An American Tragedy (1931)

American Tragedy (1931)

Toronto Film Society presented An American Tragedy on Saturday, May 11, 2013 as part of Season 66 May Festival: The Pre-Code Weekend.

TFS showed this film many years ago and for some reason it still hasn’t been released on DVD.  Being a big fan of Sylvia Sidney and Phillips Holmes, I’m happy to watch anything they’re in and with Josef von Sternberg directing, it’s just an added bonus.  The film didn’t get the greatest of reviews, but when you compare it to its remake A Place in the Sun, I think we get the feel of the grittier psychological make up of these characters.

Caren Feldman, May 11, 2013

American Tragedy (1931)As a picture “An American Tragedy” unreels as an ordinary program effort with an unhappy ending.  The other side is that its relations to the book upon which it is based are decidedly strained.  For box office purposes it has the reputation of the novel and its author behind it to help.  But as Von Sternberg has seen fit to present it this celluloid structure is slow, heavy and not always interesting drama.  Its box office success is very doubtful.

Critics will see two sides to this film—as a picture and as an adaptation of the novel.  The latter phase is not as important to the trade as whether it’s going to do any business.  The answer seems to be that it will take an armful of exploitation to push “Tragedy” around the corner.  It has plenty of things to contend with as concerns financial result, not the least of which is the universal grind policy permitting entrance by patrons at any point in the story.  And “Tragedy” is decidedly not the type of picture which lends itself to this national film house habit.

In its finished screen form the feature is a chaotic piece of work into which the director has pumped a succession of titles, and bad titles, to denote various and long lapses of time.  Consequently, the continuity not only jumps but is constantly jerky.  To those who know what’s coming, it will look very much as if Von Sternberg staged a race to get to the courtroom.  He has gone through the first volume in 10 minutes, or the first reel.

Meanwhile, there is not a performance in the cast to intrigue any real degree of interest and, as a matter of fact, histrionic honors belong to the elegantly voiced Irving Pichel, a veteran of the legit stage and one of the original founders of the Theatre Guild, as the district attorney.

The film spends a third or more of its 96 minutes on the trial.  It’s a big and theatrically good atmospheric scene, although doubtful of compensating for the preceding footage in lieu of the multiple trial pictures already released.  This elongated passage for film purposes also has the handicap of involving neither of the girls as Roberta is already dead, and for whose murder Clyde is convicted, with Sondra escaping through the influence of a wealthy father.  So the entire burden is on Holmes, as the floundering victim, which he is incapable of upholding for the camera.

The impression is that Holmes has been shackled by direction.  Physically, he is a perfect selection for the bewildered boy of the book, and he has shown enough in previous films to make the supposition reasonable that he could play the role, but the outcome is a colorless performance unto the extent of the characterization being unable to arouse audience sympathy or understanding.  On the sympathetic end Sylvia Sidney will capture the major reaction as the trusting Roberta, which she mainly accomplishes by means of a wistful smile.  Frances Dee, as Sondra, merely registers as the Hollywood conception of a debutante and is not important, except as the brusque motivation for Clyde’s reversal of his relations with Roberta and his longing to become of the younger social set of the small town.

Other delineations are relegated to small parts, although some of these bit players stand out.  Excellent photography marks the picture despite the director’s penchant for the consistent use of long footage dissolves.

A summary would stamp the picture more as an outright screen adaptation of the Chester Gillette case, upon which the book was founded, rather than the Dreiser novel.  For those who read the book the film ends upon the introduction of the trial, and they will have found it a disappointing transposition.  But the film has this in its favor—not many film fans have read the book.  If they had, there wouldn’t be so many tabloid newspapers in the country.  The public at large neither has the inclination nor the patience to delve into any double-volume novel.

It took Dreiser 10 years to write “An American Tragedy,” and they cut 100,000 words, or a third volume, from the original manuscript.  However, it’s questionable if even the admirers of this author’s work condone the evident publicity complex he has developed, so it shouldn’t be a matter of inflamed indignation by the minority in defense of the writer over the picture as an illustrated interpretation of the novel.  More likely is it that they’ll simply decide there is no relation between the two and drop the entire matter as needless of discussion.

A sidelight on Dreiser’s official complaint was that it mentioned that the script first prepared by Sergei Eisenstein, to have directed, was entirely satisfactory to the author.  This, however, was not the treatment finally used plus Von Sternberg replacing the Russian in the directorial chair.

