I didn’t always like A Place in the Sun. In fact, I pretty adamantly hated it. I still remember the first time I saw it. I turned to my dad after the film ended and said, “That’s it?” He nodded, “Yep, that’s it.” I was LIVID. What was the point?
I felt like the time I had put in to watching the film was a waste. I was young, maybe twelve or so. I think, at that point, I still believed that every story needed to have a happy ending. Since A Place in the Sun did not, I dismissed it. It wasn’t until a few years after that when I decided to watch the film again, that I realized everything I had been missing.
A Place in the Sun, made in 1951, follows George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), a poor young man who moves to the big city just looking for a job. His uncle gives him a job at his factory. There, George meets and starts a relationship with Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), a quiet young woman who works at the factory. Feeling obligated, George’s uncle invites George to a party at his house. There, everything changes because he meets Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), a gorgeous, young socialite. They quickly fall in love. Only problem is Alice becomes pregnant. Let’s just say DRAMA ENSUES.
Since TCM is honoring Montgomery Clift this month, I decided this would be a perfect time to discuss this film and my introduction to him as an actor. I’ve spoken about him on this blog before, when I discussed The Heiress. He made that film a few years earlier, in 1949.
If you’ve never seen the film, here are just a few reasons A Place in the Sun still affects me:
I don’t think there have ever been two parts more perfectly cast than George Eastman and Angela Vickers. Elizabeth Taylor was a child star, known for the Lassie films and National Velvet. She credited Clift with teaching her what acting was, for he, of course, was one of the first method actors. Their chemistry is palpable and really is the major reason the film works. Both of them seem so genuinely in love with each other. Taylor was in love with Clift, even though he was gay. Their friendship is legendary and Taylor was fierce about protecting Clift.
Shelley Winters had the unfortunate circumstance of being cast as Alice Tripp, aka the only thing that stands in the way of George and Angela’s great love. The audience feels contentious towards her which she doesn’t deserve. Funnily enough, I found in my research that she campaigned for the part and only got it when she agreed to play the part sans makeup with an unflattering hairstyle.
Looking back at it, Winters playing her part so well is a huge reason the film works. She’s not evil, but she certainly can manipulate and is fierce about staking her claim on George. She has a way of making her human, complex, more than one thing – the mark of a great performance!
I’ve already discussed a George Stevens movie already on this blog, although it was very different tonally. The More the Merrier was a light screwball comedy. As I discussed in that post, Stevens was changed after witnessing the horrors of World War 2. He didn’t see the point in making comedies anymore – he wanted to make films that meant something.
Stevens was meticulous and precise. He spent two years making A Place in the Sun. Years later, Shelley Winters recalled working with Stevens in her autobiography, saying, “He was the greatest director I’ve ever worked for. He made me understand that acting, especially film acting, is not emotion, but thinking. He had been a famous cameraman since the Keystone Kops days, and he showed me how the camera photographs your thoughts and sometimes your soul.” (Shelley Winters).
Stevens won an Academy Award for his direction of the film, but lost out on Best Picture to An American in Paris.
Franz Waxman won an Academy Award for composing the score of A Place in the Sun and it was well deserved. It’s melancholy and full of jazzy emotion. Don’t believe me: just take a listen!
The screenplay was written by Michael Wilson and Harry Brown, but was adapted from a novel called An American Tragedy which was written by Theodore Dreiser. Dreiser based his novel on a real trial from 1906. A young woman’s body was found in a lake, having been overturned by a boat. The man she was with stood trial for killing her, even though he insisted she committed suicide. He was executed by electric chair in 1908.
The novel had already been adapted for the screen once in 1931 when it was directed Josef von Sternberg. Apparently, Dreiser did not like how it was adapted. Wilson and Brown treated the story with delicacy. The film was revolutionary in that it dealt with complex human beings. The characters weren’t simply the good guy or the bad guy. They were shades of grey. This is especially true with Clift’s character. We go through everything with him and so, at the end, when he’s pleading for his life, we don’t know how to feel.
Michael Wilson and Harry Brown won the Academy Award that year for Best Screenplay.
The Legendary Friendship
Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift met on this film and became lifelong friends. They both give wonderful performances and obviously brought out the best in one another. A few years back, before Elizabeth Taylor passed away, TCM made a tribute video for Clift narrated by Taylor. It’s a great view into their relationship.
Charlie Chaplin went to an advanced screening of the film in Hollywood and told director George Stevens that “This is the greatest movie ever made about America.” Only, now, looking back on it, do I understand what he meant. It certainly made an impression on me. I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen at The TCM Film Festival a few years back, just after Elizabeth Taylor passed away.
It’s a powerful film and one that takes maturity to appreciate. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll wish you could go back in time and steal all of Elizabeth Taylor’s outfits. I sure did.
Vintage trailer is below: