An American Tragedy (film)

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An American Tragedy
Film Poster for An American Tragedy.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Josef von Sternberg
Screenplay by Samuel Hoffenstein
Based on An American Tragedy
by Theodore Dreiser
Produced byJosef von Sternberg
Starring Phillips Holmes
Sylvia Sidney
Frances Dee
Cinematography Lee Garmes
Music by John Leipold
Ralph Rainger
Paramount Pictures
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release date
  • August 22, 1931 (1931-08-22)
Running time
96 minutes
CountryUnited States

An American Tragedy (1931) is a pre-Code drama film directed by Josef von Sternberg. It was produced and distributed by Paramount Pictures. The film is based on Theodore Dreiser's 1925 novel An American Tragedy and the 1926 play adaptation. These were based on the historic 1906 murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette at Big Moose Lake in upstate New York. [1]


The novel would again be adapted in the 1951 Paramount release A Place in the Sun .



Paramount Pictures purchased the film rights for Theodore Dreiser's 1925 novel An American Tragedy for $150,000. The widely acclaimed Russian director Sergei Eisenstein was hired to film an adaptation, with Dreiser's enthusiastic support. When Eisenstein was unable to procure studio approval for his "deterministic treatment," reflecting a Marxist perspective, he abandoned the project. [2] [3]

Paramount, with $500,000 already invested in the film, enlisted Josef von Sternberg to develop and direct his own film version of the novel. Dreiser was guaranteed by contract the right to review the script before production, and complained bitterly that the Sternberg-Hoffenstein interpretation of his novel's themes "outraged the book." When the film was completed, it was clear that the Sternberg screenplay had rejected any interpretation attributing protagonist Clyde Griffiths' antisocial behavior to a capitalist society and a strict religious upbringing, but rather located the problem in "the sexual hypocrisy of the [petty-bourgeois] social class." [4] As Sternberg acknowledged in his memoirs: "I eliminated the sociological elements, which, in my opinion, were far from being responsible for the dramatic accident with which Dreiser concerned himself." [5] [6]

Dreiser sued Paramount Pictures to suppress the film but lost. [7] [3]


Film historian John Baxter wrote that An American Tragedy "met with mixed critical success. The New York Times called it 'emphatically stirring," the New York Daily News wrote it is 'intensely dramatic, moving, superbly acted', but many other papers, recalling Dreiser's protest, found the film less intense that the original novel, which is undoubtedly the case." [8]

Marxist film critic Harry Alan Potamkin commented on "Sternberg's failure to understand Dreiser's larger thematic purpose: Before the story opens [Sternberg presents] repeated shots of water disturbed by a thrown object. And throughout the picture the captions are composed upon a background of rippling water. Sternberg saw the major idea of the matter [theme] in the drowning. How lamentable!" [9]

The film fared poorly at American theaters but was well-received among European moviegoers. [10]


John Baxter identifies a thematic element in the struggle for human control over their destinies:

Throughout Sternberg's films we see fictional worlds where an individual's established identity and position in the social order is so fragile as to be essentially illusory. In An American Tragedy, the beautifully articulated sequence of the police capturing Clyde Griffiths succinctly illustrates Sternberg's sense that life is dominated by forces so far beyond human control as to have an ultimately natural, even cosmic dimension. [11]

Critic Andrew Sarris singles out the following scene for its thematic significance:

The one key scene in the film takes place in the factory where Phillip Holmes (Clyde) arranges the seduction of Sylvia Sidney (Roberta). He has forced her to capitulate by threatening never to see her again. She hands him a note when he passes by the assembly line where she is working. Holmes furtively opens the note in a secluded spot where his expression cannot be seen by the factory girls, and a smile of triumph flickers across his normally phlegmatic features. Since he is seen at [a cinematically] objective distance, he is irrevocably guilty at that very moment for his sexual presumption. [12]

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  1. The American Film Institute Catalog Feature Films: 1931-1940 by the American Film Institute, c. 1993
  2. Baxter 1971, p. 87.
  3. 1 2 Sarris 1966, p. 32.
  4. Baxter 1971, p. 86-87; Sarris 1966, p. 33; Sarris 1998, p. 226; Weinberg 1967, p. 59.
  5. Sarris 1998, p. 225.
  6. Sarris 1966, p. 33.
  7. Baxter 1971, p. 88.
  8. Baxter 1971, p. 88-89.
  9. Baxter 1971, p. 114.
  10. Weinberg 1967, p. 57.
  11. Baxter 1971, p. 120.
  12. Sarris 1998, p. 226.

Further reading