Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, and Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun (1951)


(director: George Stevens; screenwriters: Michael Wilson/Harry Brown/based on the novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser and the play by Patrick Kearney; cinematographer: William Mellor; editor: William Hornbeck; music: Franz Waxman; cast: Montgomery Clift (George Eastman), Elizabeth Taylor (Angela Vickers), Shelley Winters (Alice Tripp), Anne Revere (Hannah Eastman), Keefe Brasselle (Earl Eastman), Fred Clark (Bellows, defense attorney), Raymond Burr (Dist. Atty. R. Frank Marlowe), Herbert Heyes (Charles Eastman), Shepperd Strudwick (Anthony Vickers), Walter Sande (Art Jansen, George’s Attorney), Kathryn Givney (Louise Eastman), Anne Revere (Hannah Eastman, George’s mother), Ian Wolfe (Dr. Wyeland); Runtime: 122; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: George Stevens; Paramount; 1951)

“Far less powerful than the novel.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A black-and-white filmed social drama and romance from director/producer George Stevens, known for his craftsmanship more than his other abilities as a filmmaker. It’s based on the great 1925 novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser and also on the Patrick Kearney play. The novel, set in the 1920s, referred to the shocking Chester Gillette and Grace Brown 1906 murder case in the state of New York. The over-praised and overblown melodrama shreds Dreiser’s sharp social commentary and depiction of the horrors of capitalism by shooting instead for a starry-eyed Hollywood love story in a more modern setting. The slow-moving, stately love story works principally because of the sensitive acting by the 29-year-old Montgomery Clift, the tender and feisty first leading performance by the 17-year-old Elizabeth Taylor playing an 18-year-old snobbish student (does the best faint ever in filmdom), and Shelley Winters as the plain mill worker who makes the most of her clichéd role. But it still misses what Dreiser was getting at and is far less powerful than the novel.

The film was set in upstate New York; it was a remake of Josef von Sternberg’s bleak 1931 An American Tragedy starring Sylvia Sidney. It won six Oscars including Best Director and Best Cinematography.

Warning: spoiler to follow in the next paragraph.

George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) is a poor, aimless, taciturn, school-dropout, who is ambitious to make something of himself and escape his fate. He hitches his way to the home of his rich Uncle Charles Eastman (Herbert Heyes) to see if he can get a job in his bathing-suit manufacturing factory as promised when he met his uncle by accident in Chicago. George’s religious evangelical mission worker father died and his mother (Anne Revere) is involved with a street mission in Kansas City, Missouri. Charles’s cold-fish snotty son Earl puts George to work on the assembly-line packing bathing suits. Though there’s a company policy forbidding workplace romances, the lonely George has an affair on the sly with coworker Alice Tripp (Shelly Winters) and makes her pregnant. At a time when George hit it off with pretty wealthy socialite Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), who travels in the upper-class circles of the Eastman clan, mill worker Alice threatens to tell the world about their affair unless he marries her. Planning to murder her, the recently promoted George takes her out rowing in the lake by the Vickers’ summer residence and feels sorry for himself that all his plans can be ruined by a shrill woman he doesn’t love. But he can’t go through with the murder, though he fully planned it out. When an agitated Alice steps forward on the boat and it capsizes, George does not try to save her even though he knows she can’t swim. DA Marlowe (Raymond Burr) charges George with the crime when a number of witnesses come forth putting him at the drowning scene and others name him as Alice’s lover. It becomes clear he intended to murder Alice but there’s no proof that he actually did it, nevertheless he’s convicted and given the electric chair.

It seems rather empty as Dreiser’s sentiments are too far removed from the undernourished story and basically what’s left is a tearjerker soap opera. It might be well acted and produced, but it’s still meaningless. The only poignant moment was in the chilling drowning of the Winters character. That tells you all you want to know about Clift’s character and his untoward ambitions to be a member of the frivolous upper-class set. It’s only through Clift’s effective characterization of such a downtrodden and cowardly soul that we can feel any sympathy for his plight.