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Film Friday: "A Place in the Sun" (1951)

This week on "Film Friday" I bring you a film that had its premiere exactly 64 years ago. Apparently, Charlie Chaplin described it as "the greatest movie ever made about America."

Original release poster
Directed by George Stevens, A Place in the Sun (1951) tells the story of George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), an uneducated but ambitious young man who hitchhikes from Chicago to meet up with his wealthy uncle Charles Eastman (Herbert Heyes), the owner of a bathing suit factory. Despite George's family relation to the Eastmans, they regard him as something of an outsider, but his uncle nevertheless gives him a position as an assembly line worker at the factory. While dating between co-workers is strictly forbidden, George soon begins a relationship with Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), a poor and inexperienced girl who never learned how to swim.

Over time, George proves himself in the company and gets promoted to supervisor in the department where he began. His recommendations on how to improve production finally catch the attention of his uncle, who invites him for a social event at the Eastman family home. At the party, George meets the beautiful society girl Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor) and the two soon fall in love. In the meantime, Alice reveals she's pregnant and insists George marry her. He stalls for time so that he can join Angela and the Eastmans on a vacation to Loon Lake, where he begins hatching a plan to get rid of Alice. When Alice threatens to expose George, they drive to City Hall to get married, but find it close for Labor Day, so he suggests they spend the day at the lake. While they are out on the lake, Alice confesses her dreams about their happy future together with their child. Just as George takes pity on her and decides not to carry his murderous plana, the boat capsizes and Alice accidentally drowns. George goes back to shore and acts as if nothing happened, but when Alice's body is found, all the evidences lead back to him. 

George Eastman: I love you. I've loved you since the first moment I saw you. I guess maybe I even loved before I saw you.

When director George Stevens returned to the United States after World War II, he found himself at an emotional and professional crossroads. The horrors he and his film crew had witnessed at the Dachau concentration camp upon its liberation in April 1945 left him with a darker view of human nature, which made him question his and his country's values. After the experience of war, filmmaking became very personal to Stevens and he felt the need to undertake projects that had "good emotional bones," stories that he could really believe in. Although I Remember Mama (1948) was the starting point of his post-war cycle of contemplative and increasingly personal films, A Place in the Sun showed how truly serious Stevens was as a filmmaker thinking about America.

Stevens was barely out of his teens when he first read Theodore Dreiser's best-selling novel An American Tragedy, the story of "an idealistic yet misguided young social climber who ascends to the tragic side of the American dream." Published in 1925, the book was based on details and setting of the notorious murder trial of Chester Gillette, who in 1906 killed his "poor" sweetheart, Grace Brown, "for the sake of his ambitions" and was consequently sentenced to death by electric chair. Stevens read An American Tragedy again in 1945, just after the war, and found that Dreiser's deterministic view of America was especially meaningful to him. He saw in Clyde Griffiths, the novel's tragic hero, "a vast skepticism and a self-deluding desire to rise in a society that offers no positive view of human potential," as well as "the profound sadness he tried to make sense of and held inside since the war."

Sidney and Holmes in the 1931 film
Stevens began planning a film version of An American Tragedy as early as 1947, noting in the book's margins his ideas for visual dissolves and dialogue he planned to use. Initially, the project was to be made under the banner of Liberty Films, an independent production company Stevens formed in 1945 with Frank Capra, Samuel J. Briskin and William Wyler. After Liberty Films was bought by Paramount Pictures, which owned the rights to Dreiser's novel, Stevens signed a deal with the studio so that he could "get a hold" of An American Tragedy

Paramount was apprehensive at first to produce another screen adaptation of An American Tragedy, since their earlier version had been both a critical and commercial flop. Directed by Josef Sternberg and starring Phillips Holmes, Sylvia Sidney and Frances Dee, An American Tragedy (1931) was also completely despised by Dreiser and he even filed a lawsuit against Paramount in an effort to stop the film from being released, but ultimately lost. The author was particularly displeased with the picture's assessment of Clyde Griffiths, who he felt had been turned into "a stupid and criminally inclined boy rather than a victim of environment." Paramount was also concerned that the story would a delicate matter for audiences at the time, but even more that it would be perceived as un-American. Given the anti-Communist mood of post-war America, Dreiser's story, which portrayed Capitalism as "a social villain," would be a dangerous subject to tackle, especially since the capitalist values were Hollywood's own. 

But Stevens was fully committed to Dreiser's book and believe that the story told through his eyes would appeal to a massive American audience. After months of stressful and inconclusive meetings, the director threatened the studio with a lawsuit and production was finally green-lighted in early 1949. Before that could happen, however, Paramount and Stevens made a few compromises: the studio renamed the film to A Place in the Sun, a title that "emphasized opportunity, not tragedy;" Stevens changed the name of the protagonist from Clyde Griffiths to George Eastman, combining his own first name with the first part of the Eastman-Kodak Company name (the names of the other characters were changed as well); the story was updated and rendered even more acceptable by turning the murder into a plausible accident by drowning; and the factory ceased to be a "dreary place that made shirts and collars" and became a place that produced "bathing suits whose all-American contours were emblematic of sex, wealth and leisure in the consumer society of the 1950s."

Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor
Stevens had seen Montgomery Clift in Fred Zinnemann's The Search (1948), his Oscar-nominated film debut, and agreed that A Place in the Sun would make him a major star. The shy and insecure 29-year-old actor was a relative newcomer to Hollywood, but he "appealed to the hurts, anxieties, confusions and romantic agonies of the post-war generation." Although Stevens found Clift "perfect" to work with, he was bitterly disappointed by the director's "lack of flexibility, his lack of imagination in working with actors" and dismissed him as "craftsman", rather than an artist.

