A Place in the Sun, 1951, Paramount Pictures. Starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters. Directed by George Stevens. B&W, 122 minutes.
The poor relation of one of the town’s wealthiest families, George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), is put to work in his uncle’s factory with the strict admonition not to date any of his co-workers. Eastman is in the odd position of being a working class member of local society, while at the same time, the boss’s nephew.
With no regard for company rules, he takes up with one of the women from the factory, Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters). Alice is naïve about men and the ways of high society, not believing it’s possible for George to be an Eastman without sharing in the privileges that come with the name.
During a brief visit with his uncle at the palatial Eastman estate, George meets the stunning and vivacious Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), and is drawn to this young woman from the upper echelons of society. Yet he knows his own humble standing forces him to stay virtually hidden from sight.
Months later, his work at the factory impresses his uncle, who, as a reward, invites him to a prestigious party with the wealthy and stylish members of local society. There, George meets up with Angela once again, and this time, she takes charge and leads them into romance.
Alice is jealous, even though she doesn’t yet know the full truth about George and Angela. What’s more, she’s pregnant. While she expects George to marry her, he is reluctant. He is torn between his obligations to a young woman he is nominally interested in, and the passion he feels for another.
Based on the novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, the story was inspired by the real-life 1906 trial of Chester Gillette, who was convicted of the murder of a co-worker, Grace Brown. The two had been sexually involved, but when Brown became pregnant, Gillette left her for a wealthy socialite.
Reviews at the time of the release of A Place in the Sun were effusive with their praise. Life magazine’s film critic wrote: “Directed by George Stevens for Paramount, it gives three young actors the chance to give the most natural performances of their careers. Montgomery Clift as the confused, likable, rather stupid social climber; Shelley Winters as the dowdy working girl; Elizabeth Taylor as the dazzling rich girl.”
During filming, Taylor, a mere 17 years old, was said to be infatuated with the then 30-year-old Clift. While romance was not in the cards for them (Clift was gay, although he did become involved with at least one woman), the two began a friendship that lasted a lifetime. Director Stevens played on their intense emotions, resulting in powerful scenes of smoldering sexuality.
Shelley Winters worked hard for her role as Alice, changing her appearance from her signature “blonde bombshell” look to that of a dowdy, lonely girl. Her work in the film won her a nomination for Best Actress, which she lost to Vivien Leigh for her performance in A Streetcar Named Desire.
The film won six Academy Awards: Best Director; Best Cinematography, Black &White; Best Costume Design, Black & White; Best Film Editing; Best Original Score; and Best Writing, Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor for Montgomery Clift, and, as mentioned above, Best Actress for Shelley Winters.
The late Robert Osborne, host of Turner Classic Movies and noted film historian, called A Place in the Sun “the quintessential drama,” one of the best films of the era. While some of the dramatic elements are weakened with time, the story holds up as a gripping tale of the power of greed, passion and perilous young love.