An American Tragedy unreels as an ordinary program effort with an unhappy ending. Its relations to the book [by Theodore Dreiser] upon which it is based are decidedly strained. As Von Sternberg has seen fit to present it this celluloid structure is slow, heavy and not always interesting drama.
There is not a performance in the cast of any real interest. Histrionic honors belong to the elegantly voiced Irving Pichel, a veteran of the legit stage and one of the original founders of The Theatre Guild, as the district attorney.
The film spends a third or more of its 96 minutes on the trial. It’s a big and theatrically good atmospheric scene, but has the handicap of involving neither of the girls as Roberta (for whose murder Clyde is convicted) is already dead, with Sondra escaping through the influence of a wealthy father. So the entire burden is on Phillips Holmes, as the floundering victim, which he is incapable of upholding for the camera.
On the sympathetic end Sylvia Sidney as the trusting Roberta, which she mainly accomplishes by means of a wistful smile. Frances Dee, as Sondra, merely registers as the Hollywood conception of a debutante and is not important, except as the brusque motivation for Clyde’s reversal of his relations with Roberta and his longing to become of the younger social set of the small town.
It’s questionable if even the admirers of this author’s work condone the evident publicity complex he had developed, so it shouldn’t be a matter of inflamed indignation by the minority in defense of the writer over the picture as an illustrated interpretation of the novel. Dreiser complained that the script first prepared by Sergei Eisenstein, to have directed, was entirely satisfactory. This, however was not the treatment finally used, with Von Sternberg replacing the Russian in the directorial chair.