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The working titles of this film were An American Tragedy and A Modern Story. According a July 1951 ParNews item, Paramount changed the title from An American Tragedy to A Place in the Sun because the latter was perceived as more "positive." Snippets from the hymns "Bear Ye One Another's Burdens" and "Rescue the Perishing" are heard in the film. Theodore Dreiser's novel was inspired by the real-life murder trial of Chester E. Gillette, who on July 11, 1906, was convicted of drowning his pregnant girl friend, factory worker Grace Brown, in a lake in the Adirondacks. Contending that Gillette committed the crime in order to marry a rich girl, the state argued for the death penalty, and Gillette was electrocuted on 20 March 1908.
A Place in the Sun marked director George Stevens' first film since his 1948 production I Remember Mama. According to a December 1949 Los Angeles Daily News article, Stevens began adapting Dreiser's novel many years before the film's production and signed a deal with Paramount primarily because it owned the rights to the book. When he proposed the project to the studio, however, he met with great resistance, as Paramount had released a 1931 version of the novel and play, titled An American Tragedy, directed by Joseph von Sternberg and starring Phillips Holmes, Sylvia Sidney and Frances Dee, which was both a commercial and critical flop (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40). Stevens eventually convinced the studio to undertake a second version, pointing out that the 1931 version was not a faithful adaptation of the novel and that Dreiser himself had condemned the earlier picture. (As noted in the entry for the 1931 film, Dreiser actually sued Paramount to prevent the film's release, but lost.) According to an April 1950 New York Times article, Dreiser "disowned" the 1931 film's main character, who he felt had been turned into a "'stupid and criminally inclined boy rather than a victim of environment.'" Modern sources claim that Stevens changed the name of the novel's protagonist from "Clyde Griffiths" to "George Eastman," combining his own first name with the first part of the Eastman-Kodak Company name.
Although the script did not face major censorship problems, Joseph I. Breen, director of the PCA, did express reservations about the scene in the doctor's office. In a November 14, 1949 letter, contained in the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, Breen cautioned against any direct reference to abortion and complained about a line in the script in which "Alice" says, "Doctor, you've got to help me." The line was changed to "Somebody's got to help me," and although Alice's desire for an abortion is implied, the scene does not contain any overt mention of the procedure.
According to an October 1949 ParNews item, location shooting took place at Lake Tahoe, Echo Lake and Cascade Lake, in the Sierra Nevada Mountain region. Modern sources state that to simulate the late summer setting, snow had to be melted away with hoses prior to filming. As noted in the April 1950 New York Times item, Stevens shot approximately 400,000 feet of film. According to modern sources, Stevens then spent over a year editing the picture.
A Place in the Sun marked supporting actress Anne Revere's last film until 1970, when she appeared in a small role in Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-70). Revere was blacklisted in 1951, after taking the Fifth Amendment during the U.S. Congress' House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings, and for many years, could only obtain stage roles. A Place in the Sun received Academy Award nominations in the following categories: Best Picture, Best Actor (Montgomery Clift) and Best Actress (Shelley Winters). It won Oscars in the following categories: Best Director, Best Writing (Screenplay), Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography (b&w), Best Costume Design (b&w) and Best Music (Scoring). Stevens also won a Directors Guild award for his work on the picture. Many modern critics consider Elizabeth Taylor's performance in the picture one of her best, and a strapless gown she wore in the film, designed by Edith Head, became a trademark image for her. On March 28, 1954, on the CBS network, the Lux Video Theatre broadcast a version of the film, starring John Derek, Marilyn Erskine and Ann Blyth, and directed by Buzz Kulik.
In June 1959, Elizabeth Coons and D. Kearney Rose, the widow and daughter of An American Tragedy playwright Patrick Kearney, filed a lawsuit against Paramount, requesting an injunction restraining the distribution of A Place in the Sun. Coons and Rose argued that Coons had renewed the copyright on her husband's 1926 play in 1954 and was attempting to establish ownership of it. Paramount contended that, despite onscreen credits acknowledging the play as a source, the film was based solely on the novel. The final disposition of the lawsuit is not known.
As noted in contemporary articles, in October 1965, Stevens brought a $2,000,000 lawsuit against Paramount, the NBC television network and unnamed advertising agencies and sponsors, in order to prevent the broadcast of A Place in the Sun on television. Stevens objected to the insertion of commercials, which he felt created a "'distorted, truncated and segmented version' of the film." According to an October 1965 Film Daily article, Stevens argued that he had begun work on the film while he was under contract with Liberty Films, Inc., an independent company owned by Stevens with producer Samuel Briskin, Frank Capra and William Wyler. The terms of Stevens' contract with Liberty stipulated that he had "sole control of the production and direction of his pictures, and that under all circumstances 'the right to edit, cut and score" them. After Stevens' and the other filmmakers' stock in Liberty was bought out by Paramount, Liberty became a wholly-owned subsidiary, and Stevens' original contract terms remained intact. Stevens complained that NBC was threatening to edit the picture in order to insert commercials, without his consent.
On February 15, 1966, according to a Daily Variety article, Stevens convinced a Los Angeles judge to issue an injuction against NBC, prohibiting "artistic damage" to the film through injudicious inserts. Despite the ruling, the film was telecast on NBC on March 12, 1966, and in late May 1966, the network was found not guilty of contempt of court by Judge Richard L. Wells, who argued that the commercials did not hurt the power and strength of the film. In late May 1967, as indicated in a Daily Variety article, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ben Koenig, in response to Stevens' October 1965 suit, ruled that NBC had not edited or cut A Place in the Sun in the "artistic or trade sense of the words." Although Stevens lost the majority of his suit, Koenig did note that a small bit of the "dramatic portion" of the film was trimmed, and awarded Stevens one dollar in token damages.