A practitioner of the Method acting style, Clift spent a night in a real state prison to prepare himself emotionally for his character's scenes in jail. He and Stevens fought incessantly over how to play these last seconds of A Place in the Sun, as Clift refused to go along with the director's suggestion that he "conjure up some awesome, terrifying emotion" in the film's final close-up. Clift argued that a man on his way to the electric chair has no expression, "he is numbed, paralyzed, in a state of shock," so when the cameras rolled he gave Stevens "a look which reflects a special kind of agony. His mind and body appear to be floating elsewhere as if he has punished himself physically and mentally until purged of superficiality. It is a peculiarly austere gaze, heightened by the harsh light of the prison cell."

Taylor and Clift in a publicity still
Stevens said that he selected Elizabeth Taylor for the role of Angela Vickers without ever having seen a foot of any film she had made, but he knew she possessed exactly the quality he was looking for: "Not so much a real girl as the girl on the candy-box cover, the beautiful girl in the yellow Cadillac convertible that every American boy sometime or other thinks he can marry." At just seventeen years of age, Taylor had a "peerless young beauty" and a kind of privilege, self-confidence and virginity that made her "a dream come true."

As beautiful as she was, Taylor still wasn't much of an actress and she didn't understand the psychological implications and powerful nuances of Dreiser's story. Stevens was aware of her basic shortcomings and spent most of his time working with her to get the performance he wanted. Stevens was completely different from the adulating directors Taylor had worked with at MGM, her home studio, and she found it hard to adapt to his demanding nature and "painstaking attention to every detail." The greatest demands on Taylor came during the first love scene with Clift, which Stevens shot entirely in close-up. It was the moment in the film when George, guilt-ridden by the fact that his working-class girlfriend is pregant by him, still clings to Angela and her dream world, wishing that he could tell her everything. Angela then pulls him gently towards her and whispers, "Tell mama... tell mama all." Taylor was outraged by that line, especially the "mama" part, which she felt was like "stepping into her mother's shoes." After Stevens patiently explained to her that he wanted to create a mood that was at once primitive and basic, "a kind of preordained meeting," Taylor delivered her dialogue with "a sophistication beyond her time."

Before production on A Place in the Sun began, Paramount paired Taylor and Clift in public at the Los Angeles premiere of William Wyler's The Heiress (1949), his latest picture, figuring the synergy would help their on-screen chemistry in Stevens's film. The two young stars had never met before, but they established a personal connection from the moment they laid eyes on each other. During the filming of A Place in the Sun, Taylor developed a mad crush on Clift that went nowhere, as his sexual orientation did not permit it. His personal anguish and instability touched her empathetic spirit and maternal nature and they became the most devoted of friends.

Shelley Winters and Montgomery Clift
Stevens tested many actresses for the role of Alice Tripp, including Hollywood's ultimate child star Shirley Temple, but Shelley Winters never even crossed his mind. Known at the time almost exclusively for her "blonde bombshell" parts, Winters was desperate to break new ground and actively campaigned for the role of the poor factory worker after writer Norman Mailer alerted her to it. Initially, her agents couldn't get Paramount or Stevens to give her an audition, but eventually the director agreed to meet her.

Before meeting Stevens, the 29-year-old Method actress immersed herself into "the inner workings of that girl's soul and mind and what Dreiser wanted the reader to feel about the whole American syndrome of success at any price." Winters also did some research of her own by going to a tire factory to observe the girls working on the assembly line and then "dyed my hair brown, took the polish off my nails, combed my hair flat with sad little curls on the end below my ears, with two bobby pins on the side, and washed my face clean of makeup." She also borrowed plain clothes from her sister Blanche and when she went to meet Stevens so disguised, the director barely recognized her. Taking a good look at her, Stevens said, "Shelley, if I test you for this role and you get it, will you let me photograph you like this?" Not only did Winters allowed him to photograph her however he wanted, but she also wore her sister's clothes for most of the film.

The filming of A Place in the Sun proceeded in October 1949 almost without incident. Having started in films as a cameraman at the age of seventeen, Stevens had a shrewd understanding of cinematic values and believed that "every element that goes into a picture affects the viewer, although the viewer may not realize the impact of tiny minor things." As a result, he rehearsed his stars with unbroken concentration, usually on a quiet set cleared of any unwanted crew members. His method resembled the shooting of a silent film and he obliged his players to express what the characters might be feeling without any dialogue at all - just by 'thinking' the emotions. Stevens often played the pre-recorded Franz Waxman score, another silent film technique, "to keep the actors in the mood" and help them bring out their emotions in their performances.

After nineteen months of editing over 400,000 feet of film, A Place in the Sun premiered at the Fine Arts Theater in Los Angeles on august 14, 1951 and received generally laudatory reviews from critics across the country. The New York Times called it "a distinguished work, a tribute, above all, to its producer-director and an effort now placed among the ranks of the finest films to have come from Hollywood in many years," and Time magazine judged that it was "the picture to beat for 1951's Academy Awards." At said Academy Awards, A Place in the Sun took home six Oscars Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Costume Design (Black and White), Best Film Editing and Best Original Score. It was received nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Clift) and Best Actress (Winters), but lost to An American in Paris (1951), Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen (1951) and Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).

Elizabeth Taylor: A Shining Legacy on Film by Cindy De La Hoz (2012) | Elizabeth Taylor, The Last Star by Kitty Kelley (1981) | Elizabeth: The Life of Elizabeth Taylor by Alexander Walker (1997) | Giant: George Stevens, a Life on Film by Marilyn Ann Moss (2004) | Montgomery Clift: A Biography by Patricia Bosworth (2012) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes)


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