WEIRDLAND: Babylon (Hollywood) Revisited: F. Scott Fitzgerald & Charles R. Jackson

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Babylon (Hollywood) Revisited: F. Scott Fitzgerald & Charles R. Jackson

Paramount intended to make The Great Gatsby when the prevailing political and censorship restrictions were more liberal. In 1949, crime is to be obvious, not glamourised and well and truly punished on screen. Therefore, requiring some changes in the story, to satisfy the censors who were against letting the picture being made at all. Nevertheless, this film remains true to the novel's theme of power, greed, betrayal, love, the American dream and social class. Truly, a forgotten adaptation and yet according Alan Ladd's son, David, the character of Jay Gatsby most paralleled his father's life. They were both self-made men who pulled themselves up out of poverty.

According to his son David, The Great Gatsby was the film Alan Ladd was most proud of even though his favourite was the 1953 western classic, Shane. Paramount did not promote or push its acceptance, treating it as a low budget melodrama. Paramount did not allow copies of the 1949 version; future reproductions or promotions, including DVD, letting it slide into oblivion with the release of the 1974 Robert Redford film. As Redford's big screen adaptation is readily available; he is frequently compared with DiCaprio's portrayal of Gatsby. However, very few people have seen a DVD of Ladd's 1949 film. Warner Baxter was the first Jay Gatsby in Paramount Picture's 1926 silent version of The Great Gatsby. Only one minute of this film survives, preserved by the Library of Congress (AFI/Jack Tillmany collection) in the USA, and sadly makes it rather difficult to review Baxter's performance. However, the only adaptation made in his lifetime resulted in F. Scott Fitzgerald walking out on the film before it had finished. The history of the commercial release of Alan Ladd's 1949 adaptation of The Great Gatsby is as much of a mystery as Jay Gatsby himself. Source:

Maureen Corrigan, the “Fresh Air” book critic, seems eager to downsize Fitzgerald to contemporary tastes. In “So We Read On: How ‘The Great Gatsby’ Came to Be and Why It Endures” (Little, Brown & Co.), she has an infectious sense of excitement about the novel, the furthest thing from academic deadness imaginable. She can be shrewd and clear-eyed—rightly pointing out that Daisy, for all Gatsby’s idealization of her, is intended to be an empty shell, not a dream girl, a zero in whom Gatsby has overinvested. Corrigan has also done some terrific reporting; Sylvia Plath, she surprises us, was a Fitzgerald fan, densely annotating her copy of “Gatsby.”

Yet, though she loves the book, she seems reluctant to take it on its own terms. She devotes an entire chapter, called “Rhapsody in Noir,” to the notion that “Gatsby” is a herald and variant of the kind of hardboiled pulp fiction that was then coming into favor. Fitzgerald had an affection for pop fiction, including bad historical novels and detective stories, but there’s little evidence in his letters that he really emulated or learned much from such things as The Black Mask, the detective-story monthly that, Corrigan notes, H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan sponsored as a money-making alternative to their taste-making The Smart Set. The stylishly distinctive noir novels of Cain and Dashiell Hammett came out long after “Gatsby” was published and Fitzgerald’s style was fully formed.

She even reverse-engineers the connection from the noirish forties Alan Ladd movie version of the novel, which the studio tried to make look like a fashionable thriller of that later period. (At another moment, she repeats the idea that the long dash on the last page of “Gatsby” is a deliberate attempt to evoke Gatsby’s dock, thereby marking “one of the first graphic novel moments in American literature.”) In truth, Fitzgerald’s tastes and his ambitions for his writing, and for “Gatsby” in particular—as well documented as any writer’s have ever been—were resolutely high-minded and literary. His masters were the Edwardian novelists John Galsworthy, Compton Mackenzie, and Joseph Conrad.

