American Tragedy, An (1931)

American Tragedy, An (1931)

“You don’t know how I love all this — this music, this kind of life!”

A socially ambitious youth (Phillips Holmes) seduces and impregnates a factory worker (Sylvia Sidney), then plots to kill her when he falls in love with a debutante (Frances Dee).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Courtroom Drama
  • Frances Dee Films
  • Josef von Sternberg Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Plot to Murder
  • Social Climbers
  • Sylvia Sidney Films

Josef von Sternberg’s adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s monumental 1925 novel was in some ways destined to disappoint, given the need to condense two volumes (over 800 pages) into a manageable running time — and, sure enough, Dreiser himself disapproved of the film. These days, viewers are likely most familiar with George Stevens’ 1951 adaptation of the book — A Place in the Sun (starring Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, and Shelley Winters) — primarily because von Sternberg’s earlier version is so hard to locate. Of the two versions, von Sternberg’s is ultimately more faithful to the original text — and less sympathetic to the central protagonist (Holmes), whose cowardly, selfish actions remain truly difficult to watch.

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:

  • Sylvia Sidney as “Bert” (Peary nominates her as Best Actress of the Year in his Alternate Oscars book.)

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look if you can locate a copy.


One thought on “American Tragedy, An (1931)

  1. Not a must.

    [NOTE: This is one classic novel I meant to get to off and on. I did manage to read Dreiser’s ‘Sister Carrie’ just so I’d have one of his books under my belt. I wasn’t that crazy about it (in terms of the writing). I realize ‘AAT’ is probably a more important book – and am willing to concede that the two film versions, in all probability, don’t serve the book well. That said…]

    No doubt most ffs know little about this version of the Dreiser novel. And, yes, ‘A Place in the Sun’ is quite well-known. (Quite an interesting title change, eh? I would think it guaranteed a lot more seats in theaters than something with ‘tragedy’ in the title, esp. for what was being pushed more as a romance.)

    To be frank, I’ve always had major issues with ‘A Place…’ and, in spite of its popularity, could easily hesitate in citing it as must-see, mainly since the film’s priorities seem so off. Now that I’ve seen this version, my reservations toward ‘A Place…’ have increased.

    In ‘AAT’, Sidney does indeed give us a much more sympathetic portrait of the doomed girl. And, surprisingly, both Holmes and Dee bear very slight yet still noticeable resemblances to Clift and Taylor. In ‘A Place…’, Sidney’s character is all but demonized, really, as played by Winters. And the breathless beauty of Taylor and the lushly romantic view of her with Clift seem to constantly threaten the fact that we’re not, ultimately, meant to be rooting for them as a couple. (In ‘AAT’, Dee ultimately disappears as a major character once the trial begins.)

    ‘AAT’ does, on the surface, appear to at least be more in line with the source material. But it’s still a less than satisfying watch. Holmes is serviceable at best, and Sidney and Dee (particularly) have both been much more impressive elsewhere. As for von Sternberg, you can hardly tell this is his work at all. It actually looks like the kind of journeyman product that any number of directors could have delivered.

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