Movie Night: An American Tragedy

“Basically, amoral social climber from poor background seduces poor factory girl, gets her pregnant, wants to marry a rich socialite and so kills poor factory girl by smashing her in the head with his tennis racket and dumping her body in a lake, fakes a canoe accident, trips self up by being basically an idiot, dies in electric chair after mercy is refused by Governor Charles Evans Hughes.”


FourStars
FourStars

From 1931: «An American Tragedy» with Phillips Holmes, Sylvia Sidney and Frances Dee. The first cinematic adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s novel of the same name, it was eventually remade as a more famous film in 1951 starring Montgomery Clift, Shirley Winters and Elizabeth Taylor: A Place in the Sun.

But this version has much to recommend it. Except the sound. The sound is like what Singin’ in the Rain was parodying. Sound in motion pictures wasn’t yet refined, so everything in the pic, especially background noise, is loud and excruciating. In the courtroom scene when the D.A. pounds his fist on the bannister in front of the accused, the resounding thuds shook the walls. Meanwhile, whole sections of dialogue were hard to pick up. Just a quibble.

The synopsis:

“A social climber charms a debutante, seduces a factory worker and commits murder.”

TMDb

It’s hard to find reviews for films of this age, but fortunately «Richard Cross of 20/20 Movie Reviews» came through, writing in 2013 and comparing the two film versions:

“An American Tragedy was remade in 1951 with Montgomery Clift in the role played here by Holmes but, while this version isn’t without its faults (which are due more to its age rather than any inherent flaws). it’s far superior to the Clift version, even though Griffith (or Eastman, as he was called in the later version), is a much more sympathetic character in the second movie. Holmes’s version is selfish and manipulative, and yet we never entirely lose some level of sympathy for him. Deep down he’s not a bad person, but he falls victim—like Roberta—to his own cowardice and weakness of character. These character flaws are gradually and painfully exposed during the trial, a lengthy sequence which was once one of the film’s strengths but which appears a little far-fetched and overacted today. The grandstanding acting style of Charles Middleton (Flash Gordon’s nemesis, Ming the Merciless) and Irving Pichel is a real drawback which isn’t helped by the way Samuel Hoffenstein’s screenplay call upon them to almost engage in fisticuffs. Overall though, An American Tragedy stands up well for its age.”

Richard Cross

Dreiser’s work, and therefore the two films, was based on the real life murder of «Grace Brown by Chester Gillette» in an upper New York lake on 11-Jul-1906. Basically, amoral social climber from poor background seduces poor factory girl, gets her pregnant, wants to marry a rich socialite and so kills poor factory girl by smashing her in the head with his tennis racket and dumping her body in a lake, fakes a canoe accident, trips self up by being basically an idiot, dies in electric chair after mercy is refused by Governor Charles Evans Hughes.

Both movie versions were faithful to the book and real life, as far as these things go. The real life event could stand the Erik Larson deep dive nonfiction treatment, to see how and where Dreiser departed from events. For the 1931 film, Holmes manages to make you want to both hug him and strangle him. Sadly, Holmes’ extensive career, including an appearance in the Our Gange feature General Spanky, came to an end thanks to World War II. He had just completed flight training in the Royal Canadian Air Force and was being transferred from Winnipeg to Ottawa, when the transport he was riding in collided in mid air with another aircraft over Ontario. He was only 35.

An American Tragedy Poster
[Including this poster from An American Tragedy because it’s too awesome and Art Deco for words. Now THAT’S a movie poster!]

Best quotes:

Well, there’s not any from the movie, really. These are from the book:

“Clyde had a soul that was not destined to grow up. He lacked decidedly that mental clarity and inner directing application that in so many permits them to sort out from the facts and avenues of life the particular thing or things that make for their direct advancement.” “

An American Tragedy (book)

“And they were always testifying as to how God or Christ or Divine Grace had rescued them from this or that predicament—never how they had rescued any one else.”

Ibid

“For in some blind, dualistic way both she and Asa insisted, as do all religionists, in disassociating God from harm and error and misery, while granting Him nevertheless supreme control. They would seek for something else—some malign, treacherous, deceiving power which, in the face of God’s omniscience and omnipotence, still beguiles and betrays—and find it eventually in the error and perverseness of the human heart, which God has made, yet which He does not control, because He does not want to control it.”

Ibid

FourStars
4 Stars! (Because sound. Ow.)

An American Tragedy. 1931. TCM. English. Josef von Sternberg, Hans Dreier (d). Phillips Holmes, Sylvia Sidney, Frances Dee, Irving Pichel, Frederick Burton, Clair McDowell, Charles Middleton, Arnold Korff. (p). John Leipold, Ralph Rainger (m). Lee Garmes (c).


On Crime and Punishment This Fourth of July

“It’s well worth a challenging read-and-think on everyone’s part at this particular moment in the country and society.”

As the gigantic Fascist Cult of Nationalistic Personality Display takes over formerly democratic, non-partisan American space/time in Washington DC tomorrow, it’s worth looking back at some of the (quickly forgotten) roots of the democracy. « This one is about Marquis Cesare Beccaria radical ideas on crime and punishmen».

“‘On Crimes and Punishments‘ was the first attempt to apply principles of political economy to the practice of punishment so as to humanise and rationalise the use of coercion by the state. After all, arbitrary and cruel punishment was the most immediate instrument that the state had to terrorise the people into submission, so as to avoid rebellion against the hierarchical structure of the society. The problem that Beccaria faced, then, was the simple fact that the elite had complete control of the law, which was a family business and a highly esoteric language that only the initiated could master. The path leading to the rational reform of penal law required a fundamental philosophical rethinking of the role and place of law in society.”

