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The first and best film adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's classic novel of pointless crime and arbitrary punishment, the 1931 version of AN American TRAGEDY was directed by Josef Von Sternberg, who had just had great success with THE BLUE ANGEL (and who made a total of eight films with star Marlene Dietrich) and who captures the emptiness and isolation and desperate qualities of the characters well. Phillips Holmes, perhaps best known today for GENERAL SPANKY (the strange Our Gang feature film) is a revelation as the heartless, social-climbing Clyde Griffiths, and the young Sylvia Sidney makes a strong impression as the working girl killed in the "accident" that leads to the long trial sequence at the film's end, which is itself a classic of courtroom melodrama. Clyde is represented in court by Charles Middleton (who later played Emperor Ming in the FLASH GORDON films) as a cynical, grandstanding attorney. AN American TRAGEDY still packs a punch today and has a rawness and power and biting commentary on the class structure of society entirely lacking in A PLACE IN THE SUN, the 1951 film adaptation of the same novel.
I finally got to see Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy (1931),
with Phillips Holmes playing the young sociopath-murderer that Monty
Clift played in the later A Place In the Sun (1951). This picture was
directed by Josef von Sternberg.
The print a friend loaned me was a real chore on the eyes, I am glad I didn't pay for this! I don't like her generally, but I must admit Sylvia Sidney did a good job as the thoughtless girl "Bert", which Shelley Winters more annoyingly played in the remake. Sylvia's part was much bigger and more sympathetic than the girl Phillips' character Clyde falls in love with later, here played by Frances Dee and in the remake by Elizabeth Taylor. In A Place in the Sun Elizabeth Taylor's part was very much expanded, but in this earlier version we're not even sure Clyde cares more about her than her money.
Phillips played his part so emotionlessly that it was almost like he was in a trance. I kept thinking of the infamous Scott Peterson and his emotionlessness through his trial for murdering his pregnant wife. I think that was a deliberate choice on Phillips' part to play the role this way, but there were many times when he seemed very wooden to me and I wanted to see more passion or life or something! Overall I do think he was truer to the role though than Monty Clift's interpretation.
I don't recall a mother character in A Place In The Sun, but here Clyde's mother is played well by Lucille La Verne, a popular character actress of the 30's. She runs a mission and spends more time saving souls than looking after her only boy, with the result that he grows up without a firm rudder to cling to when times get hard. So in that respect this earlier film version gives the audience more of a background into Clyde's childhood and environment which made him the sociopath he turned out to be. You know the character is in for it right at the beginning of the film, when he's indirectly involved with a hit and run accident of a child, and runs away rather than give details to the police.
If you can see it, do so. I hope you obtain a better print than I did though! I wish TCM would play this film, maybe back to back one evening with the 1951 remake, so folks can compare versions.
This seems much closer to the facts of Theodore Dreiser's great novel
than the soapy 50s version, good in its own way, with Montgomery Clift.
Even with florid Josef von Sternberg directing, the film follows the basic plot of the novel although there seem to be a few holes. Still, the courtroom scene is electric and makes this all worth it. I also like the casting of Phillips Holmes as Clyde. Holmes is able to capture the bizarre passions and inability to really care that embody Clyde. His subtle performance in the courtroom scenes, as he slowly breaks down and loses any sense of truth under the barrage of lawyers, is quite excellent. His voice goes higher and thinner as he becomes just a frightened boy answering the stupid questions posed by the sadistic and ambitious lawyers.
Sylvia Sidney is quite good as the tragic Roberta, and Frances Dee captures the haughty attitudes of the wealthy of that era. Charles Middleton and Irving Pichel play the lawyers. And Lucille LaVerne plays Clyde's mother.
This was a big hit in its day and helped establish Holmes and Sidney as stars. Holmes had a relatively short starring career and died in WW II but he made several memorable films with Nancy Carroll.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Josef von Sternberg brings an uncompromising quality to Theodore
Dreiser's most American of novels. The drowning scene is appropriately
ambiguous. The unusual upbringing of Clyde Griffiths, whose name is
even changed in the remake to something supposedly less mundane, is
also more faithful to the novel, delineating the mother-son
relationship in detail. George Stevens' remake, A Place in the Sun, is
highly romanticized, which is seriously at odds with the naturalistic
character of the novel.
Lee Garmes' shimmering photography is a perfect example of chiaroscuro. The opening credits immediately establish the water motif that is to figure so prominently later in the story.
