1951’s A Place in the Sun was a pivotal film for all involved.
Based on Theodore Dreiser’s classic novel, An American Tragedy, the film hallmarked director George Stevens’ quest to project deeper meaning with his post-WWII films. Stevens was forever changed by his experiences in Europe during the war. A Place in the Sun represented the new direction his career would take, away from light comedies: from 1946 onward, Stevens would almost exclusively make dramas with messages he believed in.
A Place in the Sun also cemented Montgomery Clift‘s film star status, and showcased Elizabeth Taylor in her first adult role. As for Shelley Winters, A Place in the Sun demonstrated that Shelley was willing to ditch her glamorous, bombshell image for a good character. Shelley Winters could act, and this film proved it.
Shelley’s standout performance in A Place in the Sun led to Oscar nomination rumors. It was an exciting time for Shelley, who had long dreamed of having her talent recognized and rewarded.
Shelley would need the excitement over her performance in A Place in the Sun to get her through filming of her next assignment, 1952’s Meet Danny Wilson. The feud that began between Shelley and co-star Frank Sinatra on set was epic, complete with name calling, slapping, and flying bedpans.
You can rent or purchase A Place in the Sun here on Amazon [aff. link].
Let’s go through the plot, then behind the scenes of the film.
A Place in the Sun: The Plot
It’s 1950, post-WWII America. Young George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) makes his way to the big city, where he hopes a new job in his wealthy uncle’s swimsuit factory will lead to the fulfillment of his American Dream: to work his way up through the company, and acquire his own great wealth.
Though a member of the powerful Eastman family, George is still considered a poor relation, and begins working at the swimsuit factory in a lowly packing position. George soon meets Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), who works alongside him. There’s an immediate sense of shared loneliness between George and Alice. Soon the two break company policy, and begin dating.
Love At First Sight
Alice loves George, and worries that one day his status as an Eastman will take him away from her. To Alice, it’s just a matter of time before George is promoted in the factory, and begins socializing with the upper crust.
And she’s right.
George’s uncle recognizes his good work, promotes him, and invites George to a big party at the Eastman home. At the party, George’s life is rocked when he meets the young, beautiful, and wealthy socialite, Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor). For both George and Angela, it’s love at first sight, as if their meeting was preordained. By the end of the party, the pair have declared their love for each other, and plan to spend as much time as possible together, despite their different social classes.
A Complication to A Place in the Sun
There’s one thing complicating George’s ascent into Angela’s world and the realization of his dreams: Alice. And George soon realizes that getting Alice out of his life won’t be as easy as just breaking up with her…
Because Alice is pregnant.
George first encourages Alice to seek an abortion. She tries, but the doctor Alice visits refuses her request. Alice decides she will have the baby. And she demands that George marry her.
George realizes he’ll have to find another way to get Alice and the child out of his life. He reviews his options while spending an idyllic summer with the Eastmans, Angela, and her family at Loon Lake.
Initially, Alice believes George when he tells her he’s socializing merely to forward his career, and provide them with greater resources for the baby. But when Alice sees a picture of George out boating with Angela in the society section of the newspaper, she realizes he’s in love with her.
The End of Alice
Mad and betrayed, Alice goes to Loon Lake, and threatens to show up at the Vickers’ place herself if George doesn’t take her to town to get married. His hand forced, George makes his excuses to Angela and his hosts, and quickly meets up with Alice before his new life is blown.
George is unable to talk the nagging and hysterical Alice out of marriage, and deflatingly realizes there’s no way out. He’ll have to marry Alice, and say goodbye to Angela.
Unless Alice were to die…
George toys with the idea of killing Alice himself. Then he creates the perfect situation to get away with it.
George proposes that he and Alice spend the day on the deserted Loon Lake, stay the night at the inn, and get married the next day. Alice happily agrees to the plan.
But Alice never makes it back from the lake. While in the boat, Alice sickens George with talk of a mundane life together, devoid of all the dreams and ambitions George found fulfilled with Angela. Alice stands up, and walks towards him, destabilizing the boat. It capsizes.
Alice drowns in the lake, while George survives. He treks through the woods to get back to Angela, her family, and the Eastmans, not mentioning a word about Alice or the drowning.
