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Friday, 11 December 2009

An American Tragedy (1931)

And another one bites the dust! Yes, I've managed to track down another of my 'must see' movies and, sorry to say, it was another disappointment. In fact the background story to this film's genesis is rather more interesting than the movie itself.

Theodore Dreiser's weighty novel, based on an actual 1906 murder and trial, was long considered 'the great American novel' (trademark) and is still thought of as one of the landmarks in American fiction. The acclaimed Russian director Sergei Eisenstein was invited by the studio (Paramount) to transfer this sacred cow to the screen, but his treatment was firmly rejected as incomprehensible, heavy as it was on political and sociological argument. So Paramount turned to Josef von Sternberg who had produced some popular hits for them and it is his version that we now have. Dreiser was so enraged by all of this that he attempted to prevent the studio from releasing the film -- and lost his case!

So what is wrong with the movie? Well nearly everything! It is competently filmed with a heavy emphasis on water symbolism which features meaningfully in the plot, but it is appallingly and stiltedly acted. I have seen sufficient early 30s movies to know that this is not the result of early sound techniques, since there are plenty of wonderful movies from this period, including those that von Sternberg made with Marlene Dietrich. The handsome but weak-willed lead is played by Phillips Holmes who preens and wimpers on the long road to self-knowledge. He never graduated from B movies before his early death in 1942. Sylvia Sidney in an early role is relatively appealing as the poor farm girl who stands between him and social status, but her playing is not as layered as it might be. Frances Dee as the society girl who captures his fickle affections is attractive, but any actress could have taken the part. As for the final courtroom scenes, I have seldom seen such over-the-top barnstorming by a group of actors. It all felt like a performance by some third-rate provincial theatrical troupe.

Of course the story was remade in 1951 as "A Place in the Sun" which is a definite example of the remake being better thought of than the original. This is down to its charismatic casting of Montgomery Cliff, Shelley Winters, and a beefed-up role for Elizabeth Taylor as the rich girl. It's the more watchable movie, even if its basic elements are simplified and romanticized. I think Dreiser would have hated that version as well.

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Hi there folks. I have had something of an accident which prevents my typing easily, so there will be an unavoidable hiatus until these old bones get themselves together again. Hoping to be back soon to avert a second American Tragedy.
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