Montgomery Clift

Book Vs. Movie: A Place in the Sun (1951) & An American Tragedy (1931)

Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun.

On March 30, 1908, Chester Gillette was executed after being convicted of the murder of Grace Brown. Gillette was the son of religious parents who were members of The Salvation Army and he later moved to New York to work in a skirt factory owned by his uncle. While working there, he began having an affair with fellow Grace, a fellow factory employee. When she became pregnant, she pressured him to marry her, but he kept stringing her along. Reportedly, he was also involved with a young socialite in town. Eventually, Chester agreed to take a trip with Grace to the Adirondack Mountains, presumably to get married. Instead, Chester convinced her to get into a rowboat with him where he hit her over the head and left her to drown.

The court case garnered significant media attention throughout the country and was the inspiration for Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel An American Tragedy. An American Tragedy went on to be adapted for the screen twice, first as 1931’s An American Tragedy and again in 1951 as A Place in the Sun.

Book & Movie Differences

The novel An American Tragedy is an extremely lengthy read. (The edition I read was 874 pages.) But neither the 1931 film or A Place in the Sun match the book’s epic length, clocking in at 96 minutes and 122 minutes respectively. Given that discrepancy, there’s naturally much from the book that was lost in translation from book to screen.

The novel is divided into three separate parts. Book 1 covers Clyde Griffiths’ youth in Kansas City as the child of poor street preachers. He’s never spiritually moved by his parents’ work and dreams of having something more in life, envying the people in town who have nicer things. As a teenager, he becomes a bellboy in a luxury hotel, starts making friends with his coworkers, and enjoys the thrill of making good money, choosing to lie to his mother about how much he earns so that he can spend more on himself than on his family. He also starts breaking away from his strict upbringing while going out with his hedonistic new friends and develops a serious weakness for women. One day, as Clyde is returning to town with his friends and some women, the person driving the car (borrowed without permission) fatally hits a young girl. Clyde and most of the others flee the accident scene and leave town. This whole section is largely omitted in A Place in the Sun, aside from Clyde’s mother working in a mission and fact that he didn’t grow up with much money. The 1931 film does include the car accident as well. Book 2 is focused on the main events depicted in both movies, from Clyde meeting his uncle while working as a bellboy and going to work in his uncle’s factory up until Roberta drowns. Book 3 covers the investigation into Roberta’s death, the search leading up to Clyde’s arrest, the trial, and Clyde’s time in prison afterward. It gets into a lot of procedural details of the case, like the political aspirations of the district attorney involved, Clyde’s legal team grasping at straws to build a defense, and the things that happen when a trial turns into a media circus.

(Note: A Place in the Sun changes all the characters’ original names. Clyde Griffiths became George Eastman, Roberta Alden became Alice Tripp, and Sondra Finchley became Angela Vickers. In this article, I use the original names when referencing the novel or the 1931 film and the other names when referencing A Place in the Sun.)

Lobby card for 1931's An American Tragedy featuring Sylvia Sidney and Phillips Holmes.

Over the years, there have been many cases of books/plays being adapted into movies that are highly criticized by their original authors. An American Tragedy (1931) is one of them. In this case, Dreiser and director Josef Von Sternberg and screenwriter Samuel Hoffenstein had differing views on what motivates Clyde Griffiths. Dreiser’s novel has a very heavy sociological perspective and shows Clyde as being highly driven by an obsession with wealth, luxury, and social status stemming from his destitute youth, often being looked at as an object of pity by people who were better off than his family. But Von Sternberg and Hoffenstein didn’t believe this was relevant and in cutting out so much of Book 1 in the film, this whole concept is lost. Dreiser so strongly disagreed with the direction of this adaptation that he (unsuccessfully) sued Paramount to prevent it from being released.

