Death Watch: Josef von Sternberg Adapts An American Tragedy (1931)

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In 1931 the Paramount Publix Corporation was eager to film an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s novel  An American Tragedy, having failed to do so since acquiring the rights soon after its publication in 1925. They got close in 1930, when the visiting Sergei Eisenstein wrote an experimental script that was eventually rejected for being too long and uncommercial.  So instead they assigned Josef von Sternberg, who was coming off three hits starring Marlene Dietrich (The Blue Angel, Morocco, and Dishonored), and seemed to have the box office touch for artier, offbeat material. The resulting film, now out on DVD from the Universal Vault (the transfer is likely from an old VHS master, soft but watchable), is an oneiric oddity, using dreamlike visuals to illustrate a story of true crime barbarism – murder by drowning. Water imagery abounds, in lap dissolves and superimpositions – it even breaks up Von Sternberg’s name in the opening credits. Von Sternberg turns Dreiser’s indictment of American society, one that created the conditions for murder, into something more subjective and opaque.  Dreiser claimed that Paramount had turned his novel into an “ordinary murder story”, and sued to have the movie’s release halted. The New York Supreme Court judge ruled in favor of Paramount, and the film was released. Motion Picture Herald claimed the decision was, “likely to become an important part of legal tradition and precedent in the relation of the art of literature and the art of the motion picture.” So whenever Hollywood takes creative liberties with a novel, for better or worse, it has Paramount’s An American Tragedy to thank.

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“I have just finished reading the Eisenstein adaptation of An American Tragedy. It was for me a memorable experience; the most moving script I have ever read. It was so effective, that it was positively torturing. When I had finished it, I was so depressed that I wanted to reach for the bourbon bottle. As entertainment, I don’t think it has one chance in a hundred. …Is it too late to try to persuade the enthusiasts of the picture from making it?” – David O. Selznick to B.P. Schulberg, October 8, 1930

In April of 1930 the Vice President of Paramount, Jesse Lasky, signed Eisenstein to a contract – he would receive $900 a week, out of which he would pay his cameraman Eduard Tisse and assistant Grigori Aleksandrov . They all arrived in Hollywood in May, and received the grand tour, visiting Disney, and attending a party at Ernst Lubitsch’s place at which Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg were guests. An American Tragedy was settled upon as the project. Dreiser’s story was based on the real murder of 20-year-old Grace Brown by Chester Gillette in Upstate New York in 1906. They were transposed into the novel and film as farm girl Roberta Alden and son of poverty Clyde Griffiths. Griffiths runs away from his hometown after witnessing a murder, and bounces around menial jobs (bellboy and dishwasher) until he lands a job at a printing and stamping factory. It is there he meets Roberta, and he believes he is in love until he sets his eyes on the upper class charms of Sondra, the hit of the society pages. Clyde will lose his job if his relationship with Roberta comes to light, so thoughts turn to making her disappear.  Eisenstein became entranced with the idea of “internal monologue”, which was not simple voiceover but more like stream-of-consciousness audio montage that would ebb and flow with the intensity of the characters’ emotions. A snippet from his script treatment:

“As the boat glides into the darkness of the lake, so Clyde glides into the darkness of his thoughts. Two voice struggle within him — one: ‘Kill — kill!’ the echo of his dark resolve, the frantic cry of all his hopes of Sondra and society; the other: ‘Don’t — don’t kill!’ the expression of his weakness and his fears, of his sadness for Roberta and his shame before her. In the scenes that follow, these voices ripple in the waves that lap from the oars against the boat; they whisper in the beating of his heart; they comment, underscoring, upon the memories and alarums that pass through his mind; each ever struggling with the other for mastery, first one dominating then weakening before the onset of its rival.”

He had more abstract ideas too, in line with the work of James Joyce and Gertrude Stein he admired: “Then in passionate disconnected speech. nothing but nouns. Or nothing but verbs. Then interjections. With zigzags of aimless shapes, whirling along with these in synchronization.”  The script he delivered would run 14 reels (around 154 minutes), and Paramount had no intention of following his whims for such an obvious money losing project. Selznick’s view won out,  and Paramount paid Eisenstein $30,000 to end their contract. They turned to von Sternberg to get the film made.

