American Tragedy, An (1931): Von Sternberg Screen Version of Dreiser’s Novel

An American Tragedy, German director-Hollywood émigré’s follow up to “Morocco” (starring Marlene Dietrich) was a bleak drama based on Theodor Dreiser’s famous novel.

The same book served as source material to A Place in the Sun, directed by George Stevens in 1951.

Though his parents are street evangelists, Clyde Griffiths (Phillips Holmes) is ambitious boy who grows up in squalor. He first works as a bellhop in Kansas City, but when he’s the passenger in a car that kills a little girl, Clyde fears he’ll be arrested.

His wealthy uncle Samuel Griffiths (Frederick Burton) gets Clyde a job at a shirt factory in upstate New York where Clyde becomes foreman of a department that employs only women. He is attracted to Roberta Alden (Sylvia Sidney), known as “Bert,” and though company policy forbids socializing, they begin secretly dating on weekends.

Eventually, Clyde seduces the smitten Bert, even though he has already become attracted to Sondra Finchley (Frances Dee), the daughter of a wealthy family. Clyde promises to marry him when she’s of age, but things change when he’s told by Bert that she is pregnant. With vague thoughts of drowning her in mind, Clyde takes Bert on a vacation in the Adirondacks. While canoeing, he decides not to kill her, but shockingly, she accidentally falls into the river. However, instead of rescuing her, Clyde swims to shore, and Bert drowns. Eventually, the police track him down and he is arrested, resulting in a trial that gains national attention.

The film was famously remade by George Stevens in a 1951 Oscar nominated film titled A Place in the Sun, with Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters, and Montgomery Clift as members of the romantic triangle.

Running time: 96 minutes.

Directed by Josef von Sternberg