After viewing the picture it doesn’t seem that they’ll ever be able to personify this book in pictures, limited as they are by censors and the ever-present problem of running time.  It appears obvious enough that it would have taken a director who liked the novel to mold it into film form.  Von Sternberg publicly made known his antagonism to Dreiser, if not the book, and, perhaps, in a resultant effort to out-Dreiser Dreiser, Von Sternberg fell down.  On the other hand, it’s also plausible that the task of condensing such a work into a program-length picture, while retaining its strength and spirit, is beyond the medium of the screen under theatre schedules.  The stage tried it, not too successfully.

The picturization of “American Tragedy” will have to get over on the strength of the reputation of the book, and it is going to be a tough battle.  The film will win few, if any, readers for the novel.

VARIETY, Sid., August 11, 1931

American Tragedy (1931)This least familiar and most elusive of all the von Sternberg Paramounts (it was made between Dishonored and Shanghai Express) turns out to be a surprisingly powerful and satisfying piece of work.  I say “surprisingly” because through the years it has been consistently maligned as being sub-Sternberg, a travesty on the original, and little more than a cheap melodrama.  Sternberg added a little fuel to the fire himself by going on record as being opposed to Dreiser’s social theories, and saying that he intentionally shifted the emphasis of the story.  Dreiser sued Paramount for distortion and unfaithfulness to the original.  The film was attacked critically, and was not a success commercially.  In Britain, it was not even released.

Now admittedly it is not top Sternberg.  It offers little opportunity for the exotic and bizarre style in which he excelled–and wisely, he did not try to created those opportunities in an unsuitable milieu.  Dramatically it is sometimes a little flat, due perhaps to Sternberg’s own lack of personal enthusiasm for the theme, but more probably due to the inept performance of Phillips Holmes, of which more in a moment.  But undoubtedly the crux of the cause-célèbre was the fact that Eisenstein had been engaged to make the film for Paramount, wrote a script, and then was removed from the project.  To entrust the film to a “commercial” (in the sense that his films were successful at the boxoffice) director, and a studio contract director into the bargain, was asking for a filmic tempest.  Automatically (and disregarding the question of whether Eisenstein’s treatment was good, a masterpiece, or absurd), it became a thwarted and permanently ruined masterpiece.  Vidor, Griffith, Milestone, Lubitsch–anybody could have been handed the film, and the reaction would have been the same.  The leftist writers (and film criticism was infected with politically biased writing far more then than now) had a field-day–and their echoes are heard to this day.  Curiously, Eisenstein also did some preparatory work on Sutter’s Gold, which was ultimately directed by James Cruze.  But because it offered less potential for political hay-making, it was left alone.  Like Sternberg’s An American Tragedy, it didn’t quite come off–but no-one undertook the same kind of anti-Hollywood crusade o its behalf.

Despite Sternberg’s avowed disapproval of Dreiser’s thesis, his treatment does not seem to differ markedly from George Stevens’ in A Place in the Sun.  If anything it is starker, and thus probably closer to the spirit if not the letter of Dreiser’s original.  Stevens made far more of Clyde Griffith’s fringe-association with his wealthy relatives; Sternberg makes the point quicker, and gets to the heart of the matter faster.  Stevens’ production is lusher too, and stresses the tragic romance far more; with a star like Elizabeth Taylor he could hardly write her out of the picture, and thus her tragedy was stressed almost as was that of Griffiths, played by Montgomery Clift.  But Sternberg isn’t telling a love story; she is removed from the story at the mid-way point and does not reappear.

How much, if any, of Eisenstein’s original script influenced von Sternberg is of course a matter of pure conjecture.  The fast, staccato pacing in the earlier portions of the film, the skipping from incident to incident almost may have come as much f rom necessity as anything else, so even though it suggests Eisenstein, we can hardly be sure.  The recurring use of water as a background to titles suggests Eisenstein; yet the frequent (and often unnecessary) utilization of establishing titles is a Sternberg trait, and since these two elements are blended together, any conclusions would be pure guess-work.   Stevens himself dismissed Eisenstein’s script as being absurd and unfilmable; to my knowledge, he made no concrete observations on Sternberg’s film, although he seems to have borrowed from, and built on, quite a lot of it–including of course those famous long slow dissolves which were a trademark of all Sternberg films then, but which, in A Place in the Sun suddenly caused a stir with the chi-chi.  (For the record I am a great admirer of A Place in the Sun, certainly one of the finest American films of the past 15 years).

