An American Tragedy

  • 1931
  • 1 HR 36 MIN
  • NR

This Theodore Dreiser novel was brought to the screen by Paramount at a costly figure and it is a straightforward telling of the story: Holmes, a young and ambitious office worker distantly related to wealth seeks to enter high society. He is given a functionary position in a plant and, as a fringe relative, occasionally invited to the home of a wealthy...read more

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This Theodore Dreiser novel was brought to the screen by Paramount at a costly figure and it is a straightforward telling of the story: Holmes, a young and ambitious office worker distantly related to wealth seeks to enter high society. He is given a functionary position in a plant and, as

a fringe relative, occasionally invited to the home of a wealthy relative whose beautiful daughter, Dee, takes a liking to him. But before Holmes can win her heart, along with her prestige, and become moneyed, he dallies with factory worker Sidney, almost compelling her to have a tryst with him or

face unemployment. Director von Sternberg shows one scene where Holmes receives a note from Sidney in response to his demands. He goes into an alcove where only the camera can see him read the note and the smug smile of triumph upon his face. When the girl becomes pregnant, Holmes takes Sidney to

a small resort and suggests they go boating. On the lake at night while she pleads for marriage to protect her good name, an argument erupts and the boat is overturned. Sidney drowns while Holmes swims ashore. He tries to cover up the death but is discovered and put on trial. Fully one-third of

the film is taken up with his murder trial, where he is abandoned by his rich patrons, except for Dee who loves him. Holmes is found guilty of purposely drowning Sidney and sent to the electric chair. This film was remade by George Stevens in 1951 as A PLACE IN THE SUN but the two films differ

greatly. Von Sternberg, as consummate a director as Stevens, opted to tell the tale as Dreiser had written it, emphasizing the youth's scheming, manipulative nature, his quietly ruthless ambition to better himself at any price, and his outright guilt of murdering a woman he had victimized. Dreiser

had spent weeks attending the sensational 1906 trial of Chester Gillette, who was found guilty of drowning his sweetheart, Grace "Billie" Brown, so he could marry a socially prominent girl. Before going to the electric chair the vainglorious Gillette, a handsome youth, sold his autograph to female

thrill-seekers so he could afford catered meals in his death cell. The author, who took ten years to write the novel, fully based his story on this callous youth, and von Sternberg emulates Dreiser's conviction that the youth was entirely guilty, unlike Stevens who leaves a nagging doubt in the

remake. In his mannered way, von Sternberg shows in devastating takes the rotting inner character of Holmes as he plans the seduction of Sidney and later her murder, feigning innocence at the end. He also places the emphasis of sympathy where it belongs, on the victimized girl. Stevens would later

portray the victim, Shelley Winters, as a relentlessly hounding nag, a thoroughly repugnant character who almost deserved to be drowned for interrupting the torrid affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. Although von Sternberg dwells too long on some scenes to make his point, his

version has powerful impact and takes on an almost surrealistic air. The great Russian director Sergei Eisenstein was first contracted by Adolph Zukor, head of Paramount, to write and direct this film, but when he turned in his manuscript the studio executive panicked. He had written a proletarian

view, altering much of the novel's viewpoint, intending to film the story as one where the youth was victimized by a society of capitalistic tyrants, a society that compelled the youth to murder to obtain the good life. Zukor turned down the anti-American script and hired von Sternberg to redo

everything, complaining to the director that his studio had already spent a half million dollars developing a script that was going nowhere. As von Sternberg later told Andrew Sarris: "I went to work writing my own script. I eliminated the sociological elements which, in my opinion, were far from

being responsible for the dramatic accident with which Dreiser had concerned himself." Yet Dreiser did a complete turn-about. Upon the release of the von Sternberg film, he sued Paramount for a fortune, stating that he liked the Eisenstein script better. He lost the case. The von Sternberg film

remains a source of debate to this day but it is highly provocative and visually rewarding, with Sidney giving a powerful, standout performance. The photography of Lee Garmes is detailed and arresting in almost every scene.

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