Shelley Winters developed mixed feeling toward director George Stevens for making her look so unglamorous alongside Elizabeth Taylor. Her role, moreover, typecast her in mousy or brassy parts for years. Winters said she drove white Cadillac convertibles (similar to Taylor's in the film) for years afterward to compensate for her intense feelings of inferiority while making the film.
Anne Revere, who played Montgomery Clift's mother, was a descendant of American Revolution hero Paul Revere, but she became another victim of the McCarthy-era "Red Scare" blacklisting because of her supposed "liberal" politics. After this film she did not appear in another movie until 1970.
The box office failure of the 1931 adaptation of An American Tragedy (1931) prompted the filmmakers to seek an alternative title. One such title was "The Prize". There was a $100 reward for whoever came up with the best new title, and George Stevens's associate Ivan Moffat successfully pitched for "A Place in the Sun". He never received his $100 reward.
Shelley Winters was determined to be tested for the part of Alice. At the time she was being cultivated as a sex symbol, so the night before she was due to see George Stevens, she dyed her hair brown and bought some especially dowdy clothes, the kind she had seen when she had visited a factory to see how the girls who worked there dressed. She deliberately arrived at the meeting place early and sat in a corner. When Stevens came in, he didn't even notice her until he was about to leave, when he suddenly realized that the mousy girl in the corner was actually Shelley Winters.
Although the film was released in 1951, it was shot in 1949. Paramount Studios had already released its blockbuster Sunset Blvd. (1950) in 1950 when this film wrapped. The studio did not want what was sure to be another blockbuster in this film competing for Oscars with "Sunset Blvd." so it waited until 1951 to release this film, which actually pleased director George Stevens, as he would use the extra time to spend editing the film. As it turned out, the two films would have competed against each other at the Oscars had they been released the same year.
George Stevens often referred to Technicolor as having an "Oh what a beautiful morning" quality to it, something completely inappropriate to the tone of this film, hence it was made in black and white.
Paramount was reluctant to make the film, as it had already put Theodore Dreiser's novel on the screen in 1931 under its original title, An American Tragedy (1931). The studio's lack of commitment ultimately changed when director George Stevens sued them for preventing him from working and therefore breaching his contract.
The scene in which Elizabeth Taylor's character faints, was said to have been the best faint ever executed by an actress. Taylor's unconcerned attitude with the health of her own body and the force in which she falls on her ribs and face is able to make any audience wince.
Although George Eastman's leather jacket might seem to suggest that he is a WWII veteran of the Army Air Corps, it is in fact a police officer's jacket, as shown by the two grommets on the left side for pinning on a badge.
With this film, Elizabeth Taylor found herself in the most demanding role of her career. George Stevens asked much of her in take after take, but Taylor appreciated the challenge. She was quoted as saying, "[Stevens] didn't make me feel like a puppet. He was an insinuating director. He gave indications of what he wanted but didn't tell you specifically what to do or how to move. He would just say, ?No, stop ? that's not quite right,' and make you get it from your insides and do it again until it was the way he wanted it." Stevens himself saw what Taylor was up against: "If she thought I was more severe than needed, she'd spit fire. But the following morning she had forgotten it completely....She had enormous beauty but she wasn't charmed by it. It was there. It was a handicap and she discouraged people being overimpressed with it. She was seventeen, and she had been an actress all her life. The only thing was to prod her a bit into realizing her dramatic potential."
Elizabeth Taylor was also initially intimidated by the intense scenes she had to play with Montgomery Clift,"...because Monty was the New York stage actor and I felt very much the inadequate teenage Hollywood sort of puppet that had just worn pretty clothes and hadn't really acted except with horses and dogs." Clift put her at ease, and the two began a life-long friendship on the set.
Exteriors were shot on location at Lake Tahoe as well as on Cascade Lake in Nevada. It was already cold in the Sierras, and before Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor could frolic on the lakeside, the crew had to use hoses to spray snow off of the ground and from any tree branches that appeared in the shots.