American Tragedy (1931)Pictorially, An American Tragedy has a great deal of traditional Sternberg elegance, even if the ”Fireworks” are kept appropriately under control.  A car crash scene near the beginning is beautifully done; so is an idyllic canoe scene, possibly borrowed from both Bardleys the Magnificent (Vidor) and White Shadows in the South Seas (Van Dyke)–but what matter?  No director worth his salt minds borrowing–and thus admitting that a previous director achieved an effect in a way that just can’t be bettered.  But when all is said and done, in a film of this type, the performances are of supreme importance–the performances, and the casting–and here is where the prime weaknesses appear.  Frances Dee is lovely an gives a good performance, but she never quit manages that other-worldly, just-out-of-reach quality that Elizabeth Taylor achieved so effortlessly.  There just isn’t sufficient contrast between her and Sylvia Sidney, who is likewise effective and appealing, but frankly so appealing that she never becomes the drudge and dead-end trap that the character really is.  There is no reason for Clyde Griffiths to feel so victimized in his association with her.  Which bring us to Griffiths himself, the key role, and a role so well played by Montgomery Clift in the days when he was still acting.  Phillips Holmes, physically and facially the right sensitive type, just seems to have no comprehension of the meaning of his role at all.  He is so completely selfish and petulant that one hardly feels a pang of sympathy for him; and one senses Sternberg’s frustration at his inadequacy.  Note how, in the key scene in the boat, Holmes is totally unable to convey the right emotions–or any emotions–and how Sternberg is forced to cut around him by playing the scene largely in closeups of Sidney’s face. Luckily, in the second–and very tense–half of the film, his role is a passive one.  Middleton and Pichel take over as a wonderful pair of opposing attorneys; for all of its concentration on talk and one set, this trial scene is powerful, dynamic stuff.  We’ve left until last a mention of the lovely, supremely moving performance by Lucille LaVerne as Griffiths’ mother.  The harridan of Orphans of the Storm gives such a poignant cameo performance (so much superior to Ann Rever’s) that the climax takes on real greatness.

WILLIAM K. EVERSON, November 2, 1962

American Tragedy (1931)Sternberg’s adaptation of Dreiser came right in the middle of his Dietrich period; two had preceded it, and four more would follow it.  (His first post-Dietrich film would be another assault on the classics, 1935’s Crime and Punishment).  Unfairly maligned at the time, it has a weak reputation, and is rarely revived.  Critics at the time had been geared to expect an intellectual treat via a version by Eisenstein, to be his first American film.  (It never materialized).  Secondly, Dreiser himself didn’t help by calling the film a travesty of his work, and launching a highly publicized lawsuit against Paramount.  Admittedly, the screenplay does lack depth and is a bit off-balance.  Sternberg himself seems to lack interest in some sequences, and to devote far more care to others.  But 1931 was still early in the new art of screenwriting for talkies, and most adaptations of literary works were fairly superficial at that time.  Moreover, Dreiser’s novel, virtually unreadable despite its status, poses enormous adaptation problems.  Screenwriter Hoffenstein, an excellent all-around Paramount contractee (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Love Me Tonight, Song of Songs and of course tonight’s White Woman), probably saw the book as just another assignment.  However, attacking the film today seems especially unfair in view of the praise heaped on George Stevens’ remake, A Place i the Sun.  While a bigger success because of its romantic flavor (underlined by its starts, its photographic treatment and its rich musical score), A Place in the Sun is essentially a remake of von Sternberg’s film rather than a different and better adaptation of the novel (just as Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, though much superior, was a very close remake of the 1931 original).

Even some of Stevens’ much celebrated stylistics, such as the long, slow dissolves, can be traced back to the Sternberg original.  Clearly there are many flaws in that original, but the criticisms are probably mainly based on expectations being unreasonably high that early in the sound period.

In at least one respect, the original is a little more honest than the Stevens remake.  Stevens really loaded the bases by casting Shelley Winters and Elizabeth Taylor as the two women.  Even without Taylor (at the peak of her youthful beauty) as competition, Shelley Winters was such a dullard and such a whiner that the Griffiths/Eastman character seemed quite justified in wanting to drown her.  The two women–Sidney and Dee–are much more evenly matched in Sternberg’s version, each having her own particular appeal (and both incidentally, seeming much too good for Phillips Holmes in one of his weaker performances!)

