Tuesday, June 26, 2007
In 1951, Theodore Dreiser's classic novel, "An American Tragedy" was remade into a movie that was destined to become one of the greatest Hollywood movies ever made. The movie's name was "A Place in the Sun."
The movie, which was directed by legendary film director George Stevens served as a contemporary (by 1951 standards that is) retelling of Dreiser's novel as well as another retelling of the famous Chester Gillette murder case that happened 45 years before this movie was made.
The movie centers on a character named George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), a young drifter who is taken in by his rich uncle and given a job at his bathing suit factory in California (a scenery change from both the novel and the Gillette case, both in which took place in Central New York.) Although he pines for the beautiful Angela Vickers (played by Elizabeth Taylor), he soon falls for fellow co-worker Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), in contrary to the factory's no-fraternization policy. All goes well for George until he finally meets and falls in love with Angela while at the same time, he learns that Alice is pregnant and demands that he marry her or else. Sound familiar?
From there, the movie more or less follows the story written by Dreiser and, to some extent, the Gillette case. After Alice threatens to tell all to his family, George brings her to a secluded lake with the intention to kill her, but like Clyde Griffiths in "An American Tragedy," he fails to go through with it.However that doesn't stop the boat from tipping over accidentally, killing Alice.
After several days of freedom with Angela and her family, George is arrested for murder and is forced to confront the fearsome district attorney (a pre-"Perry Mason" Raymond Burr) who is really intent on destroying George to further his own political ambitions. And of course if you've seen the movie and/or followed both the original story and Dreiser's novel, you can guess what happens after that.
I had seen the movie six times and I thought that it was pretty well done. The performances by Monty Clift as George (Chester) and Elizabeth Taylor as Angela (modeled after Harriet Benedict, one of Chester's rumored lovers) are so wonderful and so believable that you actually sympathize and care about them. Raymond Burr also gave a very powerful and convincing performance as the volatile district attorney. He was based on George Ward, the Herkimer County District Attorney who prosecuted Chester in 1906 despite the fact that the real Ward was nothing like the character in the film.
Shelley Winters was believable as Alice, the poor factory girl who was modeled after Chester's lover/victim Grace Brown. However, Alice's character follows the characterization of Roberta Alden (Grace in "An American Tragedy") and is portrayed as too whiny, too easy, and too unsympathetic, all of which the real Grace wasn't.
When the movie came out in 1951, legendary silent film star Charlie Chaplin called the film "the best film Hollywood ever made." It was a big hit and went on to win several Academy Awards including Best Director for George Stevens. Out of the four major stars of the film, Elizabeth Taylor is the only one who is still alive today. Shelley Winters died in January 2006.
Although the 1931 film is not yet available on DVD, this movie is available on DVD and can be found either at your local video store, local department stores or online at either Amazon.com or eBay.
Saturday, June 23, 2007
When acclaimed author Theodore Dreiser released his classic novel, An American Tragedy, no one could have predicted the overwhelming impact that the story had on the world, and no one would predict how it would alter the true story of the famous murder case upon which it was based.
The novel, based on the legendary Chester Gillette/Grace Brown murder case that occurred in 1906, was so effective that within a few years after its release, the novel slowly started to become confused with the actual facts of the case, especially in the areas where the story took place. Among the facts that were taken from the novel were the fact that Grace and her family were poor; that Chester killed Grace so that he could marry a rich girl; and that there was only one "other girl" in the Chester/Grace triangle instead of several. And that other girl in the novel's eyes was none other than Harriet Benedict.
In truth, Harriet had only gone out with Chester a few times. But the New York City papers (with the exception of the Times) blew everything out of proportion by saying that the relationship between the two was a full-fledged romance and wrote articles saying that they were engaged to be married and that she sneaked into Chester's jail cell during the trial and so on. Seeing potential in those articles, Dreiser took it a step further and turned the Chester/Harriet relationship into a full-fledged romantic relationship so that way readers could sympathize with them better than they could sympathize with Grace, especially after Chester was convicted of murder.
Harriet, who married a Cortland lawyer sometime after Chester's execution in 1908 and gave birth to a son who became a World War II hero, was never able to shake the notoriety that Chester's trial and Dreiser's novel had imposed on her.
In 1931, Paramount Pictures released the feature film version of Dreiser's masterpiece. It was released at a time when movies were coming out of the silent film era and it was notable for the fact that it was one of the first "talkies" to be released into theaters. When it debuted at the Liberty Theater in Herkimer, some of the surviving trial participants such as Judge Irving R. Devendorf and retired sheriff Austin Klock came out to see the film. The lobby also had some of the trial artifacts including Grace's letters and the tennis racket (the murder weapon), on display. It would be the last time the tennis racket would be seen in public until last year when it was on display during the "Chester, Grace, and Dreiser" conference at Herkimer County Community College. It was and still is in the custody of an person who wished to remain anonymous.
However, the film would not go without some controversy. Dreiser unsuccessfully sued the film's director, Johann von Sternberg for plagiarism and tried to have the film's release blocked. However, Dreiser's case was thrown out, but that would not be the only legal block that the movie would face.
In Chenango County (Grace's home county), its residents did not receive the film warmly, especially since it portrayed the Browns in a bad light. Grace's mother Minerva Brown, by then a 73-year-old widow, promptly sued Paramount for libel and defamation of character. The trial was originally held in Norwich, the county seat of Chenango County, but it was later relocated to Ithaca because the defendants felt that the jury would side with Mrs. Brown. Fearing that Minerva would not survive the civil trial, the studio settled out of court for an undisclosed sum that was probably close to a few thousand dollars.
Despite the controversy, the movie was a success and during the 30's, the novel also led to a play called "The Trial of Clyde Griffiths." In the program which explained the origins of the novel and of the Gillette case, it was clear that fiction was actually becoming fact. In fact, local Adirondack legend Roy Higby, the boy who found Grace's body in Big Moose Lake, wrote his account of the case in his memoir, "A Man From the Past." Although his account of finding Grace's body was accurate, the rest of his version of the Gillette case was Dreiser's story. And it would take another 60 years for the truth to finally come out.
But before that could happen, twenty years later, another movie by Paramount would be released. It too would be based on Dreiser's novel and on the Gillette case. But this one would end up being considered one of the greatest movies of all time.
The movie's name? "A Place in the Sun."
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
As you know already, Grace Brown got her nickname "Billy" from a song called "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey." Well today I just happened to come across the lyrics to that song on Google and I have just added it to my ever-growing collection of links on this site if anyone is interested in viewing them.
I just learned that the song was originally published in 1902 by Hughie Cannon (1877-1912). Grace was about 16 at the time so she could not have heard that song any earlier than that. At any rate, the song must have stuck with her because as a result of family and friends listening to her sing that tune, she was given the nickname "Billy."
In a way, I can see why she liked the song so much. I had the privilege of listening to an earlier recording of the song on a recently released Gillette documentary called "An American Murder," currently available at the Herkimer County Historical Society. It does have a really jazzy beat which you can dance to and it definitely fit the times. In Grace's time, ragtime music was all the rage. Over the years, the song had been recorded countless times by different artists, including Louis Armstrong, Patsy Cline, Bobby Darin, Ella Fitzgerald, and most recently by Harry Connick, Jr. His version can be found on his latest CD, "Oh, My Nola." If you have a chance, check it out.
Source: Wikipedia Encyclopedia.- http://en.wikipedia.org.