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‘An American Tragedy’ by Mandy Merck

Posted by keith1942 on February 1, 2020

A book about an early 20th century novel, which judging by the library copy I borrowed is now little read, and two adaptations made in Hollywood more than fifty years ago sounds a little esoteric. But in its day the book was a best seller and very influential. Many critics and commentators also saw it as a compelling commentary on US society. Theodore Dreiser used a real-life murder as the basis for his plot of a young man who loves both a working girl and a rich socialite. Faced by the former’s pregnancy, he first tries abortion then killing. Dreiser maintained “it could not happen in any other country in the world”. Mandy Merck comments “the novel and its adaptations both constitute and are constituted by the convulsions of the nation state that is its protagonist and its theme”. The book is concerned with the sociology of the protagonist’s fate, not the drama.

Merck discusses in detail the origins of Dreiser’s novel, (written whilst he worked as a writer in Hollywood), and three film versions: one by Sergei Eisenstein, unrealised: one by Josef Von Sternberg for Paramount in 1931: and the most famous, directed by George Stevens for Paramount in 1951. This was A Place in the Sun starring Montgomery Cliff and Elisabeth Taylor. Merck points out in her introduction that she studies the authors, who include Dreiser, the directors who worked on the adaptations, and the economic authors, the Hollywood studios. She does this in an exemplary fashion, having clearly engaged in very detailed research.

We read about the development of Dreiser’s mammoth novel, running to 800 pages. Dreiser was an important contributor to a movement for realist fiction. He himself had researched the real-life love and affairs and subsequent murders that are the prime focus. He always carefully researched the places and people who fill his novels. H. L. Mencken commented, “When he sent some character into an eating-house for a meal it was always some eating-house that he had been to himself, and the meal he described in such relentless detail was one he had eaten, digested and remembered.” (Introduction to the 1948 edition). Another writer quoted in this volume opined, “No one else confronted so directly the sheer intractability of American social life and institutions, or … the difficulty of breaking free from social law.” (D. Denby in 2003).

Dreiser was an important writer and literary influence; one could describe ;’An American Tragedy’ as an example of the ‘great American [I.e. USA] novel’; a work that can be read as a ‘state of the nation’ drama. His other major novel was ‘Sister Carrie’ (1900), filmed in 1952 as Carrie starring Jennifer Jones and Laurence Olivier. Dreiser started out as a journalist and also wrote short stories and non-fiction. He supported the socialist movement in the USA and was prominent in defending people under assault by the US state.

The length and complexity of this novel made for a daunting adaptation. It was one of the projects worked on by Sergei Eisenstein when he sojourned briefly in Hollywood in 1929. Dreiser’s depiction of class divisions and his sociological standpoint clearly appealed to Eisenstein. He worked up a script for a 14-reel version. Merck studies this in detail, and it promised to be an intelligent and cinematic version of the novel. Dreiser certainly gave his approval. However, it did not get past the studio bosses, presumably made nervous by its morals and by the contemporary red-baiting would-be censors. The author’s discussion is interesting in terms of Eisenstein’s career, though I always wonder how either Eisenstein or his companions seriously imagined they could make a film in Hollywood.

The Sternberg version seems mainly to have been an attempt to recoup some of the costs by the studio. Sternberg was interested in illusion and artifice rather than realism. A quote by Selznick runs, “I don’t think he has the basic honesty, the tolerance, the understanding this subject absolutely requires, . . .” Moreover, the imminent arrival of Hollywood system of censorship, the Hays Code, made the explicit subject of the novel difficult. On completion, Dreiser was appalled at what his original had become, and undertook legal action, but he lost.

The post-war version that was very much Stevens’ own project. But Ivan Moffat complained, “Stevens was a romantic, so the bleak social picture painted by Dreiser took second place to the steamy love-affair between George and Angela” (the protagonist and his privileged amour). Certainly the film’s centre was the on- (and off-) screen romance: which I vividly remember from my younger film-going days.

All four versions of the story suffered from censorship and social outrage, since the original plot contained seduction, attempted abortion, murder and official corruption. Some of those involved in the 1950s version were also caught up in the Bacchus attack on the Industry’s ‘liberals’. Merck spends time on these various social angles and their impact on the succeeding projects, and the overall discourse of book and films.

The book develops into a compelling and informative study of Hollywood and its relationship to US society and the wider world. At the end of the book Merck notes that 2005 saw a version of the original novel at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House: and a faintly disguised borrowing in Woody Allen’s Match Point (2005); a disappointing title from Woody Allen. Even Jean-Luc Godard joined the act with a brief reference in Histoire(s) du cinéma (1989).

I certainly recommend Mandy Merck’s authoritative study. I also recommend Dreiser’s original ‘An American Tragedy’. The 800 pages do not seem so many when you get involved in the novel. Coincidentally, I have also recently re-read novels by Dreiser’s fellow realist, Upton Sinclair. And another doyen of North American realism is Frank Norris. Hollywood famously filmed his McTeague as Greed (1923), with equally problematic results. The director was Erich Von Stroheim, who, along with Eisenstein, was one of the filmmakers preferred by Dreiser for his own epic work. Merck;s book demonstrates how richly engaging with the original authors illuminates the films.

Hollywood’s American Tragedies: Dreiser, Eisenstein, Sternberg, Stevens

Mandy Merck, Berg 2007.

ISBN 978 1 84520 665 9 Paperback, 171 pages.

Originally a review for ‘The Case for Global Film’.

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