A Place in the Sun (George Stevens, 1951)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents A Place in the Sun.

criterion logoBased on Theodore Dreiser’s landmark novel An American Tragedy, George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun is a swooningly noir-stained melodrama featuring Montgomery Clift as a handsome young man eager to win a place in respectable society. His ambitious dream seems to fall into place when he accepts a job offer from a wealthy relation and falls deeply in love with a beautiful socialite (Elizabeth Taylor), however a secret relationship with a factory girl (Shelley Winters) and her pregnancy threatens his future and inspires his murderous impulses. Called “the greatest movie ever made about America” by Charlie Chaplin, Steven’s film skillfully alternates between affluent, sun-washed romance and shadowy, fateful film noir, crafting an idealized vision of movie love against a sour portrait of the American dream and what lies beneath it.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

  • New 4K digital master with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Audio commentary with George Stevens Jr. and associate producer Ivan Moffat
  • New interview with film critic Imogen Sara Smith
  • George Stevens and His Place in the Sun, a 20-minute documentary on the making of the film
  • George Stevens: The Filmmakers Who Knew Him, archival interviews with Warren Beatty, Frank Capra, Joe Mankiewicz, Rouben Mamoulian, Antonio Vellani, Robert Wise, Alan J. Pakula, and Fred Zinnemann
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Optional English subtitles
  • PLUS: An essay by film scholar Laurent Jullier

APitS PosterFollowing the premiere of A Place in the Sun (1951), Charlie Chaplin told director George Stevens it was “the greatest movie ever made about America.” That was probably more of a compliment to Stevens than it was to America. The film adapted Theodore Dreiser’s iconic 1925 novel An American Tragedy, itself a fictionalization of Chester Gillette’s murder of Grace Brown in 1906. The son of deeply religious parents who joined The Salvation Army and renounced material wealth, Chester Gillette took a position at his uncle’s skirt factory in Cortland, New York, after leaving college and having spent a few years working odd jobs. He developed an intimate relationship with factory girl Grace Brown and was pressured to marry her after she became pregnant. Brown became even more insistent when she discovered Gillette had been courting other women, including (possibly) a well-to-do attorney’s daughter, Harriet Benedict. Gillette and Brown went on a trip to the Adirondacks together and on July 11 Gillette took Brown out on Big Moose Lake, struck the woman with a tennis racquet, and left her to drown. Gillette claimed that Brown’s death was an accident, then later called it a suicide, but he was ultimately convicted for her murder and executed by the electric chair in 1908. Dreiser sat through much of Gillette’s trial and wrote his massive novel over a five year span more than a decade later. The book was a tremendous success. It was quickly adapted for the stage and Paramount snatched up the film rights, having Sergei Eisenstein prepare a screenplay before Josef von Sternberg directed a film version in 1931 from a different script. Dreiser was sufficiently upset over the resulting movie to unsuccessfully sue Paramount, but the film was, if nothing else, remarkable enough to merit a gag in Horse Feathers (Norman Z. McLeod, 1932) where Groucho, out on a pond with Thelma Todd, remarks, “You know, this is the first time I’ve been out in a canoe since I saw The American Tragedy?”

APitS GatesGeorge Stevens had pressured Paramount in the late 1940s to let him adapt Dreiser’s novel, even going so far as to sue the studio which was reluctant to risk a second flop following von Sternberg’s version. Stevens served in the US Army film unit during World War II and filmed the D-Day landings and the liberation of Paris, as well as the liberations of the Dachau concentration camp and the Duben labour camp (with Stevens’ footage being used at the Nuremberg trials). The impact of the horrors observed by Stevens was enormous and he had little interest in the light comedies that dominated his Hollywood work prior his Army service. An American Tragedy was perfect material for the director to explore the darker side of American values and the thinness of human morality. Paramount relented in part because of Stevens’ choice of leading man — Montgomery Clift. Clift saw the character, George Eastman, as having some charm and being somewhat dim and tacky, but defined by an overwhelming ambition. The name was a composite of Stevens’ own first name and a lift from the Kodak-Eastman company that allowed the audience to easily associate the character with corporate fortune. Clift and Stevens proved to be far from complimentary partners on the project, with Stevens barring Clift’s much-valued drama coach, Mira Rostova, from his set and Clift considering Stevens an unimaginative “craftsman.” The film was a critical smash, receiving numerous awards including an Oscar for Stevens and a nomination for Clift.

