A Place in the Sun (1951) & Shelley Winters vs. Frank Sinatra!
November 27, 2020 | by Shannon
Shelley Winters Ditches the Glamour, Elizabeth Taylor Can’t Have Babies, George Stevens Dives Into a Lake, and Frank Sinatra’s Got Two Words For You. From 1951, it’s A Place in the Sun.
Click here to listen to my Classic Hollywood podcast, Vanguard of Hollywood. Episode 36 is all about A Place in the Sun (1951), and the Shelley Winters vs. Frank Sinatra Feud!
Based on Theodore Dreiser’s classic novel, An American Tragedy, 1951’s A Place in the Sun proved a pivotal film for all involved. For director George Stevens, forever changed by what he experienced in Europe during WWII, A Place in the Sun hallmarked his quest to project deeper meaning in his post-war films. As for our Star of the Month Shelley Winters, A Place in the Sun demonstrated that Shelley was more than willing to ditch her glamorous, bombshell image for a good role. Shelley Winters could act, and this film proved it.
Shelley’s performance was so good in fact, that Oscar rumors abounded. And Shelley would need the excitement of that Oscar talk to get her through the lackluster films that followed her triumph in A Place in the Sun, namely 1952’s Meet Danny Wilson. The feud that began between Shelley and her co-star Frank Sinatra during filming was epic, complete with name calling, slapping, and flying bedpans.
Let’s get to the plot of A Place in the Sun, then go through the the crazy hurdles George Stevens overcame to make his masterpiece, as well as the fascinating story behind how Shelley almost didn’t get cast. Then we’ll get to the feisty Frank vs. Shelley feud!
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, and 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
But 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, for Alice informs George that she’s pregnant.
First George encourages Alice to seek an abortion. She tries, but the doctor Alice visits refuses her request. Alice will have the baby. And she demands that George marry her.
George realizes he must think of another way to get Alice and the child out of his life, and 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, and then 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, and professes she’ll love him the rest of her days. George promises to love Angela for the time he’s got left.
The audience is somehow uplifted, filled with a desire to live, as George, the misfit, anti-hero who almost found his place in the sun, tragically walks to the electric chair.
And that’s the end of the film.
The Evolution of George Stevens
In his pre-WWII career, director George Stevens made a name for himself primarily directing lighter, feel-good films, such as Alice Adams (1935), Swing Time (1936), Vivacious Lady (1938), and Woman of the Year (1942). Though skilled at directing both actors and actresses, Stevens garnered a unique reputation as a “women’s director” for his consistent ability to coax particularly remarkable performances out of the actresses in his films.
But George Stevens returned from his WWII service a changed man. Stevens joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1943, and for three years 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. If anyone doubts the reality of the Nazi atrocities committed against Europe’s Jewish population during WWII, one need only watch Stevens’ heartbreaking footage from Dachau, which was used at the Nuremberg Trials as evidence of Nazi war crimes.
Between 1943 and 1946, George Stevens literally saw the best and the worst of mankind. And when he returned to Hollywood after his distinguished service, there was no way his films would ever 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 than those of his pre-WWII work. And so he set out to make a film of a novel that particularly resonated with him when he first read it as a young man, and even more so on his second reading as a displaced man returning from war. It was Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.
An American Tragedy
Dreiser’s tale of Clyde Griffiths, a youth who dreams of wealth and social position, only to find himself sentenced to the electric chair after murdering the pregnant girlfriend Clyde believes stands in his way, was based on the actual 1906 murder of factory girl Grace Brown. Dreiser closely followed the trial, and execution in 1908, of 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, and was such a downer, producer David O. Selznick said after watching the film that “I was so depressed that I wanted to reach for the bourbon bottle.”
So when George Stevens approached Paramount to try his hand at An American Tragedy, the studio shut him down. As the Paramount heads believed they’d already learned, 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’ film proposal for An American Tragedy was a big no way.
A Place in the Sun
But Paramount needn’t have worried. 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, 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’ other intended focus from the Dreiser book would be on the romance between Clyde—now George Eastman—and the society girl. George Stevens would take that romance and turn it into a tragic love story for contemporary audiences.
Whether it was the threat of two lawsuits Stevens dangled before the studio, or his enthusiasm for the project finally wore off on the Paramount big wigs, the studio finally relented. With a $2.5 million budget, George Stevens moved forward with his version of An American Tragedy, eventually changing the title to A Place in the Sun.
Stevens' Perfect Cast
Stevens easily decided on new screen sensation Montgomery Clift for the George Eastman role. And 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, was absolutely flawless in this, her first adult role.
A Place in the Sun: Casting the Factory Girl
So 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 never even tested her for the part.
If you remember from my introduction post on Shelley Winters, Shelley first gained success in Hollywood playing sultry, blonde bombshell roles. And when George Stevens began his search for an actress to play the unglamorous role of Alice Tripp in A Place in the Sun, Shelley was in the thick of her bombshell years at Universal International. But 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.”
Shelley's Big Chance
When Shelley heard of George Stevens’ struggle to cast the part of the factory girl in his film version of An American Tragedy, Shelley saw her big chance 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 even 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
Finally, George Stevens agreed to meet 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, and wearing 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. And two days after her stellar test, 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. In fact, Shelley joked in her autobiography [aff. link] that when Stevens met Blanche, and Shelley noticed him eyeing her intently, she worried that Stevens had changed his mind, and was going to give Blanche the role instead! But it was her wardrobe he was after, and Stevens bought Blanche’s dress and coat from her on the spot. Shelley wore both in the film, and indeed, the majority of her clothing in A Place in the Sun was Blanche’s.