George Loses A Place in the Sun
When Alice’s body is discovered, it doesn’t take long for the police to trace the death back to George, and he is brought to trial for murder. Now, despite his best efforts, there’s no way to hide his double life from Angela, who continues to love George as they await the verdict.
The jury finds George guilty of murder, and he is sentenced to death.
But is George really guilty?
Though he admits to having “murder in his heart,” the question of George’s guilt remains ambiguous.
On the day he’s to go to the electric chair, Angela visits George on death row. She professes that she’ll love him the rest of her days. George promises to love Angela for the time he’s got left.
The film ends with George, the misfit, anti-hero who almost found his place in the sun, tragically walking to the electric chair.
The Evolution of George Stevens
During his pre-WWII career, director George Stevens made a name for himself primarily directing lighter, feel-good films, including Alice Adams (1935), Swing Time (1936), Vivacious Lady (1938), and Woman of the Year (1942).
But George Stevens returned from his WWII service a changed man.
Stevens joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1943. For three years, he led a film unit on the European Front. Stevens and his unit filmed the only Allied color footage we have of such landmark events as D-Day and the Liberation of Paris. The Stevens unit also filmed the shocking tragedies at the Duben labor camp and Dachau concentration camp.
Anyone who doubts the reality of the Nazi atrocities committed against Europe’s Jewish population during WWII need only watch Stevens’ heartbreaking footage from Dachau, which was used at the Nuremberg Trials as evidence of Nazi war crimes.
George Stevens: Forever Changed by WWII
Between 1943 and 1946, George Stevens saw the best and the worst of mankind. When he returned to Hollywood after his distinguished service, Stevens knew his films would never be the same. As Stevens said of his post-WWII career [aff. link]:
“I was more seriously engaged in films after I’d had three years of an unnatural experience, which was the war in Europe. And that changed my life and my thinking so seriously that it changed my professional instincts; I knew I wanted to do very different things than I’d done before.”
George Stevens now sought to direct films with deeper messages and meanings. And so he decided to make a film based on a novel that had resonated with him as a young man. The book had even more meaning for Stevens as a displaced man returning from war.
The book was Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.
Inspiration for A Place in the Sun: An American Tragedy
Dreiser’s tale of Clyde Griffiths—a young man who dreams of wealth and social position, only to find himself sentenced to the electric chair after murdering the pregnant girlfriend that stands in his way—was based on the actual 1906 murder of factory girl Grace Brown.
Theodore Dreiser closely followed the trial, and execution in 1908, of Grace Brown’s boyfriend, Chester Gillette, who clubbed Brown to death with a tennis racket on Big Moose Lake in the Adirondack Mountains before leaving her to drown. Gillette apparently needed to get Grace Brown out of his life so he could join the ranks of the upper crust with his new girlfriend, a wealthy society girl.
The communist Dreiser was absolutely fascinated by the case, and found in it the quintessential critique of American society: as Dreiser saw it, Gillette wasn’t an individual responsible for his own actions, but a victim of a capitalist society that encouraged unrealistic dreams of wealth and prosperity without providing people like Gillette any real way to achieve them.
Paramount Says No
Dreiser’s deterministic novel had already been made into a film of the same name by Paramount Pictures in 1931. And it failed miserably at the box office.
The script of 1931’s An American Tragedy stayed pretty close to Dreiser’s book. The film was such a downer, it prompted producer David O. Selznick to say after watching it that:
“I was so depressed that I wanted to reach for the bourbon bottle.”
Considering the precedent set by the 1931 film, it’s not surprising that, when George Stevens approached Paramount with his proposal for An American Tragedy, the studio shut him down. As the Paramount executives had learned from the last film, Americans—post-WWII Americans even more so—weren’t going to spend money to see a depressing film with communist ideology undertones.
The fact that Theodore Dreiser joined the Communist Party in 1945, and openly applauded the regime of Joseph Stalin during the genocides of Stalin’s Great Terror and nonaggression pact with Hitler, sealed the studio’s disinterest. As far as Paramount was concerned, Stevens’ proposal was a big no.
A Place in the Sun
But Paramount needn’t have worried about a repeat of the depressing 1931 film.
