An American Tragedy


1h 35m 1931
An American Tragedy

Brief Synopsis

A factory worker's romance with a beautiful heiress is complicated by an earlier fate.

Film Details

Genre
Drama
Crime
Adaptation
Release Date
Aug 22, 1931
Premiere Information
New York opening: 5 Aug 1931
Production Company
Paramount Publix Corp.
Distribution Company
Paramount Publix Corp.
Country
United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (New York, 1925).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 35m
Sound
Mono (Western Electric Noiseless Recording)
Color
Black and White
Film Length
10 reels

Synopsis

Clyde Griffiths, the son of fanatical street evangelists, was neglected by his parents and grew up hungry and poverty-stricken. He now works as bellhop "number seven" in the Green-Davison Hotel in Kansas City. Although he longs to be accepted into society, he reluctantly dates a maid at the hotel. One night Clyde is involved in an accident in which a fellow employee, who is driving drunk, hits a little girl and kills her. Clyde and his friends flee the scene of the accident and Clyde, fearing he will be arrested, leaves town. Following a series of odd jobs, Clyde, now twenty, gets a job as a bellboy in a large Chicago hotel. His wealthy uncle, Samuel Griffiths, who is a guest in the hotel, then gets him a job in his shirt factory in Lycurgus, New York. Following an apprenticeship, Clyde becomes foreman of the collar stamping department, which employs only young women, but he is forbidden from fraternizing with the workers. Ignored by his uncle's socially-conscious family and longing for companionship with a woman, Clyde is quickly smitten by a new factory worker named Roberta Alden. Breaking the rules, Clyde and "Bert" have a secret love affair in the spring and summer, spending their week-ends outdoors. When winter comes, Clyde pleads with Bert to allow him to meet with her in her room, and seduces her. Meanwhile, Clyde has met Sondra Finchley, a beautiful debutante. As the weeks pass, Clyde ignores Bert and falls in love with Sondra. When Bert discovers she is pregnant, she pleads with Clyde to marry her, but he suggests she return to her parents' farm, promising he will marry her later. In the summer, Sondra invites Clyde to secretly join her at a week-end party and promises to marry him when she comes of age in October. After reading a newspaper article about the accidental drowning of a couple, Clyde contemplates drowning Bert then invites her to spend a week-end in the Adirondacks, where they will marry. While out on a lake in a canoe, Clyde confesses that he brought Bert to the lake to drown her, but has suddenly decided to marry her. Bert, confused, stands up and shakes Clyde, and by doing so, overturns the boat. As Bert screams for help, Clyde swims to shore and allows her to drown. Some time later, Clyde's room is searched by the police, and love letters from Bert that mention Sondra Finchley are found. At Sondra's camping party, Clyde is arrested and charged with Bert's murder. Throughout a nationally publicized, lengthy trial, Clyde maintains that he is innocent. Despite his attorneys' attempts to convince the jury that Clyde's "change of heart" in the boat removes him from guilt, Clyde is convicted of first-degree murder, and is sentenced to die by the electric chair within ten days. After Clyde is placed in a cell, his mother, who was flown to the trial by a newspaper to act as a reporter, pleads with Clyde to tell her the truth about the murder, and he admits that, although he did not kill Bert, he could have saved her but didn't because he wanted her dead. His mother blames herself for bringing Clyde up among evil, dirty surroundings, admitting that while she and his father were trying to save the souls of others, they let Clyde go astray. After telling Clyde to face his punishment "like a man," Mrs. Griffiths tells him that someday, somewhere, he will be given the right start and embraces her son through the prison bars.

Film Details

Genre
Drama
Crime
Adaptation
Release Date
Aug 22, 1931
Premiere Information
New York opening: 5 Aug 1931
Production Company
Paramount Publix Corp.
Distribution Company
Paramount Publix Corp.
Country
United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (New York, 1925).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 35m
Sound
Mono (Western Electric Noiseless Recording)
Color
Black and White
Film Length
10 reels

Articles

An American Tragedy


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
An American Tragedy

An American Tragedy

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

Frances Dee (1907-2004)


Frances Dee, the lovely, intelligent actress who was a leading lady to some of Hollywood's top male stars of the '30s, including Maurice Chevalier, Ronald Colman, Fredric March and her late husband, Joel McCrea, died on March 6 at Norwalk hospital in Norwalk, Connecticut from complications of a stroke. She was 96.