In her autobiography, Shelley Winters described George Stevens' way of working: "He would discuss the scene, but not the lines, and would photograph the second or third rehearsal so the scene had an almost improvisatory quality. ...Stevens would print the first take, then spend the next three hours minutely rehearsing the scene, then film it again. He explained to me that in this way he often got actors' unplanned reactions that were spontaneous and human and often exactly right. And often when actors overintellectualize or plan their reactions, they aren't as good."
George Stevens was also a firm believer in running rushes at night, and having the actors in attendance. As Shelley Winters said, "Stevens would print several takes of each scene and then explain to us why one was better than the other. The whole experience was a joy."
The well-known initial love scene between George and Angela was filmed in extreme close-up, using a six-inch lens. George Stevens rewrote the dialogue for the sequence at the last moment and surprised Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor with the revised pages.
When George goes to the movie theater, the poster outside indicates the attraction is an "Ivan Moffat production"; Ivan Moffat was an associate producer on this film, and was also a member of director George Stevens's motion picture unit during World War II.
A George Stevens set was typically a very quiet set, so that the actors could concentrate and not be distracted; even the technicians and crewmen tried to move equipment, sets and lights as silently as possible.
Montgomery Clift showed up for the shoot with his drama coach, Mira Rostova. This did not cause friction on the set because George Stevens simply barred Rostova from the premises, so Clift had to consult with her well out of Stevens' sight. Clift kept up such intensity as George, he would find himself drenched in sweat at the end of a scene. He told Taylor that "that's the worst part about acting ? your body doesn't know you're acting. It sweats and makes adrenalin just as though your emotions were real."
While Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters had nothing but praise for George Stevens as a director, Montgomery Clift found him lacking and unimaginative, labelling him a mere "craftsman." Clift's biggest disagreement with Stevens did not deal with the character of George, but with Winters' character, Alice Tripp. He thought that Tripp should be much more sympathetic, and that Winters was playing her all wrong.
The novel contains a scene in which Alice goes to a country doctor and tentatively asks about an abortion. Shelley Winters relates in her autobiography that George Stevens initially planned to drop the scene because "it's rather censorable, but I think if we handle it delicately, it will illuminate the factory girl's terrible plight." Winters was given the new script pages one morning and asked to memorize the lines; Stevens planned to rehearse once, then immediately film the scene for spontaneity. "When he called, ?Action!' I was already crying," Winters wrote. "I twisted my white handkerchief into a shredded ball. The scene was nine minutes long. A full camera load. Boy, did I ever act!" Stevens had Winters do the scene again after letting her realize that tears would only frighten the doctor, and that Alice must try and refrain from crying. "Of course, when we saw the two takes the next day, the one in which I followed his exact direction was remarkable, even if I say so myself. ...Every time I've seen that scene in a theater, every man in the audience groans and every woman weeps. George had taught me another lifelong acting lesson: don't indulge yourself ? make the audience weep."
George Stevens liked to play music on the set between takes to keep actors in the mood. Franz Waxman had already written several cues and themes for the film, so on the Paramount stages Stevens would play portions of his score, particularly the "party theme."
The painstaking methods of George Stevens resulted in a final budget of $2.3 million and more than 400,000 feet of film to edit. Stevens and editor William Hornbeck worked on cutting the footage for more than a year.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Based upon the true story of Chester Gillette, who murdered his pregnant girlfriend in 1906. He was tried, convicted and executed in 1908. The ghost of the actual victim, Grace Brown, is said to haunt the house where she lived in upstate New York.
Unclear whether this is foreshadowing, an inside joke (unlikely in view of somber tone) or just an odd choice of words, but early in film Alice tells George Eastman "When you're an Eastman, you not in the same boat as anyone." Later in movie, he takes her out on a boat with the intention of drowning her. (He decides he can't but she falls out and he refuses to save her.)
In the event somebody looks at the stunts section for this film and sees that both Helen Thurston and Polly Burson doubled for Shelley Winters, rest assured that both women did. In the drowning scene Helen started out when she fell into the lake. She fell ill and Polly was called in to finish the scene. Helen came back later and completed the long-shot sequences of the scene.