Vintage Movies: “A Place In The Sun”

MAGNET contributing editor Jud Cost is sharing some of the wealth of classic films he’s been lucky enough to see over the past 40 years. Trolling the backwaters of cinema, he has worked up a list of more than 100 titles—from the ’20s through the ’80s—that you may have missed. A new selection, all currently available on DVD, appears every week.

A Place In The Sun (1951, 122 minutes)

The oldest of a select group of post-World War II leading men that also included Marlon Brando and James Dean (all destined to play misfits, renegades and square pegs), Montgomery Clift was the most tortured soul of them all. Especially so in George Stevens’ A Place In The Sun, based on Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel An American Tragedy. Many of Clift’s moodiest characters seemed grounded in that old Delta-blues line: “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.”

Desperately looking for work, Clift as George Eastman is hitchhiking toward the big city when a dark-haired girl flashes past him in a white Cadillac convertible with the top down. Eastman gets a ride into town on a flat-bed truck, loaded down like something from the Okies’ dust-bowl migration during the Great Depression. “I’d like to see Mr. Charles Eastman,” says George to the security guard at the front gates of The Eastman Co. “So would I,” answers the guard, “and I expect to if I work here another five years.”

George is given an entry-level job at his uncle Charles’ garment-packing plant, loading boxed bathing suits from a conveyor belt onto a dolly. Even though he’s been warned of the company’s non-fraternization policy, George starts an affair with lonely co-worker Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters) that winds up with the factory girl getting pregnant, a major problem for both in those days.

On a charitable weekend invite to his uncle’s country estate, George takes refuge from the society types in the billiard room upstairs. Just as he’s making a four-cushion, behind-the-back shot with a cigarette dangling rakishly from his lips, the most beautiful girl in town, Angela Vickers (a raven-haired, 19-year-old Elizabeth Taylor), breezes in to see what’s going on. “Wow,” says Angela, impressed with the shot. “I see you had a misspent youth.” Sparks fly between the two, the smoldering kind from George. “You seem so strange, so deep, so far away, as though you were holding something back,” says the gorgeous socialite. “Come on, I’ll take you dancing on your birthday, blue boy.”

It all begins to unravel when a depressed Alice sees a society-column newspaper photo of Angela and George and telephones him in the middle of dinner at Angela’s parents’ country home. Alice says she’s driving up there right now to tell all if George doesn’t return home and do right by her.

Within an arm’s reach of everything he’s always wanted, and with no medical solution to the pregnancy available, George talks Alice, a non-swimmer, into a rowboat for a moonlit paddle on remote and desolate Loon Lake to sort out their problems. Raised in Kansas City by devout Christian missionaries, it doesn’t seem possible that George would contemplate doing the unthinkable to free himself from Alice.