George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun (1951), newly available in the Paramount Presents line of Blu-rays, securely basks in its own place as one of studio Hollywood’s most acclaimed melodramas. Why is that?
It isn’t because the film is based on a classic bestselling novel, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925), and Patrick Kearney’s theatrical adaptation of the same in 1926. After all, these works provided the basis for a good 1931 film from a major director, and nobody much talks about that one. Josef von Sternberg’s An American Tragedy starred Phillips Holmes as the callow hero caught between women of different classes. Its relative obscurity shouldn’t prevent us from recommending it or discussing it briefly.
As Clyde, Holmes is prettier than either of his girlfriends, while the role of glamorous co-star goes to Sylvia Sidney as the doomed Roberta rather than the relatively plain but rich Sondra (Frances Dee). Sternberg downplays the “rich girl” romance and there’s more pre-Code detail in dialogue about the victim’s pregnancy and discussion of possible abortion. This film’s vision of human behavior, including the process of justice in the last act, is cynical and best embodied by the jury’s deliberations.
In an early scene, Clyde runs away from an apparent drunk driving death, which foreshadows the actor’s own drunk driving accident a few years later. No one died in the real event but Mae Clarke sued him, according to Wikipedia, and the changes in her face from plastic surgery affected her career – foreshadowing what would happen to Montgomery Clift 25 years later.
Dreiser’s inspiration had been one of the most notorious and sensational criminal cases in America, the 1906 trial of Chester Gillette for the murder of Grace Brown, an employee in the skirt factory owned by Gillette’s uncle. The murder took place on a trip to the Adirondacks, specifically Big Moose Lake.
The fact that this case once riveted the country and inspired Dreiser probably isn’t the reason for this film’s popularity either. The reason, quite simply, is that Stevens marshaled all the forces at Paramount’s command to construct a lyrical ode to Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor at the height of their stunning beauty. Steven’s anti-hero is more hapless and somewhat less calculating than in Dreiser or Sternberg, and the remake functions as a swoony romance while the acid bath of society recedes to the background. Stevens applies Dreiser’s naturalistic, class-based fable of the losses and frustrations of American desires towards this celebration of star power, and the resulting tension between glamour and tragedy creates a shimmering, seductive film about seduction.
Let’s take a close look at the first five minutes. Unlike the vast majority of Hollywood productions of this time, the opening credits aren’t presented on cards in their own artificial space, divorced from the rest of the film. We see the credits over the story’s opening images and shot on location rather than in a studio.
A man tries to hitch-hike at the side of a highway as the indifferent cars and trucks approach the camera from the distance and speed past us and the man. It’s a blunt if poetic image of the haves passing the hopeful have-not. Walking backward, the man approaches us until, as Franz Waxman’s yearning music reaches a climax and the name of producer-director George Stevens vanishes, he finally turns around. It’s our gorgeous star, Montgomery Clift, playing someone we don’t yet know.
He wears a leather jacket over a white undershirt, a ragged working-class bumming-the-country type of attire associated also with Marlon Brando’s iconic appearance in The Wild One (Laszlo Benedek, 1953), but that won’t be for another two years. Heck, Jack Kerouac’s T-shirt-and-jeans look wouldn’t be famous until he published On the Road in 1957. Stevens and Clift pre-date them, although we should mention that Brando famously wore an undershirt this year in Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire. It was cutting edge, as were Brando and Clift’s commitment to “the Method”.
As so often throughout A Place in the Sun, William C. Mellor’s crystalline black and white camera in this opening shot looks slightly up at Clift, as though we gaze upon Michelangelo’s David, and then it comes in closer for the rugged wrinkles around his squinting eyes. He looks with half-smiling pleasure up toward something, and this lengthy opening shot finally ends by cutting to the arresting spectacle before him.
The dwarfed hiker stands in front of a huge billboard. Smiling like a siren at the sucker being advertised to, a woman wearing a bathing suit reclines on the sand. “It’s an EASTMAN” exclaims the bold type, while a message in the corner avers with an unlikely homey democratic spirit, “Made in the heart of America for all of America”. As we absorb this literally overwhelming image and message, it’s unclear to viewers exactly what’s “an EASTMAN”.
So let’s see. We’ve gone from identifying with an Everyman by the side of the road, unable to flag a lift, to looking up at some demi-god unworthy of us, to identifying again with him as he’s placed in our position of yearning toward some friendly but forever-removed angel whose presence teases him but will never descend to his level. In the next surreal moment in a string of them, our hiker gapes at a woman in sunglasses speeding past in an open convertible of spotless white. She resembles the billboard model. Is it conceivably the same person? Do angels step from billboards to drive the highway? Well, she’s not the same but she descends from the same fantasy world.
Next comes a disorienting cut from our man’s perspective on her car, disappearing into the distance, to the man suddenly noticing a huge ugly truck parked beside him, as though it’s magically appeared like a pumpkin coach, albeit one that’s still a pumpkin. Decorated with hay and driven by a large, apparently Hispanic driver of cheerful mien, it’s as déclassé a contrast as possible to the shiny glamour-wagon and its unreachable driver who never took note of the hiker. This is what you want, this is what you get. As an emblematic scene, then, we perceive that our hero walks the road of life in a state of constant tease and disappointment, always having to settle.
With admirable precision, the next five minutes will spell out the set-up. What’s an Eastman? It’s a bathing suit, and it’s our hero: George Eastman, who happens to be the nephew of plutocrat Charles Eastman (Herbert Heyes), who owns the works. George is from the wrong side of the family, thanks to a deceased religious-nut father; that is, somebody who valued the spiritual over the material. Working as a bellhop in a Chicago hotel also owned by the bigwig Eastmans, George happened (by accident or design?) to run into Uncle Charles, who said something about looking him up for a job if he ever found himself in the East.
Little did Uncle Charles guess that George wouldn’t let the grass grow under that invitation. He quit Chicago and hitched until he came to the factory, where one balanced pre-Kubrickian shot plops him smack in the center of his uncle’s huge office, sitting in his chair. He needn’t imagine what it would be like; he’s doing it, if only for a moment. Like the billboard, it dwarfs him.
When introduced to the oppressive ceilings and layered longshots of the uncle’s mansion, George meets Charles’ condescending family, who are annoyed with papa for encouraging the riff-raff, even if they are related. Of course, Mrs. Louise Eastman (Kathryn Givney) and handsome scion Earl (Keeffe Brasselle), whom Charles says resembles George, are polite enough to George’s face while remaining far from familiarity to this interloper in his awkward new $35-dollar tweed suit, bought for the occasion while the real Eastmans don proper black evening-wear.
And then, from the distant background of the entrance, center frame, who comes forward but the angel-named Angela Vickers (Taylor, who was 17), the convertible driver, always announcing her arrival on car-horn like a flourish of trumpets. Fate’s playing tricks. She hardly notices George, while he’s practically knocked sideways, and now Waxman’s music adds a feminine siren fluting, surely what George hears in his head as the blood rushes through his brain.
The next day, Earl is assigned the task of finding George a position and explaining what’s done and what’s not done. Social relations with female staff aren’t done. Earl points out that most employees are women, as George sees for himself in the room where dozens of women on an assembly line pack the swimsuits in boxes.
As soon as George enters, all women observe him and one emits a wolf whistle in appreciation. Yes, they have no trouble acknowledging the sex object. We’re still not ten minutes into the picture, and it’s a festival of desire-ridden gazes among people who are allowed to look but not touch.