“You don’t know how I love all this — this music, this kind of life!”
While Holmes’ performance is less than impressive (he tends to read his lines rather than embody them), he does manage to convey the sniveling callowness of a self-absorbed pretty boy. Of the lead performers, however, Sylvia Sidney ultimately comes across the best: unlike her counterpart in A Place in the Sun (Winters), Sidney’s “Bert” is truly a sympathetic innocent: a hardworking girl who wants nothing more than a chance at romance with her handsome boss. She resists sex at first, but gives in once she realizes that their tenuous relationship won’t continue without it; later, she’s willing to give Holmes up as long as he’ll marry her and give her baby a good name. While she’s naively desperate, she’s far from shrewish, and it’s genuinely painful to know she’s destined for a watery grave.
Speaking of such spoilers, the fact that audience members (then and now) already know the outcome of this most famous of American stories (based on the real-life story of Chester Gillette) contributes to the film’s ultimate failure to impress. By the final third of the movie — an extended courtroom sequence — we’re anxious to see Holmes get his due, but are forced to sit through a series of painful lies and distortions before things finally wrap up. The presence of Holmes’ mother (Claire McDowell) in the final scenes hints at the larger theme of Dreiser’s novel — that Clyde’s poverty-stricken upbringing contributed towards his desperate need to climb socially — which unfortunately is barely touched upon. While competent, this early von Sternberg film doesn’t provide enough evidence of his burgeoning style to make it a must-see entry in his canon — though it’s certainly worth a look.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments: