6.6/10
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23 user 8 critic

An American Tragedy (1931)

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.

Director:

Josef von Sternberg (as Josef Von Sternberg)

Writers:

Theodore Dreiser (novel), Samuel Hoffenstein (screenplay)
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Cast

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 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)
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Storyline

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

Taglines:

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 »

Genres:

Crime | Drama | Romance

Certificate:

Approved | See all certifications »
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Details

Country:

USA

Language:

English

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

Runtime:

Sound Mix:

Mono (Western Electric Noiseless Recording)

Aspect Ratio:

1.20 : 1
See full technical specs »
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Did You Know?

Trivia

One of the very few feature films to be dubbed in Swedish. The audience, however, did not take to Swedish voices in an American film and preferred the subtitled version. Since then, subtitling has been the general practice in Sweden, with the exception of animated films and children's films (even then, an option of seeing the original version is usually available). See more »

Connections

Version of Nakaw na pag-ibig (1980) See more »

Soundtracks

Nearer My God to Thee
(1856) (uncredited)
Music by Lowell Mason
Played on an organ at the mission
See more »

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User Reviews

 
AN American TRAGEDY (Josef von Sternberg, 1931) ***
18 May 2011 | by Bunuel1976See all my reviews

A classic American novel (by Theodore Dreiser) that was twice brought to the screen by master film-makers but, while both were reasonably well-received (the second – George Stevens' A PLACE IN THE SUN {1951} – being even allotted 'masterpiece' status in some quarters), they were also criticized for failing to bring out the essence of their source material! For the record, I had watched the latter version ages ago but will be following this one with it – so, a direct comparison will certainly prove interesting; incidentally, I own two copies of the rare 1931 film and, while I obviously watched the one with superior image quality (acquired only hours prior to the viewing!), I still had to contend with a muffled soundtrack that occasionally rendered the dialogue unintelligible.

Anyway, Sternberg was deemed the wrong director for this subject matter and, to be honest, the plot does feel somewhat dreary here – though the climactic trial undeniably compels attention (with the film's "Pre-Code" vintage being identified via a discussion of the soon-to-be taboo subject of abortion!). Incidentally, I have just stumbled upon the script which the great Soviet film-maker Sergei M. Eisenstein supplied, since he had previously been entrusted with the project for his American debut – which would subsequently never come to pass! Again, it would be fascinating to evaluate the two versions side-by-side but I do not have the time to go through the latter right now; if anything, I would love to check out Sternberg's celebrated autobiography "Fun In A Chinese Laundry" (which I also recently got hold of) to go along with my current retrospective of his work!

As was Sternberg's fashion, the visual aspect of the film rather eclipses narrative concerns. Though the contemporary setting here precludes his usual emphasis on ornate sets and expressive lighting, he still employed one of Hollywood's most renowned cameramen in Lee Garmes (especially noteworthy are the ripple effect throughout the opening credits and his trademark use of sustained dissolves during scene transitions). On his part, the latter managed to externalize the protagonist's conflicted feelings by way of the various milieux in which he moved: mission, factory, hotels, high-society circles, country-side, courtroom and, finally, prison.

This was just as well because stiff leading man Phillips Holmes (who looks an awful lot like Andy Warhol "superstar" Joe Dallesandro!) seems overwhelmed by the complexities of the role, which rather compromises audience identification with his plight! Incidentally, the script's attempt to pass this off as a problem picture was bizarre, to say the least – that said, the whole moralistic angle (which I do not think is present in the 1951 adaptation) led to a predictably serene conclusion, in which the anti-hero accepts the meting out of justice as his only possible fate. Even so, Dreiser was dissatisfied with how the film turned out (apparently ignoring the potent sociological element, he objected to the script's focus on the murder investigation) and took Paramount to court!; though his arguments were ultimately overruled, the studio still ordered considerable re-shoots…and, ironically, it was now Sternberg's turn to express dismay and he even went so far as to disown the released version!

One of the two women with whom the protagonist is involved is played by Sylvia Sidney (this was made the same year her brief major period – including films for Mamoulian, Vidor, Lang, Hitchcock and Wyler – kicked off): she is excellent, with some even suggesting the actress deserved an Oscar for it!; her death scene is very similar to the botched murder attempt, also occurring during a would-be innocent boat ride, in another classic by an equally gifted film-maker i.e. F.W. Murnau's SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS (1927). The other girl is Frances Dee – whose essentially small part, however, is obviously much reduced in comparison to that of Elizabeth Taylor's in the (lengthier) remake but also to Sidney's here; she is excluded, for plot purposes, from the latter stages of the film – but it must be said that the overall compactness of sequences vis-a'-vis the remake was not an artistic choice but merely the prevalent style of the era! Also on hand to fill in the roles of the two formidable lawyers in the case (incorporating an unprecedented re-enactment of the accident, complete with boat and passengers!) are District Attorney Irving Pichel and Defense Counsel Charles Middleton.


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