Aeon

«The full treatise has been translated for English and is available here». It’s well worth a challenging read-and-think on everyone’s part at this particular moment in the country and society.

[Image: «Ben Jennings in the Guardian» He’s fabulous! So is the Guardian! Go read them (and donate if you can) now!]

Corporate Power

“Many states whose sovereignty is threatened are now finally waking up to the danger. But is it perhaps already too late to do anything about the seemingly over-mighty corporations?”

Is corporate power absolute yet? Or just overwhelming? Maybe … it’s just … mestastizing? There’s a fascinating documentary over at Deutsche Welle:

“The Wallonia region in Belgium triggered a Europe-wide crisis in the fall of 2016 by refusing to sign the CETA free trade agreement with Canada, as millions of EU citizens took to the streets to protest against the agreement. The CETA negotiations had turned the spotlight on the system of private arbitration courts. … Many states whose sovereignty is threatened are now finally waking up to the danger. But is it perhaps already too late to do anything about the seemingly over-mighty corporations?”

Deutsche Welle

Where Are the Bodies? We Have an App for That.

“The information presented is stark and perhaps unsettling.”

Find the human (not migrants, not immigrants, not aliens, certainly not illegals. Just human. Human.) bodies. There are plenty to look for all over the Arizona Open GIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants map:

“Since January of 2001, over 3,000 undocumented migrants have died within the Pima County OME jurisdiction. The information presented is stark and perhaps unsettling. However, both Humane Borders and the Pima County OME believe that the availability of this information will contribute to fulfilling our common vision.”

AOGISIDM

No Slope, No False Equivalency. Just the Same. Damn. Thing.

Immoral, indecent, inhumane. … We are running concentration camps and human beings are dying.

Immoral, indecent, inhumane. There is no slippery slope; this country is on a well-trodden path dating back at least to 1492. There is also no false equivalency. We are running concentration camps and human beings are dying. [Full Stop]

Details are in the OIG report to DHS. Full report is here.

The Wages of Sin, America, is …

“It is impossible to engage in intellectual discourse with National Socialist Philosophy. For if there were such an entity, one would have to try by means of analysis and discussion either to prove its validity or to combat it. …”

And then Primo Levi pegged the inevitable results of such greed, hypocrisy, selfishness … and our addiction to those three destructive forces:

“Auschwitz is outside of us, but it is all around us, in the air. The plague has died away, but the infection still lingers and it would be foolish to deny it. Rejection of human solidarity, obtuse and cynical indifference to the suffering of others, abdication of the intellect and of moral sense to the principle of authority, and above all, at the root of everything, a sweeping tide of cowardice, a colossal cowardice which masks itself as warring virtue, love of country and faith in an idea.”

Primo Levi

And the college students of the White Rose in Munich, 1942, in a pamphlet that would lead to their executions, also outlined how it’s impossible to have rational, intellectual discourse with those who have devoted themselves to irrational, anti-intellectual rot:

“It is impossible to engage in intellectual discourse with National Socialist Philosophy. For if there were such an entity, one would have to try by means of analysis and discussion either to prove its validity or to combat it. In actuality we face a [different] situation. At its very inception this movement depended on the deception and betrayal of one’s fellow man.”

The White Rose Society, 1942

No. You cannot argue with Fascists or Nazis or ignorant nationalists. Rational arguments won’t win over irrational people.

Robicheaux by James Lee Burke

It’s absorbing, it sometimes makes you flinch, and it’s always about the bottom feeders and sharks of the dark underbelly of the American aquarium, and it always makes for fun reading.

Robicheaux Book Cover Robicheaux
Dave Robicheaux
James Lee Burke
Fiction
Simon and Schuster
02-Jan-18
Kindle
464

During a murder investigation, Dave Robicheaux discovers he may have committed the homicide he's investigating, one which involved the death of the man who took the life of Dave's beloved wife. As he works to clear his name and make sense of the murder, Robicheaux encounters a cast of characters and a resurgence of dark social forces that threaten to destroy all of those whom he loves

There’s been 31 years of Dave Robichaux and The Simpsons? Time flies. The Simpsons wore out its welcome long ago (tonight’s episode was a perfect example of why). But Dave is back and as good as ever. Yes, there is some formulaic stuff here, in the basic plot outline and catchphrases. But the writing is as always lyrical and impressive.

Being somewhat formulaic can be a strength; each of the Dave books can stand alone. You don’t have to have read everything from 1987’s The Neon Rain. You’d be missing a lot of good writing and storytelling, but it’s not required. Burke explains Dave’s backstory pretty much each book. Just concentrate on one of the book’s stories and have fun. It’s absorbing, it sometimes makes you flinch, and it’s always about the bottom feeders and sharks of the dark underbelly of the American aquarium, and it always makes for fun reading.

Robicheaux is no different. (Although … that title. What’s up with that? Have they run out of ideas for them? The titles have always been rather genius … In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, The Tin Roof Blow Down, Jolie Blon’s Bounce, A Stained White Radiance, The Glass Rainbow.)

I’ve never really been able to get into his other series, but I’ve been a friend of Dave for over 20 years now. It’s good to see him again. And he comes back in January with The New Iberia Blues, which has Dave colliding with Hollywood. Should be great absorbing reading and fun as always.