A Place in the Sun: A Triumph in Black and White

All images © Paramount Pictures

I can’t remember what came first. It’s possible I may have caught A Place in the Sun (1951) on television as a youth. It became one of the first movies I ever bought when I picked it up on VHS and it also was one of the first three movies that ever made me cry. I was a teenager when I first really sat and watched it and it had a major effect on me, a feeling that was heightened when I tackled the novel it was based on. I took on Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925) while still a young person although its bulk at 800+ pages was daunting.

My copy

One of the themes of the book and its central male character resonated with me. As a lifelong daydreamer, the experiences of Clyde Griffiths (changed to George Eastman for the film) were the type I would often envision for myself; aside from the “tragedy” part, of course. Clyde comes from a poor, devoutly religious family. While my family was neither of those things, we were far from well-off and my home was a Christian one. Also, Clyde has limited prospects and a low ceiling of expectations for his life. He worked hard at menial jobs while dreaming of success and a leisurely, more satisfactory life. All of this applies to my life as a teenager and twentysomething. And plucked straight from my daydreams, Clyde happens to meet his wealthy uncle while Clyde is working as a bellhop. His uncle invites him to come work in the Griffiths family factory, an invitation Clyde readily accepts and one that he parlays into an entrée into the fashionable life of the Griffiths social circle. While working on the ground level of the factory, Clyde meets a simple farm girl and factory worker Roberta Alden (changed to Alice Tripp for the film) and the glamourous and beautiful Sondra (changed to Angela Vickers for the film).The plot of the novel basically follows the story told onscreen though the movie picks the action up with George Eastman arriving in town to start working for his uncle. And now to the film.

A Place in the Sun stars Montgomery Clift as George Eastman, Elizabeth Taylor as Angela Vickers and Shelley Winters as Alice Tripp. This film is what I call a triumph in black and white and this does not refer to just the lack of colour onscreen. Honestly, there are few directors in Hollywood history quite like George Stevens. A true master of his art, Stevens excelled at telling stories of all kinds on screen. When you consider the variety of projects he shepherded to successful conclusions, it actually boggles the mind. After getting his start working for Hal Roach on countless shorts featuring the comedy team of Laurel and Hardy, his first significant job as a director came with a film decidedly un-slapstick, 1935’s Alice Adams, a romantic drama starring Katharine Hepburn that was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. He then pivoted to helming the seminal musical Swing Time (1936), a film that has been called the best Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire movie and one that is said to contain musical performances by the two that are “masterpieces”. Another Oscar-winning film, it appears on many lists of the best movies of all-time. In the delightful comedy The More the Merrier (1943), Stevens directed Charles Coburn to an Oscar win and the film also garnered Oscar noms for Best Director, Best Picture and Best Actress for pretty Jean Arthur. I Remember Mama followed in 1948 and this drama was similarly recognized with Academy Award nominations for three of its actors including Irene Dunne’s nom for Best Actress.

Director George Stevens on location with Taylor and Clift.

So, by the end of 1949, when work on adapting Dreiser’s novel for the screen began, Stevens had established an impressive pedigree. He had shown himself capable of making quality films in different genres that were embraced by the public. What he did with A Place in the Sun‘s black and white cinematography – in tandem with cinematographer William C. Mellor, who won an Oscar for this film – I find particularly striking. Stevens eschewed Technicolor for the stark themes of this film and instead uses black and white to express vast differences in characters and the classes to which they belong.

Contrasts are seen right from the outset of the film. During the opening titles, George strolls along a highway trying to thumb a ride. His clothes are simple, sturdy and dark, his leather jacket black. He is dejected but his countenance seems to lift as he notices a prominent car driving by. It is driven by a beautiful young girl he will soon meet, Angela, and the car is a sparkling white. But George is left on the side of the road, isolated, until he finally scores a ride; in a dilapidated truck driven by a genial farmer-type.

George enters in black (and white).

George arrives at his uncle’s mansion. He is tentative, shy but obviously determined to better himself and is ready to seize any opportunity to do so. His uncle is curiously kind and gentle with George; the viewer wonders if George’s Uncle Charles may have some tender memories of his brother, Asa, George’s father. George’s newfound cousins are skeptical and gently condescending but George secures a position on the ground floor of the Eastman plant. George is on his own in his rented room decorated in dark tones while outside in bright white light shines “VICKERS” from the top of Angela’s family’s store. He starts work at the drab, colourless assembly line and keeps at it until his uncle is reminded of his toil and decrees that George be moved up in the company and come out to the house for a party. We begin now to see the true craft of George Stevens. We see the juxtaposition of black and white, the study in contrasts. The sublime and the dreadful. Success and the doldrums. Joy and freedom – and binding responsibilities.

