A Place in the Sun – An American Tragedy
When the AFI 100 Years…100 Movies list was released in 1998 I was obsessed with it. I determined to watch every movie on it until I came to films like A Clockwork Orange and Apocalypse Now and decided I didn’t need to see all of them. But I did try to watch as many as possible and realized that I didn’t really agree with the AFI. Of course, some were great but others were just OK and a few I didn’t like at all. A Place in the Sun was one of the latter and I just didn’t like it. But I’m always ready to be proven wrong so when Paramount sent me a copy of the 70th anniversary edition Blu-ray I was happy to give it another chance.
Let’s just get this over with. I still don’t like it. Don’t get me wrong. Thanks to the Blu-ray it looks fantastic and it does offer a strong performance from Elizabeth Taylor but I just don’t like the plot. Montgomery Clift is George Eastman, a poor young man working in his wealthy uncle’s factory. At work he meets Alice Tripp, played by Shelly Winters, and begins a relationship with her. Things are going well until he meets Angela Vickers, played by Elizabeth Taylor, a wealthy young woman. Suddenly, Alice isn’t good enough and he begins to neglect her. The only problem is she’s now pregnant and pressuring George to marry her. What’s a guy to do?
Turns out, nothing good. George decides to kill Alice but at the last minute chickens out. As luck would have it, she dies anyway and George now has to face charges for her murder. This is where my major issue with A Place in the Sun comes in. Somehow we’re supposed to feel sorry for him. We’re supposed to feel bad that he’s getting charged for a murder he didn’t commit (even though he did nothing to stop it). We’re supposed to feel bad he can no longer be with Elizabeth Taylor (even though he impregnated someone else and didn’t bother to let her know). And, based on the final scene, we’re supposed to think he’s the love of her life (even though he lied and let a girl die and basically is a psychopath). What????
After having such a strong reaction to my second viewing of A Place in the Sun I decided to do a little research. It turns out the film is loosely based on a true story. In 1905 Chester Gillette began a relationship with his co-worker Grace Brown and by the next year she was pregnant. It turns out, Chester wasn’t THAT into Grace so he took her out rowing, hit her over the head with a bat and left her to drown. He wasn’t very good at covering his tracks and was soon arrested and later executed. The tragedy was a media sensation and in 1925 Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, a novel inspired by the case, was published.
In 1931 the film version of An American Tragedy was released. Starring Phillips Holmes, Sylvia Sidney and Frances Dee it’s is considered a more faithful adaptation of the events. Curious, I decided to watch it (it’s available on DVD) and immediately liked it so much more than A Place in the Sun.
Like is such a strange word to use when discussing a tragic story but I do think it’s better than the later version. The production values may be lower but the acting is certainly stronger. Sylvia Sidney is utterly tragic as the victim whereas Shelley Winters ultimately came across as whiny and annoying. Philips Holmes (a relative unknown who tragically died young) brings forth the protagonist’s truly evil nature while at the same time being quite charming whereas Montgomery Clift made him seem more like a sad sack. Only Elizabeth Taylor fares better than Frances Dee and that’s mostly because the latter’s role is much smaller than in the remake.
Where An American Tragedy truly succeeds is in the handling of the plot. A Place in the Sun implies the tragedy is not the death of an innocent woman but the unfortunate separation of two lovers because someone else got in the way. In An American Tragedy there is no sympathy for the lovers. All emphasis is placed on the evil act committed and the true tragedy of a young woman’s life cut short because of someone else’s selfishness.
It’s funny, I decided to revisit A Place in the Sun to give it a second chance but my efforts ultimately led me to the true events that inspired it and a much better film adaptation in An American Tragedy. It just goes to show if you dig a little deeper you never know what you might discover.