She was born Jane Dee, on November 26, 1907 in Los Angeles, California. She was the daughter of an Army officer who grew up in Chicago after her father was transferred there when she was still a toddler. After he was re-stationed to Los Angeles in the late '20s, Jane accompanied him back.

Although she didn't harbor any serious intentions of becoming a star, Dee, almost out of curiosity, found work in Hollywood as an extra. With bit parts in small features in the films Words and Music (1929), True to the Navy, and Monte Carlo (both 1930), it didn't take long for studio executives to take notice of the sleek, stylish brunette. They changed her first name to Francis, and gave her a prominent role opposite Maurice Chevalier in one of the first all-talking musicals, The Playboy of Paris (1930).

She proved she could handle drama in her next big hit, An American Tragedy (1931) as Sondra Finchley, the role played by Elizabeth Taylor in the George Stevens' remake A Place in the Sun (1951). She met her husband Joel McCrea while filming The Silver Cord (1933), and after a romantic courtship, were married that same year in Rye, New York. It was well-known within film industry circles that their 57-year marriage (ending in 1990 when McCrea passed away) was one of the most successful among Hollywood stars.

From there, Dee played important leads in several fine motion pictures thoughout the decade: Little Women (1933), starring Katharine Hepburn; Blood Money (also 1933), where she was cast thrillingly against type as a sex-hungry socialite whose taste for masochistic boyfriends leads to harrowing results; Of Human Bondage (1934), in which she played Leslie Howard's devoted girlfriend; The Gay Deception (1935), a charming romantic comedy co-starring Frances Lederer; Wells Fargo (1937) a broad sweeping Western where she again teamed up with her husband McCrea; and the classic period epic If I Were King (1938) making a marvelous match for Ronald Colman.

Dee's film career slowed considerably in the '40s, as she honorably spent more time raising her family. Still, she was featured in two fine films: the profound, moving anti-Nazi drama So Ends Our Night (1941) with Fredric March; and Val Lewton's terrific cult hit I Walked with a Zombie (1943), portraying the inquisitive nurse trying to unravel the mystery of voodoo occurrences on a West Indian plantation. Dee officially retired after starring in the family film Gypsy Colt (1954) to commit herself full-time to her children and her husband.

For those so inclined, you might want to check out Complicated Women (2003), a tight documentary regarding the racy Pre-Code films that represented a realistic depiction of the Depression-era morality before the Hays code took over Hollywood in 1934. Frances Dee, although well in her nineties, offers some lucid insight into her performance in Blood Money, and clearly demonstrates an actor's process of thought and understanding in role development.

She is survived by three sons including the actor Jody McCrea, who found fame as "Bonehead" in the AIP Beach Party films of the '60s, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

by Michael T. Toole

Frances Dee (1907-2004)