As George enters the party, he is ignored by the doorman. He slowly strolls in amongst the crowd. People brush past him. A woman gestures in his direction and he is lifted; only to learn that the woman was greeting someone behind George. As he passes one group and hears their laughter, he turns his head towards them and adds his happy smile to theirs; even though he has not been privy to the humorous comment. This specific instance of George trying to ingratiate himself into the proceedings is particularly sad and pathetic and may remind the viewer of the many times they have been in George’s shoes. The choreography of the scene is striking; as George approaches couples, they move away, but not purposely; they haven’t even noticed George. George enters the living room – and it empties. Resigned to his anonymity, George comes upon a room with a pool table. It’s unoccupied so he picks up a cue. Passing by the door, Angela has heard the balls clacking and sticks her head in.

Taylor as Angela Vickers is many things. Let’s try to encompass all of them by saying she is absolutely captivating. Confident in herself, she breezily interrogates George. For his part, poor George is spellbound, almost reduced to incapacitation. Angela is playful while George talks on the phone to his mother, whom we see in a shabby mission — as opposed to the Eastman’s opulent house and well-appointed billiard room. George gradually becomes more comfortable talking to Angela and we can easily see that, before this moment, he has been isolated. He has already been friendly with Alice by this point but we can clearly see that his dream for his life has always been the shinier things; of which Angela is the very embodiment.

As their romance blossoms, George tells Angela that he loved her even before he met her. This is an allusion – though Angela may not realize it – to the fact that George has always wanted the finer things in life. Angela represents to George the promised land, the promise of beautiful things after a shabby childhood of barrenness. Not to say that George does not have genuine feelings for Angela; I believe he does but this seems like almost a bonus, something he has gained over and above his goal of success.

What follows is a study in contrasts. The romantic scenes between George and Angela are starkly juxtaposed with the tragic and seedy scenes of George’s relationship with Alice, whom George has gotten pregnant. Alice’s trip to the doctor in hopes of procuring an abortion depict the absolute nadir of their relationship to this point. Alice makes it clear to George that she intends for him to remain with her, marry her and be a father to her child, “future or no future”, she adds, poignantly. Alice will not be discarded. George will honour his responsibility to her – no matter how tragic their life together may be.

It is almost jarring to later see Angela – dressed in black and white – playfully throwing rocks at George’s window like the child she is. George comes out – wearing stark black – to breathlessly join her in her car. It is poignant, too that Alice has been describing to George their future together, one of hardships, one of commitment, responsibilities, hard work and in all likelihood a loveless union. Angela, on the other hand, talks to George of the joys they will share, exciting summers at the lake with friends, frivolity and no limit to their happiness, a future filled with possibilities, passion and love. These two together are a flame while George and Alice are rubble.

Cutey rock-thrower.
Reverie.
The good life.

George escapes Alice and goes to Loon Lake with Angela – where she dazzles in a black bathing suit while the crisp, white sails of boats are seen drifting in relaxing reverie. Alice shatters this reverie when she also makes a trip up to the lake and demands that George join her, threatening to expose him if he doesn’t. During these scenes, Stevens employs slow dissolves which seem to signify the fading of George’s dreams. Winters plays the part of Alice well; and this is what has lead me to always dislike her. I cannot disassociate Winters with Tripp and Alice’s moaning and groaning drive me around the bend. All the while, however, I’m forced to recall that George has been careless with her and now she is pregnant and demanding that George honour his responsibilities, something we can’t begrudge her.

Their time in the boat is particularly hard to take. Alice looks the very picture of George’s doom as she describes their little home and life with their baby.

“Oh, you’ll see, will make a go of it if we give ourselves a chance. We’ll go to another town where nobody knows us. We’ll get jobs, maybe together. We’ll do things together, go out together. Just like any other old married couple. George, you’ll see. After a while, you’ll settle down. And you’ll be happy and content with what you’ve got instead of working yourself up all the time over things you can’t have. After all, it’s the little things in life that count. Sure, maybe will have to scrimp and save. But we’ll have each other. I’m not afraid of being poor.”

This is all George can take and he tells her to stop talking. The life she has just described is the very life he has fought to avoid, to overcome. It’s at this moment, though, that he decides he cannot harm Alice as he had intended to here on the lake – but he has sunk to the very depths now. His only escape – disposing of Alice – has evaporated. When she falls into the water through no fault of his, it is considered fortunate in that she has drowned but he had nothing to do with it. At this point, Stevens shows us a black lake with only a slip of white, the overturned boat. George’s conundrum now is that while it was indeed an accident and he could go to the police and explain, there is still Angela and her family to consider.

After.