A Place in the SunClift’s George Eastman is given a movie star’s romantic introduction in A Place in Sun. Like Chester Gillette and Drieser’s Clyde Griffiths before him, George has shaken off the devout and self-sacrificing religion of his mother and has traveled to New York for a job offer from his uncle Charles (Herbert Heyes), a wealthy industrialist. We first see George on a windy roadside in a black leather jacket squinting against the sun at a billboard and looking impossibly handsome while doing so. The advertisement is for his uncle’s swimsuit company, Stevens having traded the respectability of Dreiser’s collar-making business for an image of affluent leisure distilled into seductive cheesecake. The billboard’s slogan, “It’s an Eastman,” refers to the swimsuit, to the dream of carefree success George seeks, and to George himself, with the “n” in “Eastman” connecting the name to George. The inadvertent objectification of George by calling him “It” rather than “He” is blackly apt as it foreshadows the grim lengths George will (nearly) undertake to secure his future success.

APitS at the MoviesFitting for the role of male Cinderella, George spends his days collecting boxed swimsuits at one of his uncle’s assembly lines and his nights studying and preparing reports proposing efficiencies in his department, dutifully waiting for his opportunity at the American dream to arrive like a visit from a fairy godmother. Desperate for some kind of approval to confirm his worth, he breaks company policy and starts secretly seeing a co-worker on his line, Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters). It is difficult to appreciate today how much Winters is cast against type by playing the drab and forlorn Alice. Known for her previous work playing sexpots, George Stevens had no interest in Winters for the dowdy role. The director much preferred Cathy O’Donnell and Gloria Grahame, while Clift liked Betsy Blair, but Winters secured the role through Norman Mailer’s coaching and a surprise meeting with Stevens looking nearly unrecognizable in her sister’s plain clothes and without any make-up. Stevens cast Winters after she agreed to appears in the film as she looked that day and she wears her sister Blanche’s clothes through most of the movie. Alice is cautious with the overly eager George but she is unable to resist the good fortune of a handsome suitor who shares his name with the factory owner, even if he seems to pine for the wealth of his relations and the rich girl who sometimes waits outside the factory in a convertible. George voraciously presses Alice for her attentions by prolonging their nights out and taking trips to lover’s lane. Despite a prohibition against male visitors by Alice’s landlady, a chance rainstorm lands a happy George in her room and the two spend the night together. It is here, as George and Alice dance slowly in her small, dark, rented room, that the noir-stained hand of movie fate intervenes on A Place in the Sun, aligning the world to give George what he momentarily wants, only to hold that against him later.

APitS George and AngelaFortune arrives the next morning when Charles promotes George to a supervisory position and invites him to a party at the Eastman mansion the following month. He attends but remains as out of place and as near ignored as he was when he first showed up at the Eastman’s door months earlier. Taking refuge in a billiard room, his troubled, disappointed air inspires the curiosity of that beauty in the convertible, society girl Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor). Seeing him as another Eastman within her social sphere, Angela needles him playfully with a coy and carefree attitude reflective of her privileged status. George is overwhelmed by her attention and the pair spend the evening dancing together, falling deeply in love in the process. The party happens to be on George’s birthday and he later arrives at Alice’s room four hours late for a plate of melted ice cream. Static and plain, the scene is drab in comparison to the party and Alice, sitting in shadows and understandably sorry for herself, markedly contrasts with Angela’s glittering white gown and gentle interest. Alice reveals that she is pregnant from that first rainy night with George. A Place in the Sun casts George in the position of a pauper with the keys to the prince’s castle, having the name, the ambition, and the true love of a princess but also held back by the shackles of an unobtainable abortion (an issue approached in the film with remarkable frankness and maturity, even if it is never actually referenced explicitly). Gripped by his love for Angela and still preoccupied with his own success, George increasingly attends to his romance with the beautiful socialite and a future in upper class prosperity at the expense of Alice. When Alice discovers a photo of George in the society pages cavorting with Angela’s well-heeled peers, she threatens to expose George to his wealthy friends unless he marries her and the clock rings midnight on the young Cinderfella’s prolonged night at the ball.

