A criminal known as Thunderbolt is imprisoned and facing execution. Into the next cell is placed Bob Moran, an innocent man who has been framed and who is in love with Thunderbolt's girl. ... See full summary »
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
Writer Theodore Dreiser was dismayed to find that director Josef von Sternberg and Paramount had taken so many liberties with his book, and he successfully sued, which forced von Sternberg to add many scenes that had been edited out of the movie. The resulting final cut was so far from what von Sternberg had intended, he disowned the picture. See more »
Wrong director tries hard, Sylvia Sidney comes off best
Originally this adapation of the Dreiser novel was planned by Sergei Eisenstein, during 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 the American scene ludicrously wrong, but finding a real connection between Dreiser's depiction of a weak youth whose desire for wealth and comfort sends him on an assembly line to murder, and Eisenstein's own mechanistic editing style and view of capitalism's destructiveness.
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.
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