American Tragedy, An (1931): Von Sternberg’s

The Sternberg-Dietrich feature Dishonored did not perform at the box-office, and Paramount New York executives sought for a vehicle to commercially exploit the “mystique and glamor” of the Sternberg-Dietrich productions.

While Dietrich was visiting her husband Rudolf Sieber and their daughter Maria Riva in Europe during the winter of 1930–31, Paramount hired Sternberg to make a big-screen adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s acclaimed novle, An American Tragedy.

The production was initially under the direction of Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, whose deterministic treatment of the novel was rejected by Paramount. Eisenstein withdrew from the project, but the studio, which had already heavily invested in the production, authorized a complete revision.

While retaining Dreiser’s basic plot and dialogue, Sternberg eliminated its contemporary sociological issues to present a tale of a sexually obsessed middle-class youth (Phillips Holmes) whose deceptions lead to the death of a poor factory girl (Sylvia Sidney).

Author Dreiser was outraged at Sternberg’s failure to adhere to his themes in the adaptation and sued Paramount to stop distribution of the movie, but he lost his case.

Images of water abound in the film and serve as a motif signaling Holmes’ motivations and fate.

The photography by Lee Garmes added visual polish to the production. However, Sternberg’s role as replacement director curbed his artistic contribution, and subsequently the film was compromised.

Sternberg expressed indifference to the mixed critical success it received and later banished the picture from his oeuvre.

When Dietrich returned to Hollywood in April 1931, Sternberg had been established as a top-ranking director at Paramount.

In the next three years, the richest phase of his career, he directed four of his greatest films, beginning with Shanghai Express.