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.”

[Phillips Holmes in An American Tragedy, realizing he really does hate that grasping little factory girl and would be much happier drowning her.]

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).