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Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy (movie adaptations)

 Film Poster for An American Tragedy.jpg
I recently caught the movies An American Tragedy (1931) and A Place in the Sun (1952). The first apparently made a modest critical and financial impact, the second won a number of nominations and awards, including the top 100 for the American Film Institute. Both are based on the 1925 novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, which I suspected I'd die before I ever got around to it, but these two movies stirred my curiosity. (Apparently, Russian director Sergei Eisenstein, of Battleship Potemkin fame, made fourteen reels of an adaptation, but it was thought his interpretation was too deterministic, which would be a problem in comparison to the novel although I'm not sure a Marxist interpretation would fully capture the novel either.) 

Spoilers galore:

Both movies present a young man [Clyde in the novel, which I will use here after to maintain consistency—A Place in the Sun renames him] headed to work at the factory of his uncle [Griffith in the novel]. The first movie has an incredibly dull opening although a few actresses present convincing performances. Presumably the first film is supposed to be closer to the novel although I suspected both were quite outside the ballpark.

In the first, Clyde is a bellhop and finds himself charming rich women unwittingly. He and some friends drink, get in an accident that kills a child, so he tells his mother he is leaving to escape the police. Frankly, all the guys looked the same to me, so I couldn't tell who was driving, so I don't know if Clyde were the driver or not, but clearly he's played with the wrong crowd and is now on the lam from the law. A rather grim and unsympathetic start.

A Place in the Sun movie poster.jpgBoth movies show Clyde starting out in the factory, but that's where the second (with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor) starts. So the second is a more sympathetic view. We see Clyde shyly trying to fit in, and starting low on the totem pole at the factory.

Clyde falls for a factory gal though he's not supposed to consort with them (it's just a factory rule in the movies). As Clyde moves up in the factory, he also falls for a high-society gal. As soon as he's sure of her mutual love, he learns that the factory gal is in the family way. He hears of a man who got away with murdering his lover in the lake, so he thinks he'll try it since she can't swim. But as he backs out, she falls in and drowns, and he flees. They eventually catch him, put him on trial, and convict him. His lawyers believed him and think they can get him off, but they do a rather botched job of it.
In the first, the mother blames herself for having Clyde consort with low-lifes at the mission, her life's work, but Clyde blames himself realizing only in jail that he could have saved her and chose not to. It's a little worse in the first since Clyde swims toward her and turns away.

Still, I'd think today that would be considered manslaughter, and capital punishment is rather rare, so we wouldn't have that feeling of the end of Clyde's life rearing up.

Today, as well, we have abortion and divorce and more female independence, so those are probably all reasons why the movie hasn't been remade.

The theme in both seems to reinforce the idea of the folly of trying to elevate the poor man from his station. I couldn't figure out what made them "An American Tragedy," though—why tragedy? why American? The second movie perhaps realized the title was too lofty for what it aimed at and chose A Place in the Sun, which seems to hint also at the folly of poor men trying to be rich.

That's what led me to the 1925 book, which made it on the top 100 Modern Library and top 100 Time Magazine novels, so I thought I'd give it a spin to see how differently it did things—and to see how it meant to use its title.

Communist countries loved adapting this book although I’m not sure it’s necessarily anti-capitalism although it is a collar factory, which was a clear demonstration of class—but communism has its own version of class. Yet Dreiser was enthusiastic about Eisenstein’s adaptation although that may have been more for his quality of work than his politics—nothing is more disappointing to see than an artist who places politics above his art. I’d still be interested to Eisenstein’s version.

Here's a link to the novel discussion which will follow in a few days (and a little more talk of adaptations). And yes, it deserves to be read. It's left a burning hot coal in my chest. Put it on your to-be-read list (or bump it up). 

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