George Stevens, despite what he’d seen of the horrors of war, still carried an optimistic view of the world, and a belief in the power of the individual over his own fate. He had no intention of presenting Dreiser’s story through a deterministic lens: Stevens planned to transport An American Tragedy into the 1950s, and turn Dreiser’s Clyde Griffiths into George Eastman. Named after Stevens himself, George Eastman would be an anti-hero and misfit postwar audiences could relate to as they struggled to make sense of a world forever changed by the events in Europe and the Pacific.
Stevens also planned to take the romance between Clyde and the society girl in Dreiser’s book, and transform it into a tragic love story for contemporary audiences.
Whether it was the threat of two lawsuits Stevens dangled before the studio, or that his enthusiasm for the project finally wore off on the studio executives, Paramount finally relented. With a $2.5 million budget, George Stevens moved forward with his film version of An American Tragedy, eventually changing the title to A Place in the Sun.
George Stevens' Perfect Cast
Stevens easily decided on new screen sensation Montgomery Clift for the George Eastman role. The sweet society girl in his film, Angela Vickers, was also easy casting. Stevens needed an actress who, in his own words:
“…must be a ‘dream girl,’ the kind of a girl that a young man could see at first glance, and find his eyes so fixed upon her that his attention will not turn, nor can it be turned elsewhere. She looks and seems to be the personification of a young man’s ideal. Her beauty and poise as well as her wealth and background, must give to this young man the impression that she is unattainable, so that when he discovers that this is not so and that he can have her, he is willing to commit murder and does…”
George Stevens knew there was only one young actress who fit his description: Elizabeth Taylor. Stevens got Taylor on loan out from MGM, and, as anyone who’s seen A Place in the Sun can attest, the gorgeous Liz, newly aware of the power of her great beauty, is flawless in this, her first adult role.
A Place in the Sun: Casting the Factory Girl
George Stevens had his anti-hero misfit and dream girl. But finding the right actress to play the film’s third pivotal character, factory girl Alice Tripp, wasn’t as easy. Alice had to be likable without being too sympathetic, despite the tragedy of her situation. There needed to be a pathetic quality to the character that would make audiences root for George to find his place in the sun away from Alice, even when on trial for her murder.
Stevens eventually found the perfect actress for the role in Shelley Winters. But he almost didn’t even test her for the part.
If you remember from my introduction article on Shelley Winters, Shelley first gained success in Hollywood by playing sultry, blonde bombshell roles. When George Stevens began his search for an actress to play the unglamorous role of Alice Tripp, Shelley was in the thick of her bombshell years at Universal International.
It was an image she was reluctant to accept, and eager to change:
“They [Universal] kept trying to get me to do their ‘program pictures,’ while I kept trying not to do them and do only good films with good directors. I don’t know who won, but…they were forgettable films, as was my acting quite often. I think all they wanted me to do was look and act sexy, so I tried to imitate Jean Harlow or Lana Turner, anybody but me…Often I was so unintentionally funny that I was sure even my longtime one true love The Mitchell [the camera] would laugh.”
A Place in the Sun for Shelley Winters
When Shelley heard of George Stevens’ struggle to cast the factory girl in his film version of An American Tragedy, she saw an opportunity to do a good film with a good director, and break from her blonde bombshell image.
The only trouble was, Shelley couldn’t get George Stevens to consider her for the role.
The way Stevens saw it, Shelley Winters was a glamour girl who could never play such a plain Jane as his Alice Tripp.
But the determined Shelley set her heart on making the part hers. She re-read Dreiser’s book, developed the character with the help of her good friend, soon-to-be renown playwright Norman Mailer, and observed the girls at the nearby Firestone Tire factory to flesh out her interpretation of the role.
The deck may have been stacked against Shelley, but as her boyfriend at the time, Burt Lancaster, said of his girl:
“When an irresistible force meets an immovable object, my money’s on the irresistible force. You.”
Convincing George Stevens
George Stevens finally agreed to meet with Shelley to discuss testing her for the role. But when Stevens showed up for their scheduled meeting at the Hollywood Athletic Club, Shelley wasn’t there.
Or rather, Stevens looked right past her.
Blonde bombshell Shelley came to the meeting completely in character, platinum hair dyed a mousy brown, with not a stitch of makeup on her face. To finish off the dowdy look, Shelley wore a plain cotton blouse and checkered dirndl, borrowed from her sister Blanche. As Shelley recalled [aff. link]:
“No one recognized me, and if anyone did look at me, he must have thought I was one of the maids waiting for a lift. Holding a paper bag [with a homemade sandwich], I sat sort of crumbled up in a chair on the far side of the lobby.
