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An American Tragedy

An American Tragedy(1931)

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teaser An American Tragedy (1931)

The better-known 1951 film version of Theodore Dreiser's 1925 novel An American Tragedy is A Place in the Sun, directed by George Stevens and starring Montgomery Clift as a poor but ambitious young man; Elizabeth Taylor as the rich girl he loves; and Shelley Winters as the hapless working-class girl he seduces, with disastrous consequences. But the rarely-seen first film version of the novel was made in 1931, just six years after the book was published, and it was directed by one of that era's most distinctive auteurs.

For Austrian-born director Josef von Sternberg, An American Tragedy was a radical departure from the glamour-soaked American vehicles he made in the early 1930s starring Marlene Dietrich. At the time, von Sternberg was still in the throes of his personal and professional obsession with Dietrich--two American collaborations had quickly followed their first film together, The Blue Angel. Dietrich had returned to Germany to visit her family and to recover from bad reviews. At loose ends, von Sternberg took on an even more challenging adversary, An American Tragedy's author Theodore Dreiser. As von Sternberg wrote in his memoir, "I took a rest doing a little finger exercise on An American Tragedy. My knuckles were rapped this time also."

Paramount had bought the film rights to Dreiser's book (which was based on a real murder case from 1906), and Russian director Sergei Eisenstein, then under contract at the studio, had originally been slated to write and direct. Eisenstein delivered a treatment for the screenplay, but even though associate producer David O. Selznick called it "the most moving script I have ever read," Paramount head B.P. Schulberg was not impressed and replaced Eisenstein with von Sternberg. Samuel Hoffenberg and von Sternberg wrote a new script, and after the film was finished, the studio screened it for Dreiser, who sued, according to von Sternberg, to "stop its exhibition, claiming it outraged his book." The court allowed the film's release, ordering the studio to restore some of the incidents from the novel which had been deleted from the film. Eisenstein returned to Russia, and never made an American film. The Hayes Office also had some objections, such as references to the couple's efforts to arrange an abortion, which led to the film being banned in several states, England, South Africa and Italy.

The strongest performance in An American Tragedy is by Sylvia Sidney as the main character Clyde's downtrodden lover, giving her a poignant appeal that Shelley Winters's drab, downbeat portrayal in A Place in the Sun lacks. A very young Frances Dee, in an early performance as Clyde's rich girlfriend, is also good. But critics found the blond and preppy Phillips Holmes, who plays the main character Clyde, wooden and inexpressive. The Time magazine review called Holmes's performance, in typical Time wisecracking language, as "faintly Barrymorose."

More than 30 years later, re-evaluating An American Tragedy, film historian and critic William K. Everson described the film as the "least familiar and most elusive of all the von Sternberg Paramounts." Noting that "through the years it has been consistently maligned as being "sub-Sternberg, a travesty on the original, little more than cheap melodrama," Everson wrote that it had been critically attacked and was a box office flop. But looking at it with fresh eyes, he found it "a surprisingly powerful and satisfying piece of work," and in comparison to A Place in the Sun, "It is starker, and thus probably closer to the spirit if not the letter of Dreiser's original."

Producer-Director: Josef von Sternberg
Screenplay: Samuel Hoffenstein, based on the novel by Theodore Dreiser
Cinematography: Lee Garmes
Principal Cast: Phillips Holmes (Clyde Griffiths), Sylvia Sidney (Roberta Alden), Frances Dee (Sondra Finchley), Irving Pichel (District Attorney), Frederick Burton (Samuel Griffiths), Claire McDowell (Mrs. Samuel Griffiths), Wallace Middleton (Gilbert Griffiths), Lucille LaVerne (Clyde's mother)
95 minutes

by Margarita Landazuri

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