When George returns to Angela, he’s wearing black and she’s in white. The gang goes boating and we see the little black radio that is reporting the dark side of George’s life and white sails symbolizing George’s dreams of a life of leisure. We hear the news report of Alice’s death but parts of it are drowned out by the roaring speedboat as if George, at the wheel of this toy, can muffle and suppress what has happened. A futile attempt. The last time George sees Angela – before the last time – he is in his black leather jacket and she is in white. She goes into the house – and closes the door on him.

Canadian Raymond Burr plays District Attorney R. Frank Marlowe. He wears a white hat with a black band. The news about George and Alice has hit Angela hard; Liz executes one of the best faints in movie history. George Stevens is not done, though, giving us compelling shots. As Angela ponders the collapse of her world, Stevens shoots Liz through the flames of the fireplace, heavily symbolic of the state of affairs. There is also a female juror who seems to be looking into George’s soul. And when Angela attempts to focus in class upon her return to school, we see her tuning out while the teacher drones on. And what is the teacher saying? “…the student will emerge from the shelter of life into a world of grown-up problems for the first time…the enthusiasms of youth…genuine problems as opposed to the imagined problems which are the frequent products of a sheltered immaturity. It is at this time that the sometimes hastily adopted beliefs of youth are found to be insufficient.” Angela’s youth and immaturity have come to an abrupt end.

Up in flames.

At the end, George is in prison looking decidedly pale (white). The priest talking to him seems to understand that, while George did not actually kill Alice, he let her drown; “In your heart was murder, George”. Angela visiting George in jail is one of the most devastating scenes in all of film. While she has often been seen wearing white, now she is in black, contrasting George’s peaked look. “I came to see you”, she says, quietly. And I go to the floor.

I’ve seen A Place in the Sun many times in my life. But it was a recent viewing that revealed the true craft of George Stevens and what he did with imagery and contrasts in this film. He had two stars under his direction that perfectly portrayed the characters created by novelist and screenwriter. Filming for A Place in the Sun took place between October of 1949 and March of 1950. This means that Clift turned 29 at the start of filming and Liz was 17 through much of the production; she turned 18 near the end of filming. I guess us middle-aged guys have to be careful with how we describe Elizabeth Taylor in this film, then. While a 17-year-old Liz Taylor is different than most teenaged girls, it is still staggering to consider that the “woman” playing Angela Vickers is only 17. Regardless, the film and its performances are stunning and George Stevens earned another Oscar for Best Director, adding the Director’s Guild of America award for his work. And, as I’ve mentioned, cinematographer William C. Mellor was honoured by the Academy for filming this startling film, one of my favourites. A real triumph in black and white.

The End

4 comments

  1. It was interesting to learn a little more about George Stevens, who seems to me to have flown under the radar a little when considering some of the great Hollywood directors, although this might only be my own impression. I read a great story about his sense of humour, in that when producer Sam Spiegel was working professionally as SP Eagle, George Stevens would torment him by calling him up him and saying, “Tell Sam it’s S.T Evens calling.”

    I haven’t seem the film myself, but I will certainly look out for it. I was interested in the fact that your sympathies, if I can put it like that, were with Angela rather than Alice, yet Alice’s lines about settling down and making the best of things seem to demonstrate an admirable sense of humanity and responsibility although there is very probably some greater context that I am missing. Did George Stevens take a view, or do you think he was an impartial observer?

    • I was first hipped to George Stevens when I bought (on VHS) a fancy deluxe edition of his later film Giant and I knew him mostly from that and Shane as well as Place in the Sun.

      I think I am still applying to the film the things that I felt when I first saw it as a young man. As I mentioned, I couldn’t help but place myself in George’s shoes. And had it been me, I certainly would’ve wanted Angela and the life she promised. That’s part of the appeal of the movie; the conundrum it presents. Easy to moralize and say ‘well, George, you made your bed…” but when you see him with Angela and when you see him finally finding the life he’s been wanting you want him to achieve this life. It’s tough. And wonderful. Stevens, I would think, while telling a tale of contrasts, would have pushed the idea that you live up to your obligations. But by presenting the romance in such a shiny light he was making the audience hope that George and Angela could somehow be together.

      • This is quite a fascinating moral dilemma. Having read your excellent piece (as usual) I went back over it again, and noticed the lobby card at the top, which shows Shelley Winters as a sneering (working class) spoiler to the golden couple’s happiness. I would imagine this was put together by Paramount’s marketing department, but it certainly gives the audience a nudge as to whose side they should be on. I’m looking forward to seeing this at some stage.

      • Yes, there’s two sides. If you look at these things from the standpoint of real life then there’s really only one side; deny yourself, pay for your actions and live up to responsibility. But, heck, it’s a movie (though based on fact). And again I say that I saw it as a youth, perhaps unconcerned with adult responsibility. All my young eyes could see was beautiful Angela and the life she offered George. And good observation about the marketing! How dare that Alice put pressure on George!

Leave a Reply to Gary Wells Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s