Dreiser passed away in 1945, so he didn’t live to see A Place in the Sun, but it’s likely he would have been critical of that as well since it heavily whitewashes the less palatable aspects of Clyde’s character, including that all-consuming drive for wealth and status. When we first see George in A Place in the Sun, we see he’s simply trying to make his way to a new job opportunity rather than trying to distance himself from a fatal car crash. He’s a handsome young man, the leather jacket he wears gives him a bit of a cool guy vibe, and the beginning largely has an optimistic tone to it. As for his infatuation with Angela, A Place in the Sun makes it seem like that is more about Angela herself than it is about Angela plus everything her upper-class lifestyle represents to him. In the book, it’s very clear that it’s Sondra’s combination of beauty and wealth that makes her the ultimate dream to him.

Despite Dreiser’s objections to the 1931 adaptation, there is quite a bit in it that stays closer to the source material than A Place in the Sun. It follows the text of the book more than the spirit of the book. For one, A Place in the Sun shows Clyde’s wealthy relatives as being warmer to him than they were in the book. Clyde’s cousin Gilbert in particular is highly skeptical of Clyde’s presence, which is reflected a little bit in the 1931 version. It also accurately shows Clyde as being Roberta’s superior when she starts working at the factory. In A Place in the Sun, George and Alice both have menial jobs in the same department, but in the book and the 1931 movie, he had recently been moved over to a supervisory position in the stamping department when Roberta starts working at the factory, which changes the power dynamics of their relationship. It also shows Clyde pressuring Roberta to let him into her room at night. She later relents after he gets angry with her for initially refusing. A Place in the Sun makes this all seem more consensual.

Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor seated in a car in A Place in the Sun.

A Place in the Sun also makes Angela seem like more of a more sincere and viable long-term romantic partner for George. In the book, Sondra’s relationship with Clyde begins as something of a joke to get under the skin of Clyde’s cousin Gilbert, who hadn’t shown any interest in her. But while he does find a place in her social circle, the general consensus among the town’s social elite is that Clyde going to parties with this crowd is one thing. But with little money of his own and a rather vague background, he’s not seen as a suitable potential husband for anyone in that set. Mrs. Finchley tells Sondra that she sees no harm in her spending time with Clyde, but specifically warns her against getting too friendly and Sondra understands that her mother is right. There certainly wasn’t anything like the scene where her father gives his blessing for George to marry her like we see in A Place in the Sun. The book shows that Clyde wants to marry Sondra and tries to convince her to elope, but it’s also clear to readers that any ideas he has about actually making it to the altar are a pipe dream. There also weren’t any dramatic visits from Sondra before Clyde’s execution. The most Clyde got was a brief letter, which was unsigned but clearly from her.

One surprising way A Place in the Sun is actually more accurate to the book than its pre-Code era counterpart is the way it handles the efforts made to get an abortion for Roberta. The novel goes into extensive detail about this, starting with Clyde finding a pharmacist who provides something for Roberta to take, which only succeeds in making her ill. He later gets a tip about a doctor and takes Roberta to see him, but encourages her to go in by herself to seem more sympathetic. The scene with the doctor plays out much as it did in A Place in the Sun. The 1931 version, on the other hand, mostly shows Roberta pressuring Clyde to marry her, but a brief reference to the pharmacist and the doctor comes up during Clyde’s trial.

Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun.

By far, one of the key things missing in both film adaptations is detail about the character of Roberta/Alice and what, exactly, Clyde/George saw in her. As I was reading the book, I couldn’t help but feel my heart sink as she was introduced because she was described as being such a lovely woman and I knew that things weren’t going to end well for her. Clyde had been warned to not get involved with the women who work at the factory, and until Roberta came along, he wasn’t really tempted to. Just like Clyde, Roberta came from a poor family and had a religious upbringing. She was a farm girl, like his mother. She’s pretty and when Clyde first meets her, he’s immediately taken with how bright and charming she is. She tries to be a moral and ethical person, but she’s not as uptight as other women with similar backgrounds that Clyde has met. She has a lot of agency over her own life. Also like Clyde, she dreams for something more in life than her destitute background has to offer, but her expectations are more grounded than Clyde’s. While Clyde’s family connections do appeal to her, it’s very clear that she was not actively trying to trap him by having a baby, like some might accuse her of.

