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

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

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

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

Synopsis

Theodore Dreiser's dissection of the American dream, An American Tragedy, was hailed as the greatest novel of its generation. Now a classic of American literature, the story is one to which Hollywood has repeatedly returned. Hollywood's obsession with this tale of American greed, justice, religion and sexual hypocrisy stretches across the history of cinema. Three attempts by some of cinema's greatest directors--Sergei Eisenstein, Josef von Sternberg and George Stevens--have been made to bring this classic story to the screen. Subsequently, both Jean-Luc Godard and Woody Allen have returned to the story and to these earlier adaptations. This is the first detailed study of this extraordinary sequence of adaptations. What it reveals is a history of Hollywood--from its politics to its cinematography--and, much deeper, of American culture and the difficulty of telling an American tragedy in the land of the American dream.

Excerpt

In 2006 a macabre anniversary was observed in the United States. One hundred years earlier, a handsome young man named Chester Gillette was tried in upstate New York for the murder of his factory co-worker, Grace (“Billy”) Brown. the son of Salvation Army missionaries, Gillette had left home at age 14 and worked his way across the country. By chance he encountered a wealthy uncle who offered him employment at his garment factory in Cortland, ny. There Gillette courted several women and seduced Brown, the daughter of a local farming family. After she became pregnant the couple traveled to the Adirondacks under assumed names, eventually arriving at Big Moose Lake, where Gillette rented a rowboat. On July 14, 1906, Brown's battered body was reportedly found in the lake, together with the capsized boat and a man's straw hat. the trial for her murder, with the victim's plaintive letters to Gillette read aloud in court and rumors circulating of a beautiful rival from one of Cortland's most prominent families, made national headlines. Gillette insisted that Brown had thrown herself in the water when he said he could not marry her but her head injuries, his departure from the scene and a suspiciously buried tennis racquet convinced the jury to convict him in a matter of hours. Soon afterwards, his mother arrived from the Midwest, her expenses paid by the New York Evening Journal and the Denver Times in exchange for reports on her son's fate. the condemned man maintained his innocence until his appeals were exhausted. On March 30, 1908 he was electrocuted in Auburn State Prison.

In The People of New York v. Chester Gillette, Theodore Dreiser saw “a crime sensation of the first magnitude, with all those intriguingly colorful, and yet morally and spiritually atrocious, elements—love, romance, wealth, poverty, death.” But instead of its small-town Lothario, his 1925 novel indicted American sexual hypocrisy, American religion and American justice. the resulting bestseller, hailed as the greatest novel of its generation, was an unexpected success. As one magazine put it a year later, “The whole thing contains a certain splendor because this wealth has come to Dreiser after pioneering as a realist in which time he has been hailed, reviled and suppressed, only to win a wholesale popular acclaim at last by his gloomiest tragedy of all” (Carples, 1926: 46).

That this publication was a movie magazine, announcing the sale of An American Tragedy to Hollywood for a record sum, was still another surprise. Although a stage adaptation of his novel enjoyed a run on Broadway, Dreiser was . . .

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