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Sternberg claims to have seen nothing of Eisenstein’s treatment, and considered him a friend from their evenings together. In his autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry, he recalls, “I was approached by Adolph Zukor. He told me that the company had a dormant investment of half a million dollars in An American Tragedy, and pleaded with me to undertake to salvage this by making an inexpensive version of it. I eliminated the sociological elements [with screenwriter Samuel Hoffenstein], which, in my opinion, were far from being responsible for the dramatic accident with which Dreiser had concerned himself.” So gone was the precise detailing of Clyde’s social class, and, so, according to Dreiser, “instead of an indictment of society, the picture is a justification of society and an indictment of Clyde Griffiths (Phillips Holmes).” I would say the film does not justify society as much as ignore it, and it is not an indictment of Griffiths but an attempt to understand him. The film tries to get into his head through the atmospherics provided by DP Lee Garmes and sound recordist Harry D. Mills, who had both worked on Morocco and Dishonored. Though limited by the close attention being paid the project by the censors (Roberta’s (Sylvia Sidney) attempted abortion is implied rather than stated in the film), it tries to sketch out Clyde’s fantasy life.

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The first we glimpse of Clyde’s factory job, he is overseeing his young female clientele, and Garmes’ camera tracks to the right, pausing when Clyde pauses, as the women stare up at him with theatrical flirtations. After Clyde returns to his Spartan office, the floor covered in rejected collars, there is an unusual cut to an extreme close-up underneath the factory tables, of women’s feet and ribbon. It is the only insert in the entire sequence — a peek inside his head, into his limited interests of his erotic imagination. Water is the overarching trigger for Clyde’s desires, however. His first date with Roberta is a canoe ride down a stream, and Von Sternberg utilizes long lap dissolves of water, with scenes melting into and layering on top of each other. In Spring time, the blossom of his love for Roberta,  a close-up of the shimmering river is superimposed on top of a long-shot of the same river, creating an abstract image of glimmer, something of the sensorium exploding in Clyde’s head. Later when he hears the newsboy haranguing passersby with headlines of a drowned woman, murder arrives on the horizon of possibilities. Clyde’s hand hovering over a map is then dissolved over an image of a lake, as he begins to assert control over his own violent desires, starts to put them into action.

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This intimate dreamscape, some of Von Sternberg’s most discomfiting work, asking the audience to identify with a fetishistic killer, ends abruptly in the extended courtroom sequence that ends the film, a marathon of stilted exposition. The slow, drowsy build into Clyde’s paranoid mindset turns flat and realist, the fog of mystery lifted in favor of legibility and half-hearted redemption. But a film with as complex a production history as this one couldn’t help but being compromised in the end, with so many demands coming from Paramount, the censors, and Dreiser’s lawsuit. It is two-thirds of a great film.

5 Responses Death Watch: Josef von Sternberg Adapts An American Tragedy (1931)
Posted By Jenni : September 8, 2015 9:23 pm

I’ve seen George Steven’s version, A Place in the Sun, but had not heard of this earlier attempt at a film version of Dreiser’s novel. I’m going to keep my eyes open for it-thanks for the background info. What a shame Eisenstein’s script couldn’t have been used to make the film! That almost seems a crime in and of itself!

Posted By Doug Miller : September 11, 2015 1:34 am

Wow! Thanks. I’m wondering about the basis of Dreiser’s suit. Was it a sort of artistic defilement or disparagement, or purely contractual? Reminds me of something I read in either the newspapers or a William Gaddis novel: a city commissions a sculpture, but then doesn’t like it and puts it up near the dump.

Posted By George : September 14, 2015 8:50 pm

Been wanting to see this for decades. Thanks for the news that it’s now on DVD.

Posted By SeeingI : October 5, 2015 3:29 pm

I’m a huge Von Sternberg fan, and am thrilled to finally get to see this!

Posted By swac44 : October 28, 2015 6:23 pm

Was thrilled to see this was getting a release and ordered it immediately. The film is clearly Von Sternberg’s right up until we get into the courtroom, and then the wind just goes out of its sails, for a long stretch. The final scene of Clyde and his mother only serves to remind us of how great the first half was compared to the second. But Sylvia Sidney is lovely as the doomed “Bert” she’s one of my favourite 1930s actresses, and I was glad to catch another of her fine performances.

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