The fact that the business owned by Clyde’s/George’s uncle is changed from a collar company in the book and 1931 movie to a bathing suit company in A Place in the Sun doesn’t materially change anything about the overall story, but it does change some of Dreiser’s original symbolism. In the book, it’s said that even cheap collars can add polish and manner to people who wouldn’t have them otherwise, so the collars serve as a metaphor for Clyde’s experience of coming to town to work for his uncle. When he was living with his family in Kansas City, his name made him someone that others looked down upon. But now that he’s in a town where his name is associated with a successful business owner, even being a lesser known member of the family is enough for people to take more interest in him than they would otherwise.

Is the Book Worth Reading?

Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy book cover.

If you’re looking for a light, breezy read, An American Tragedy is definitely not what you want. But if you’re more in the mood for a in-depth character study about ambition, class, and the American dream, An American Tragedy holds up very well. There’s much in it that remains very relevant nearly a century after it was originally published. As long as the book is, I was surprised by how consistently engaging I found it. The only time I really started losing interest was during the some of the stuff about Clyde’s early time in Lycurgus after he moves to work for his uncle. If you’re into crime novels, you may like the third section of the book in particular.

I only began to scratch the surface of everything that is different between the book and its two film adaptations. There’s so much in the book that didn’t make it into either film version, like nearly everything in the first section, why Clyde’s uncle is so eager to help him out, and the efforts of Clyde’s mother to fund an appeal for him, just to name a few. You’ll definitely get a lot of new insights to the characters you know from the movie versions. This is the kind of story that absolutely could be adapted again as a miniseries. That kind of format would allow for more a more faithful adaptation and would be different enough from 1931’s An American Tragedy and A Place in the Sun that it would easily stand as its own work rather than as a movie remake.

Speaking of A Place in the Sun, this article might seem like I’m being hard on the movie. I would just like to note that I’m actually a big fan of the movie. While the 1931 version has more in common with the book, A Place in the Sun is the version I personally prefer. Hands down, A Place in the Sun has the better cast, although I liked Syliva Sidney as Roberta in the 1931 version. Many of the differences between the book and A Place in the Sun can be attributed to the fact that it was made during the production code era and there’s much in the book that is simply not production code friendly.

This review is part of the 2022 Classic Film Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Out of the PastFor more reviews on books related to classic film, be sure to follow the #ClassicFilmReading hashtag on social media.

Blogging Under the Stars 2015

Site News, Movie Memorabilia, and a Liebster!

Hey everyone! Sorry for being a rather infrequent blogger lately. Let’s take some time to catch up with a few fun things. I promise, things are going to be a lot less idle here in the near future.

First of all, it’s almost August and if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know what that means — it’s almost time for this year’s round of Blogging Under the Stars! If you aren’t familiar with Blogging Under the Stars, here’s how it works: every August 2-September 1, I watch and review a movie that airs as part of TCM’s Summer Under the Stars, preferably something I’ve never seen before, although that’s not always possible. My intent of doing this is to encourage myself to watch some movies I otherwise might not have watched and watch some films from actors I’m not so familiar with. I’ve done this for the past few years and every year I’ve discovered some really great movies, so it’s a lot of fun for me.

Now, on to some more fun things…

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What’s on TCM: October 2014

Janet Leigh Psycho

Happy October, everyone! I don’t know about you, but I am so looking forward to watching a whole lot of classic horror movies this month. The idea of coming home after work and spending a chilly Fall evening at home watching something eerie sounds like a quality night to me. And luckily, TCM will definitely be delivering in that department this month. Every Thursday night this month will be all about ghost stories. Some will be perfectly creepy for Halloween, others are more lighthearted ghost stories like Topper. Either way, I’ll definitely be tuning in for those. Other great days for classic horror fans are October 28th, October 30th starting at 8:00 PM, and of course, October 31.

Janet Leigh will be TCM’s Star of the Month, so we’ll have the chance to see the ultimate slasher film, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, on October 29th at 8:00 PM. Janet Leigh’s films will be shown every Wednesday night this month.

October’s Friday Night Spotlight series will highlight movies set in Africa.

One night that is definitely not to be missed is October 6th. Starting at 8:00 PM, TCM will be showing 28 shorts from animation pioneers Windsor McCay, Bray Studios, and Van Beuren Studios. These are true landmarks of animation, the vast majority of which have never been shown on TCM before. And where else are you going to have the chance to see Gertie the Dinosaur in prime time? This is going to be a real treat.

Now, let’s get on to the rest of the schedule!

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The Ghosts of Old Hollywood

Betty Grable Halloween

Happy Halloween, everyone!  Halloween just wouldn’t be complete without a few ghost stories, right?  So for the sake of getting into the Halloween spirit, here are a few ghost stories featuring some familiar characters.  If these stories are to be believed, if you’re in the right place at the right time, you might still have the chance to encounter some of Hollywood’s most legendary stars.
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Red River (1948)

Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) and his friend Groot (Walter Brennan) join a wagon train headed to California, but along the way, they decide to leave in Texas to start up a cattle ranch.  It means Tom has to leave behind Fen, the woman he loves, but Tom has always dreamed of having his own cattle ranch.  He promises that he will send for her someday, but not long after leaving the train, Tom and Groot see that the train they were part of was attacked by Indians and Fen was killed.  The only survivor of the attack was Matthew (Mickey Kuhn as a child, Montgomery Clift as an adult), who finds his way to Tom and Groot and brings a cow with him.

Tom takes Matt and his cow along with them and begins to treat Matt like a son.  Nothing stands in Tom’s way of making his ranch a success and 14 years later, Tom’s herd has grown to over ten thousand.  But after the South loses the Civil War, not very many people can afford to buy his beef anymore so Tom decides the best thing to do would take all the cattle north to Missouri.  It would be a massive undertaking and Tom has to hire extra help to make it happen.  He knows it’s going to be hard and that people will want to quit along the way, but he tells everyone right off that he won’t tolerate anybody quitting.  As soon as he’s got a good crew ready, they set out for Missouri.

Just as Tom predicted, things start getting hard and very dangerous.  There’s a stampede and one of their wagons carrying food is destroyed.  Food has to be rationed tightly, Tom doesn’t have the money to get more supplies, and when some of the men find out that it might be easier to go to Albilene, Kansas than Missouri, they’re not happy when Tom insists on going ahead to Missouri instead.  Some try to desert, but Tom has them brought back, which pushes Matt to the breaking point.  Matt shoots Tom in the hand and takes control of the cattle drive, leaving Tom behind.  But Tom vows to catch up to them someday and when he does, he’s going to kill Matt.  Matt leads the way to Albilene, but they stop to help another wagon train being attacked by Indians, which is where Matt meets Tess (Joanne Dru).  Matt and Tess fall in love with each other, but he leaves her behind just like Tom left Fen behind all those years ago.  After he leaves, Tom ends up meeting Tess, who begs him to not kill Matt.  Tom doesn’t want to back off, but his meeting with Tess gives him a lot to consider.

I figured I’d start Blogging Under the Stars 2012 off with a movie that’s been on my “To Watch” list for a long time now.  Now that I’ve finally seen it, I can safely say that I wish I had seen Red River sooner.  I certainly never thought John Wayne was a bad actor, but his performance in this really blew me away.  His acting in the scene where Tom meets with Tess is definitely my favorite scene of any John Wayne movie that I’ve seen.  Red River was also the first film Montgomery Clift made.  Costarring with someone like John Wayne for your first movie has got to be pretty daunting task, but Clift managed to really hold his own against Wayne.  There were plenty of exciting moments to keep me entertained,  like the stampede scene and the scene where Tom makes his way into Albilene to have his match with Matt.  Overall, I was very impressed with it and that’s a big compliment coming from someone who isn’t too fond of Westerns.