George Stevens…looked around the lobby, sat down and started to look at a Life magazine. Every few minutes or so he would look at his watch. I didn’t move…no doubt looking as frightened as I felt.
Finally Stevens got up to leave…luckily his head swirled around, and he stared at me with one of his tough, yet kindly, piercing looks that I came to know and love. Slowly he walked over to me…and said the words that changed my life: ‘Shelley, if I test you for this role and you get it, will you let me photograph you like this?’”
“Mr. Stevens, if I get this role you can photograph me any way you want to.”
At the end of September 1949, Shelley tested for the part. Two days later, the role of Alice Tripp was hers.
A Place in the Sun for Blanche
Shelley’s sister Blanche came along to chaperone during the two months of location shooting at Lake Tahoe, and ended up leaving her own unique mark on A Place in the Sun. George Stevens, on meeting Blanche, felt her wardrobe was absolutely perfect for Alice Tripp. So Stevens bought Blanche’s dress and coat from her on the spot, both of which Shelley wears in the film. Indeed, the majority of her clothing in A Place in the Sun belonged to Blanche.
"Summer" in Tahoe
Despite the summer setting of the film, location shooting began in October 1949, when Tahoe was cold enough for ice to blanket the grass. George Stevens remedied the problem by hosing down the grass each morning, leaving it with a look of summery dew. He fully expected his stars to make audiences believe it was summer at Tahoe, even while shivering on the lake. For poor Liz Taylor, that meant getting in her swimsuit and frolicking in the ice-cold lake water, which made her mother Sara very vocal about her fear that the cold swims would make Elizabeth infertile.
Sara’s worries were unfounded. As Shelley later pointed out:
“to my knowledge, for the next twenty years Elizabeth never stopped having children…”
But Shelley had her own problems with the freezing lake, which, for her big drowning scene, she had to fall into, fully clothed.
Shelley's Big Scene in A Place in the Sun
On the day the scene was filmed, Shelley reminded George Stevens that she and Montgomery Clift had both decided it would be better if their stunt doubles did the falling into the water for them. Shelley argued that not only was the lake freezing and bottomless, but that one of the oars, wired to the boat so it could overturn on cue, could easily hit her or Monty in the head and cause them to drown.
Stevens’ answer to Shelley’s case was to dive into the lake himself, fully clothed, and demonstrate exactly what he wanted Shelley to do for the drowning sequence. When Stevens emerged from the water with blue lips trembling, he did suggest one thing that would make Shelley’s freezing dive easier:
“Never mind the dialogue Shelley. We’ll dub it in later.”
It was a harrowing scene to shoot. Of the 3o minutes of drowning footage filmed that day, Stevens only used four minutes in the finished film. But to Shelley, it was worth it. She knew George Stevens felt the same way, and respected her professionalism:
“I guess the grease [makeup] on my body kept me warm because I did exactly what Mr. Stevens asked me to…drowning very artistically then swimming out of camera range. The danger was worth it. When I got back on the [camera] raft, George Stevens hugged me and said, ‘As Fanny Brice used to say about Esther Williams, ‘Wet, she’s a star.’”
Oscar Talk for A Place in the Sun
Shelley Winters reached a new career high with her performance in A Place in the Sun, gaining the respect of critics, audiences, and her peers. George Stevens thought she was a shoe-in for the Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress Award. It was an exciting time for Shelley.
She’d need this excitement to get her through the tripe of her next film.
And a disagreeable co-star named Frank Sinatra.
The Shelley Winters and Frank Sinatra Feud
The feud between Frank Sinatra and Shelley Winters on the Meet Danny Wilson (1952) set should be legendary. Somehow, their unbelievable antics behind the scenes remain one of Classic Hollywood’s more niche tales.
Here’s the feud from a decidedly Shelley Winters perspective. Which, according to Shelley, is the “truthful, unbiased one.”
Frank Sinatra vs. Shelley Winters
Riding high from the Oscar talk surrounding her performance in A Place in the Sun, Shelley was quickly rushed into another film, Meet Danny Wilson (1952). The hurry to start filming was for the benefit of co-star Frank Sinatra. Frank, at an all-time career low, needed his $25,000 salary ASAP.
