An American Tragedy (film)

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An American Tragedy
Film Poster for An American Tragedy.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJosef von Sternberg
Produced byJosef von Sternberg
Screenplay bySamuel Hoffenstein
Josef von Sternberg (uncredited)
Based onAn American Tragedy
by Theodore Dreiser
StarringPhillips Holmes
Sylvia Sydney
Frances Dee
Music byJohn Leipold
Ralph Rainger
CinematographyLee Garmes
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • August 22, 1931 (1931-08-22)
Running time
96 minutes
CountryUnited States

An American Tragedy is a 1931 Pre-Code drama film, produced and distributed by Paramount Pictures, and directed by Josef von Sternberg. The film is based on Theodore Dreiser's 1925 novel An American Tragedy, which itself alludes to the real-life 1906 murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette.[1]

The film performed well at the box office.[2]

Before this film was made, a play version debuted on Broadway in 1926. In the cast was a then-unknown actress named Miriam Hopkins.[3]

Paramount Pictures made a very loose adaptation of the same story again in 1951, titled A Place in the Sun, directed by George Stevens, and starring Montgomery Clift, Shelley Winters, and Elizabeth Taylor. The 1951 film version of the novel changed the names of the characters from those of the novel and the earlier film version.



Paramount Pictures purchased the film rights for Theodore Dreiser's 1925 novel An American Tragedy for $150,000. The widely acclaimed Russian director Sergei Eisenstein was hired to film an adaption, with Dreiser's enthusiastic support. When Eisenstein was unable to get studio approval for his "deterministic treatment", reflecting a Marxist perspective, he abandoned the project.[4][5]

Paramount, with $500,000 already invested in the film, enlisted Josef von Sternberg to develop and direct his own film version of the novel. Dreiser was guaranteed by contract the right to review the script before production, and complained bitterly that the Sternberg-Hoffenstein interpretation of his novel's themes "outraged the book." When the movie was completed, it was clear that the Sternberg screenplay had rejected any interpretation attributing protagonist Clyde Griffiths' anti-social behavior to a capitalist society and a strict religious upbringing, but rather, located the problem in "the sexual hypocrisy of the [petty-bourgeois] social class." [6][7] As Sternberg himself acknowledged in his memoirs "I eliminated the sociological elements, which, in my opinion, were far from being responsible for the dramatic accident with which Dreiser concerned himself."[8][9]

Dreiser sued Paramount Pictures to suppress the film, and lost.[10][11]

Critical response[edit]

Film historian John Baxter reports that An American Tragedy "met with mixed critical success. The New York Times called it 'emphatically stirring," the New York Daily News wrote it is 'intensely dramatic, moving, superbly acted', but many other papers, recalling Dreiser's protest, found the film less intense that the original novel, which is undoubtedly the case".[12]

Marxist film critic Harry Alan Potamkin commented on "Sternberg's failure to understand Dreiser's larger thematic purpose: Before the story opens [Sternberg presents] repeated shots of water disturbed by a thrown object. And throughout the picture the captions are composed upon a background of rippling water. Sternberg saw the major idea of the matter [theme] in the drowning. How lamentable!" [13]

The film fared poorly at American theatres, but was well-received among European moviegoers.[14]

By 1932, Sternberg's career was at its zenith, with Vanity Fair equating his talents with those of famed Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein, and Berlin's journal of film Der Querschnitt ranking him as among America's creative elite.[15]


John Baxter identifies a thematic element in the struggle for human control over our destinies:

Throughout Sternberg's films we see fictional worlds where an individual's established identity and position in the social order is so fragile as to be essentially illusory. In An American Tragedy, the beautifully articulated sequence of the police capturing Clyde Griffiths succinctly illustrates Sternberg's sense that life is dominated by forces so far beyond human control as to have an ultimately natural, even cosmic dimension.[16]

Critic Andrew Sarris singles out the following scene for its thematic significance:

The one key scene in the film takes place in the factory where Phillip Holmes (Clyde) arranges the seduction of Sylvia Sidney (Roberta). He has forced her to capitulate by threatening never to see her again. She hands him a note when he passes by the assembly line where she is working. Holmes furtively opens the note in a secluded spot where his expression cannot be seen by the factory girls, and a smile of triumph flickers across his normally phlegmatic features. Since he is seen at [a cinematically] objective distance, he is irrevocably guilty at that very moment for his sexual presumption.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The American Film Institute Catalog Feature Films: 1931-1940 by the American Film Institute, c. 1993
  2. ^ "Josef von Sternberg Movies - UMR".
  3. ^ The Broadway League (1926-10-11). "An American Tragedy â€" Broadway Play â€" Original". IBDB. Retrieved 2018-07-13.
  4. ^ Baxter, 1971. P. 87
  5. ^ Sarris, 1966. P. 32
  6. ^ Baxter, 1971. P. 86-87
    Sarris, 1966. P. 33
    Sarris, 1998. P. 226
  7. ^ Weinberg, 1967. p. 59
  8. ^ Sarris, 1998. P. 225
  9. ^ Sarris, 1966. P. 33
  10. ^ Baxter, 1971. P. 88
  11. ^ Sarris, 1966. P. 32
  12. ^ Baxter, 1971. P. 88-89
  13. ^ Baxter, 1993. P. 114
  14. ^ Weinberg, 1967. p. 59
  15. ^ Weinberg, 1967. p. 60
  16. ^ Baxter, 1993. P. 120
  17. ^ Sarris, 1998. P. 226


  • Baxter, John. 1971. The Cinema of Josef von Sternberg. The International Film Guide Series. A.S Barners & Company, New York.
  • Sarris, Andrew. 1966. The Films of Josef von Sternberg. Museum of Modern Art/Doubleday. New York, New York.
  • Sarris, Andrew. 1998. "You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet." The American Talking Film History & Memory, 1927-1949. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-513426-5
  • Weinberg, Herman G., 1967. Josef von Sternberg. A Critical Study. New York: Dutton.

External links[edit]