Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Tonight's Movie: A Place in the Sun (1951) at the Bay Theatre

I saw A PLACE IN THE SUN this evening at the Bay Theatre in Seal Beach, California -- the same theater where I saw SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) on New Year's Day. It was a lovely print, the perfect way to see a classic black and white film. I only wish I could say I liked the movie!

This is the second classic I've seen in a theater this year which has left me disappointed, the earlier film being INHERIT THE WIND (1960). I disliked A PLACE IN THE SUN as much as I liked last night's movie, KISS OF DEATH (1947), which means that I disliked A PLACE IN THE SUN quite a lot.

The movie came highly recommended, as it's the favorite film of Drew Casper, a film historian I admire greatly. (My daughter had several classes with him at USC.) Alas, Dr. Casper and I part company on this one, but we'll always share a love for Doris Day!

A PLACE IN THE SUN is the story of ambitious George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), the poor relation of a wealthy family of swimsuit manufacturers. George grew up in a family engaged in mission work, which I imagine is supposed to provide an ironic contrast to his relatives being enriched by the sale of skimpy clothing.

George goes to work in the Eastman factory; bored and lonely, he breaks the rules against employees fraternizing and takes up with Alice (Shelley Winters). George then meets his dream girl, Angela (Elizabeth Taylor), and is gradually accepted in the rarefied social circles of Angela and his relations. George is promoted higher in the company, Angela's parents are starting to accept him as a potential son-in-law, and all is right in George's world...except that Alice is in the family way, which means all George's fine plans are in ruins.

The first 20 minutes or so of the film were engrossing and potentially set up an interesting story. Clift's George was initially sympathetic, and the examination of class divisions was very well done, especially in the scene where George is invited to stop by his uncle's home. The awkwardness and social contrasts made for compelling viewing.

When Elizabeth Taylor enters the picture, she's absolutely dazzling. Indeed, the greatest reason to see this film is the way it captures Taylor at the height of her teenaged beauty. (It's a bit scary she wasn't even 20 yet when this was filmed.) Some of the images of Taylor are justly famous and haunting moments of cinematic beauty; it's hard to forget her expression in the dance scene where Clift declares his love.

But then...let's just say the movie could be subtitled "Stupid People Doing Stupid Things," which I'm borrowing from last summer's review of HUMAN DESIRE (1954). The only sympathetic character for most of the film is the innocent and loving Elizabeth Taylor.

I've never found Shelley Winters an appealing actress, and she's even less so here. Alice is in a difficult position, to be sure, but Winters and the filmmakers seemed determined to provide the most negative contrast possible with Elizabeth Taylor, and they succeed, to the film's detriment. The lack of sympathy engendered for Alice doesn't serve to provide the audience with understanding of George's actions so much as bore the viewer with the tedium of it all.

And speaking of tedium, I can't imagine a worse way to spent 15 minutes or so of a movie than watching Montgomery Clift's George agonize over whether or not to bump off Winters' Alice. Parking the car, renting the boat, minute after minute after minute...I felt no suspense and had no interest in what was going to happen, watching these two unlikeable people. Why should I have cared? Whatever he did, Clift's character had hit a dead end a short ways into the movie, and the story was over there. I really didn't need to follow him all the way to...well, where he ended up.

The film also suffers from an overdose of self-consciously artsy-craftsy shots, with one scene superimposed over another on several occasions. It didn't work for me.

Although this film was a disappointment, I have previously admired a great many films by director George Stevens, including SWING TIME (1936), PENNY SERENADE (1941), THE MORE THE MERRIER (1943), I REMEMBER MAMA (1948), SHANE (1953), and Stevens' later film with Elizabeth Taylor, GIANT (1956). I thought GIANT was a terrific movie, with some of the best work put on film by both Taylor and her costar Rock Hudson. It helped that they played much more dynamic, sympathetic characters, in an interesting story of people and a marriage evolving during changing times.

A PLACE IN THE SUN was based on the novel AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY by Theodore Dreiser, as well as a play adapted from the novel by Patrick Kearney. The screenplay was by Michael Wilson and Harry Brown.

The cinematography was by William C. Mellor. Franz Waxman composed the score. Elizabeth Taylor's gorgeous gowns were designed by Edith Head.

Stevens, Wilson and Brown, Mellor, Waxman, Head, and editor William Hornbeck all won Oscars. The film lost Best Picture to AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951).

The supporting cast includes Raymond Burr in an over-the-top performance as a prosecuting attorney. (I can't imagine any judge worth his salt would have approved of the attorney's concluding theatrics.) Anne Revere, Keefe Brasselle, Frieda Inescort, Fred Clark, Shepperd Strudwick, Kathryn Givney, and Walter Sande are also in the supporting cast.

A PLACE IN THE SUN is available on DVD and VHS; the DVD is available from Netflix. It can also be rented for streaming from Amazon Instant Video.

The movie can also be seen from time to time on Turner Classic Movies. The trailer is on the TCM website.

6 Comments:

Blogger Dave Enkosky said...

Wow. I actually remember really liking this movie. Of course, I'm a bit of a Shelley Winters fan.

Your review did make me rethink some things about it. Perhaps I should rewatch it and see how I feel.

4:31 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Dave,

If you see it I'd be interested to know your current thoughts -- it's fun to compare notes! I see few movies which really rankle me but this one just wasn't my movie (grin). I felt like I spent the second half of the movie waiting for it to be over! Ah, well, fortunately that's a very rare experience for me. And at least now I can cross it off my mental list of Movies I Should See.

Best wishes,
Laura

8:37 AM  
Blogger panavia999 said...

I did not find Shelley Winters unsympathetic, but pathetic.

10:17 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I could go for both adjectives simultaneously, Panavia! :)

Best wishes,
Laura

10:19 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

As someone who is also decidedly lukewarm on A PLACE IN THE SUN, and for some of the same reasons, I recommend you look out for earlier version of Dreiser's AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY, called AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY (1932). It's hard to see and not on DVD but should show up somewhere sometime.

Though it doesn't have anywhere near the reputation, it's decidedly the better movie, beautifully directed by Josef von Sternberg and with a lot deeper understanding of all the story's aspects, social and personal. Philips Holmes played Clift's role, Frances Dee played Taylor's and Sylvia Sidney played Winters'. Contrary to PLACE, and even with an actress as appealing as Dee playing the rich girl, Sidney wins the greatest share of sympathy. In any event, a good example of how the same story can be told in different ways and may alienate the same viewer one way yet be very moving done another way.

Like you I don't feel the same way about all Stevens films. I deeply love SHANE, made so soon after this one--he understood that perfectly and realized it beautifully.

3:59 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Blake, I'm so interested that you have similar thoughts on A PLACE IN THE SUN -- so often our tastes seem to coincide. Like you, I loved SHANE, which I just saw for the first time last summer. It made a wonderful impression on me, and I was only sorry it had taken me so long to finally catch up with it.

I will definitely be on the lookout for AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY and appreciate the recommendation, especially as I'm a big fan of Frances Dee. I haven't seen much of Sylvia Sidney's work, but I liked her in THIRTY DAY PRINCESS (and, as I recall, she was on WKRP IN CINCINNATI a time or two...).

Best wishes,
Laura

10:10 PM  

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