Phillips Holmes excels at portraying his character's ambition as he climbs the social ladder. He goes beyond portraying your typical "weak youth" and suggests an attachment disorder that is all the more disturbing to see because not even a modern film has gone into this psychological territory. Although her role is short, Frances Dee is infinitely better than Elizabeth Taylor in the remake. As the put-upon character, Shelley Winters overplays her pathetic qualities in the Stevens version and is more irritating than Sylvia Sidney. As terrible as it sounds, Winters almost explains her boyfriend's decision to drown her. But that's hardly the point of the event.
The courtroom scene has been criticized for being overacted, but it convincingly depicts Holmes' total loss of control as his attorney (Charles Middleton) concocts a bogus excuse for the drowning. And I wouldn't give up Middleton's flamboyant performance for anything!
If you want a more faithful adaptation of Dreiser's novel - and a more complex if less slick movie than the remake - von Sternberg's film is the one to see.
Originally this adapation of the Dreiser novel was planned by Sergei
the Hollywood jaunt that also led to Que Viva Mexico, and his version might
have been a
cracked masterpiece-- one can imagine him getting all kind of details about
American scene ludicrously wrong, but finding a real connection between
depiction of a weak youth whose desire for wealth and comfort sends him on
assembly line to murder, and Eisenstein's own mechanistic editing style and
Von Sternberg, on the other hand, was the master of knowing sexual politics and intrigue, at his best with characters whose illusions had been left behind many beds ago. Given a Classics Illustrated-level cutdown of the book, and a stiff (if straight out of an Arrow shirt ad) leading man in Phillips Holmes, there's little for him to get hold of here, except for a few scenes in which Sylvia Sidney manages to convey the poignance of a poor girl in a bad spot, losing her boy and helpless to prevent it. There are some reasonably effective scenes between Holmes and Sidney, some nice chiaroscuro from Lee Garmes (though alas, even UCLA's restoration does not look as good as the clips I saw at Cinesation in the 1932 Paramount promo film The House That Shadows Built), and the courtroom scenes, though way over the top (not helped by Irving Pichel's too-perfect E- Nun-Cee-I-A-Shun), are dramatic-- it's fun seeing him defended by Charles "Ming the Merciless" Middleton, in that inimitable voice. But you can't really say it works, or does Dreiser justice-- and I'm not sure any movie could.
The problem with Dreiser's passive characters is that on screen their plights may be involving, but they aren't; we don't get the interior life that the novel gives us, we just see the story of an ineffectual sap making a couple of bad mistakes and getting ground to dust by the wheels of modern society. James Cain's crime novels took the Dreiser- style story and put guilt and cunning back into the main characters' makeup, so they have things to do on screen-- and they know WHY they're doomed. Seeing Sternberg fail to find anything interesting enough to work with here makes you wish Eisenstein had made this film, and Sternberg had had the chance to sink his teeth into The Postman Always Rings Twice or Serenade.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Theodore Dreiser's lengthy 1925 novel was based on the sensational 1906
murder trial of Chester Gillette, who murdered his working class
girlfriend in order to marry into a socially prominent family. His book
deals with a man who wants to escape the poverty and hopelessness of
his background only to be engulfed by the wealth he longs for. It
became a successful Broadway play with Miriam Hopkins as Sondra, the
Initially, Paramount engaged the prestigious Russian director Sergei Eisenstein as director but the deal fell through, then flamboyant director Josef Von Sternberg was hired. Coming in the middle of his Marlene Dietrich pictures the film dripped with atmosphere as he filmed scenes through beaded curtains, venetian blinds and lakeside trees. Even though Sylvia Sidney and Phillips Holmes last co-starring feature was a movie so bad that no director wanted credit ("Confessions of a Co-Ed") they were both immediately signed for "An American Tragedy". Holmes, a very sensitive actor, found the role of a life time as Clyde Griffiths, who we first meet working as a bellhop at the luxurious Green- Davison Hotel. His opportunism is apparent from the start as he would rather attend to the female guests every need than to hobnob with his fellow workers.
When out with friends he is involved in a hit and run (he is not the driver) and though his mother (Lucille LaVerne, in a really over the top performance) who runs the local mission, pleads with him to go to the police, being a coward he refuses. He flees to New York where he has some wealthy relations and it isn't long before, with lying and wheedling, he has attained the post of foreman in the Griffiths Shirt Factory. He meets pretty Roberta (Sylvia Sidney), a factory girl and seems genuinely attracted to her, at the same time he meets his wealthy relatives and is taken up by them. Clyde and Roberta begin their affair, even though the factory frowns against romance in the workplace. Roberta is manipulated by Clyde (with promises of everlasting devotion) into letting him come up to her room. About the same time he meets Sondra (beautiful Frances Dee), a society girl and then conveniently forgets about Roberta. Roberta has some news for Clyde that he doesn't want to hear as he feels he has really fond his niche in life with Sondra by his side.