"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 quite vocally express her fear to George Stevens that now Elizabeth would never be able to have children…
While Shelley would humorously point out that Sara Taylor must have been wrong for, “to my knowledge, for the next twenty years Elizabeth never stopped having children…,” that didn’t make it any easier for Shelley to fall, fully clothed, into the cold lake for her big drowning scene.
A Place in the Sun: Shelley's Big Scene
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 whole falling-into-the-water bit: Shelley argued it was a freezing, bottomless lake, and 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. Why not just leave it to the professionals?
Stevens’ answer to Shelley’s logical 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 go easy on Shelley in one way:
“Never mind the dialogue Shelley. We’ll dub it in later.”
It may have been a harrowing scene to shoot, with Stevens ultimately trimming the 30 minutes of drowning footage he shot down to four minutes in the finished film, but Shelley pulled it off like a pro, and won even greater respect from her director in the process:
“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.’”
Shelley Nails It
George Stevens’ vision for A Place in the Sun works because of Shelley Winters’ portrayal of Alice Tripp. The character is much more sympathetic and likable in Dreiser’s book, but for Stevens’ film, the factory girl had to be somewhat unsavory to keep the audience squarely in George Eastman’s court, even as he so clearly wishes for Alice and their unborn child to disappear, and purposely creates the circumstances that lead to her death.
Shelley’s portrayal of this pivotal character goes from lovable and sweet at the start of the film, to cloying, pathetic, and even unlikeable, despite the fact that she’s been so clearly wronged by George Eastman. We may not want her to die, but Shelley’s take on the character makes us somehow breath a sigh of relief when she’s no longer there to keep George from being with his dream girl, Angela. It was a complicated character to get just right, and Shelley, happily de-glamorized for this once in a lifetime role, nails it.
Oscar Talk for A Place in the Sun
Shelley’s performance was so good in fact, that Oscar talk swirled as filming of A Place in the Sun completed. George Stevens himself thought she was a shoe-in for the Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress Award. It was a dream come true for Shelley to have this, her first film role that showed what she could do as a character actress, already making Oscar waves. And she’d need that excitement to get her through the tripe of her next film, and long days with a disagreeable co-star named Frank Sinatra.
The feud between Frank and Shelley is too good not to share, so here it is, from a decidedly Shelley Winters perspective! Which of course Shelley, slightly tongue-in-cheek, insists is the “truthful, unbiased one.”
Riding high from the Oscar rumors surrounding her performance in A Place in the Sun, Shelley was quickly rushed into another film, Meet Danny Wilson (1952). Why the rush? Well, apparently co-star Frank Sinatra, suffering through a career low, needed his $25,000 salary ASAP, and Universal, happy to appease his request, moved filming right along.
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 environment already!
Despite his love-torn situation between Ava and Nancy, Shelley still got the vibe that Sinatra was trying to start something with her when he asked her to come rehearse lines in his dressing room rather than on set. Shelley, loyal to her friend Nancy, refused, and told Frank rehearsing on set would be just fine.
Sinatra, whether embarrassed at being turned down, or frustrated that Shelley misunderstood the intent of his invitation, 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 related [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.”
Definitely a mistake, I’d sure love to see footage of Shelley vs. Frank!
Sinatra kept taunting, and eventually, Shelley slugged him. Frank then walked off the set, apparently refusing to come back until Shelley apologized.
The Guilt Trip
Then Universal pulled the guilt trip on her. Appealing to Shelley’s humanity, they asked her to take pity on Frank, to think about 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!
Well, the guilt trip worked. Shelley came back to the set, ready to play nice with Frank while they filmed the most tragically romantic scene in the film, where Shelley lays ill in a hospital bed while Frank recognizes her love for his best friend, and gallantly gives up his girl so she can be with the man she really loves.
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 did a classic Sinatra re-write, and 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…so you tell me who won that argument!
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 bought that sorry excuse. Eventually, Frank and Shelley pulled it together, Frank said the correct line, and filming wrapped.
Frank's Two Words
Still, Sinatra found a way to have the last word in the Shelley vs. Frank feud on his weekly television show that season. For weeks, Sinatra closed his show by saying, as if he were cursing,
“I leave you with two words…SHELLEY WINTERS.”
Is there anything worse than the undying wrath of Frank Sinatra?? It’s terrible, but you can’t help but laugh at Frank’s ingenuity in the face of a feud!
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...Yet
Despite her travails with Sinatra on the set of Meet Danny Wilson, Shelley Winters didn’t win an Academy Award for her amazing performance in A Place in the Sun. But the film did garner Shelley her first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, and she’d always view the film as the highlight of her career.
And by showing her willingness to ditch the glamour for a good role, Shelley demonstrated just what she was capable of as a character actress, which undoubtedly led to more varied roles throughout her lengthy career, and paved the way for the two Best Supporting Actress Oscars Shelley did win in the coming years.
So Long, Shelley!
And that’s it for A Place in the Sun, and our month with the spunky Shelley Winters!
Be sure to join me next week as I break from the Turner Classic Movie schedule and highlight my star-of-choice for the month: one of my all-time favorites, the lovable, loyal, talented, patriotic, and too often underrated, Jimmy Stewart.