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TheCanadian Review of Amencan Studies, Volume VIII, Number 2, Fall, 1977 Sociological Treatise,Detective Story,Love· Affair: TheFilm VersionsofAn American Tragedy Barrie Hayne Thetum of the twentieth century saw the heyday of a new kind of novel, writtenby the school of so-called naturalists: in Europe, most notably Zola; and, in the United States, Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser. 1 The maturity of naturalistic fiction and the infancy of film thus coincide: the emphasis placed by the naturalists on documentary detail, onrepresentative characters with the quality of single-dimensional cartoons, and the appeal of these writers to a wide, proletarian audience, link the schoolof naturalistic novelists more than fortuitously to the emergent new art of cinema. The early filmmakers drew not only upon such proven stage successesas East Lynne and Uncle Tom's Cabin, or upon such immensely popular novels of the preceding age as those of Dickens. They turned as wellfor material to the contemporary novel; in particular to the naturalistic novel,with its larger than life characters, and its concern with maintaining anelement of romance even in the midst of documentary realism (a collocationwhich the chief American explicator of the genre, Norris, had insisted upon).In addition, to mention only the major directors, Griffith used Norris himselfin A Corner in Wheat, DeMille used David Graham Phillips in OldWives.forNew, and Stroheim used Norris again in Greed. With such an affinity between the naturalistic novel and the film in its formative years from 1900 to I930, we need not wonder overmuch at the interest aroused in the film industry by An American Tragedy in the yearsfollowing its publication in 1925. (In its dramatized form by Patrick Kearney,Dreiser's novel had also enjoyed considerable success on the stage.) ThusD. W. Griffith, no less, had the filming of An American Tragedy as 132 one of his unrealized projects. Erich von Stroheim also planned a version.1 the only springboard from which one could imagine him surpassing Greed Paramount Studios had bought the rights, after protracted negotiations with Dreiser,2 in I926, and in 1929 commissioned Sergei Eisenstein himself, to produce a scenario. Before then, according to Eisenstein, ·'a great mam ' others" at Paramount had '"tackled" the novel, including even Ernst L;. b1tsch,although the patent incompatibility of Dreiser's immense heavy-handedness with the characteristic "Lubitsch touch" makes the idea of-such a collaboration difficult to credit, especially under the supervision of the distinctly unimaginative Jesse Lasky and B. P. Schulberg. 3 Whe·n, according to Eisenstein's own account, Paramount found the script he presented to them "a monstrous challenge to American society,'' the\ rejected it (Close Up, p. 110). Eisenstein's collaborator, Ivor Montagu, mai~tains that artistic integrity made it inevitable that their script, in followin2 Dreiser, would run afoul of the studio; in his view Jesse Lasky had neve; read An American Tragedy before purchasing the film rights ("What he knew was its fame"). 4 Paramount then called in Josef von Sternberg to "salvage" the investment of half a million dollars in Dreiser's novel. Not having seen Eisenstein's script, or discussed it with him, Sternberg agreed. and his version of An American Tragedy, with Samuel Hoffenstein credited as co-writer by the studio if not by Sternberg, was released on August 22, l931.5 Dreiser, who had thoroughly approved the Eisenstein-Montagu scnpt, as thoroughly disapproved of Sternberg's, and sued Paramount for what he regarded as "nothing less than an insult to the book." (Amusingly. Eisenstein saw Dreiser doing battle "like a grey-haired lion," while Sternberg saw him "swooping down from the air like a corpulent eagle"; see Close Up, p. 124; Fun in a Chinese Laundry, p. 258). He lost the suit. Finally. for now, George Stevens directed for Paramount the second realized vers10n of the novel in 1951. A high-budget film which proved very popular, ll was released in August of that year, entitled A Place in the Sun. Here, then, is a novel adapted for the screen by three of the greatest of directors, and perhaps contemplated by three others who stand very much in the same pantheon. Moreover, all were strong auteurs; though Lee Garmes...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 131-153
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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