An American Tragedy:  The Book and the Adaptations

An American Tragedy is a book by Theodore Dreiser.  It is a long complex novel, but in its essentials it boils down to this:  boy meets girl, boy gets girl pregnant, boy meets another girl he likes better, boy is accused of killing the first girl, boy is executed for murder.

They have names, of course:  the boy is Clyde, the first girl is Roberta, and the second girl is Sondra.  The first film adaptation of An American Tragedy, released in 1931, has the same title as the novel, and the three principal characters have the same names.  The second adaptation, made in 1951, has a title that is different from the novel, A Place in the Sun, and the characters have different names.  Don’t ask me why.  In most respects, the second adaptation is a much better movie.  It was directed by George Stevens, starring Montgomery Clift as Clyde = George; Shelley Winters as Roberta = Alice; and Elizabeth Taylor as Sondra = Angela.  (For the sake of consistency, I will continue to the use the names in the novel.)

When watching A Place in the Sun recently, during a scene that is supposed to be sad, I could not help but laugh.  Clyde has gotten a job working in a factory owned by his uncle, and one of the strict rules is that he is not to date any of the girls that work there.  But as fate would have it, he runs into Roberta at a movie theater and ends up walking her home.  They start seeing each other, and one night he comes into her room at a boarding house, one thing leads to another, and they end up having sex.  They continue seeing each other, and I just naturally thought they continued having sex during this period.  Of course, An American Tragedy was based on a true story, and I have no doubt that the real Clyde and Roberta did have sex more than once.  But reality is one thing, and a movie is something else.  And so, one night when Clyde comes over to visit her, she says, “George [Clyde], we’re in trouble.  Real trouble, I think.”  He asks her what she means.  She replies, “Remember the first night you came here?”

That’s when I had to laugh.  There it was, the standard formula:  a woman has sex just one time, and sure enough, she gets pregnant.  It’s almost as if a good form of birth control for unmarried couples in a movie is to have lots of sex.  Otherwise, why not let Clyde and Roberta have regular sex for two or three months before she ends up getting pregnant?  I understand the dramatic aspect of pregnancy arising from just one moral lapse, but there comes a point where the formula is so overused as to be absurd.

Anyway, during the time between their one act of fornication and Roberta’s realization that she was pregnant, Clyde has met and fallen in love with Sondra, who is rich and upper class, and to his amazement, she has fallen in love with him and wants to get married.  This is everything he has ever hoped for.  But then he finds out Roberta is pregnant.

He tries to get her an abortion, but the doctor he gets her to go see tells her to go home to her parents.  Eventually, the idea of killing her takes hold of him.  He hears about how sometimes people drown when they are out on the lake, and he recalls that Roberta said she did not know how to swim.  And so, he suggests that before they get married, they should have an enjoyable afternoon out on the lake.

Now, Clyde doesn’t actually kill Roberta.  He planned to drown her and make it look like an accident.  He gets her out into the middle of the lake in a rowboat, knowing she cannot swim.  But then he thinks he cannot do it.  But then he thinks he will.  He might as well be picking petals off a daisy:  “I kill her, I kill her not, I kill her, I kill her not.”  Anyway, she ends up falling overboard and drowns just as he was thinking, “I kill her not.”  Notwithstanding all the planning he put into this murder that he changed his mind on at the last minute but which had the same result anyway, his identity is discovered, he is tried for murder, convicted, and executed.

This was not the first time Dreiser used the idea of a man being indecisive about committing a crime until the contemplated criminal act accidentally happens just as he was thinking he would not commit the crime.  In Carrie (1952), the movie based on Dreiser’s novel Sister Carrie, Lawrence Olivier’s character is tempted to steal money from his boss.  He takes the money out of the safe, puts it back, takes it out, and so on, until just as he decides he won’t steal the money, the safe accidentally closes and locks while he still has the money in his hands, leading to his downfall.

In a couple of respects, the first adaptation of An American Tragedy is better.  For one thing, it is more faithful to the true story on which it is based.  What I regard as more important than that, however, is the actress that plays the part of Roberta in the movie An American Tragedy, Silvia Sidney.  We readily believe in her naïve innocence.  She seems like the Roberta of the novel, a woman we like and feel sorry for.  As noted above, however, in A Place in the Sun, Roberta is played by Shelley Winters.  I don’t know what Shelley Winters was like as a person, but her screen persona simply is not the sweet, innocent virgin for whom we are supposed to have sympathy because she was taken advantage of by a man.  In fact, the hostess for a showing of this film on Turner Classic Movies, Alicia Malone, said that this movie was a turning point in Winters’ career.  Before that, she was typically cast as a blonde bombshell or as a sexpot, and it was for that reason that George Stevens, the director, refused at first even to consider her for this part, saying she was “completely wrong for this plain, meek, little factory girl.”  It doesn’t seem to me that this film was much of a turning point, however, for afterwards she still seemed suited for roles in which she is a hard-boiled broad, as in Alfie (1966) or Bloody Mama (1970).  As a result, when she is taken advantage of by a man in a movie, we are more likely to think she is dumb than naïve.

Partly as a result of this difference, we are sad when Silvia Sidney’s Roberta drowns.  As for Shelley Winters’ Roberta, however, I know I am supposed to feel sorry for her, and I do a little bit, but the fact is that I never really mind when Shelley Winters dies in a movie.  Maybe it’s just me, but I find her to be a little irritating whenever I see her in a movie, and so whenever she dies, I never really experience her demise as a loss.  For example, the fact that she drowns in The Poseidon Adventure (1972) does not spoil my sense that the movie has a happy ending.  A third movie in which Shelley Winters drowns is The Night of the Hunter (1955), murdered by her newlywed psychopathic husband, played by Robert Mitchum.  Now, Robert Mitchum’s character, Harry Powell, is supposed to be as bad as they come, so you would think they would have allowed him to kill a more likable actress, like Jane Wyatt, for instance, so that we would really think Harry is evil.  But I believe they picked Shelley Winters to be his victim so that we would not spend the rest of the movie feeling sorry for her.

In other words, if A Place in the Sun had starred an actress to play Roberta who would have been more believably innocent and whose death would have been more disturbing, then we would have been appropriately outraged that Clyde would have even thought about abandoning her, let alone make elaborate plans to murder her, just as we are when we read the novel.  But with Shelley Winters playing the part, her death really seems to be just a plot point, and we end up feeling sorrier for Clyde, played by the likable Montgomery Clift, than we do for Roberta.

Within the novel and the two adaptations, Clyde is punished for a murder that, technically speaking, he might not have committed, but one that he planned to commit nevertheless.  But when we step outside the novel and the adaptations, we may ask why the story was written this way.

In particular, Clyde could have planned to kill the pregnant Roberta for another working-class woman that he happened to fall in love with.  But Sondra is upper class, and throughout the early part of the story, we are made aware that Clyde is ambitious, for it is the theme of ambition that accounts for the word “American” in the title.  As a result, we doubt that he ever loved either woman.  Or rather, he really loved Sondra, but only because she was rich and upper class.

There are many movies in which women try to rise socially by marrying into the upper class, and often as not, they succeed.  But while we are sympathetic to a woman’s attempt to marry up, we do not extend the same attitude toward men.  Men are allowed to marry down for the sake of love, but when they try to marry up, we just don’t like it.

Therefore, the moral of An American Tragedy is not that you shouldn’t kill your girlfriend just because she is pregnant, but rather that it is wrong for a working-class man to try to marry into the upper class.

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