Frances Dee, the lovely, intelligent actress who was a leading lady to some of Hollywood's top male stars of the '30s, including Maurice Chevalier, Ronald Colman, Fredric March and her late husband, Joel McCrea, died on March 6 at Norwalk hospital in Norwalk, Connecticut from complications of a stroke. She was 96. She was born Jane Dee, on November 26, 1907 in Los Angeles, California. She was the daughter of an Army officer who grew up in Chicago after her father was transferred there when she was still a toddler. After he was re-stationed to Los Angeles in the late '20s, Jane accompanied him back. Although she didn't harbor any serious intentions of becoming a star, Dee, almost out of curiosity, found work in Hollywood as an extra. With bit parts in small features in the films Words and Music (1929), True to the Navy, and Monte Carlo (both 1930), it didn't take long for studio executives to take notice of the sleek, stylish brunette. They changed her first name to Francis, and gave her a prominent role opposite Maurice Chevalier in one of the first all-talking musicals, The Playboy of Paris (1930). She proved she could handle drama in her next big hit, An American Tragedy (1931) as Sondra Finchley, the role played by Elizabeth Taylor in the George Stevens' remake A Place in the Sun (1951). She met her husband Joel McCrea while filming The Silver Cord (1933), and after a romantic courtship, were married that same year in Rye, New York. It was well-known within film industry circles that their 57-year marriage (ending in 1990 when McCrea passed away) was one of the most successful among Hollywood stars. From there, Dee played important leads in several fine motion pictures thoughout the decade: Little Women (1933), starring Katharine Hepburn; Blood Money (also 1933), where she was cast thrillingly against type as a sex-hungry socialite whose taste for masochistic boyfriends leads to harrowing results; Of Human Bondage (1934), in which she played Leslie Howard's devoted girlfriend; The Gay Deception (1935), a charming romantic comedy co-starring Frances Lederer; Wells Fargo (1937) a broad sweeping Western where she again teamed up with her husband McCrea; and the classic period epic If I Were King (1938) making a marvelous match for Ronald Colman. Dee's film career slowed considerably in the '40s, as she honorably spent more time raising her family. Still, she was featured in two fine films: the profound, moving anti-Nazi drama So Ends Our Night (1941) with Fredric March; and Val Lewton's terrific cult hit I Walked with a Zombie (1943), portraying the inquisitive nurse trying to unravel the mystery of voodoo occurrences on a West Indian plantation. Dee officially retired after starring in the family film Gypsy Colt (1954) to commit herself full-time to her children and her husband. For those so inclined, you might want to check out Complicated Women (2003), a tight documentary regarding the racy Pre-Code films that represented a realistic depiction of the Depression-era morality before the Hays code took over Hollywood in 1934. Frances Dee, although well in her nineties, offers some lucid insight into her performance in Blood Money, and clearly demonstrates an actor's process of thought and understanding in role development. She is survived by three sons including the actor Jody McCrea, who found fame as "Bonehead" in the AIP Beach Party films of the '60s, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. by Michael T. Toole

Quotes

Trivia

Theodore Dreiser's novel was based on an actual murder case of a young man who drowned a girl in a lake in Herkimer County, New York on 11 July 1906. The man was executed on 20 March 1908 by electrocution.

The mother of the real-life murderer filed a $150,000 libel suit against Paramount in 1934. The suit was settled out of court.

Theodore Dreiser sued Paramount for misrepresenting his novel by transforming it into an ordinary murder story. The judge ruled in favor of Paramount; Dreiser's motion to prevent release of the film was denied.

The movie was banned in England, South Africa and Italy because of reference to abortion. Other states required allusions to abortion to be deleted before release.

The location of the actual murder case, is said to be haunted by the ghost of the murder victim.

