Place in the Sun, A (1951): George Stevens Well-Acted Version of Dreiser’s American Tragedy

George Stevens was a minor director with major virtues before A Place in the Sun, and a major director with minor virtues after.

Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema

a_place_in_the_sun_posterGeorge Stevens’ A Place in the Sun is an overstated remake of Theodore Dreiser’s novel, “An American Tragedy.”  The book had been transferred with better results in 1931 by Josef von Sternberg, in a more realistic version starring Phillips Holmes, Sylvia Sydney, and Frances Dee.

Ponderous and overbloated, this melodramatic film drew praise and a slew of Oscar nominations and awards when it was released (see below), but has not dated well with modern critics.

Nonetheless, as a product of its time, the film’s portraits of the frivolous rich Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor) and the downtrodden poor George Eastman and Alice Pitts (Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters) are still powerful, and the drowning scene quite emotionally stirring.

The romantic sequences between Clift and Taylor–that kiss in mega-close-up–were considered to be a turning point in Hollywoods annals of eroticism, at a time when the actor’s homosexuality was not a known fact outside the industry.

a_place_in_the_sun_5_clift_taylorEvaluating the career of George Stevens, who was born on December 18, 1904, presents a tough challenge for film historians and critics. His artistic reputation has been in such decline that its easy to forget that in the 1950s, Stevens was the most prestigious filmmaker working in Hollywood.

One of Hollywoods least productive directors, Stevens made only 25 films in a career spanning four decades. Nonetheless, no less than seven of his films were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar (see list). This meager output (by standards of his contemporaries) is often attributed to Stevens perfectionism and methodical attention to detail, spending long years on the pre and post-production of his movies.

a_place_in_the_sun_4_clift_taylorThe vast majority of Stevens films were made during one creative and prolific decade, from 1933 (The Cohens and Kellys in Trouble) to 1943 (The More the Merrier). Between I Remember Mama (1948) and his last picture, The Only Game in Town (1970), Stevenss productivity declined, and he turned in only half a dozen pictures. Four of these films, A Place in the Sun, Shane, Giant, and The Diary of Anne Frank, catapulted him to the Hollywood pantheon of serious and important directors. And these are the films that began to tarnish his critical reputation among the more cerebral cineastes.

Stevenss fame reached its height in 1953, when he received the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Academy realized that despite nominations that year for Stevenss Western Shane, Fred Zinnemanns From Here to Eternity would sweep most of the Oscars, including Best Director, which it did. By that time, Stevens had already won his first directing Oscar for A Place in the Sun, in 1951. In 1956, Stevens won his second directorial Oscar for Giant, a film that was singled out in other categories.

a_place_in_the_sun_3_clift_wintersIt’s not insignificant that Stevenss later epic films also boasted epic running time: Giant, 201 minutes; The Diary of Anne Frank, 156 minutes; The Greatest Story Ever Told (originally 260 minutes, then 196, then 141).

Stevenss work was always more appreciated by the middlebrow critics, like the N.Y. Timess Bosley Crowther, then dean of the New York critics. Crowther and others reflected the dominant opinion that movies about important or socially-significant issues should be favored over films with strong entertainment values, like crime-gangster, musicals or adventures.

The critics of the French magazine, Cahiers du Cinema, are considered to be the first to point out that Stevens was too obvious in his classicism and over-deliberateness. And, as noted in the quote above, Stevens doesn’t fare well in Sarriss The American Cinema, still the Bible of Auteurism.

a_place_in_the_sun_2_clift_taylorHowever, while doing research for an essay on films in the 1950s, I came across a letter that Raymond Chandler, the author of hard-boiled novels and scripts, wrote after seeing A Place in the Sun: I despised it. Its as slick a piece of bogus self-importance as youll ever see. It never touches your emotions once. Everything is held too long; every scene is milked ruthlessly. I got so sick of starry-eyed close-ups of Elizabeth Taylor that I could have gagged. The portrayal of how the lower classes think the upper classes live is about as ridiculous as could be imagined. They ought to have called it Speedboats for Breakfast. And my God, that scene at the end where the girl visits him in the condemned cell a few hours before he gets the hot squat! The whole thing reeks of calculation and contrivance emotionally. The picture was made by a guy who has seen everything and has never had a creative idea of his own.

This shows that even in the 1950s, Stevenss work was not as universally acclaimed as was claimed, and that the French cinephiles were not the first to point out his weaknesses. The French were the first to analyze the aesthetic and ideological implications of the hallmarks of Stevens’s style: the slow build-up, mega close-ups, deliberate pacing, overstated message.

a_place_in_the_sun_1_cliftWhat drags the film down, turning it into a conventional, overexplicit melodrama. is the last reel, when George is put on trial with various witnesses appearing in court.  By that time, the audience is well ahead of the story.

