Like the original film version of The Maltese Falcon, Josef von Sternberg's adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's 1925 blockbuster novel is overshadowed by a remake. Sternberg's American Tragedy has the extra misfortune of being overshadowed not only by George Stevens' 1951 A Place in the Sun, but by a previous screenplay that was never filmed. Shortly before, Soviet montage master Sergei Eisenstein apparently got the green light from Stalin to try and make good in Hollywood. He wrote a treatment of the Dreiser novel that David O. Selznick privately praised as one of the greatest screenplays he'd ever read, but he also found it overlong and prohibitively depressing -- if not also too subversive, Eisenstein and Dreiser both being leftists. Sternberg got the project, with an all-new screenplay, and while he might seem an unlikely candidate for such a piece of social realism, known as he is today for his glamorous work with Marlene Dietrich, he had made his name with an independent project, Salvation Hunters, that dealt with working-class striving. He also had an interest in a certain sort of criminal mind that found later expression in an adaptation of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. All of that notwithstanding, his version of the Tragedy is regarded as a botch and is rarely seen today, while it was regarded by Dreiser (who was dead when Place in the Sun came out) as a crime against his vision. I have to confess that I never made it through the novel, which is vast, but I read enough of it to understand what Dreiser was griping about. The Sternberg film gives short shrift to the background and upbringing of protagonist Clyde Griffiths (Phillips Holmes), starting him out already established as a Kansas City bellboy. More importantly, Dreiser sees Griffiths, a character based on a real-life murderer, in determinist fashion as a product of his socio-cultural environment, driven to strive for social advancement and ready to sacrifice one love for another when that stronger passion dictates. The 1931 film, however, seems to come down on the interpretation of Griffiths advanced by his defense attorney to save him from the death penalty, which is that Clyde is essentially a "moral coward."
Clyde's on trial for his life because his efforts to dump a working-class girlfriend (Sylvia Sidney) for an upper-crust counterpart (Frances Dee) ends in disaster, despite his last-minute decision not to murder the poor girl. It involves a boat on a lake in a way that suggests that the nearest spiritual adaptation of the novel is F. W. Murnau's Sunrise, even if the girl in that film doesn't die and the poor couple has a happy ending. Sternberg's Tragedy is disproportionately dedicated to the climactic murder trial, which, to be fair, is the most entertaining part of the picture, thanks to the dueling bombast of Irving Pichel, as the prosecutor, and Charles (Ming the Merciless) Middleton as a defense attorney. Even A Place in the Sun is to a large extent a trial picture, one that most likely earned Raymond Burr, its prosecutor, his career-defining gig as defense attorney Perry Mason. Pichel and Middleton, both charismatic hams with great voices, give Sternberg's film moments of not just life but fun as the lawyers threaten to throw down and fight right in the courtroom. Pichel, probably best remembered as an actor for his ultra-creepy supporting turn in Draclua's Daughter, really gets to shine as the prosecutor methodically demolishes Clyde's defenses. He and Middleton damningly expose the film's fatal vacancy, which is Phillips Holmes' performance, which really does very little to make you sympathize with Griffiths (as Montgomery Clift manages in the Stevens film) even as you concede his guilt. Holmes always has struck me as a superficial pretty boy, and this film only proves that he never had a tragic hero in him.
As for Sternberg, there's little he can do stylistically with a courtroom drama, though there's one startling scene, when a spectator is ejected from somewhere near the nosebleed seats of the courtroom for heckling Clyde, that gives you a shocking sense of the almost literal theatricality of the whole event. There are some other isolated moments of pictorial or storytelling genius, the former when a fatal joyride is filmed from the outside, looking through the windshield of Clyde's car, the latter when the camera follows Clyde and the rich girl paddling their way into a boat party cacophonous with singing and laughter that all goes silent instantly when gunshots are heard, as Clyde's boat continues gliding through the muted crowd. Otherwise, either the story or the stars fail to inspire Sternberg to make something distinctive or characteristic of the material. Because I think Sternberg more capable of doing justice to the subject than others may believe, I find that a minor tragedy in its own right.