Notes

A written prologue notes that the film is dedicated "to the army of men and women all over the world who have tried to make life better for youth." Throughout the film, onscreen titles announcing the passage of the seasons and changes of locale are superimposed over water. Theodore Dreiser's novel was based on an actual murder case involving a young man named Chester E. Gillette, who drowned Grace Brown in a lake in Herkimer County, NY on July 11, 1906. Gillette was electrocuted on March 20, 1908. According to Variety, renowned Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein, who had been signed to a contract by Paramount in 1930, was asked to adapt Dreiser's two-volume novel for the screen and was slated to direct. Eisenstein reportedly turned in a treatment for a fourteen-reel film, which was, Variety stated, "entirely satisfactory" to Dreiser, but which Paramount rejected, then replaced Eisenstein with Josef von Sternberg, who re-adapted the text with Samuel Hoffenstein. Motion Picture Herald erroneously credits Bodil Rosing with the role of Mrs. Asa Griffiths, who was actually portrayed by Lucille LaVerne.
       According to information contained in the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, on January 21, 1931, Colonel Jason S. Joy, Director of the Studio Relations Office of the AMPP in Hollywood, received a letter from an unidentified person which stated that the drama of the film "shows the tragic result of attempting birth control, all of which tends to prove that the Pope is right." On February 9, 1931, Will H. Hays, President of the MPPDA in New York, wrote to Joy, stating: "The love making certainly does not have to be salacious. There need be, in my opinion, only the slightest reference to the pregnancy. Every opportunity might be sought to leave the impression that the boy was fundamentally of good character save only this trouble....There should be no reference to abortion and only the slightest reference to the idea that they "had done everything." A plot synopsis included in the MPAA files alludes to abortion with the statement, "Roberta uses various remedies. They fail." Joy wrote to Paramount Studio Chief B. P. Schulberg on April 25, 1931 stating, "If the references to abortion remain in "American Tragedy"...it will surely tend to eventually open the way for a more serious development of this subject in pictures." An inter-office memo at the AMPP on May 25, 1931 states that Schulberg was "positively unwilling" to eliminate Roberta's attempts to secure an abortion from the film because of an earlier approval given by Father Daniel J. Lord, a clergyman who collaborated on the draft of the Hays Code. On July 15, 1931, Lasky wrote to Hays agreeing to eliminate the following dialogue, which refers to abortion: "You went to the druggist who testified here." "Yes sire." "Anyone else?" "Yes sire, to seven others before I could get anything at all." "But what you got didn't help, did it? "No sir." The film was banned in England and South Africa; Italy banned the film because of the reference to abortion; and New York, Virginia and Kansas censor boards called for the deletion of the allusion to abortion during the trial.
       According to Daily Variety, on October 18, 1934, Mrs. Minerva Brown, the mother of the victim in the real case, filed a $150,000 libel suit against Paramount for damages resulting from the film version of the novel. Brown and Paramount trustees reportedly reached a settlement out of court. Ads for the film state: "CAUGHT! It Might Have Been You! Twenty-one-too eager, too impatient for life. He makes youth's fateful mistake. He's caught. And now his flaming drama is caught for you in this picture of tremendous power."
       On June 20, 1931, Motion Picture Herald reported that a committee of writers and publishers met on 16 June to view the film and discuss whether the studio had made a faithful adaptation of Dreiser's novel. Dreiser went on to sue Paramount for misrepresenting his novel. A transcript of the decision of Justice Graham Witschief in the Supreme Court of New York printed in Motion Picture Herald on August 8, 1931, states that Dreiser claimed that Paramount had transferred his novel into an "ordinary murder story," depicting Clyde Griffiths (in Dreiser's words) as a "designing, lecherous, mean and contemptuous individual." "He claims," the judge continues, "that instead of an indictment of society, the picture is a justification of society and an indictment of Clyde Griffiths." The judge ruled in favor of Paramount and denied Dreiser's motion for an injunction against Paramount releasing the film. The Motion Picture Herald article states that Witschief's motion was "likely to become an important part of legal tradition and precedent in the relation of the art of literature and the art of the motion picture."
       In 1926, playwright Patrick Kearney adapted Dreiser's novel into a play, An American Tragedy, starring Morgan Farley, Katherine Wilson, and Miriam Hopkins, which opened in New York on 11 October and ran for 216 performances. Kearney was among the writers who participated on Dreiser's behalf in the committee which met in June 1931. Edwin Piscator and Lena Goldschmidt wrote a translation of the novel, considered "leftist" by some critics, that was highly acclaimed in Berlin, Germany. On March 13, 1936, the Piscator-Goldschmidt version opened on Broadway as The Case of Clyde Griffiths. Dreiser's novel was the source for the 1950 film, A Place in the Sun, directed by George Stevens and starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters. On March 28, 1954, CBS televised a one-hour version of A Place in the Sun, directed by Buzz Kulik and starring John Derek, Ann Blyth and Marilyn Erskine. In 1973, Daily Variety reported that a five-million-dollar lawsuit had been filed against Paramount Pictures by Harold J. Dies, trustee of the Theodore Dreiser Estate, charging Paramount with copyright infringement over theatrical and television rights to An American Tragedy and A Place in the Sun. Dies claimed that rights to both films had reverted to the Dreiser Estate, and sought damages, as well as a restraining order to prevent Paramount from further distribution of the films. The outcome of the suit has not been determined.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States 1931

Released in United States March 1977

Released in United States 1931

Released in United States March 1977 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (Double Vision-Two different classics made from the same story) March 9-27, 1977.)