Theodore Dreiser’s first novel, Sister Carrie, didn’t exactly set the literary world on fire. In fact, it was reviled by critics and was a resounding financial flop. It took decades for the literary world to recognize its value.
Set in the early 1900s, the story of a naïve young girl from the sticks who goes to the big city and falls into life as a kept woman offended the sensibilities of the time. Supposedly based on the life of Dreiser’s own sister, it exposes how reaching for the American Dream can destroy those seeking it (similar to Dreiser’s more famous opus, An American Tragedy).
Director William Wyler’s adaptation of the book (written by the pair who wrote his previous film The Heiress, Augustus and Ruth Goetz) had to water down some of its hard-hitting aspects. Even so, it was not very successful.
Considering when the film was made, it hews enough to its origins that it is (in my opinion, anyway) one of the better post-war films to examine the darker side of the American Dream.
Carrie Meeber (Jennifer Jones) leaves her small town to live with her sister and brother-in-law in Chicago. Excited about life in the big city, she is chatted up on the train by a salesman named Charlie Drouet (Eddie Albert).
Forced to hand over almost all her meager pay to her brother-in-law for board, Carrie is devastated when a work injury results in the loss of her job. She runs into Drouet, who gives her money and invites her to dinner. Carrie’s sister shames her into giving the money back. At the restaurant, she goes in the wrong entrance and meets the manager George Hurstwood (Laurence Olivier) who in spite of being a married man is immediately taken by her beauty and youthful innocence.
Charlie fast-talks Carrie into staying in his apartment while he’s selling on the road. Within a short space of time they are living together. Charlie promises marriage but keeps coming up with excuses not to comply. Hurstwood visits them and is soon courting Carrie while Charlie is on the road. She is candid about the nature of her relationship with Charlie and finds herself falling in love with Hurstwood.
When Charlie finds out what’s going on he tells Carrie about Hurstwood’s marital status. Devastated, she rejects him, but agrees to run away with him when he promises to divorce his wife. He has not told her that he has stolen $10,000 from his employer and that his wife has no intention of granting a divorce.
When all comes out, Hustwood and Carrie’s relationship craters. As his fortunes diminish, hers rise as she becomes a successful stage actress. Thinking she’s doing him a favor, she leaves him, which is the beginning of the end of Hurstwood.
The main difference from the book is that Carrie and Hurstwood are portrayed far more sympathetically (and as far more in love with each other). Book Carrie is easily seduced by Charlie and won over by Hurstwood because of what they can give her monetarily. While living with Hurstwood is an upgrade from living with her sister and with Charlie, it’s still a mediocre middle-class existence. She craves more. When she gets more, she is puzzled to find herself still dissatisfied with her lot. In the movie she sincerely loves Hurstwood and blames herself for his misfortunes.
Hurstwood’s wife Julia (Miriam Hopkins) is portrayed as a castrating female who has talked him into signing everything he has over to her. (You practically want to hiss every time she appears on screen. Luckily, Hopkins was very good at playing bitchy characters.) Again, this was done mostly to put Hurstwood’s actions in a more sympathetic light.
This is one of Olivier’s most poignant performances, which is remarkable considering it was a very difficult shoot. He was suffering from chronic pain and did not like Jennifer Jones (who was cast mainly because her husband David O. Selznick, pushed for it). George is a man who has never gotten anything he really wanted out of life. Olivier makes you feel his desperate longing for more and better.
It’s probably a good thing they made Carrie’s character less complex than in the book because Jones, while certainly believable as a siren who unwittingly leads a man to his doom, didn’t have a great deal of range as an actress. She does well enough because the film doesn’t demand she do much more than be pretty and sweet natured.
To placate the Hays office, the ending is altered from the devastating conclusion in the book. Hurstwood’s fate is only implied, and it’s easy to miss.
In spite of its flaws, the film still holds up a mirror to the American expectation to always better oneself, and how often that leads to disappointment, dissatisfaction, and even tragedy. Like the book, it came out at a time when people weren’t ready to look in that mirror.