That said, the first two reels, which depict George and the two very different women in his life, are powerful, empasizing the role and impact of social class like no other mainstream  picture at the time.

 

Detailed Plot

George Eastman (Clift), the poor nephew of rich industrialist Charles Eastman (Herbert Heyes), arrives in town after a chance encounter with his uncle while working as bellhop in a Chicago hotel.

Eastman invites George to visit him and the ambitious young man takes advantage of the offer.  The Eastmans regard him as an outsider, but his uncle offers him an entry-level job at his factory, and George hopes to impress his uncle with hard work, earning his way up.

While working in the factory, George begins dating factory worker Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), in defiance of the rules. Poor, inexperienced, and hoplelssly romantic, Alice is dazzled by George.

George begins to move up the corporate ladder into a supervisory position, making recommendations that impress his uncle, who invites him to their home. At the party, George meets “society girl” Angela Vickers (Taylor), whom he has always admired, and they fall in love.  As Angela’s friend, he is introduced into the lavish lifestyle of high society.

When Alice gets pregnant, she expects George to marry her, but he puts her off, spending his time with Angela and her friends. An attempt to procure an abortion for Alice fails, and she insists on marriage. George is invited to join Angela at the Vickers’s holiday lake house over Labor Day weekend. He tells Alice that the visit will advance their chances for a better life.

George and Angela are at Loon Lake, and when he hears a story of a couple’s drowning there (with the man’s body never being found), George begins to think of getting rid of Alice.

Alice finds a photos in the newspaper of George and Angela, and realizes that George lied to her about his intentions for going to the lake. During a dinner which is attended by the Eastman and Vickers families, George seems to be finally being accepted into the Eastmans’ social class. However, Alice phones the house during the dinner party, informing him that if he doesn’t come to get her, she’ll expose him.

Visibly shaken, he contrives an excuse to suddenly leave, but promises Angela he will return. The next morning, George and Alice drive to City Hall to get married but they find it closed–it’s Labor Day–and they spend the day at the nearby lake.

George rents a boat from a man, making sure that there are no other people there. Alice confesses her dreams about a happy future with their child. George feels sorry for her and decides not to carry out his murderous plan. Alice, upset, stands up in the boat and then drowns.

A tense and worried George escapes by swimming to shore and driving back to the Vickers’s lodge.  He says nothing about having been on the lake or about what happened there. Alice’s body is discovered and her death is declared murder, with evidence pointing out to George.  Just as Angela’s father approves Angela’s marriage to him, George is charged with murder.

The planned murder was an accidental drowning, but George’s actions after Alice’s death condemn him. His denials are futile, and found guilty, he is sentenced to death in the electric chair.

In the end, he confesses to the priest in his cell that, although he did not kill Alice, he didn’t try to save her when he could have, because he was thinking of Angela. The priest holds that deep down in his heart it was murder.

The famous mega close-up kiss of Clift and Taylor is repeated briefly as George is awaiting his death.

In the last, overly long scene, Angela visiting George in prison, declaring love for him–after he confesses that “all my life I wanted people to like me”–as he is marching towards execution.

Cast

George Eastman (Montgomery Clift)
Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor)
Alice Tipps (Shelley Winters)
Hannah Eastman (Anne Revere)
Earl Eastman (Keefe Brasselle)
Bellows (Fred Clark)
Marlowe (Raymond Burr)
Charles Eastman (Herbert Hayes)
Anthony Vickers (Shepperd Strudwick)
Mrs. Vickers (Frieda Inescort)

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 9

Picture, produced by George Stevens
Director: George Stevens
Screenplay: Michael Wilson and Harry Brown
Actor: Montgomery Clift
Actress: Shelley Winters
Cinematography (b/w): William C. Mellor
Editing: William Hornbeck
Costume Design (b/w): Edith Head
Scoring (Dramatic): Franc Waxman

Oscar Awards: 6

Director
Screenplay
Cinematography
Scoring of Musical
Editing
Costume Design

Oscar Context:

In 1951, “A Place in the Sun” competed for the Best Picture Oscar with “An American in Paris,” which won, “Decision Before Dawn,” “Quo Vadis” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

The best Actor Oscar went to Humphrey Bogart for “The African Queen,” and the Best Actress to Vivien Leigh for “A Streetcar Named Desire.”