It was Mackenzie’s Oxford novel “Sinister Street” (1914), with its sinuous, slightly overripe autumnal chiaroscuro, at once elegantly mysterious in its atmosphere and innocently romantic in its aspirations, that gave Fitzgerald the model for the self-consciously lyrical sections of “Gatsby”, while Galsworthy’s disabused take on middle-class manners is the tannins in the wine, and helped give Fitzgerald the courage to write the adultery sections with such blunt realism. “Gatsby” is a deeply Conradian novella, in its fable-like tone; in the play of dark and light between the ash heap and the parties, between the heightened, unreal action and the cool, mordantly ironic tone of the narration. What was seen as weak was exactly his strength. Romanticism under stress always becomes expressionism—what happened to Poe is also what happened to Fitzgerald. When a lyric writer cracks, there’s a new kind of dissonant music in the breaking. The best passages in Fitzgerald’s novels always worked better as fable and fairy tale than as realistic fiction. There is very little second-rate champagne in Fitzgerald. He lives in his sentences, which is where writing lives, in sentences and human sympathy. Source:

The 100 best novels: No 51 – The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925). When Fitzgerald died in Los Angeles, from a heart attack, aged just 44, his publisher's warehouse still held copies of the first edition. There was, as Fitzgerald had predicted, no second act in this American life. Just immortality. The Great Gatsby, in short, becomes a tantalising metaphor for the eternal mystery of art. Hemingway wrote: "I did not know the terrible odds that were against him. We were to find out soon enough." The reviews were not as bad as people claim, and the sale of 20,000 copies was above average. Eliot, for one, was full of praise, but the novel did not match the expectations inspired by Fitzgerald's celebrity. Thereafter, Scott and Zelda's lives began to unravel. She had a breakdown and would end up in an asylum. He went to Hollywood to reverse his fortunes, completed Tender is the Night, and sold some confessional Esquire pieces, later published as The Crack-Up. "My God," he wrote to Zelda, "I am a forgotten man." Source:

In 1940, a New York Times editorial remarked that when the Americans of the turn of the century “spoke of the American Dream, they meant the American hope, the American aspiration, the American ideal. When people wrote of the American Dream after 1930, they meant the American mirage, the American illusion… the American lie.” In less than a decade, the American dream had been so absorbed into the national imagination that America’s paper of record thought it was a phrase that dated back centuries – that only recently had the American dream been revealed as a lie. But it was a recent invention, and as Adams predicted, each generation would need to relearn the lessons of inequality and disappointment, an innocence we keep losing anew. Fitzgerald understood in the midst of the 1920s what most would only see in retrospect: that “the dead dream” will always fight on, as we try to touch the intangible, “struggling unhappily, undespairingly” towards what we keep losing. Source:

Other than one five-week stint in 1931, F. Scott Fitzgerald had not worked in a film studio since First National Pictures had paid him $3,500 to write a modern romance for its young star Constance Talmadge in 1927. Fitzgerald returned to Hollywood in 1937 after an absence of nearly a decade, determined to make a success of his third attempt at screenwriting. Fitzgerald and Zelda had spent several months circulating in Hollywood society, but they left after First National shelved the project, disappointed in his script. Once in Los Angeles, Fitzgerald earnestly schooled himself in scriptwriting and the visual language of film. “He liked pictures,” Budd Schulberg, his screenwriting collaborator and friend, later recalled, “and felt his talent was well suited to the medium.”

Robert Young, Robert Taylor and Franchot Tone in "Three Comrades" (1938), directed by Frank Borzage, scripted by F. Scott Fitzgerald from the book by Erich Maria Remarque

Acutely aware of the potency of the image, Fitzgerald – who as a young man had worked in advertising – could never quite promote himself to best advantage in the film industry, yet for all his misgivings he remained attuned to the glamour and power of cinema, and in three periods of his career he experienced Hollywood’s inner workings firsthand. Fitzgerald’s timing almost always proved prescient, and signature events in his personal life were often uncannily linked to the wider social scene.

In the 1920s, he would brand popular culture, an emerging youth culture, consumerism, and the Jazz Age into the American literary consciousness; his third novel prophetically warned an overindulgent, frenetic country of the hangover to come; and the unraveling of the Fitzgeralds’ personal lives almost perfectly coincided with national collapse at the onset of the new decade. While defining the writer’s lifelong connection with movies as “shifting and frequently ambivalent,” Ruth Prigozy observes that “no other author of his time was as enraptured with the medium as Fitzgerald,” charting the early trajectory from childhood matinees of westerns in Buffalo through frequent visits to Broadway movie houses during prep school and at Princeton, and his “worship” of silent-film director maestro D. W. Griffith. -"F. Scott Fitzgerald in Context" (2013) by Bryant Mangum