Sinatra’s career wasn’t the only stressor in his life at the time. According to Shelley [aff. link]:
“Frank Sinatra was in the process of divorcing Nancy to marry Ava Gardner—I think he thought that’s what he wanted. His children were quite young, and there were always psychiatrists and priests and his kids visiting him on the set or in the commissary.”
Priests, psychiatrists, children…sounds like an interesting film set already.
Despite Frank’s love-torn situation with Ava and Nancy, Shelley still got the vibe that he wanted to start something with her: according to Shelley, Frank asked her to rehearse lines with him in his dressing room, rather than on set. Shelley, loyal to her friend Nancy, refused, and told Frank that rehearsing on set would be just fine.
Whether embarrassed at being turned down, or frustrated that Shelley misunderstood the intent of his invitation, Frank treated her poorly from then on.
And Shelley, with her self-described “explosive” personality, dished right back whatever Sinatra served.
While Sinatra lost patience with Shelley during their shared musical numbers in the film—which Shelley required a little more practice to perfect, Shelley got mad at Frank for refusing to do more than one take of any scene ever, no matter how badly the first take turned out.
Things reached a boiling point between the two stars when it came time to shoot a lovers goodbye scene on location at the Burbank Airport. As Shelley recalled [aff. link]:
“I can’t remember what started our vicious argument, but the mildest things we called each other were ‘bowlegged bitch of a Brooklyn blonde’ and ‘skinny, no-talent, stupid Hoboken bastard.’ I mean, really high-class stuff like that. Our language was so bad that all the tourists watching the shooting disappeared like magic. Joe Pevney [the camera man], trying to lighten the atmosphere, said he was making a great mistake not photographing our personal arguments between takes.”
Sinatra kept taunting, and eventually, Shelley slugged him.
Frank then walked off the set, refusing to come back until Shelley apologized.
The Guilt Trip
Then Universal pulled a guilt trip on Shelley.
Appealing to her sensitive side, the studio asked Shelley to take pity on Frank, and consider his sad situation—career woes, torn between family obligations and a very public romance with his hot mistress—while Shelley, in contrast, was about to be nominated for an Oscar for A Place in the Sun, and probably win the award.
The guilt trip worked.
Shelley came back to the set, ready to be nice and agreeable with Frank as they filmed the most tragically romantic scene in the film.
For the scene, Shelley was to lay ill in a hospital bed, prompting Frank’s character to recognize her love for his best friend, and gallantly give her up.
Shelley did her part in the tear-jerking scene. But when it came time for Frank to sympathetically say his line, something like, ‘I’ll have a cup of coffee and leave you two love birds alone,’ Frank instead muttered:
“I’ll go have a cup of Jack Daniel’s, or I’m gonna pull that blonde broad’s hair out by its black roots.”
Sinatra thought this gave him the last word with Shelley.
But then Shelley hit him with a nearby bedpan…
The screenwriter tried to keep things calm by insisting that he wanted the film to end with Frank’s Jack Daniel’s line. But no one believed him. Eventually, Frank and Shelley pulled it together, Frank said the correct line, and filming wrapped.
Frank's Two Words
According to Shelly, Frank still found a way to have the last word in the Shelley vs. Frank feud: for weeks on his television program that season, Sinatra closed the show by saying, as if he were cursing:
“I leave you with two words…SHELLEY WINTERS.”
Shelley threatened to sue CBS over the insult, but she didn’t actually mind it all that much. In the end, Sinatra’s jab was really just free publicity.
So perhaps Shelley really did have the last word.
No Oscar for Shelley Winters...Yet
At the 1952 Academy Awards ceremony, Shelley Winters got her Best Actress nomination for A Place in the Sun, but she didn’t take home the award. That year, it went to Vivien Leigh for A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).
But a precedent had been set. Shelley Winters, despite the bombshell exterior, was an actress. And she was more than willing to ditch the glamour for a good role. In the decade to come, Shelley would finally see her talent rewarded with not one, but two Oscars.
So Long, Shelley!
And that’s it for A Place in the Sun, and our month with the spunky Shelley Winters.
Join me next week as I introduce our new Star Spotlight, Jimmy Stewart.