Lee Garmes, who did such a superb job for Sternberg on Shanghai Express, did the fine cinematography here too.

Now if someone can only explain von Sternberg’s peculiar foreword/dedication at the end of the credits…….!

WILLIAM K. EVERSON,  June 17, 1987

American Tragedy (1931)The pictorial version of Theodore Dreiser’s widely read novel, “An American Tragedy,” was presented last night at the Criterion Theatre.  The 840 pages are summed up in an eleven-reel picture, parts of which are uninspired, particularly the early chapters.  But when Josef von Sternberg, the director, reaches the trial scene the production is emphatically stirring, so much so that not a sound was heard from the perspiring throng.  These sequences fully atone for the disappointment in the early episodes and to a certain extent for the none too effective closing sequence.

Granted that the translation of this lengthy work into a motion picture was an enormous undertaking, it seems a pity that the producers did not capture more of the author’s analysis of the characters instead of merely using paragraphs from the book and trusting to the snatches of dialogue to give effective characterization and motivation.  Also it might not have been difficult to give Mr. Dreiser’s own beginning and ending of the story.

For one reason or another the upbringing of Clyde Griffiths does not receive sufficient attention, and up to the sequence of the drowning there are many scenes that savour too much of old motion picture technique.  Phillips Holmes, who impersonates Clyde Griffiths, gives a peculiarly flabby conception of his role until he appears on the witness stand.  For several sequences he walks dolefully through his part, never showing any great enthusiasm for Roberta Alden, played by Sylvia Sidney, or anything that concerns the character of Griffiths himself.  Mr. von Sternberg had a wonderful opportunity to make the most of sound and photography in the scenes in which Griffiths thinks up the idea of drowning Roberta, but he contents himself with presenting them in a somewhat stereotyped pictorial fashion, frequently turning to presses pouring out newspapers in order to emphasize his action.  Mr. von Sternberg also skips over parts that would benefit by more footage and here and there he dwells too long on an idea that would be all the better for an economy of space.  In the early episodes many of the incidents are too abrupt, and one receives at no point a suggestion of the appealing letters written by Roberta.

In the trial scene, however, Mr. von Sternberg fires his film with feeling.  He really gets down to the author’s work, and Irving Pichel, as the District Attorney, does some forceful acting.  Emmett Corrigan and Charles B. Middleton, who impersonate Clyde Griffith’s attorneys, also take advantage of their opportunities.  And Mr. Holmes himself does splendidly during these stretches.

American Tragedy (1931)Much of the cross-examination by Mason, the District Attorney, is incorporated in the trial scene and it is a dramatic moment when the boat is carried into the court room and Clyde is asked to sit in it and testify as to how he sat and held the camera when the boat overturned on the lake.  There are the objections of the defendant’s lawyers, once because a man is seated where Roberta sat, and a girl is called to take his place.

The passing of the days of the trial are noted by the tearing off of calendar pages and this calls attention to the ordeal through which Clyde Griffiths is going under Mason’s gruelling cross-examination.  Outside and even inside the court one receives a graphic notion of the feeling of the public against the prisoner.

When this tense trial scene comes to a conclusion, there are the glimpses of the jury, with finally eleven jurors threatening the other because he is opposed to a verdict of guilty.

In the episodes preceding the murder Mr. von Sternberg brings out with more artificiality than human feeling the relations between Griffiths and Roberta and the young man’s eventual meeting with the attractive Sondra Finchley, who is portrayed by Frances Dee.  The dialogue in these portions is at times too brittle to be convincing, and there is at least one glimpse in the hotel where Griffiths is employed as a bellboy that brings to mind motion-picture work of other days.

The film adaptation opens in the hotel and it closes with a scene between Griffiths and his mother before his execution.  In his haste to get to the heart of the murder story Mr. von Sternberg has lost the real pith of the narrative.

Miss Sidney’s impersonation of Roberta Alden is earnest.  Miss Dee is attractive as Sondra.  Lucille La Verne does quite well with the part of Clyde’s mother.

NEW YORK TIMES, By Mordaunt Hall,  August 6, 1931


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