‘A Place in the Sun’ (1951) – an American classic?


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In 1906 Chester Gillette murdered his pregnant girlfriend Grace Brown on Big Moose Lake in upstate New York. A jury concluded that he rowed her out onto the lake with the sole purpose of drowning her, struck her over the head with a tennis racquet, and watched her sink beneath the waters. Two years later he went to the electric chair at the Auburn Correctional Facility. The papers boasted of the efficiency of his electrocution, proudly announcing that it took just ‘one minute and three seconds’ to dispatch him.

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Chester Gillette & Grace Brown

Gillette enjoyed a reputation as a bit of a rake. Good-looking and a charmer, he dallied with a number of wealthy socialite daughters of prominent families, but there appears to be no evidence whatsoever that he killed poor Grace in order to be with a rich young woman as portrayed by Liz Taylor in the 1951 version of the tale. Some sources argue, possibly unfairly, that Grace may well have been ‘on the make’ herself, bent on landing herself a handsome husband.

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Grace’s ghost (if you believe in that kind of thing), is said to still haunt her up-state New York home, not to mention the lake where she perished. A number of people claim to have seen her apparition near the lake. Uh-huh. Great American writer Theodore Dreiser wrote a best seller about the case in 1925 and called it An American Tragedy. Best seller it may have been, but not everyone was enamored by Dreiser’s wordy style (the book is nearly nine hundred pages long). Then again, others declare it to be the ultimate American novel.

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Phillips Holmes

The story was first brought to the screen in 1931. Directed by the eccentric Josef von Sternberg, it was a box-office failure. Phillips Holmes played the lead opposite Frances Dee and Sylvia Sidney. Phillips’ name is virtually unknown to all but movie trivia buffs today. In 1942 he graduated as an aircraftsman with the Royal Canadian Air Force. Tragically, whilst he and six of his classmates were being transferred to Ottawa, their plane collided with another, and all aboard both aircraft were killed. Holmes was just 35.

Because of its reference to the subject of abortion, the 1931 version was banned in England, South Africa and Italy. Grace Brown’s mother sued Paramount for $150,000, (probably for the same reason), and the issue was settled privately out of court. Eighteen years later Paramount tried filming it again, but with a new title, A Place in the Sun, and this time they had a winner. The new version was shot in 1949 but released two years later to avoid competing at the Oscars with the studio’s other blockbuster Sunset Boulevard.

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Oscar winner George Stephens

Director George Stephens won the Oscar and deliberately chose to shoot A Place in the Sun in black and white. He was of the school that believed drama and tragedy filmed better that way. Technicolor, he was often heard to say, had an, ‘Oh, what a beautiful morning’ quality that detracted from somber themes. He was not one to indulge his leading players either. When Monty Clift turned up with his drama coach, Mira Rostova, in tow, George simply barred her from the set. Any instruction she gave to her charge had to be given outside working hours.

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Anne Revere as Hannah Eastman

Paramount removed Anne Revere’s name from its publicity campaign because she had refused to co-operate with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) at that time, a stance that would see her blacklisted and disappear from movies until 1970. She plays Hannah Eastman, the killer’s Bible-thumping mother, here. Her role was considerably larger until she stood on the 5th Amendment when called before the HUAC. Afterwards, the part was cut to little more than a glorified cameo. A descendent of Paul Revere, she was a ‘dyed-in-the-wool’ Yankee who always maintained she was framed by the HUAC. She claimed that her so-called Communist Party membership card, produced by her accusers as ‘proof’ of her subversive activities, was a ‘plant’.

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Monty contemplating murder               Shelley- ‘I can’t swim’.              

Shelley Winters was being groomed as a sex symbol at the time this film was made, but she was determined to make the role of the tragic, frumpy girlfriend her own. She began by visiting a nearby factory to find out how girls working on the assembly line dressed. Then she went out and bought some similar clothes. The following morning she arrived early for her meeting with director Stephens and sat quietly in a corner of his waiting room, minus any makeup and in her factory clothes. Stephens, who knew Shelley well, did not even notice her until he was about to leave. She got the part.

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Monty & Liz

Clift was at his peak in this and Liz Taylor fell madly in love with him on the set. The two had first met on a date organized by Paramount as a publicity stunt to show off the studio’s choices for its next big project. They liked each other at once. Monty was horrifically injured in a car crash a few years later when leaving a party at Liz’s home. In fact, she was first to the scene of the accident (it was just down the street), and it is generally accepted that her quick action to remove dislocated teeth from his throat almost certainly saved the actor’s life.

Clift was 29 when filming commenced on A Place in the Sun. Liz was just 17 and awestruck to be playing opposite a Broadway star of his magnitude. But the young, troubled actor struggled with his bisexuality throughout their romance. ‘I have my deepest relationships with women’, he once confided to a friend, ‘yet it is with men that I find more satisfaction in bed’. It was only through enormous good fortune that his nocturnal practice of soliciting young men on the streets of New York City and Los Angeles did not reach the ears of the press until after his death.

Exteriors for A Place in the Sun were shot at Lake Tahoe and on Cascade Lake, Nevada. And it was cold. Before the lakeside scenes of Clift and Taylor’s frolicking could be filmed, the crew had to hose snow from the ground and from the branches of nearby trees that came within camera-shot. To get himself into character for the execution scene, Clift spent the previous night locked in the San Quentin Penitentiary death-house.

A Place in the Sun was a box-office success and the 1951 critics loved it. Charlie Chaplin waxed lyrical about the picture, describing it as, ‘the greatest movie ever made about America.’ I watched it again recently and it is a long way short of such praise, in my opinion. I cringed as Liz Taylor’s character arrived at the death-house (accompanied by her fat cat father no less) on the eve of Monty’s execution. When she entered his cell and gave him a passionate goodbye kiss I cringed even more. According to the script, both defense and prosecution had agreed to keep her name out of the case completely, (bad publicity for the prominent family, you see), even though she was (so the script said) fundamental to the very reason the murder was committed in the first place. Would she and dear old dad really turn up at Quentin on the eve of the execution (or any other time for that matter?) Ah, Hollywood. They just can’t help themselves.

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