The nominees for Best Motion Picture in 1952 for film achievements in 1951 were Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris, Anatole Litvak’s Decision Before Dawn, George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun, Mervyn LeRoy’s Quo Vadis, and Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire. It was Minnelli’s An American in Paris that took home the Oscar for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) despite the fact it didn’t receive the most nominations. Paris received eight whereas Elia Kazan’s brilliantly acted, A Streetcar Named Desire got twelve. But, I would have chosen neither of those as Best Motion Picture that year. I would have given the honor to the movie that received nine nods, Stevens’ A Place in the Sun.
While I enjoy An American in Paris it is not even close to my favorite musical. I much prefer Gene Kelly dancing in New York – or a barn for that matter – than in Paris. I think the 1952 Oscars should have been a two-pronged race between Streetcar and A Place In the Sun with the latter winning top honors because it is the all around superior film, which also happens to stand up best against the test of time.
Directed by the great, if underappreciated George Stevens, A Place in the Sun is a powerful social drama with universal themes that remain relevant to varying degrees – outsiders searching for the American Dream at all costs, social inequality, class distinctions and such controversial topics as pre-marital sex, abortion and the death penalty. Add to those themes a great script, a beautifully photographed film – stylistically moody with noirish qualities – glamour, passion, deeply romantic scenes, suspense-filled sequences, a superb score by Franz Waxman (one of the best in film history, as a matter of fact) and costuming by the great Edith Head and this film becomes one for the ages. In fact, it is one of the ones I’d recommend to the non-classics fan as it is sure to compel continued viewing.
Affecting performances also grace Steven’s film by every member of the cast. Montgomery Clift was recognized by AMPAS with a nod for his portrayal of George Eastman, the downtrodden outsider who longs to be a part of the rich world of his New York relatives. A great performance.
Eastman is a working class guy who slips into New York society by getting a job as a factory working at his uncle’s company with hopes of getting ahead in that world. Although George is warned that having a relationship with a female worker at the factory is against company policy, he soon begins to “visit” with the poor, plain Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters). In the meantime, George’s newfound high society family invite him into their circle where he meets and falls for the beautiful and rich, Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor). Before long George’s social and professional prospects begin to improve.
Unfortunately, just as George sees real possibilities begin to flourish both with Angela and at the factory when he’s offered an upper level position, he learns that Miss Tripp is expecting a child. Needless to say this puts a wrench in his plans and threatens to destroy his dreams as Alice pressures him to do the right thing by her and society. Then, a tragedy occurs whereupon everyone’s life is irreparably changed.
I have to sidestep a moment to describe a scene in this film that I always find myself rewinding to watch again…
George and Alice find themselves caught in the rain outside the small room in the boarding house in which she lives. Her window’s open and they reach in to turn on the radio, but the volume is on too high, which gives George the opportunity to step into the room to adjust the volume. A bit reluctant, Alice follows him in where the two dance for a bit then move into the shadows where we know what’s to happen.
As was the case with all pictures made under the restrictions of the Production Code, we can’t see two people in bed together, which leaves all to the audience’s imagination and, which, in the long run ended up enhancing the movies because everyone had to be that much more creative in depicting these types of scenes. In any case, as the sexuality of the scene heats up, which is off-camera as the two are completely in the dark, we hear a latin-tinged song playing on the radio. We hear Alice whisper “George” a couple of times then, with the camera still on the open window, with only the fact that it is no longer raining indicating the passage of time, we see George leaving Alice’s room. It’s all just beautifully done. A scene of opportunity with never a hint of romance present, except for poor Alice. In contrast when we later see the scenes between George and Taylor’s character there is always romance in the lighting, in the music and in both beautiful players. Clift and Taylor together are almost too much to bear – they’ve great chemistry and are physically perfectly matched. Their beauty – the ideal – yet another factor in making the ultimate losses here that much more painful.
“I love you. I’ve loved you since the first moment I saw you. I guess maybe I’ve even loved you before I saw you.”
Um…yes, OK…this is yet another sidestep…
George Stevens insisted on filming A Place in the Sun in black and white because he felt it would greatly enhance the story and mood of the film and, of course, he was right. The cinematography is gorgeous throughout the film. Also worth mentioning is how often Stevens uses a passive, objective camera, particularly in scenes where we see George enter into situations where he’s the outsider, a poor, perhaps insignificant player among the rich. These are wide shots of large rooms during parties and such. In contrast, to enhance the suspense in certain scenes we see tight, subjective shots similarly used by Hitchcock. Or at least that’s what they remind me of. The contrast, as in the case with the differences in the scenes with the two women, adds oodles to the film’s enjoyment. I can only marvel.
George Stevens had to fight long and hard with Paramount Pictures to get A Place in the Sun made. Originally titled, An American Tragedy after Theodore Dreiser’s best-selling 1925 novel, which Stevens had read and loved. Dreiser’s story was based on a highly publicized, real, 1906 murder case in New York. Paramount resisted making An American Tragedy because the film had already been made in 1931 by Josef von Sternberg and bombed at the box office. Because Stevens was under contract with Paramount who refused to remake the movie he sued the studio for inhibiting his ability to work, which went against the contracted agreement. In the end Stevens forced Paramount to make the film, but agreed to change the film’s title to A Place in the Sun, a title suggested by Ivan Moffat, Stevens’ long-time friend and the film’s associate producer who came up with it in a dream.
