Edith.
- Have a Gay Old Time: One European says "I'm making love to you" to Fran, another invites the Dodsworths to "a very gay restaurant".
- Ice Queen: Kurt's mother is a prime example, casting her cruel Parental Marriage Veto with no sign of empathy for Fran's situation.
- I Kiss Your Hand: European courtesy. Arnold as well as Kurt perform hand kissing on Fran.
- Love Triangle: Discussed Trope, as Sam makes a crack about "the old triangle stuff" when confronting Fran and Arnold.
- Ma'am Shock: Fran is happy enough to hear that her daughter has given birth, but is horrified when Sam refers to the two of them as "a couple of old grandparents". She doesn't even want their fancy European friends to know she's a grandmother.
- My Beloved Smother: Fran is all set to marry her young boyfriend, Baron Kurt, until Kurt's ice-cold mother shows up and flatly refuses to let the marriage happen. Kurt meekly obeys.
- Nice Job Fixing It, Villain!: Sam was going to go back to Fran again, but she's so obnoxious on the boat that he comes to his senses and jumps off at the last moment.
- One-Word Title / Protagonist Title: Dodsworth.
- Parental Marriage Veto: Kurt's mother flat out disapproves of the marriage between her son and Fran for concerns about Fran's reproductive capabilities.
- Rich Bitch: Fran is extremely superficial, badmouthing other women for their head wear.
- Sexy Backless Outfit: Fran is partial to these, especially after she starts more aggressively pursuing European men.
- Sleeping Single: As The Hays Code demanded when they're on the boat, but Fran later arranges for separate bedrooms.
- Small Town Boredom: Fran must have been unhappy for a number of years even before their trip to Europe. Their life in a small town was suffocating to her and she wanted a totally different life before she was too old to enjoy it.
- Title Drop: A visual one, as the first shot shows Dodsworth in the office of his auto company, with the shot carefully framed so his name is visible on the side of the building.
- Toplessness from the Back: A very daring shot for 1936, as Fran is shown this way when she's taking off her dress and putting on a nightgown. The camera cuts away quickly, but still.
- Train-Station Goodbye: A pretty frosty one, as Fran bids Dodsworth goodbye after telling him she wants a divorce so she can marry her German boy toy.
- Travel Montage: Some tourist sights and stickers on a suitcase as Dodsworth wanders around Europe after his wife leaves him.
- Your Cheating Heart: Fran essentially spends the whole movie cheating on Sam with a bunch of fancy European guys.