American Tragedy, An (DVD Review)19 Oct, 2015 By: Mike Clark
Available via Universal Vault Series
Stars Phillips Holmes, Sylvia Sidney, Frances Dee.
Josef von Sternberg’s only Paramount talkie not to star Marlene Dietrich attempted to adapt a 20th-century literary milestone of significant heft in both senses, which automatically makes it one of those movies that would easily be more “high profile” if more people had had a chance to see it. When I ran UCLA’s archival 35mm print of Tragedy at the AFI Theater in 1976, it had never, to my knowledge, ever been televised, and that particular situation has improved only a little over the ensuing years (apparently, a New York public TV station aired it some in the 1980s, though I’m guessing that the utilized print exhibited something less than that trademark Paramount snap). This forced obscurity was due to George Stevens’ celebrated 1951 remake A Place in the Sun — which, as standard industry practice more or less dictated, caused the earlier version to be pulled out of circulation for an eternity.
For a long, long time, Sun was used as a kind of battering ram with which to beat the earlier picture over the head — understandable given that Stevens won its year’s directorial Oscar for, among other things, establishing Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor as a romantic screen couple for the ages. But Tragedy (the movie) is, for starters, certainly a compelling enough companion to what emerged on screen 20 years later, and any lover of a book that’s among my own all-time favorites will get to see a good chunk of screen time devoted to early episodes in the story that were jettisoned for Sun. These deal with the time spent by protagonist Clyde Griffiths bell-hopping in an urban hotel — which leads to him hanging around with what used to be called a “fast crowd” and the resulting tragic incident in which he’s a minor participant.
The book is, more than anything else, heavily class-conscious social commentary, and in some ways there’s more of this in the Sternberg version because Stevens emphasized a love triangle that pitted Taylor against Shelley Winters, which comes closer to being the antithesis of a fair fight than anything else I can imagine, at least in the movies. But it’s all relative: the apparently litigious Dreiser tried to sue the studio over Sternberg’s take for turning his work into an “ordinary murder story” (more on this in a minute) instead of the indictment of society he intended. Originally, the ’31 version was supposed to have been directed — in Hollywood — by Sergei Eisenstein himself, who likely might have enjoyed putting it to American society (an indictment from which, after all, the novel attains a lot of its power).
The alleged murder and its fallout stem from what happens to Clyde (name changed to George Eastman in Sun) after he lands a minor managerial job in an urban factory owned by mostly snooty relatives on the tonier side of the family. Warned not to consort with the young women under his watch, he nonetheless takes up on the extreme sly with a farm-raised hire (Sylvia Sidney, much more attractive than Winters). Potential trouble turns into the real thing once Clyde gets her pregnant, an incident that unfortunately dovetails with his meeting a beautiful society type (Frances Dee in the later Taylor role) who represents everything he wants out of life. When he takes his diminished squeeze out on a secluded boating trip, tragedy ensues — spoiler territory, perhaps, though it’s such a famous scene that Groucho Marx spoofed it with Thelma Todd in the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers just one year later. As a result, Clyde’s place in the sun is torpedoed: so much for upward mobility and the American Dream.
The movie has some shortcomings of varied intensities, the first being an attempt to compress a novel that approaches a thousand pages into a 95-minute feature (and much of it devoted to the climactic trial). Another is Phillips Holmes performance as Clyde — which, while not as wanting as its rep (he really looks the part and can convey indignation), does lack dimension even before we get to the Monty Clift comparison (another unfair fight). It has been said that this move derailed Holmes’s career and maybe so; he faded into minor roles fairly fast before his death in a midair collision during service for the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1942. His actor father Taylor later specialized in playing elderly slippery types at Republic Pictures, where he became a presence as ubiquitous as, say, Jim Davis or Ben Cooper.
Dee’s part is much smaller than Taylor’s, and we’re never certain how much she’s just toying with Clyde or how much of a spoiled airhead she might be — though this doesn’t altogether work against this particular rendering of the story beyond making it chillier. Sidney, though, is outstanding, adding to her formidable array of Depression sufferers (she really cornered the market on these parts). You definitely do not watch her here and think that this is a woman who’ll eventually end up making two Tim Burton comedies, one of them casting her as a huge Slim Whitman fan.
Overall, this is a good second-echelon 1931 title, and there’s no shortage of ’31 releases I like. Were you to fall into it without knowing anything of its esteemed source, you might think it a tough little cookie that’s pretty grownup for even the pre-Code era (note the cynicism not only of the jury but Clyde’s own lawyers). Visually, no one will mistake this for a Criterion release, but the copy does come from UCLA’s restoration, and we’re talking Sternberg with Lee Garmes as cinematographer (the following year, their collaboration on the sublime Shanghai Express would get Garmes one of the most deserved of all photographic Oscars). Chronologically, Sternberg came back to Paramount after The Blue Angel in Germany and preceded Tragedy (by just four or five months) with the Dietrich Dishonored. During the silent era at the same studio, he had made three movies that make up one of the greatest boxed DVD sets that anyone has ever issued: Criterion’s treasure trove of Underworld, The Last Command and The Docks of New York, a complete knockout.