A prestige picture with a capital P, An American Romance was lavishly produced by MGM in Technicolor, and with an obvious aim at Academy Awards. Directed by the great King Vidor—the man whose credits included silent masterworks (The Big Parade, The Crowd) and popular tearjerkers (The Champ, Stella Dallas)—An American Romance seemed to have everything going for it, especially its ambitious immigrant-success story (written by Vidor) which extolled the unparalleled opportunities of the American way of life (while a world war was raging). It would be nice to report that this movie is an unjustly overlooked gem, but it actually deserved the oblivion with which it was immediately greeted. It looks like one of those movies that no one realized was a failure until they assembled all its pieces and only then discovered that it added up to almost nothing.
Brian Donlevy stars as an Eastern European fellow who arrives in America in the 1890s. Proving his hearty stock, he walks from NYC to Minnesota so he can connect with cousin John Qualen and find work in an iron mine. Pretty and blond Australian actress Ann Richards plays the schoolteacher who tutors Donlevy before marrying him. They eventually have five children, with the four boys, of course, named for U.S. presidents. Donlevy, a fine actor usually cast in secondary roles, doesn’t have the star power to carry such an epic, unable to provide the kind of charisma that could hold our attention while the drama surrounding him simply meanders. (Spencer Tracy was reportedly the first choice, which makes sense.) Without a compelling central figure, there’s no escaping just how forgettable, episodic, and disjointed the whole enterprise really is. And Ms. Richards is frosty and dull in an admittedly lackluster role.
The production is wildly colorful, perhaps in an attempt to create an almost fairy-tale Americana, but sometimes the results are overly glossy, garish, and much too clean. Donlevy rises in business, from the steel industry in Pittsburgh to the car industry in Detroit. The movie works best in its documentary passages that focus on the actual making of steel, cars, and eventually planes, scenes with which the limp narrative can’t compete. The “romance” is between Donlevy and his new country, a special kind of romance available to any American willing to work tirelessly to get to the top. Though that implies a plot with irresistible dramatic urgency, An American Romance is talky rather than exciting, never finding a propulsive momentum.
For all its ambitions, care, and expense, An American Romance just doesn’t come off. It’s strange to watch something so clearly scaled for greatness yet so consistently unsuccessful. You sit there wishing you could do something to help it along. It’s not even remembered as a giant disaster or a box-office bomb; it’s as if it never existed at all. For Vidor, this movie came after one of his finest, the remarkably adult and intelligent H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941) with its never-better performances from Robert Young and Hedy Lamarr. Next up for Vidor was his string of over-the-top melodramas, including Duel in the Sun (1946) and The Fountainhead (1949). An American Romance is the orphan in between, fascinating for reaching wide yet achieving so little, and also for showing how the studio-system factory could sometimes completely lose sight of what it was manufacturing. If An American Romance had been put together as rhythmically and meticulously as the cars and planes being assembled within the movie, it might have found its way to becoming a polished finished product.