The parallels between Charlie Wales (protagonist of "Babylon Revisited", published in 1931) and Fitzgerald himself are the ones most marked and commented upon in biographies and criticisms of his life and works; Fitzgerald put his own past into Charlie Wales (alcohol is the number one connection between Fitzgerald and Charlie Wales, but Fitzgerald's preoccupation with money and his love of football emerge as well), and what he no doubt hoped might be his own future. Fitzgerald's disdain for homosexuals is shown in a 1930 letter to Edmund Wilson: "Paris swarms with fairies and I've grown to loathe it and prefer the hospital-like air of Switzerland where nuts are nuts and coughs are coughs"; this emerges in Babylon Revisited as: "Charlie watched a group of strident queens installing themselves in a corner. 'Nothing affects them,' he thought. 'Stocks rise and fall, people loaf or work, but they go on forever.' The place oppressed him."

Preliminary plans for the film version of Fitzgerald's screenplay treatment of Babylon Revisited had Cary Grant in the role of Charles Wales, and "Scott strutted, mimicking the star's British accent" and said, "Baby, can't you see me as the gorgeous Cary Grant?" -"F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'Babylon Revisited': A Long Expostulation and Explanation" (1995) by Thomas A. Larson

Fitzgerald met Sheilah Graham less than a fortnight after coming to Hollywood at a party celebrating her engagement to the Marquess of Donegall. He saw her again a week later, at the Screen Writers Guild dance. On July 24 they had dinner together for the first time. Within a month they were lovers. Her engagement was called off, and, though they kept separate residences for propriety’s sake, they began to spend their evenings together. The arrangement lasted until Fitzgerald’s death. "I lost my capacity for hope on the little roads that led to Zelda's sanatorium," said Fitzgerald, by then sunk deep in debt.

In her blonde beauty, Sheilah resembled Zelda—that was what first attracted Scott—but she came from a totally different world. What’s more, she pretended to a status in that world Zelda did not have. According to her story, she had been born to an upper-class English family, but had become a showgirl and a journalist because she found society boring. Not entirely persuaded, Fitzgerald kept prying for details. Eventually she told him the truth. Her name was Lily Sheil. She’d been born in London’s East End slums and raised in an orphanage. She’d been married before, to a much older man who urged her to go on the stage and did not object when wealthy men took her out, since it provided them both with an entree to the upper strata of society.

Attractive and bright, Sheilah was soon moving in those circles; she was even presented at court. With her marriage failing, she came to America and landed a job writing a syndicated column on Hollywood for the North American Newspaper Alliance. She was twenty-eight, made $160 a week on her column, and only dimly understood what she was getting into as Fitzgerald’s companion. When she first told him her story, he asked how many affairs she had had. Sheilah didn’t know what to say. Eight affairs, she told him, and “he was really quite shocked,” she recalls, and then intrigued, and then extremely jealous. In the course of her work she routinely met and talked to the leading actors and directors and producers in Hollywood.

Some of them, finding her attractive, flirted or made passes at her. When this happened—when John Boles or Randolph Scott or Errol Flynn indicated their interest in her—Fitzgerald became furious and resorted to an old method to punish her. He got drunk. At the end of a Sunday afternoon party he and Sheilah gave, Scott drunkenly ordered everyone home and told the last guests— screenwriter Nunnally Johnson and his wife—that he knew they’d never come back, since he was living with his “paramour.” It was a curiously stilted and old-fashioned word; on the back of his framed picture of her, he was more explicit: “Portrait of a Prostitute,” he wrote. These devastating accusations have been interpreted as examples of Fitzgerald’s puritanical streak, but he was also concerned about the impropriety of their relationship.

He sometimes spoke to Sheilah of divorcing Zelda and marrying her. On one occasion, he went so far as to seek reassurance about this plan from Nora Flynn. Go ahead, she advised him. Nora was sure he was doing the right thing. The time had come for him to have a life of his own, and she had “a strange feeling” that Sheilah was the right person for him. He’d be of more use to Scottie if he were happy and “living, so to speak, again.” But the mores of the times, his guilt feelings, and his sense of propriety all conspired against divorcing the woman who had once meant everything to him.