APitS Boat RideDesperate to preserve his sunny prospects, George recalls a chance remark by Angela about an unsolved drowning on Loon Lake and he undertakes a plot to rid himself of Alice. George lures her out on a rowboat under the pretext of a weekend away together but is unable to kill her as she expresses her own depressing optimism for their future. Fate nevertheless condemns George for his homicidal thoughts and Alice, who cannot swim, falls into the water and drowns. Movie fate, once again, cannot be denied and the collapse of George’s double-lives are tragically inevitable. A Place in the Sun cannot help but foreshadow its characters’ fates, whether that be by seating George in his apartment beneath a painting of Sir John Everett Millais’ Ophelia or having Alice respond to George’s assertion that they’re “in the same boat” by saying, “If you’re an Eastman, you’re not in the same boat with anyone.” Arriving at the shore, George elects to resume his plot and he returns to Angela in hopes that the false name and meagre alibi he had already constructed is enough to cover his tracks.  They are not and George is prosecuted for murder by District Attorney Frank Marlowe (Raymond Burr in a bristling, at times manic preview of his iconic role as the unflappable Perry Mason). George’s defence of planning the murder but not carrying it out fails to sway the jury and he is left to wait for his execution while wrestling with the shadow of his religious upbringing and the question of his moral guilt, injecting some Bressonian interiority into this soapy tragedy. Angela, still in love with George, meets him one last time at his prison cell. The two swear their love to each other forever and Angela delivers one of melodrama’s great lines – “Seems like we always spend the best part of our time just saying goodbye.”

A Place in the Sun’s male melodrama is underpinned by all the stuff of great film noir — ambition, greed, fate, and tragedy — yet despite the presence of a man struggling between the noir hallmark of two women, George does not find himself at odds with his conscience and some femme fatale. For her part, Alice is trying to live her dream with George, even if it lacks the deeply held connection he feels with Angela. Stevens obscures our potential sympathies for Alice by making her overly drab and grating in comparison to Angela’s stunning beauty and unconditional devotion. Taylor was not even 18 years old and Stevens had not seen her act, but she was precisely what he desired for the role: “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.” Clift’s biggest objection to Stevens’ direction was his characterization of Alice as “downbeat, blubbery, [and] irritating” in comparison with the heavenly Angela Vickers. Stevens sought out the “imbalance of images which created drama” and purposefully aimed to portray Alice as “the kind of girl a man could be all mixed up with in the dark, and wonder how the hell he got into it in the daylight.” There is a particular grimness to Stevens’ comment. Alice’s ultimate fault is not being Angela and she is thus made into a mere obstacle for George to overcome, a pathetic, unheroic, and tragedy-inducing woman-in-refrigerator who shares some of George’s class-based insecurities but not the name and good looks that might free her of such cares. In contrast, George is positioned into near blamelessness for his killer plot, being too overwhelmed by his own emotions, by his proximity to his long sought-after validation, and by his deeply-held movie-love for Angela to feel responsible for wanting to shake off Alice, just as he shook off his mother and her religion.

APitS Monty and LizMotherhood weighs heavily in A Place in the Sun. For as depressingly matronly as Alice is represented, it is Angela that provides George’s unconditional maternal care. The hand-off is made in the Eastman billiard room where George calls his mother (Anne Revere, in her last film role for two decades after refusing to testify at the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings and being blacklisted). George informs his mother of the promotion given by his uncle while Angela precociously chirps in the background. When the call ends, Angela leads her “blue boy” downstairs to spend the evening dancing closely. At another opulent party where the pair spend the night dancing, George is overcome by his love for Angela and struggles with his words. With a line that shocked Taylor, Alice consoles George by saying, “Tell Mama, tell Mama all.” George is handsome but also painfully awkward, and so it is difficult to see what Angela sees in him. Stevens ably demonstrates that love in the swooning close-ups of George and Angela that bring us as close as possible into their private world where jobs, cars, friends, and summer homes fall away and leave this improbably gorgeous couple entwined. Later in the film, George is shown boyish resting his head in Angela’s lap or on her shoulder, finding a refuge from his own insecurities. Paramount’s poster campaign consistently emphasized the romance of George and Angela, minimizing Alice into the “other woman” role. Bolstering the marketing of A Place in the Sun as a romantic drama, Hedda Hopper promoted the idea of an affair between Clift and Taylor leading up to the film’s release and the studio had Clift accompany Taylor to the premiere of The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949). The off-screen romance was pure fiction with Clift living a closeted queer life, but Taylor, nursing her own crush on the actor, was mature beyond her years and recognized Clift’s struggles, leading to a lifelong and devoted friendship between the two. It was Taylor who was at Clift’s side immediately following his 1956 car crash, pulling out a tooth from his tongue, and it was Taylor who secured an unemployable Clift’s casting in Reflections in a Golden Eye by putting up her own salary. (Clift instead made Raoul Lévy’s The Defector (1966), leaving the role to be played by Marlon Brando.)