Although A Place in the Sun is a remake, it reflects 1950s sensibilities beautifully and ends up being a gorgeous period piece – in style. Its themes, as mentioned above, remain relevant and controversial. I say the film’s style is “1950s,” but it was actually shot in 1949 but not released until 1951. Paramount held on to its release in 1950 because upon its completion the studio had already released the big Sunset Blvd. that same year and they didn’t want to have another promising production to compete with it, which was a great thing given both films would have indeed competed for the Oscar. We wouldn’t want that. And for the record, Sunset Blvd. should have won Best Motion Picture too. But, I digress…
It probably goes without saying but a large part of why A Place in the Sun worked so well when released and stands up so well to this day, aside from (again) the universal themes, is due to the casting choices made. Aside from Montgomery Clift who was a perfect choice to play Eastman, George Stevens wanted 17-year-old Elizabeth Taylor to play Angela Vickers. To this point Taylor had played only juvenile roles and only at MGM, but she delivers in A Place in the Sun well beyond her years, as far as I’m concerned. Taylor brings beauty, of course, and heart and innocence so that it is through her we empathize with George Eastman to a large extent. Angela deepens the tragedy, representing the “what could have been” factor. Something else that can’t be discounted – Ms. Taylor executes one of the most fashionable, exquisite fainting scenes ever to appear in a movie in this movie…perfect placement!
The casting of Shelley Winters as the ill-fated Alice Tripp was also an inspired one. Prior to playing Alice Winters had portrayed sexy, glamorous women, but she fought to get this one. Stevens had wanted Gloria Grahame, but she was contracted by RKO and Howard Hughes refused to lend her out (I’m pretty sure Ms. Grahame would have been great too). Once Stevens decided to give Shelley Winters the part he told her she’d have to agree to be photographed as a plain, vulnerable working-class girl, which in the end turns out to be the only complaint I have about this movie. I feel that Alice Tripp was made too plain – it’s homely overkill. There’s absolutely no doubt that she’s in stark contrast to Taylor’s Angela, which I assume was the intention, but I often wonder if George Eastman would have bothered with her at all (in real life). In any case, Winters is great in the role. So believable, in fact, that she was typecast for years afterwards. So, what do I know?
A Place in the Sun also has a great lot of supporting players, including Raymond Burr who plays District Attorney Marshall and veteran character actress Anne Revere as Hannah Eastman, George’s mother. It’s worth noting a real American tragedy connected with A Place in the Sun as it turned out to be last film in which Anne Revere would appear until 1970 because she was blacklisted for refusing to testify or cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). As a result, Paramount removed her name from any and all publicity material associated with the movie.
To see the complete A Place in the Sun cast list go here.
As it all turned out, George Stevens’ fight to make the movie proved worth it – and then some. A Place in the Sun opened to huge audience appeal and positive reviews across the board, with many hailing it as one of the best motion pictures ever made. After attending a special screening of the film, none other than Charlie Chaplin said it was the best American film he’d ever seen. And AMPAS thought it was a worthy effort as well honoring it with six golden statuettes out of its nine nominations – Stevens won Best Director (I will never understand how the director and film can be split in such things), Michael Wilson and Harry Brown won for Best Screenplay, William Mellor won for Best Black and White Cinematography, William Hornbeck won for Best Film Editing, the aforementioned Franz Waxman won Best Dramatic Score and Edith Head won Best Black and White Costume Design.
The film’s Oscar losses were Best Picture and Best Actor and Actress for Clift and Winters. I have no trouble at all accepting the acting losses for the film given the caliber of performances that year. However, I feel strongly that the film’s wins in the other major categories should have rendered it the Best Motion Picture winner. And by the way the Golden Globes got it right by naming A Place in the Sun the Best Motion Picture – Drama that year. Kudos to the Hollywood Foreign Press.
If none of the above makes sense because admittedly I rushed through this post, here’s the bottom line: A Place in the Sun tells a timeless story, is gorgeous to look at, has a wonderful, moving score and inspired direction. It’s a must see!
Update: Director, Producer, Writer Norman Buckley (@Norbuck) recently sent me a link to a write-up he’d done on A Place in the Sun as a follow-up to a conversation we’d had about blocking a shot. His write-up is so fantastic I have to add it here and suggest, or rather demand you go read it.
A Place in the Sun…behind the scenes…
This write-up is an entry to the 31 Days of Oscar blogathon hosted by Outspoken and Freckled, Paula’s Cinema Club and Once Upon a Screen. For more posts dedicated to The Movies visit Paula’s Cinema Club the host for this week’s topic, the last in our month-long event. And tune in to Turner Classic Movies as the network’s fantastic 31 Days of Oscar marathon festival draws to a close this weekend. It’s been historic!