Lonelyhearts (1958)

Adam White (Montgomery Clift) is an aspiring news writer looking to get his foot in the door any way he can.  Luckily for him, he befriends Florence Shrike (Myrna Loy), who is married to Bill Shrike (Robert Ryan), editor for The Chronicle.  She introduces Adam to Bill at a restaurant one night and Bill has Adam sort of audition for a job on the spot.  Bill jerks Adam around for a little bit, but in the end, tells Adam to drop by the Chronicle offices because there may be a place for him.  Adam is thrilled and runs off to tell his girlfriend Justy (Dolores Hart)  the good news and of course, she is thrilled for him.  When Adam arrives at the Chronicle offices the next day, the wind gets taken out of his sails a little bit when he finds out the job is writing the Miss Lonelyhearts advice column.  He knows that he’s all wrong for the job, but agrees to take it because he so badly wants to start his career.

Some of the other reporters like to make fun of the letters people send into the Miss Lonelyhearts column, but Adam is much more compassionate.  People keep telling Adam to just give cold, thoughtless answers, but he thinks they deserve better than that.  Justy advises him to do his best, but not to take it too seriously.  He starts spending more and more time at work, trying to help these people the best he can.  This takes him away from Justy, but she wants to be supportive.  Growing frustrated, he sees Bill in a restaurant one night and asks for a new column.  Bill tells him that it’s either Miss Lonelyhearts or nothing.  But their conversation is overheard by Fay Doyle (Maureen Stapleton), who has written into the column.  Bill and Adam frequently get into arguments over the nature of the people who write in, and one day Bill suggests calling up some of the letter writers and finding out what they’re like first hand.  Adam takes Bill up on this suggestion and by pure chance, dials up Fay Doyle.  The two of them arrange to meet up so Fay can tell him more about her problems.  When they meet and Fay tells Adam all about how her husband Pat had lied to her about how he got a major injury and how it’s left her desperate for affection.  Adam is truly moved by her story, but knows that he’s completely unfit to truly help her with her problems.  Fay had also been hoping that he was looking to have an affair with her, but is disappointed when she finds out he isn’t.

The whole incident drives Adam to drink, something he never normally does.  When he stops into a bar, he runs into none other than Pat.  Pat knows Adam works for the Chronicle, but not that he writes the Miss Lonelyhearts column and asks him to get back the letter Fay had sent in.  Adam manages to get away from Pat, but then finds himself at a party for a fellow Chronicle reporter.  The other reporters start mocking the Miss Lonelyhearts column again and Adam gets into a fist fight.  Once he sobers up, he realizes that this job is destroying his life and decides to quit the paper and leave town.  He’d like Justy to come with him and tries to repair their damaged relationship.  After thinking it over, Justy decides to go with him and meets up with him at the Chronicle, where Adam is saying goodbye to the other reporters.  But their happy reunion is interrupted by Pat barging in with a gun, looking for the person Fay has been talking to.  Adam is able to defuse the situation and before he leaves, a softened up Bill even asks him to stay with the Chronicle.  But Adam realizes that it’s time for him to move on with his life.  Not only did Adam learn some valuable lessons from his time at the Chronicle, he unwittingly managed to teach Bill a few things about life, too.

I had a really hard time getting interested in Lonelyhearts.  I feel like this had the potential to be a far more interesting movie than it ended up being.  I know it was based on the play “Miss Lonelyhearts,” but I’ve never seen the play so I don’t know if something was lost in translation here or what.  First of all, I think Montgomery Clift was a little bit old for his part.  Adam was supposed to be a young, aspiring writer, but at the time this was made, Montgomery Clift was 38 years old.  Even though he was slightly miscast, his performance wasn’t bad so I can forgive the age issue a little bit.  Actually, all the performances were pretty decent, it’s just that they didn’t have the greatest material to work with.  Maureen Stapleton gave the most notable performance in the movie, as evidenced by her Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.  Other than that, I thought the movie moved along very slowly.  There was a good story at the heart of this, but the movie could have greatly benefited from some rewrites and some tweaking here and there.

My Top 100, 80-71

It’s Friday again, which means it’s time to count down ten more of my favorite movies!  All I really have to say about this bunch of movies is that almost all of my favorite types of movies are represented here.  Silents, musicals, foreign, film noir, drama, comedy, they’re all there.  The only way this week’s bunch could be more ‘me’ is if I had worked in some offbeat B-movie in there somewhere.  Now, onto number 80…

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