APitS TrialThe dramatic strain of A Place in the Sun becomes most fraught once the investigation of Alice’s murder quickly closes around George. While the film has drills farther and farther into the highly personal, highly private romance of George and Angela, the arrival of legal authorities threaten to explode this fragile, insular relationship into the public eye. Fittingly, the moment arrives as Angela consoles George in her Cadillac and the sound of sirens grow louder as police close in. Despite having been murdered Alice in all but the act itself, Frank Marlowe’s courtroom assault on George is particularly brutal in its accusations by thrusting George out of the private shelter of Angela’s comfort and into the cold light of legal and media scrutiny. Without Angela, George is dominated by his cowardice, defining his worth by external achievement to the detriment of himself and others. With Angela, he is free of such of burdens and potentially on his way to becoming a whole person. It is in this sense that Imogen Sara Smith suggests that A Place in the Sun is about “the dream of a perfect love,” although that dream may arrive tragically, as George’s American dream is replaced too late with this dream of perfect love with too much damage having already been done, and perhaps ironically, as George’s perfect love might never have arisen had he not clawed and finagled his way up the Eastman ladder. Stevens offers a bit of ironic poetry in the film’s final, post-conviction sequences. George is once again is an outsider but prison bars now lock him in, away from Angela and his dream of perfect love. Earlier, mansion gates locked George out of the Eastman mansion and away from his American dream. It is neat and bitter cap that Chaplin likely understood only too well, being barred from re-entry to the United States the next year and cutting ties with “that unhappy country” with its “moral pomposity.”

Despite all of its awards and accolades (including nine Academy Award nominations and six wins including Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Cinematography — Black-and-White), A Place in the Sun has never quite cemented its status in the canon of great Hollywood films. Perhaps the film’s merger of melodramatic romance, capitalist critique, and social issue messaging is somewhat unwieldy. Perhaps they seem somewhat outmoded when considered by today’s standards. Still, Clift and Taylor are stunning together, Stevens organizes an impressively cinematic film around them, and A Place in the Sun does have an unusual, sui generis energy about it that is fascinating. With a North American DVD now out of print and only an Australian Blu-ray released by Imprint available to satisfy hard media collectors, a Criterion Collection release would fill a definite home media gap. The film did appear on the Criterion Channel a little more than a year ago and so the title has already been endorsed by the label to some degree. While A Place in the Sun is so much more than a romance between Clift and Taylor, there’s no need to hide that on a cover treatment. Drop those dreamy lovers next to a wacky “C” and start printing!

Credits: Imprint’s Blu-ray ports over the same special features offered on the North American DVD: the audio commentary, the documentary, and the interviews. To this, we’ve included an interview with frequent Criterion contributor Imogen Sara Smith and an essay by French scholar Laurent Jullier. Smith was chosen based on her excellent essay for Library of America, “The ‘tragedy of desire’ in An American Tragedy and A Place in the Sun.” Jullier is the only critic to have included A Place in the Sun on his Sight & Sound ballot and has frequently written on the film, even choosing it as the cover image for his 2004 book Hollywood et la difficulté d’aimer.

This post owes thanks to numerous other sources including TCM’s articles and overviews on the film, Geoff Andrew’s article for the BFI, “Hollywood’s beautiful people: A Place in the Sun;” Brian Eggert’s review for Deep Focus Review; Norman Buckley’s “To Want and Not to Have – An Analysis of “A Place in the Sun;” Aurora’s post at Once upon a screen…; Joanna Di Mattia’s “Inside the outsider’s skin: Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun (1951)” for Senses of Cinema; Anna Swanson’s “The Dark side of ‘A Place in the Sun'” for Film School Rejects; and Andrew McCardle’s review.

One thought on “A Place in the Sun (George Stevens, 1951)

  1. moviefanman April 13, 2021 / 4:01 pm

    One of the best tragic love stories of all time, and would certainly make a fine addition to the Criterion Collection.

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