For Three Comrades, the prize-winning film that earned Fitzgerald his only screen credit, producer Joe Mankiewicz did the final polishing over Scott’s vigorous objections. Mankiewicz had removed “all shadows & rythm,” he felt. Fitzgerald summed up Hollywood policy toward writers in these terms: “We brought you here for your individuality but while you’re here we insist that you do everything to conceal it.” Subsequent assignments at MGM did not change his opinion, as he was put on a couple of projects that never reached the screen and pulled off others that did, notably The Women. The money he made from films would go to finance the serious writing that he’d been placed on the earth to do. And even though Hollywood itself was a dump, a “hideous place… full of the human spirit at a new low of debasement,” it generated the material for the first of those books. “My great dreams about this place are shattered,” he wrote in the spring of 1940, “and I have written half a novel and a score of satiric pieces that are appearing in the current Esquires about it.”

The satiric pieces focused on Pat Hobby, hack screenwriter; the novel on Monroe Stahr, producer and last tycoon. Moreover, in The Last Tycoon Fitzgerald established what John Dos Passos called “that unshakable moral attitude… that is the basic essential of any powerful work of the imagination.” Throughout his life Fitzgerald was driven by a strong sense of right and wrong. Katharine Tighe, one of his oldest friends in St. Paul, always thought of him “as someone intrinsically and deeply good.” Fitzgerald attacked the hypocrisy and stupidity of the older generation but not its basic values. Charlie Wales, the reformed playboy in Babylon Revisited, wishes he could “jump back a whole generation and trust in character again as the eternally valuable element.” So did Fitzgerald, for all around him he saw people who “had no principles.”  During the worst moments of his Hollywood years, Sheilah Graham recalled, he even demanded reassurance from strangers. “I’m F. Scott Fitzgerald, the very well-known writer,” he’d brashly announce, and hope for a glimmer of recognition. But that nonsense stopped with his last bender. -"Fool for Love: F. Scott Fitzgerald" (2001) by Scott Donaldson

“He took down The Great Gatsby and ran his finger over the fine green binding,” Charles R. Jackson wrote of Don Birnam’s riveting lecture before a room of rapt, phantom students. “There’s no such thing,” he said aloud, “as a flawless novel. But if there is, this is it.” He nodded. The class looked and listened in complete attention, and one or two made notes. “People will be going back to Fitzgerald one day as they now go back to Henry James. Apart from his other gifts, Scott Fitzgerald has the one thing that a novelist needs: a truly seeing eye.” The Lost Weekend is set in 1936, and Fitzgerald had been dead for almost two years when Jackson began writing it in 1942. Thus, on one hand, Jackson retrospectively invoked the author as a cautionary figure, whereas in 1936 he’d actively worried about his hero’s wellknown alcoholism and wondered whether his latest novel, Tender Is the Night, would also prove to be his last. Indeed, to Jackson’s self-referential mind, the book seemed to mirror both Fitzgerald’s deterioration and his own, and to some extent The Lost Weekend was conceived in homage to that flawed, brilliant novel in particular.

When Tender Is the Night was published, in 1934, Jackson stayed up all night reading it (“It’s fatal to open the book at any page, any paragraph; for I must sit down then and there and read the rest of it right through”), and afterward managed to run the author to ground, by telephone, in the little town of Tuxedo: “Why don’t you write me a letter about it?” said a weary Fitzgerald, “I think you’re a little tight now.” In 1964 Jackson mentioned that phone call in a letter he wrote his family from Will Rogers Hospital in Saranac Lake, where he’d bumped into a former Princeton classmate of Fitzgerald; the man had mentioned that Fitzgerald had once been beaten by police in Rome, just like the drunken Dick Diver in Tender Is the Night, which left Jackson admiring his favorite author all the more for making “beautiful and heart-breaking” art out of such material. Fitzgerald’s work was almost entirely out of print when The Lost Weekend was published in 1944 and Jackson had meant to be “deliberately prophetic” in calling attention to a writer he considered the foremost chronicler of “the temper and spirit of our time.”

