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An American Tragedy (1931)

Approved | | Crime, Drama, Romance | 22 August 1931 (USA)
A poor factory worker, employed by a wealthy uncle, falls in love with a beautiful heiress but his happiness and promising future are jeopardized by a previous affair with a coworker he impregnated.


Josef von Sternberg (as Josef Von Sternberg)


Theodore Dreiser (novel), Samuel Hoffenstein (screenplay)




Complete credited cast:
Phillips Holmes ... Clyde Griffiths
Sylvia Sidney ... Roberta Alden
Frances Dee ... Sondra Finchley
Irving Pichel ... District Attorney Orville Mason
Frederick Burton ... Samuel Griffiths
Claire McDowell ... Mrs. Samuel Griffiths
Wallace Middleton Wallace Middleton ... Gilbert Griffiths
Emmett Corrigan ... Belknap
Charles Middleton ... Jephson (as Charles B. Middleton)
Lucille La Verne ... Mrs. Asa Griffiths
Al Hart ... Titus Alden (as Albert Hart)
Fanny Midgley Fanny Midgley ... Mrs. Titus Alden
Arnold Korff ... Judge
Russ Powell Russ Powell ... Coroner Fred Heit (as Russell Powell)
Learn more

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Having just reached adulthood, Clyde Griffiths has always lamented his lot in life, he the only son of poor missionaries. He has gotten a peripheral view of society life, to which he aspires, in his work as a bellhop at an upscale hotel. If being truthful to himself, he would admit that he lacks moral strength, he often taking the easiest but perhaps not the most ethical path to protect himself. Forced to move from place to place out of circumstance, he ends up in Lycurgus, New York working at the Samuel Griffiths Collar and Shirt factory, Samuel Griffiths his paternal uncle. Not knowing his uncle or his family, Clyde only wants a chance to get ahead, not expecting anything else from his wealthy relations. After an apprenticeship, Clyde ends up as the foreman in the stamping department. Despite a company rule forbidding foremen to fraternize with staff, especially those working in the same department, Clyde begins an affair, a clandestine one out of necessity, with Roberta Alden, who ... Written by Huggo

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


Impetous youth...loving grandly...branded by passion...scorning advice...TOO WEAK TO FACE THE CONSEQUENCES! (Print Ad-The Philadelphia Inquirer,((Philadelphia, Penna.)) 4 September 1931) See more »


Crime | Drama | Romance


Approved | See all certifications »

Did You Know?


A play, also based on the novel as is this film, opened on Broadway at the Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St., on October 11, 1926 and ran for 216 performances until April, 1927. A revival was put on at the Waldorf Theatre, 116 W. 50th St., beginning February 20, 1931 and ran for 137 performances until June, 1931. See more »


Version of Amerikietiska tragedija (1981) See more »


Some of These Days
(1910) (uncredited)
Music and Lyrics by Shelton Brooks
Variations played over opening credits
Sung by boys and girls at the lake
See more »

User Reviews

A face in the crowd wants his place in the sun
6 July 2013 | by AlsExGalSee all my reviews

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 spartanly told.

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.

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Release Date:

22 August 1931 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

Eine amerikanische Tragödie See more »

Company Credits

Production Co:

Paramount Pictures See more »
Show more on IMDbPro »

Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

Mono (Western Electric Noiseless Recording)

Aspect Ratio:

1.20 : 1
See full technical specs »

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