After reading in the paper about an accidental drowning, Clyde begins to plan his way out - he takes Roberta out on the lake, knowing her fear of water. He plans to capsize the boat and let her drown but when faced with the act, he can't go through with it. Roberta is frightened and accidentally falls in but Clyde does nothing to save her and swims away.
The last third of the film is devoted to the trial with Irving Pichel giving a gripping performance as D.A. Mason, who is determined to find Clyde guilty. Clyde's coldness and amoral attitude, plus the fact that he is already on the run from a fatal car accident does not get sympathy from the jury. Only at the very end, when he admits to his mother that he did intend to kill Roberta but changed his mind does the audience feel any sympathy for him.
There is no comparison between Sylvia Sidney and Shelley Winters (who played Roberta in the 1951 remake). Sidney, a far superior actress, gave Roberta a naive sensitivity, Winters made Roberta seem coarse and crude. Frances Dee, who proved she was a good actress in films like "The Silver Cord" and "Blood Money", a couple of years in the future, in 1931 was just a very pretty face. I think, by making Sondra just a pretty cardboard cut out society girl (in comparison to Elizabeth Taylor's more sensitive portrayal) Sternberg keeps the emphasis on Clyde, defining his callousness and spinelessness and taking away any sympathy the audience may have felt for him.
Highly, Highly Recommended.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Its time this well acted and good story older little known gem to be released on DVD. I saw it on TV years ago but never saw it again. It was made in 1931 and the mores of the day are outdated, but the story and consequences could be the same today as they were then. The acting is well done with Phillips Holmes as the male star Clyde. Holmes died when he was only 35 in a plane collision, cutting short a promising life and film career. Sylvia Sydney plays the part of Clyde's very pretty girlfriend Roberta. Everything goes well till Roberta finds herself in a situation she doesn't want to be in and for sure, Clyde doesn't want her to be in. Clyde has big plans for his job, he is ambitious but also selfish. He begins to feel trapped and thinks what he can do to be free of the situation as he doesn't want to be held back. So he plans a solution which has sad consequences and doesn't work out the way he planned. The movie is close to Theodore Dresser's book of "An American Tragedy". The acting is well done by the two stars. I was surprised that a movie made in 1931 could be so good. It didn't seem out of date at all to me. In my view, the acting of the stars in the 1931 film and the movie itself is a lot better than the remake called "A Place in the Sun" with Clift Montgomery and Elizabeth Taylor.I think a lot of classic type film buffs would like this movie. I'd be the first to get it on DVD.
To think that it's the same actress who stole the show in the first
version of the Dreiser novel,who shone in Lang,Hitchcock or Wyler
works, and...landed in Tim Burton's "Mars attacks" where she played the
"deus ex machina grandma who single-handedly saved our dear old planet!
It's very interesting to compare her performance with that of the great
Shelley Winters in Stevens's remake:they give diametrically opposite
renditions:Winters' portrayal is that of a vulgar ,crude ,exasperating
and even authoritarian woman,almost a shrew;Sidney's girl is exquisite
with small eyes longing for happiness and love,a very delicate style of
If you've seen the remake before,you will notice big differences:the first one is the rich girl's part:whereas Elizabeth Taylor 's part was very important in "a place in the sun",here Frances Dee does her very short stint,hardly 10 minutes,then they talk about her as "Miss X ", the invisible woman,which prevents us from comparing her with her more famous successor.Philip Holmes was surpassed by Montgomery Clift who gave more intensity,more ambiguity and finally more credibility to a character who is primarily a coward :there's room at the top ,but he's bound to fall because perhaps of his education.From that point of view,"an American tragedy" is more detailed than "a place in the sun" :the hero's mother plays a prominent part and it's finally in his last scenes with her that Philip Holmes transcends a rather monotonous portrayal.The first accident which he was not responsible for is not included in Stevens' version.
If Sidney is the main asset of the movie,its main flaw is the very long trial ,one third of the running time is given over to it,and the defendant's attorney's and the prosecuting attorney's histrionics are sometimes ponderous and seem to come straight from the silent movies .(Sternberg was an important director before and after 1929,the year of the talkies).It's interesting to notice that between 1930 and 1935,it's his only film which does not feature Marlene Dietrich.
All in all, Stevens'"a place in the sun" is a better constructed movie,a better remake,which has become exceptional nowadays,but at least for Sidney, watch this one.
