Tainted Love: A Place in the Sun (1951)

Love

It’s the sort of scene that shows up in a lot of movies, particularly from classic Hollywood: Two people who have spent precious little time together — in fact, this seems to be their first real date after meeting at a party — declare their love for each other. This particular example, from George Stevens’s 1951 film A Place in the Sun, looks and sounds like a true grand passion, with intense close-ups and breathless voices and romantic music in the background. However, the situation is more complicated than it appears on the surface, and not just because George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), the man in this pair, isn’t exactly free to start a new relationship.

Despite being the nephew of Charles Eastman (Herbert Heyes), a wealthy and socially prominent manufacturer of women’s bathing suits, George grew up in poverty as a result of his parents’ dedication to their religious work. After leaving school at thirteen (and he only went in the first place because the law insisted on it), he worked a wide range of low-paying, unskilled jobs in order to get by, until a chance meeting with his uncle changed everything. Taking an interest in the young man, Charles invited George to his own factory, promising to find a position for him there.

First Meeting

From the start, George is out of place in this new world — not so much at the factory, where he’s given a job on the packing line, but certainly when he visits Charles and his family at their mansion. In its spacious, luxurious rooms, he looks small and inconsequential, an effect heightened by his oversized, ill-fitting suit, his slightly hunched posture and his palpable lack of confidence. This sets him in stark contrast to his affluent relatives (who privately fret about what to do with him socially) and, perhaps even more so, to Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), a girl from another rich family who drops in briefly to pick up George’s cousin Earl (Keefe Brasselle). Glamorous and self-possessed, she seems totally oblivious to George’s presence; for him, on the other hand, it’s love at first sight — not that he appears to have much of a chance with her.

He’s more successful with Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), a poor, down-to-earth young woman who works with him at the bathing suit factory. Although fraternization between male and female employees is against company rules, they begin dating in secret after they happen to run into each other at the movies one evening. They have a good rapport, and the furtive glances they exchange from his first day at work indicate a mutual attraction — yet when George spots Angela in her sports car, he only has eyes for her, even though Alice is standing right next to him. It’s as if she’s lost in the brilliance of Angela’s aura.

Vickers Sign

George may think that he’s only interested in Angela in and of herself, and maybe that’s really the case. Still, it’s impossible to overlook what she represents, considering his circumstances, his ambition, his desire to move up in the world and away from his impoverished upbringing. She embodies everything he wants in life — not just love, potentially, or even beauty, but money, privilege, security, confidence, the admiration of others. In short, Angela is his ideal, seemingly unattainable; surely it’s not by chance that her name suggests a celestial being. Surely, too, it’s not by chance that neon lights spelling “Vickers” flash constantly in George’s window, instead of some more tasteful sign. They symbolize the way she’s always in his thoughts, haunting him, but they also hint at a certain vulgarity in the glittering world to which George longs to belong.

Alice, meanwhile, is decidedly prosaic. (Tellingly, George often calls her “Al,” a familiar, boyish, unglamorous nickname.) She has nothing to offer but herself — or so it would seem. While she does appear to be the only woman on the packing line to catch George’s attention, the fact that she’s off-limits may well strengthen her inherent appeal. On Alice’s side — even though, to be fair, George is a very handsome man in a room dominated by women — it’s clear that his surname makes him a particularly fascinating and somewhat intimidating figure. “If you’re an Eastman, you’re not in the same boat with anyone,” she tells him when he tries to downplay his family connections.

George and Alice

Her words prove prophetic (in more ways than one). Charles Eastman, upon discovering that his nephew has been placed in such a lowly position, decides to give him a promotion, thereby taking him away from Alice during working hours. He also invites him to a lavish party, and it’s there that George finally gets a chance to become acquainted with Angela, with whom he quickly hits it off. By the time she asks him to another party (which appears to be the next time they see each other), they’re ready to proclaim their mutual love. It’s all slightly improbable, especially on her end; he, at least, has been aware of and borderline obsessed with her for a while by this point. That said, Angela is quite young — still in school. Moreover, her mother (Frieda Inescort) has a theory about George, whom she invites to the Vickers family’s lake house as a kind of test: “Opposition only makes a boy of that type appear more attractive. I invited him because I wanted to see him set down twenty-four hours a day among people Angela really knows. She’ll see whether he belongs or not.”

Is Angela drawn to George because he’s different — maybe even dating him as a means of rebelling against her snobby parents, if only subconsciously? Possibly. At any rate, it adds another complication to their relationship, another reason to question the presentation of their love as something deep and pure, and George’s increasingly serious entanglement with Alice further taints it. Their romance may be a bit suspect, but in the end, there’s no question that the title of the novel on which the film is based is an apt one: An American Tragedy.

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7 thoughts on “Tainted Love: A Place in the Sun (1951)

  1. Fabulous review! I was lucky enough to see this film on the big screen several months ago, and it is absolutely gorgeous. Good thing I had already seen it a few times, because I might have been lost in the beauty of it.

    I like your point about the sets and blocking and how they serve to emphasize George’s awkwardness and his fish-out-of-water self-consciousness. Elizabeth Taylor, on the other hand, seems to swallow the scenes with her confidence. She is a girl to whom the world never says “no”…until she meets George.

    I thought this was a pretty good adaptation of Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy”. Your review has made me want to real the novel again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! It must have been wonderful to see on the big screen. I agree about Elizabeth Taylor’s confidence, and how it expresses so much about her character. I’ve never actually read the novel, but I’ll have to add it to my (very long) to-read list.

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  2. Pingback: THE ELIZABETH TAYLOR BLOGATHON IS HERE – In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood.

    1. Yes, I agree. I just checked Dreiser’s filmography on IMDb, and in addition to A Place in the Sun and 1931’s An American Tragedy (which I’ve never gotten around to seeing, somehow), there have been quite a few other adaptations of the story over the years. The majority of them were made outside of the United States (including such varied countries as Brazil, Japan and Iran), and often for television, it appears. The story was also used for a 1954 episode of Lux Video Theatre.

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