Place in the Sun, A (1951) B
George Stevens was a minor director with major virtues before A Place in the Sun, and a major director with minor virtues after
Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema
George Stevens' “A Place in the Sun” is an overstated remake of Theodore Dreisers novel, “An American Tragedy,” which had been filmed to better results in 1931 by Josef von Sternberg, a more realistic version starring Phillips Holmes, Sylvia Sydney, and Frances Dee.
Ponderous and overbloated, the film drew praise and a slew of Oscar nominations and awards when it was released (see below), but has not dated well with modern critics.
Nonetheless, as a product of its time, the film's portraits of the frivolous rich Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor) and the downtrodden poor George Eastman and Alice Pitts (Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters) are still powerful, and the drowning scene quite emotionally stirring.
The romantic sequences between Clift and Taylor–that kiss in mega-close-up–were considered to be a turning point in Hollywoods annals of eroticism, at a time when the actor's homosexuality was not a known fact outside the industry.
Evaluating the career of George Stevens, who was born on December 18, 1904, presents a tough challenge for film historians and critics. His artistic reputation has been in such decline that its easy to forget that in the 1950s, Stevens was the most prestigious filmmaker working in Hollywood.
One of Hollywoods least productive directors, Stevens made only 25 films in a career spanning four decades. Nonetheless, no less than seven of his films were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar (see list). This meager output (by standards of his contemporaries) is often attributed to Stevens perfectionism and methodical attention to detail, spending long years on the pre and post-production of his movies.
The vast majority of Stevens films were made during one creative and prolific decade, from 1933 (The Cohens and Kellys in Trouble) to 1943 (The More the Merrier). Between I Remember Mama (1948) and his last picture, The Only Game in Town (1970), Stevenss productivity declined, and he turned in only half a dozen pictures. Four of these films, A Place in the Sun, Shane, Giant, and The Diary of Anne Frank, catapulted him to the Hollywood pantheon of serious and important directors. And these are the films that began to tarnish his critical reputation among the more cerebral cineastes.
Stevenss fame reached its height in 1953, when he received the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Academy realized that despite nominations that year for Stevenss Western Shane, Fred Zinnemanns From Here to Eternity would sweep most of the Oscars, including Best Director, which it did. By that time, Stevens had already won his first directing Oscar for A Place in the Sun, in 1951. In 1956, Stevens won his second directorial Oscar for Giant, a film that was singled out in other categories.
Its not insignificant that Stevenss later epic films also boasted epic running time: Giant, 201 minutes; The Diary of Anne Frank, 156 minutes; The Greatest Show on Earth (originally 260 minutes, then 196, then 141).
Stevenss work was always more appreciated by the middlebrow critics, like the N.Y. Timess Bosley Crowther, then dean of the New York critics. Crowther and others reflected the dominant opinion that movies about important or socially-significant issues should be favored over films with strong entertainment values, like crime-gangster, musicals or adventures.
The critics of the French magazine, Cahiers du Cinema, are considered to be the first to point out that Stevens was too obvious in his classicism and over-deliberateness. And, as noted in the quote above, Stevens doesnt fare well in Sarriss The American Cinema, still the Bible of Auteurism.
However, while doing research for an essay on films in the 1950s, I came across a letter that Raymond Chandler, the author of hard-boiled novels and scripts, wrote after seeing A Place in the Sun: I despised it. Its as slick a piece of bogus self-importance as youll ever see. It never touches your emotions once. Everything is held too long; every scene is milked ruthlessly. I got so sick of starry-eyed close-ups of Elizabeth Taylor that I could have gagged. The portrayal of how the lower classes think the upper classes live is about as ridiculous as could be imagined. They ought to have called it Speedboats for Breakfast. And my God, that scene at the end where the girl visits him in the condemned cell a few hours before he gets the hot squat! The whole thing reeks of calculation and contrivance emotionally. The picture was made by a guy who has seen everything and has never had a creative idea of his own.
This shows that even in the 1950s, Stevenss work was not as universally acclaimed as was claimed, and that the French cinephiles were not the first to point out his weakness. The French were the first to analyze the aesthetic and ideological implications of the hallmarks of Stevenss style: the slow build-up, mega close-ups, deliberate pacing, overstated message.
George Eastman (Montgomery Clift)
Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor)
Alice Tipps (Shelley Winters)
Hannah Eastman (Anne Revere)
Earl Eastman (Keefe Brasselle)
Bellows (Fred Clark
Marlowe (Raymond Burr)
Charles Eastman (Herbert Hayes)
Anthony Vickers (Shepperd Strudwick)
Mrs. Vickers (Frieda Inescort)
Oscar Nominations: 9
Picture, produced by George Stevens
Director: George Stevens
Screenplay: Michael Wilson and Harry Brown
Actor: Montgomery Clift
Actress: Shelley Winters
Cinematography (b/w): William C. Mellor
Editing: William Hornbeck
Costume Design (b/w): Edith Head
Scoring (Dramatic): Franc Waxman
Oscar Awards: 6
Scoring of Musical
In 1951, “A Place in the Sun” competed for the Best Picture Oscar with “An American in Paris,” which won, “Decision Before Dawn,” “Quo Vadis” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
The best Actor Oscar went to Humphrey Bogart for “The African Queen,” and the Best Actress to Vivien Leigh for “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
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