More than twenty years later he finally received credit for having played a key role in the so-called Fitzgerald Revival: “Indeed, no author has been more outspoken or more generous than Jackson in his admiration of Fitzgerald’s work,” wrote Henry Dan Piper in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Critical Portrait (1965), which Rhoda gave Charlie for Christmas that year. While in Hollywood in 1944, Jackson got a call from a thirty-year-old novelist and Navy lieutenant, Budd Schulberg, who was drinking with his father at Romanoff’s, and wondered if Jackson would join them. Both father and son had “gone crazy about” The Lost Weekend, and now Budd regaled its author with the tale of his chaotic collaboration with Fitzgerald on the movie Winter Carnival (1939).

Ann Sheridan and Richard Carlson in "Winter Carnival" (1939).

F. Scott Fitzgerald, originally assigned to write the picture, was dismissed in a humiliating scene in front of the Hanover Inn during the 1939 Carnival. Budd Schulberg was also fired off "Winter Carnival" with Fitzgerald. It all started with two bottles of champagne that Budd's father, B.P. Schulberg, the former head of Paramount, had given to Budd and Fitzgerald as a bon voyage gift at the train station in Los Angeles as they headed east to Dartmouth. Schulberg did not know that Fitzgerald was a struggling alcoholic.

In the summer of 1944, Jackson was also summoned by the English gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, a total stranger who had been Fitzgerald’s mistress in his final years: “Well, we met—” Jackson wrote a friend afterward, “a three hour lunch at the Beverly Wilshire—and she poured it all out, poor girl: what he was like in bed, how big, how many times, and you’d be surprised.”

Also, while relaxing at the actress Patricia Collinge’s house, Jackson had pleasantly caught the attention of Bette Davis (“Who’s that sweet little man on the couch?”), with whom he’d be reunited in Hollywood. The MGM contract that would make this possible was still months in the future, but something of the sort was already in the air (“on account of the reputation the book will shortly earn me”) when Jackson demanded a raise of ten dollars per script from Blackett-Sample-Hummert. “Jackson’s purpose is to describe, not to explain,” the critic Granville Hicks wrote. “The result, it seems to me, is as extraordinary a study of psychosis as I have ever read.” Only Don can save himself, and yet (as William Seabrook and other fellow sufferers are apt to foresee) he almost certainly won’t. Already he’s passed the threshold where cumulative remorse becomes unbearable.

For The Lost Weekend (1945) Wilder and Brackett wanted Cary Grant, Alan Ladd, or Ray Milland, in that order, while Jackson had hoped for Robert Montgomery (the two had hit it off at a party chez Brackett), who, he thought, had the “charm” and “knowledge of 'psychopathia'” to do justice to such a difficult role.

Wilder knew how desperate Ray Milland (who had been a contract player at Paramount for a decade, considered a light comedian) was to be tested, even at the expense of forfeiting a glamorous image, and gave him a copy of Jackson’s novel. “I took it to bed with me that night,” Milland recalled, “but after a dozen pages I fell asleep.” Waking in the wee hours, he forged ahead, though he found the subject repellent: he himself “could not abide” drunks, and hardly ever took a drink himself. “Talk about neat, pat, cheap endings,” Jackson wrote a friend; “but also talk about betrayal.”

The Lost Weekend (the movie) now ended with Helen’s talking Don out of suicide by getting him to believe in himself as a writer again; when an inscrutable silence ensued,  Jackson wrote to Brackett & Wilder: "The final scene, as you sent it to me, with the hero working out his problem by writing a book (the implication being that the novel is the very movie we are seeing and the book we have read) is an out-and-out Judas kiss." Jackson was resigned, though he would “derive a small satisfaction” from an advance review in Variety, which mildly faulted the ending of what was otherwise hailed as an “outstanding achievement.” -"Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson" (2013) by Blake Bailey

-Don: Whatever became of your manicurist job? -Gloria: It's too tough on your eyes, all those little hangnails. He's just an old friend of the folks. Lovely gentleman. Buys me dimpled Scotch. -Don: He should buy you Indian rubies, and a villa in Calcutta overlooking the Ganges. -Gloria: Don't be 'ridic'. (Ray Milland as Don Birnam and Doris Dowling as Gloria in The Lost Weekend, directed by Billy Wilder)

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