“A Place in the Sun” is overrated, to put it kindly (two critics’ views)

The following is commentary by two critics, Mary Gordon and Charles Higham, on A Place in the Sun, the 1951 film directed by George Stevens that was based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy.

The film was a critical and commercial success and is regarded as a classic. It is my opinion – not the prevailing one – that the film is overrated; that the principal characters are miscast; that the acting is poor; and, what is worst, that the film takes shameful liberties with the plot and spirit of Dreiser’s masterpiece.

— Roger W. Smith

       August 2016
 

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Dreiser makes both Roberta [Alden]’s attractiveness and her virtue real.  She is a genuinely loving young woman who is sexually awakened by her feelings for Clyde [Griffiths].  Hollywood’s casting of Shelley Winters, the perennial slut, to play her in the second movie version of the novel, A Place in the Sun, was a serious violation of the spirit of Dreiser’s book.  … Dreiser’s Roberta is a genuine innocent, forced by poverty to leave the “reduced grimness:” of her decaying farm … in order to take up factory work, which is really beneath her.  Dreiser makes the point, that like Clyde, she has innate finesse.  … Sondra [Finchley], on the other hand, is a dreadful girl who happens to be irresistibly beautiful and marvelously rich. Her clothes, her car, her sports equipment, at least as much as her body, are the locus of her sexual allure.  … Clearly, Dreiser wants us at once to realize Sondra’s ridiculousness and the allure of all she has.  … Astonishingly, we are on Clyde’s side in his conviction that marrying Roberta, with whom he was quite happy until Sondra appeared, is impossible.  … We are at one with Clyde in his plans to murder this encumbered woman, this encumbrance, heavy with child and the limitations of her poverty.

—  Mary Gordon, “Good Boys and Dead Girls,” in Good Boys and Dead Girls and Other Essays (1991), pp. 8-10

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[George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun] was a handsomely made film though like the [Josef] von Sternberg version [of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy] if quite failed to equal the intensity and power of Dreiser’s book. It again substituted an indulgent romanticism for the author’s crude but moving realism. The story of a young man (Montgomery Clift) enslaved by the rich and beautiful Sondra (Elizabeth Taylor) but ruined by the factory girl (Shelley Winters) whom he makes pregnant and accidentally kills often looks glossy and false, inferior to [William] Wyler’s version of Sister Carrie. Stevens was at his best only in a few episodes, such as the soft and subdued love scenes between social climber and pathetic drudge, the killing on Loon Lake, long shots from an immense distance alternating with startling close-ups, the call of a police siren which interrupts a lover’s idyll.

Unfortunately, despite these directorial touches, the film is a travesty of Dreiser’s novel [italics added]. Once again, all of the novel’s rich social comment was carefully eliminated. [Screenwriters] Harry Brown and Michael Wilson updated the novel without adding new or perceptive about their own time. An example of the compromise involved—typical in Hollywood films, which is why so few can be taken seriously as social comment—occurs in the final scene when George [the Clyde Griffiths character] is in jail awaiting execution. Sondra visits George in his cell and expresses her love for him. The book makes it explicitly clear that once her lover was in trouble and had become a social undesirable, this rich girl wanted nothing more to do with him. The scene in the film is the antithesis of realism. Dreiser’s book was awkwardly written but passionately convincing and filled with deeply felt critiques of the heartlessness of a materialist society. Stevens’ film is beautifully made, its style more polished than Dreiser’s prose, but it is empty and cold.

— Charles Higham, The Art of the American Film 1900-1971 (1973), pp. 279-281

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