Theodore Dreiser’s gigantic, moody, sociologically dense 1925 An American Tragedy is, for me, the greatest American novel of the twentieth century. Like its chief competition for that title, another 1925 book, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, it is about the collision between an upwardly mobile heart, perpetually courting social acceptance, and realities that seem to conspire against allowing the boy’s or the man’s genuine admittance. In either case, the “American tragedy” is how American myth makes promises and promises that American reality cannot deliver on. It is no wonder that fifteen years later Richard Wright wrote an African-American version of Dreiser’s book, Native Son.
Dreiser’s masterpiece was supposed to be directed by Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein, but the studio, Paramount, and the Soviet filmmaker couldn’t come to terms and Paramount substituted their own Josef von Sternberg. His is a very beautiful film, but a small, slight, etched gem, not the tremendous thing that Dreiser wrought. It is sharply observant but (as Andrew Sarris has noted) essentially psychological, not sociopolitical. It towers above George Stevens’s later, glossy film adaptation (midwifed by a play), A Place in the Sun (1951). With its lyrical dissolves, achy loon, and romantic swank, and Elizabeth Taylor even more gorgeous than usual, A Place in the Sun is closer to An American Tragedy had Fitzgerald rather than Dreiser written it.
Phillips Holmes is excellent—far better than Montgomery Clift in A Place—as Clyde Griffiths, whom Dreiser based on Chester Gillette, who was electrocuted at New York’s Auburn Prison in 1908 for the murder of pregnant girlfriend Gracie Brown. The “crime” in both Dreiser’s novel and Sternberg’s film, but not in Stevens’s sanctimonious travesty, is as ambiguous as it had been in reality. Holmes’s lack of affect is seen by some as a defect; rather, this contributes to his unerring portrait of a youth overwhelmed by childhood want, thwarted aspiration, and conflict between his working-class girlfriend, Roberta, and his society goddess. Clyde is the son of evangelicals at the Star Hope Mission, where he has seen, his mother mentions during prayer, “only misery and evil.” Sternberg aborts this glimpse of the mother mid-prayer, where she has just counseled her son to turn himself into the police over a hit-and-run. By the expressive cut from the scene, we know that Clyde has been beaten down not only by “misery and evil” but by the self-righteous example of his mother’s impossible “goodness.” Implicitly, her prayers, like this one, went on and on and on.
Sternberg treats factory worker Roberta sympathetically, casting humane, exquisite Sylvia Sidney, the “proletarian princess,” in the role; Stevens casts Shelley Winters in the part, and makes her a nagging, one-note witch. Meanwhile, his camera falls over Taylor’s rich girl. Stevens makes the Roberta-character loathsome so as to manipulate us into self-condemnation for hating her. Don’t ask, because I couldn’t begin to fathom what, if anything, goes on in the mind of a George Stevens.
The film opens, as the credits roll, with a shot of water—say, lake water—being continually disturbed by a thrown-in pebble, generating concentric circles. Thus three meanings coalesce from the outset: the canoe trip during which the pregnant Roberta, who cannot swim, will fall overboard and drown; by its future tense regarding Clyde’s outcome, the idea of Fate; Sternberg’s psychological slant—the idea of Clyde’s unconscious, where his own sense of guilt for Roberta’s drowning will disastrously suit the official proceeding of the murder trial.
The film proper, with similar economy, locates the boy in a posh Kansas City hotel, where he works as a bellhop; a woman gives Clyde a substantial tip, and he eavesdrops on the conversation about him between her and her mother. Thus we immediately find him around wealth, but not a part of it, just a boy, “Number 7,” struggling to survive, someone who can look at it, and listen to the voices of those who have it, but locked out. Sternberg and scenarist Samuel Hoffenstein have thus begun their crackerjack job of reducing at least Dreiser’s story to a group of highly suggestive and pertinent elements. But the novel’s journalistic objectivity, the massive descriptions that accumulate into a grave context that make Clyde’s example an American tragedy, that is to say, one among countless such tragedies: we are alerted that this won’t figure into the film’s achievement. Fair enough; we are thus advised to take the film on its own, narrower, simpler terms.
Wealthy family relations give Clyde a managerial position in their factory “stamping room” (nightmarishly repetitive work by Roberta and the rest of the crew)—and access to Sondra Finchley, a family friend. Although he promises Roberta he will never leave her, the die is cast.
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