It's interesting to compare this precode era adaptation to the glossier
seemingly bigger-budget production, 1951's "A Place in the Sun". People
today will likely not remember the stars since so much of their work
was done at 1930's Paramount and is never shown anymore. Practically
all of the action is centered on working class girl Roberta (Sylvia
Sidney) and Clyde Griffiths (Phillips Holmes), who wants what he wants
when he wants it. Frances Dee as the rich girl Clyde falls for later in
the film barely gets any lines at all as compared to Elizabeth Taylor
in the corresponding part in the 1951 film. In fact the whole tale is
Clyde's past is filled in more in this film, along with more about his mother and the fact that she realizes she failed Clyde by concentrating so much on her mission work and thus exposing Clyde to all of the darkness in life with none of the normal attention and happinesses that most children experience, thus making Clyde selfish and hungry for the good things in life.
Clyde gets a break when he runs into the wealthy side of the family, gets a job in their factory, and ultimately works his way up to supervisor. But the family is more oblige toward him than noblesse, as they invite him up to visit them at their house - more for the sake of appearances than anything - and study him like a specimen rather than treat him like a guest. Through all of this, Clyde is stoic and unsurprised at their behavior. You get the feeling he'd do the same if he was in their place.
Clyde selfishly but not maliciously pushes Roberta, one of the assembly line girls in his charge, into a relationship and ultimately into sharing a bed, and apparently this intimate relationship goes on some time until he meets a bigger better deal in the person of Sondra Finchley. Don't expect the sizzle and warmth of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor here. Here Frances Dee and Philips Holme barely smolder, but that is probably intentional just to feed the impression that this guy truly can't love anybody.
Here Roberta is an unlucky girl that you grow to like as you even meet her family at one point. In Place in the Sun Shelley Winter's rendition is that of a clawing nagging harpy, causing you to somewhat sympathize with Clyde. Here there can really be no sympathy for the guy - he really is a coward, always trying to get what he can out of life here and now, running from the consequences, lying to himself as well as everyone else.
When the pregnant Roberta refuses to just disappear and insists on marriage, Clyde tears himself away from his summer vacation with his new socialite girlfriend long enough to plan a murder that will look like an accidental drowning. Does he want the good things in life enough to do even the foulest of deeds? Watch and find out. And you will find out, because what happens in the boat is clearly shown from beginning to end.
One very interesting moment in this film not included in the remake: You see the jury deliberate and two jurors are tending toward voting not guilty. The other ten threaten the two holdouts, basically saying that they will find it impossible to make a living in that town if they "side with that murderer". In the production code era you would never be allowed to question the integrity of the criminal justice system in such a manner.
This film is an interesting commentary on class consciousness centered on a wrong guy ultimately brought to accidental justice by an equally wrong criminal justice system. Highly recommended.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Theodore Dreiser's tragic tale of a young man's decent into degradation
is best known, of course, for its romanticized 1951 version, "A Place
in the Sun", but it was first filmed 20 years later in a way that makes
it even more memorable. Clyde Griffiths (Phillips Holmes) is the son of
a poor widow (Lucille LaVerne) who heads to see wealthy relatives to
make a new life for himself. He finds romance with both a poor girl
(Sylvia Sidney) and wealthy socialite (Frances Dee) and faces the chair
when Sidney is killed (he claims accidentally) in a boating accident.
The setting of the film in the depression makes Holmes' situation all the more realistic rather than the post-World War II era of the remake. The other major asset to the film is the performance of Sylvia Sidney as the poor girl who may or may not have been purposely not saved by the "hero". Unlike Shelley Winters' version of the character, Sidney is totally likable, a sweet girl who becomes desperate when she finds herself pregnant. Just a few years later, this film would not have been able to be made; It would take two decades for some parts of the Hays code to allow "shocking" situations like this to be dramatized on film. The remake made necessary changes to the story, including the toughening up of the victim (as played by Winters). Whether or not Holmes deliberately meant to kill Sidney is left to the imagination of the viewer, but there are hints he doesn't feel fully guilty of not saving her.
Temporarilly free from his exotic adventures with Marlene Dietrich, Josef Von Sternberg directed what is his finest film. Holmes' hero is not the noble "pretty boy" as played by Montgomery Clift 20 years later, but a handsome anti-hero who obviously longs to climb the social ladder. This makes his character seem a bit more amoral than how Clift played the part. Dee's character isn't as fleshed out as Elizabeth Taylor's in the remake, but she is playing what is consequently an insignificant role. The true story focuses on Holmes and Sidney, the aftermath of the tragedy, and Holmes' acceptance of his destiny thanks to his very religious mother. Lucille LaVerne is memorable in her small role, a part far different from "La Vengeance" in "A Tale of Two Cities" and various other hags she played on film. The cinematography is exquisite. Along with another pre-code drama from Paramount, "The Sins of Temple Drake", "An American Tragedy" is a film that is much worthy of re-discovery and hopefully DVD release.
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