What did F. Scott Fitzgerald think of the first movie of version of The Great Gatsby? Not much. He didn't stay in the theater to see the end of the only version of the novel made during his lifetime.
Hollywood, January 1927: Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were in Los Angeles for the first time. He was excited to be setting to work on an original screenplay for Lipstick, a collegiate fantasy for the actress Constance Talmadge. As soon as there were movies and stars to admire, Fitzgerald's longtime love of the stage had translated quickly to screen -- and, after his last attempt at a play, The Vegetable, had failed so miserably in 1923, perhaps a screenplay would be just the modern thing to redeem his beloved writing of dialogue. Zelda came with him, but they paused on the way to drop their daughter Scottie, who had turned 6 that past autumn, with Zelda's parents in Montgomery, Ala.
Scott figured his screenplay would take only a few weeks to write, but he and Zelda stayed in Los Angeles for two months. Old actor friends they had met in Manhattan, like John Barrymore, were living in the same corridors at the Ambassador Hotel -- and some, like Barrymore, had their children with them. The young Fitzgeralds enjoyed the company and the parties, but missed their daughter. In Zelda's letters to Scottie comes the most complete story of their time in Hollywood -- and lets us know what Fitzgerald thought of the first movie version, and only one made during his lifetime, of The Great Gatsby (1926).
Most of Zelda's letters are full of little stories to Scottie, reassuring her daughter how much both parents love and miss her. They also deal with Scott working -- or trying to. Lady Diana Manners was to come to supper on a Saturday, "if Daddy ever ever ever finishes his work." The hotel bungalows were a swirl of society: "We all know each other and visit around from one room to another all the time, which Daddy does not like as he is working. He says he will never write another picture because it is too hard, but I do not think writers mean what they say about work." The handsome Fitzgerald might have been a movie star instead of a screenwriter, in 1927: "Daddy was offered a job to be a leading man. ... But he wouldn't do it." Fitzgerald did, however, go with Zelda to see The Great Gatsby one evening in L.A.
This movie of Gatsby is lost; all that remains is the trailer. A Paramount Pictures release, it starred Warner Baxter, with Lois Wilson as Daisy and William Powell as George Wilson. The New York Times reviewed the movie middlingly on Nov. 22, 1926, noting that neither the director "nor the players have succeeded in fully developing the characters." Daisy was evidently most memorable for "drinking absinthe. She takes enough of this beverage to render the average person unconscious."
When the movie opened in America, the Fitzgeralds were in France. They saw the movie in Hollywood soon after they arrived -- as we now know from an undated letter of Zelda's to Scottie. Their reaction isn't open to any debate: "We saw 'The Great Gatsby' in the movies. It's ROTTEN and awful and terrible and we left." The full capitals of "ROTTEN" are Zelda's.
She and Scott walked out of the first movie made of Gatsby. What might they have thought of the dragging 1949 Gatsby, with Alan Ladd manfully mysterious, and the magnificent Ruth Hussey and Shelley Winters wasted as, respectively, a shallow Jordan Baker and a strident Myrtle Wilson? Or of the 1974 Gatsby, with a gleaming golden Robert Redford, gorgeous Hamptons sets, and an excellent performance by Karen Black as Myrtle? Or of the 2000 made-for-television Gatsby, with a handsome, cross Toby Stephen, accompanied by a shiny-faced Paul Rudd as Nick Carraway and an uncomfortable Mira Sorvino as Daisy?
We don't know. I can only have my own opinions on those film versions, and I think they all fail for the same reason: Fitzgerald's language has already done all the cinematic work for the actors, directors, set designers and producers. The Great Gatsby is an interior book, little concerned with externals. Fitzgerald conjures what he wants to say by way of description with only a few delicate strokes of words: five crates of oranges and lemons turned into pulpless halves; ashes growing like wheat in the valley; silver pepper of stars; "shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue." We use our imaginations to fill out the pictures for ourselves, where a camera cannot.
Baz Luhrmann's new movie may well supersede the earlier film Gatsbys, but can it supersede the novel? If it doesn't try to, but manages to revel in Fitzgerald's language instead, it'll be a winner. The trailers for the new Gatsby, all that have been released to date, are bold and loud, full of action and primary colors, beauty and violence. DiCaprio's Gatsby isn't a passive cipher; he acts out the dangerous qualities of Gatsby deeply suppressed in the novel in Nick Carraway's telling. Tobey Maguire looks as if he will be a more lively, less passive Nick -- the Nick who spent the late nineteen-teens in the trenches of World War I and won't talk about it, even to us; the Nick who kisses a girl in a horse-drawn victoria in Central Park. Carey Mulligan carries with her gracefully the Daisy from Louisville days, making the past seem truly present, young and frail still, with the "dark shining hair" Gatsby first kissed now clearly dyed blonde (a perfect touch). Will the movie be vivid and fresh, culturally contemporary and resonant with the past, well-acted and realized? Or not?
We'll all decide for ourselves next month, but how grand it would be to be able to have Scott and Zelda's reaction, this time, if only we could. I do know this, though: Both Fitzgeralds would be thrilled by the thought of a film version of The Great Gatsby opening the Festival de Cannes, on that sunburned coast where he wrote and revised much of the novel in 1924.
Author's note: The letters from which quotations appear above are in the Zelda Fitzgerald Papers, Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library. They are used here with the permission of both the Princeton University Library, and Harold Ober Associates on behalf of the Fitzgerald Estate.