“You don’t know how I love all this — this music, this kind of life!”
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
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: