While Fitzgerald’s experiences in Hollywood during the last years of the 1930s contributed heavily to the planning and writing of The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western, a glimpse at the novelist’s earlier life and work suggests that this novel was almost foreordained. Fitzgerald had been interested in, maybe fascinated by, movie-making from a very early period in his life. He wrote film treatments and scripts and, in addition, used what he knew about Hollywood in several of his short stories as well as in The Beautiful and Damned and later in Tender is the Night. He had mixed feelings about film as an art form during these years, and yet was convinced of its power over its audience. With the advent of talking pictures, he mulled over the possibility—and felt sorrow—that someday it might replace the novel. In 1936, he wrote: “I saw that the novel, which at my maturity was the strongest and supplest medium for conveying thought and emotion from one human being to another, was becoming subordinated to a mechanical and communal art that, whether in the hands of Hollywood merchants or Russian idealists, was capable of only the tritest thought, the most obvious emotion” (Crack-Up, 78).
This gloominess reflected the beliefs of Oswald Spengler in his Decline of the West, a work Fitzgerald referred to a number of times in his writing. In addition, Fitzgerald’s statement was written during a period of despondency. His writing during his last years in Hollywood suggests, however, that his pessimism about the future of film may have been wavering. Even though he planned to kill off movie man Monroe Stahr at the end of The Last Tycoon, he portrayed Stahr as a man who did not totally believe in “the tritest thought” and “the most obvious emotion.” After meeting an educated black man who refuses to let his children go to the movies because of their trashy nature, the doomed Stahr changes his production plans. Elsewhere in the novel Stahr shocks his bosses when he tells them that he will make a quality film despite the fact that it will lose money: “[W]e have a certain duty to the public,” he tells them (LOTLT, 48).
Some of Fitzgerald’s earliest writing was for the silent screen. Before his first novel, among the many pieces that he unsuccessfully submitted for publication were movie scripts. After This Side of Paradise (1920) was published, his frustrations over not being able to begin a second novel caused him to think of becoming a screenwriter. He met famed film director D. W. Griffith at the Mamaroneck, NY, studios and made several suggestions for scripts. In 1920 he wrote a scenario for actress Dorothy Gish (who was then working for Griffith) but the film was not made. He also submitted a script idea to the young David Selznick, son of film magnate Lewis J. Selznick, but again nothing came of it.
In The Beautiful and Damned (1922), he drew his first major film character, Joseph Bloeckman, a movie executive and representative of the many European Jews who at the time had worked their way up in the film industry. In addition, Fitzgerald portrayed a film studio seen from the point of view of an outsider, Gloria Patch, who is given a screen test with the hopes of becoming a starlet although, unknown to her, she no longer retains her youthful bloom. Here Fitzgerald reflected ironically on the magic of film: “It cheered her that in some manner the illusion of beauty could be sustained, or perhaps preserved in celluloid after the reality had vanished” (307).
Soon after, Fitzgerald once again was involved in film projects. He wrote the titles for the 1923 Paramount Picture The Glimpses of the Moon (based on the Edith Wharton novel), and the scenario for the Film Guild’s Grit, a gangster melodrama. On one hand the experience was disillusioning. “I’m too much of an egoist + not enough of a diplomat ever to succeed in the movies,” he wrote his friend John Peale Bishop. On the other hand, there was money to be made in Hollywood. Just before The Great Gatsby was published, Fitzgerald wrote his editor Maxwell Perkins that if the novel did not make him enough money to support him as a serious writer, he would “go to Hollywood and learn the movie business.” He complained: “I can’t reduce our standard of living and I can’t stand this financial insecurity. Anyhow there’s no point in trying to be an artist if you can’t do your best” (Life in Letters, 101, 107).
During this early period several of Fitzgerald’s works were translated into film. “Head and Shoulders” (1920) became the 1920 Metro film The Chorus Girl’s Romance; “Myra Meets His Family” (1920) was made into the 1920 Fox film The Husband Hunter; and “The Offshore Pirate” (1920) into the 1921 Metro film of the same name. Fitzgerald also sold the rights to “The Camel’s Back” (1920) which loosely became the Warner Brothers’ 1924 film Conductor: 1492. At least a few of these stories and others were written with Hollywood sale in mind. In the 1923 story “Dice, Brass-knuckles & Guitar,” for example, after Fitzgerald introduced his beautiful heroine, the narrator gave tongue-in-cheek instructions for filming: “Now if this were a moving picture (as, of course, I hope it will be some day) I would take as many thousand of feet of her as I was allowed—then I would move the camera up close and show the yellow down on the back of her neck where her hair stopped and the warm color of her cheeks and arms” (Price, 48).
Other visits to the film studios followed. During the winter of 1924-5 in Rome, he became friendly with film actress Carmel Myers and went to the sets of the American film Ben-Hur. Later Fitzgerald was to use some of this experience first in the 1927 story “Jacob’s Ladder” and then in slightly different form in Tender is the Night (1934), where actress Rosemary Hoyt is preparing for a scene in “The Grandeur that was Rome.” In January 1927 he went to Hollywood to write “Lipstick,” a silent film for actress Constance Talmadge. The plot was his own idea, the treatment somewhat silly and sufficiently poor to be turned down by the studio. It was to be one of those college films popular at the time, about a girl who goes to jail in the place of her uncle, her falling in love with a college student, and her magic lipstick guaranteed to give kisses. Fitzgerald made only $3,500 for his effort, the same amount that the Saturday Evening Post was paying him that year for each short story it published.
During this visit he became friendly with the youthful actress Lois Moran, who had lived abroad, spoke French, and read poetry. Moran was to be the prototype for Rosemary Hoyt as well as other young actresses in his fiction. For instance, in his 1928 story “The Bowl,” a college story with a Princeton setting, Fitzgerald used some of his observations of Moran as the background for the eighteen-year-old actress Daisy Cary, who tells how, during the winter, with a fever of 102, she must fall six times into an open-air lagoon. He again used Moran’s background in “Jacob’s Ladder” for some of actress Jenny Prince’s film experiences, but Moran was far more educated and sophisticated than Fitzgerald’s heroine. In the 1928 story “Magnetism,” Fitzgerald portrayed another Hollywood newcomer, this time Helen Avery, who falls in love with George Hannaford, a young movie veteran.
Other observations from this 1927 trip also eventually found their way into his fiction. In “Jacob’s Ladder” he portrayed filmland’s Sunday parties with guests inquiring about the health of others’ children, while others were posing “immobile, statue-like, in a corner” (Short Stories, 361). In “Magnetism,” he also drew upon the Hollywood parties, here contrasting the stars from the early Griffith films, thought of as the older crowd despite their youthfulness, with the newer stars. In both stories, the blackmail theme, a not unusual occurrence in Hollywood then, also appears, in “Jacob’s Ladder,” a failed attempt at revealing a young actress’s relationship with her sister, a convicted murderer, and in “Magnetism,” involving forged letters purportedly from Hannaford to a script girl. In the notes to The Last Tycoon, he considered using a blackmail situation once more.
Many of these stars during those silent days came from backgrounds that did not match their screen roles. In “Jacob’s Ladder,” the beautiful young Jenny Delahanty’s lower-class New York accent and lack of polish (“Le’ me alone, will you? Le’ me alone. Geeze!” she implores an impatient reporter after her sister’s conviction) do not disqualify her for a movie audition. Director Billy Farrelly of “Jacob’s Ladder” comments, “They’re all the same…. Shucks! Pick ’em out of the gutter today and they want gold plates tomorrow” (Short Stories, 351, 355). In “Magnetism,” George Hannaford’s success as a film actor is one of fortuity: “After a year in a small technical college he had taken a summer job with an electric company, and his first appearance in a studio was in the role of repairing a bank of Klieg lights. In an emergency he played a small part and made good” (Stories, 224).
Sets also seemed to fascinate him. In “Magnetism,” he drew a portrait of “the white cracking glow of a stage with two people motionless upon it” and “apparently from afar, the gentle tremolo of a small organ” and then was to reuse the situation in Tender is the Night. And he paid more attention in “Magnetism” to Hollywood’s geography with its “interminable boulevard[s],” and “hilly country” (Stories, 222). He was to return to this in The Last Tycoon.
Fitzgerald also used film imagery here to enhance his subject, once when Hannaford has a movie-like overly romantic dream about his wife whom he suspects of having an affair. The scene is in a garden with a river flowing past and stars twinkling above: “The grass was damp, and Kay came to him on hurried feet; her thin slippers were drenched with dew. She stood upon his shoes, nestling close to him…” Fitzgerald then added sentimental dialogue reminiscent of the titles in silent films:
“Think how you love me,” she whispered. “I don’t ask you to love me always like this, but I ask you to remember.”
“You’ll always be like this to me.”
“Oh, no; but promise me you’ll remember.” Her tears were falling. “I’ll be different, but somewhere lost inside of me there’ll always be the person I am tonight.”
At this point Hannaford wakes up and the film imagery ends: “The scene dissolved slowly” (Stories, 230-1).
Fitzgerald returned to California in November 1931 for another brief period. Now he was working at MGM studios on the film Red Headed Woman. It was based on Katherine Brush’s short story and he was not the first writer at the studio to struggle with it. He was anxious to learn about film technique, according to writer Dwight Taylor, who later recalled: “I remember he was always worried about camera angles, but I pointed out that it was his dialogue and characterizations that they were after” (Taylor, “Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood,” 68). Despite this advice, Fitzgerald’s work was rejected and novelist Anita Loos given the assignment. Loos’s version, a racy concoction about a sexy stenographer who seduces her boss, kills her husband, and winds up in Paris with a marquis and a chauffeur, was one of the films of the early 1930s that resulted in the eventual greater enforcement of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America Production Code.
During this 1931 Hollywood trip, a tipsy Fitzgerald participated in the impromptu entertainment at one of the well-known Sunday afternoon parties given by filmmaker Irving Thalberg and his wife actress, Norma Shearer. Fitzgerald’s innocuous but boring song about a dog was an embarrassing flop. Shearer, however, reacted with kindness and an abashed Fitzgerald pasted his hostess’s magnanimous message, “i thought you were one of the most agreeable persons at our tea,” in his scrapbook. Soon after, he used this experience in “Crazy Sunday” (1932) when writer Joel Coles entertains at a similar party, commits a faux pas, apologizes to his hostess, and receives a very similar telegram. But Coles’s blunder is not so innocent as Fitzgerald’s. It is a burlesque imitation of a Jewish independent producer, Mr. Dave Silverstein, known for his malapropisms. (Fitzgerald probably modeled him on famed producer Samuel Goldwyn.) The result is silence and “Boo! Boo!” from one of the more famous Hollywood actors: “It was the resentment of the professional toward the amateur, of the community toward the stranger, the thumbs-down of the clan” (Short Stories, 702).
“Crazy Sunday” is another of Fitzgerald’s Hollywood stories that prefigures The Last Tycoon. Miles Calman is somewhat like Monroe Stahr, especially when Fitzgerald tells us that “Calman was the only director on the lot who did not work under a supervisor and was responsible to the money men alone”; when he reminds us that “he was the only American-born director with both an interesting temperament and an artistic conscience”; and when Joel Coles tells Calman’s mother that Calman has become “a legend… Oracle and a Man of Destiny.” Further, Calman’s death in an airplane crash reminds us of Fitzgerald’s plan for Stahr’s demise. But despite this praise, and possibly because, unlike Monroe Stahr, he is never shown in action at the studio, Fitzgerald never convinces the reader that Calman is as great a man as his Last Tycoon hero (Short Stories, 699, 712, 700).
Further, the two stories are different. “Crazy Sunday” is mainly a study of character, the talented Calman with his need to be unfaithful to his wives and his jealousy of them, the weak Stella, and Joel Coles himself, who is introduced as an incipient weak character—“He was twenty-eight and not yet broken by Hollywood”—who seems to grow by the end of the story, and yet may be the most lost when he decides after Calman’s death that he will continue his relationship with Stella. “Oh yes, I’ll be back—I’ll be back!” he says (Short Stories, 698, 713).
After completing Tender is the Night, Fitzgerald worked without success on several movie scripts. One was a sanitized film treatment of Tender is the Night, written in late 1934 with a young protege, Bill Warren. The incest theme was omitted, obviously because of the Hollywood censorship of the time. Here Nicole Warren’s mental disorder results from a physical injury. Dick Diver, now a brain surgeon rather than a psychiatrist, cures her, eventually marries her as in the novel, but a separation ensues because of actress Rosemary Hoyt’s attraction for the doctor and Baby Warren’s interference in her sister’s marriage. Presumably to satisfy Hollywood and movie audiences, Fitzgerald and Warren wrote a happy ending to the plot, reuniting Dick and Nicole. Although Warren traveled to Hollywood and claimed to make many attempts to sell the treatment, nothing ever came of it.
That same year, Fitzgerald collaborated (with writer Robert Spafford) on the comedy Gracie at Sea, a treatment for entertainers George Burns and Gracie Allen. Allen played a wealthy yachtsman’s daughter who must find a husband before her sisters can marry and Burns played the publicity man hired to find the husband. A number of slapstick episodes ending with a slapstick yacht race tempered by scenes involving Allen and an abandoned baby made for an extremely weak plot that, despite all, “damn near went over” with Hollywood, according to Fitzgerald (Life in Letters, 265).
As the 1930s progressed and the economy worsened, Fitzgerald’s life was in free-fall. He was seemingly written out as a fiction writer. He had suffered a breakdown partly due to his drinking; his wife was in and out of hospitals because of her mental illness; and he desperately needed money for her upkeep, his daughter’s education, and to repay heavy debts. Then, in 1937, Fitzgerald’s agent wangled a twelve-month contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures which was renewed for six more months the following year.
Fitzgerald’s last Hollywood period occurred during one of the most exciting periods in the history of American film. Lost Horizon was released in 1937; You Can’t Take it With You and Bringing Up Baby in 1938. Then came the great watershed years of 1939 and 1940: Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, The Wizard of Oz, and Gone With the Wind in 1939; The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, Foreign Correspondent, The Great Dictator, The Shop Around the Corner, and The Grapes of Wrath in 1940. And there were two other great films in production while Fitzgerald was alive but released in 1941, Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon. This is a partial list. The reader may disagree with some and will want to substitute other favorites. For those who believe in the auteur theory, note the names of the directors of these films and others (including some soon-to-be directors) who were working in Hollywood during the last four years of Fitzgerald’s life: Busby Berkeley, Frank Capra, Charlie Chaplin, George Cukor, Cecil B. De Mille, Allan Dwan, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, Ernst Lubitsch, Lewis Milestone, Preston Sturges, George Stevens, King Vidor, Billy Wilder, William Wyler. Here too some may want to substitute other favorites. This was a golden period and this is what Fitzgerald was exposed to in his last years. Obviously he did not see all of the films mentioned nor did he socialize with everyone here, far from it. It was merely a wonderful time to be in Hollywood, especially for a novelist who was witnessing events that were to become material for The Last Tycoon.
And Fitzgerald was determined this third time to become a success. Once more he attempted to learn the technical side of film-making. He studied films, read books, and talked with other writers. “Pictures have a private and complex grammar,” he wrote (F. Scott Fitzgerald: Manuscripts, The Last Tycoon; Part 1, 133). He called the work “a sort of tense crossword puzzle game” (Letters, 443). At first he was entranced with his new situation and extremely optimistic. “I love it here,” he wrote. “It’s nice work if you can get it and you can get it if you try about three years. The point is once you’ve got it—Screen Credit 1st, a Hit 2nd, and the Academy Award 3d—you can count on it forever” (Life in Letters, 341).
He even believed that some day he might have full control over a film as both writer and director, possibly similar to Preston Sturges. In 1940, a few months before Fitzgerald died, he saw the film The Great McGinty, starring Brian Donlevy as a vagrant who becomes governor with the help of crooked politicos. This was Sturges’s first directorial job and he was to go on to make such wonderful comedies as Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and Hail the Conquering Hero (1944). Although Fitzgerald said that The Great McGinty was “inferior in pace” and an “old story,” he liked the film because (he wrote) “it had not suffered from compromises, polish jobs, formulas and that familiarity which is so falsely consoling to producers.” Soon after this statement he wrote his wife: “They’ve let a certain writer here direct his own pictures and he has made such a go of it that there may be a different feeling about that soon. If I had that chance, I would attain my real goal in coming here in the first place” (Life in Letters, 459, 464).
Fitzgerald was not being realistic. His health was not getting any better and his alcoholism was a threat. And based on his track record, he did not have the constitution to work with and guide his associates. While working on Red Headed Woman, he had quarreled with a writing collaborator, Michael de Sano, over changes in the script, and partly blamed de Sano for Irving Thalberg’s rejection of his work. He was to react in a similar way in 1937 when producer Joseph M. Mankiewicz interfered with his Three Comrades script. From today’s vantage point, Thalberg’s and Mankiewicz’s decisions seem correct. Both films received critical accolades at the time and are still highly regarded.
Fitzgerald’s first job at MGM during July 1937 was to revise part of the script of A Yank at Oxford, shot in England with the English actress Vivien Leigh but featuring the Americans Robert Taylor, Lionel Barrymore, and Maureen O’Sullivan, directed by the American Jack Conway (who had started his career with D. W. Griffith), and written by a team of writers in the United States. The plot was about an American student at Oxford who first feels disdain for his surroundings but eventually experiences a change in attitude. Fitzgerald’s assignment included the rewriting of two scenes, some of which was used in the released film. He felt that the script needed more justification for the American’s reversal of character, possibly a scene that dramatized these new feelings. He also believed that dialogue in the earlier version of the script made the American’s soon-to-be girlfriend, Molly, seem too passive, even dull. Thus he changed her lines when she first spots her brother sitting with Lee, the American, from “I thought I’d have some coffee with you,” to the more outgoing “Room for one more?” He also changed a line in response to Lee’s query whether he would see her in Oxford. In the older script, she replied: “Possibly. I’m a student there—St. Cynthia’s College.” Fitzgerald’s revision gave a coyness that she lacked originally: “If you want to be sure, you’d better come along with me right now” (Margolies, “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Work in the Film Studios,” 83-4).
Fitzgerald was off to a good start, good enough for MGM next to assign him to prepare a script based on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel Three Comrades, a tale of three German World War I veterans trying to survive the German recession of the 1920s. The film was to be directed by Frank Borzage and produced by Joseph M. Mankiewicz. Both were eminently qualified to work on a film set in post-World War I Germany. Borzage had directed the 1934 Little Man, What Now, one of the earliest anti-Nazi films. Mankiewicz had worked in Berlin as a Chicago Tribune reporter and as a film translator. Among his MGM productions was Fritz Lang’s 1936 Fury, a film about lynching and mob hysteria.
Fitzgerald did a workmanlike job converting the novel to film, emphasizing both the hardships the three heroes face in their automobile repair business as well as the doomed love affair of one of the comrades. But Fitzgerald’s script also emphasized the political rumblings of the late 1920s in Germany. At one point Fitzgerald had one of the three heroes of the story, after a fight with a Nazi, say, “The country’s mad. Little kids in soldier suits strutting around shrieking that they represent the Fatherland.” Fitzgerald also wrote into the story the minor role of a Jewish cab driver, who, early in the film naively praises Germany as a homeland for Jews, but, later, finding himself jobless, says ironically: “There seems to be a little—prejudice around lately. But I must have struck the wrong people… I thought I had a job today—but the man wouldn’t give it to me… because it was Christmas” (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Screenplay for “Three Comrades,” 48, 211, 213).
While most of the writing was acceptable, some of it seems mawkish today. When the three heroes, Erich, Koster, and Lenz, fight the Vogt brothers, owners of a competing repair shop, the dialogue becomes uncomfortably metaphoric:
21 Koster and Lenz—
-approaching the wreck.
Biggest Vogt (to Bobby)
Don’t talk tripe or you’ll need repairs yourself.
Koster and Lenz range themselves beside Bobby.
We’ve got permission from the owner to do the job.
Another Vogt Brother (producing a tire wrench from behind his back)
How would you like another scar on your fat face?
That took a machine gun.
Biggest Vogt (still sure of himself)
Three of you, eh?
Another Brother (looking around)
Go on—He’s kidding.
You can’t see him—his name is Justice. (Screenplay, 11)
At another point when Bobby, near the noisy repair shop, phones Pat, the heroine of the film, for a date, Fitzgerald called for angels and satyrs at the switchboard, and once again the dialogue became precious:
Bobby waits for the connection with a beatific smile. The banging dies away as we—
54 a switchboard—
- with a white winged angel sitting at it.
One moment, please—I’ll connect you with heaven.
55 the pearly gates
St. Peter, the caretaker, sitting beside another switchboard.
St. Peter (cackling)
I think she’s in.
56 Bobby’s face—
- still ecstatic, changing to human embarrassment as Pat’s voice says:
Hello. (Screenplay, 43-4)
Among the visual devices in the script were a number of montages, nothing new at the time, as well as another extremely old, cliched effect, a double exposure retained at the end of the film showing the two remaining comrades marching side by side with their dead friends.
Producer Mankiewicz felt that Fitzgerald needed help and he brought in writer E. E. Paramore, Jr., an old acquaintance of Fitzgerald, to coauthor the second version of the script. And eventually there was a third version with Mankiewicz as well as at least one other writer, David Hertz, getting into the act. By this time, the overt anti-Nazi scenes had been removed. The ending, where originally the two remaining comrades return to fight the fascists, was changed. Now apparently they left for South America. Fitzgerald disliked the final script because of the maudlin dialogue he believed had been added. He told Mankiewicz that the German-English Pat had been transformed into “a sentimental girl from Brooklyn.” In his copy of the final script “OKed by Joseph Mankiewicz” on the cover page, Fitzgerald crossed out “OKed” and wrote “scrawled over.” And he wrote Mankiewicz that he had produced “a flop” (Life in Letters, 343-4).
In 1967, twenty-seven years after Fitzgerald’s death, Mankiewicz, in an interview for Cahiers du Cinema in English, criticized Fitzgerald’s film-writing. He said:
I personally have been attacked as if I had spat on the American flag because it happened once that I rewrote some dialogue by F. Scott Fitzgerald. But indeed it needed it! The actors, among them Margaret Sullavan, absolutely could not read the lines. It was very literary dialogue, novelistic dialogue that lacked all the qualities for screen dialogue. The latter must be “spoken.” Scott Fitzgerald really wrote very bad spoken dialogue. (Bontemps and Overstreet, “Measure,” 31)
Mankiewicz was exaggerating. The released film had retained Fitzgerald’s basic outline as well as at least one-third of the dialogue from his first script. Further, the film was a success. Frank S. Nugent, for example, film reviewer of the New York Times, wrote that the film was “a beautiful and memorable film.” In more recent days, reviewer Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide has consistently rated it superior, calling it a “beautifully poignant film” with “excellent performances all around.”
Fitzgerald’s next boss was producer Hunt Stromberg, another film-maker who had been involved in films since the silents and one whom Fitzgerald liked. Among his credits were Our Dancing Daughters (1928), The Thin Man (1934), and The Great Ziegfeld (1936). Now Fitzgerald was transforming for the screen and for actress Joan Crawford, Ursula Parrott’s magazine short story, “Infidelity.” Beginning in February 1938, Fitzgerald prepared extensively. He viewed several of Crawford’s films, noting her acting strengths and weaknesses. He outlined the major sequences of three films, The Divorcee (1930), Possessed (1931), and Chained (1934), all with themes similar to that of Infidelity and the last two starring Crawford. He also divided the films into acts and noted montages in particular. He then made a comparable plan for Infidelity, first arranging the story into nine sequences and then into scenes with the proposed date of completion of each scene. Once again he also broke up the story into acts. He was to make a similar outline for The Last Tycoon.
Fitzgerald’s script contained many more visual devices than his previous efforts, including, besides montages and dissolves, two-shots, wipes, and even one shot which appeared as if the viewer were looking through opera glasses. However, these visual devices did not necessarily originate with Fitzgerald. Stromberg had sent Fitzgerald a long memo detailing many of them and Fitzgerald followed the director’s advice.
Similar to his earlier work on Three Comrades, Fitzgerald’s contribution was good in part but nothing exceptional, and at times the prose again was too precious. For example, when Althea Gilbert is leaving for Europe to visit her ill mother, the following dialogue ensues between her and her husband, Nicolas:
NICOLAS Listen. Did you read in the paper about the dog they froze up in a cake of ice. althea Poor dog. nicolas Wait a minute.
ALTHEA I’m afraid I’m going to weep over that dog.
NICOLAS Wait! They thawed him out after a month, and he came to life again. That’s how it’ll be with us.
ALTHEA But what’ll I think about in my cake of ice?
NICOLAS Oh, you look out and see the Italian scenery and watch your mother get well and write me letters. (Margolies, “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Work in the Film Studios,” 94-5)
But the film was never made. Though they made many attempts, Fitzgerald and Stromberg failed to solve the problem of how to reunite the married couple and eventually they gave up. The story had dealt with a happily married man who commits adultery while his wife is in Europe and the movie censors of the time had decreed that adultery had to be punished in some way. Among the many attempts to solve the problem was one when Fitzgerald, hoping to find a suitable ending, viewed scenes from the 1938 film Test Pilot. At another time he thought of a situation where each character might be placed in the role of another; thus Althea might understand and forgive the adulterous transgression. This too was unsuccessful. But Fitzgerald was to reuse the idea in The Last Tycoon, where the novelist Boxley, confronted with a script problem, solves it for the moment when he suggests: “Let each character see himself in the other’s place … You could almost call the thing ‘Put Yourself in My Place’” (LOTLT, 108).
Next Fitzgerald worked briefly on the script for Marie Antoinette, including the scene in the film where Marie (played by Norma Shearer) bids farewell to Count Axel de Fersen (played by Tyrone Power). Again Stromberg was the producer. The director was W. S. Van Dyke II, who had made, among other films, the 1936 San Francisco with actors Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Jeanette MacDonald.
During the second half of 1938, Fitzgerald was assigned to work with director Sidney Franklin on Donald Ogden Stewart’s script of The Women, based on Claire Booth’s humorous play. Several scenes needed revision. This was to be a film with a large cast of only women and with many more stars than usual. For background, Fitzgerald reviewed the classic 1932 film Grand Hotel. It too had many stars and a plot with many characters. (The Women was later produced using different writers.)
He also wrote a complete script, for Franklin, about the life of Polish physicist Marie Curie, who married famed physicist Pierre Curie and was known for her work on radioactivity. Madame Curie was based on Eve Curie’s biography of her mother. Fitzgerald looked at the 1934 MGM film, The Barretts of Wimpole Street. He conceived of his script as mainly a story of courtship—similar to The Barretts—and as “a comparatively quiet picture.” “It is,” he wrote, “a relief to be working on something the censors have nothing against” (Letters, 102). But there was disagreement over Fitzgerald’s conception and the project was postponed.
While at MGM he also submitted a number of ideas for scripts that he hoped he could work on alone. One of these was about an amateur theatre group for MGM child stars Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, and Freddie Bartholomew. Fitzgerald thought of using some episodes from three short stories, “He Thinks He’s Wonderful” (1928), “The Captured Shadow” (1928), and “The Perfect Life” (1929), all part of his series about the youngster Basil Duke Lee. Once again he diagrammed the plot and broke it up into sequences from these stories. Then he thought of it as a novel, dividing it into seven chapters and then three acts. But nothing came of this venture. At the end of 1938 MGM released Fitzgerald. He had worked for eighteen months, had been paid a large sum of money, $1,000 a week for the first six months and $1,250 for the next year, and had managed to repay most of his debts.
In early 1939 he worked for David Selznick for two weeks polishing one of the many versions of the script of Gone With the Wind. He was very lukewarm about the novel. He noted its lack of originality and criticized it for making “no new examination into human emotions.” Yet, “on the other hand,” he wrote, “it is interesting, surprisingly honest, consistent and workmanlike throughout, and I felt no contempt for it but only a certain pity for those who considered it the supreme achievement of the human mind” (Life in Letters, 383). His portion of the script begins with Scarlett’s first meeting with Rhett Butler and continues to the burning of Atlanta. Fitzgerald’s copy with pencil changes in his hand as well as other typed changes suggest that his contribution was extremely minor, mainly the shortening and cutting of lines and, once in a while, restoring a line from the book. He wrote Max Perkins: “Do you know in that ‘Gone With the Wind’ job I was absolutely forbidden to use any words except those of Margaret Mitchell, that is, when new phrases had to be invented one had to thumb through as if it were Scripture and check out phrases of her’s which would cover the situation!” (Dear Scott/Dear Max, 255). His script with its pointed references to specific pages in the novel is verification.
That winter, Fitzgerald worked with writer Budd Schulberg on Walter Wanger’s production of Winter Carnival, set at Dartmouth College. The two traveled to the school where a crew was filming background footage. After a brief period, however, Fitzgerald, drinking heavily, was fired. Later, while working on an early version of The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald thought of using some of the Dartmouth material. In one note, he wrote: “I would like this episode to give a picture of the work of a cutter, camera man or second unit director in the making of such a thing as Winter Carnival” (LOTLT, 144). And although he warned himself, presumably for legal reasons, not to use anything specific that he had written for Wanger, he then went on to suggest a scene at a telegraph desk that is in the Winter Carnival treatment.
In 1939 and 1940, as his health deteriorated, Fitzgerald worked briefly at Paramount Pictures for a never-to-be-made film called Air Raid; one week for Universal Pictures writing a treatment titled Open that Door, based on Charles Bonner’s novel Bull By the Horns; a week or so for producer Samuel Goldwyn and director Sam Wood on Raffles; briefly on the Sonja Henie film Everything Happens at Night; and again briefly for Twentieth-Century-Fox writing a treatment about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge (another film never made). In addition he wrote a complete script based on Emlyn Williams’s play, The Light of Heart, and once again his script was not used.
During 1940, Fitzgerald was also completing a script for independent producer Lester Cowan based on one of his greatest short stories, “Babylon Revisited” (1931). In an author’s note to the screenplay, Fitzgerald wrote, “This is an attempt to tell a story from a child’s point of view without sentimentality” (Babylon Revisited: The Screenplay, 189). Unfortunately, the attempt failed. In the original version, Charlie Wales, who suffers a nervous breakdown and becomes an alcoholic after the death of his wife, returns to Paris to get back his daughter, who is now living with his sister-in-law and her husband, the child’s legal guardians. In the screenplay, Wales has been drugged by a canny doctor who has been employed by Wales’s unethical partner. The purpose is to get Wales to sign over his daughter’s trust fund so the partner can use the money to cover stock market losses. Wales is helped by a pretty nurse whom we assume he will later marry. Wales’s partner then hires a hit-man to track down Wales in Switzerland. Fitzgerald had taken a story which contrasted the frenzied twenties with the more austere thirties, a story of loss and emptiness, and had turned it into a trite melodrama.
Furthermore, the dialogue at times was far too sentimental. A scene near the end of the film when Charlie Wales thinks he will not be able to regain custody of his daughter, and two friends, somewhat drunk, appear, is only one of many examples. Wales dances with his daughter and tells her that the friends are parasites and that their annoying behavior is the result of their loneliness:
It looks as if nobody wants us to have fun together, doesn’t it, Daddy.
Wales concentrates on making her have a good time.
Those people are just lonesome, honey.
(in tones of pathos)
They haven’t found any-body to annoy all-l-l day.
She looks at him, takes her cue, and laughs.
So they had to annoy somebody—just to practice.
Who are they?
(in a stage whisper)
No, a parasite is something you find everywhere.
They want something you’ve got.
What do they want?
Sometimes it’s your happiness.
(looks around with interest)
How do they get to be that?
Oh, they begin by not doing their lessons.
(with a sigh)
I knew there’d be a moral in it.
I wish there was some person who could talk to you without always ending up with a moral.
Darling, from now on, word of honor, that’ll be me.
(Babylon Revisited: The Screenplay, 178-9)
Budd Schulberg has written in an introduction to the published script:
To read the short story and then study this screenplay is to understand the terrible contortions of an artist driven to turn himself inside out and upside down in one last desperate reach for Hollywood status… Despite his theory that the novel would become passe, replaced by the new art of the motion picture, Fitzgerald the novelist lives, while Fitzgerald the movie man remains an almost-forgotten footnote to literary history. (Babylon Revisited: The Screenplay, 13-14)
But all of this was material for the fiction that he would write in 1939 and 1940. The seventeen Pat Hobby stories published in Esquire are brief, very funny vignettes. Pat is a broken-down, alcoholic, forty-nine-year-old Hollywood writer. When Pat’s script is based on a novel or short story, he never reads the source. He has been working in the studios for twenty years in both the publicity departments and as a scriptwriter. He may have been a success at one time, but now he scrounges for work. He has been married and divorced twice. He earns $250 a week. He steals from other writers. Once he took money from sightseers and took them on a phony tour. None of this, except for the drinking, was Fitzgerald. One wonders, however, if at times he felt like a Pat Hobby, and that these stories were a reflection of his insecurity.
While some of the Pat Hobby stories refer back to an earlier Hollywood period (the murder of director William Desmond Taylor in 1922, for example), the stories were contemporaneous. Subjects included tours of Hollywood stars’ homes as well as the studios, going to previews, the arrival of Orson Welles, the use of script cliches, and sucking up to film bosses, in this instance giving a Civil War film “a Jewish touch.” A few times, Fitzgerald once again employed film imagery in his writing. For example, in “A Patriotic Short” (1940), Pat recalls meeting the president of the United States: “Pat’s mind dissolved once more into the glamorous past.” Later Pat takes a break from his work and goes to a studio water fountain where once again he daydreams about this meeting. Then to bring the reader back to the present, Fitzgerald uses the equivalent of a match cut, in which the camera cuts from one object or shot to another that is similar in shape or content:
The president glanced over into Pat’s property.
“I suppose—” he said, “—that you get lots of inspiration sitting by the side of that fine pool.”
“Yes,” said Pat, “Yes I do.”
[Fitzgerald then returns to the present and writes]
… Pat filled his cup at the cooler in the hall. (PH, 116, 118-19)
And in “Pat Hobby’s Christmas Wish” (1940) where Pat has a blackmail scheme and hopes to cash in, Fitzgerald writes, “Cash, cars, girls, swimming pools swam in a glittering montage before Pat’s eye” (PH, 7).
The Pat Hobby stories are funny. However, the plots are not subtle and the prose style is spare. They were written quickly for the $250 each that would give Fitzgerald the leisure to write The Last Tycoon. But they were written with thought and care, the evidence in the numerous letters and telegrams to Esquire editor Arnold Gingrich including revisions or requests at times that the order of publication be changed.
Other Hollywood stories written about this time include “Last Kiss” (1940), a gloomy story—Fitzgerald found it “Unpleasant as hell except the end” (Short Stories, 757)—about a young, pretty, talented but temperamental and ill-advised actress who loses her chance for stardom. After Cosmopolitan rejected the story Fitzgerald stripped it intending to use it in The Last Tycoon. But other than an English heroine whom producer Jim Leonard sees at a dance and a scene in a drugstore, there are few similarities. A second Hollywood story, “Director’s Special,” written in 1939, about Academy Award-winning actress Dolly Borton, who loses her husband to another actress, becomes penniless, and then wins a starring role, was rejected by Collier’s magazine because of what was felt to be its elliptical nature.
Had Fitzgerald lived to complete The Last Tycoon, it seems obvious that the reaction would have been far different. At the time of publication, while a few critics were not overly impressed, most felt that it would have been counted among Fitzgerald’s best work. J. Donald Adams in the New York Times Book Review wrote that “uncompleted though it is, one would be blind indeed not to see that it would have been Fitzgerald’s best novel and a very fine one.” James Thurber in the New Republic wondered about this extreme judgment, especially since he felt that it was a work in progress and some rewriting would have been needed. And yet it “would have been another book in the fine one-color mood of ‘The Great Gatsby,’ with that book’s sure form and sure direction.” Stephen Vincent Benet in the Saturday Review of Literature wrote: “Had Fitzgerald been permitted to finish the book, I think there is no doubt that it would have added a major character and a major novel to American fiction. As it is, ‘The Last Tycoon’ is a great deal more than a fragment. It shows the full powers of the author, at their height and at their best” (Bryer, Critical Reception).
For the structure of this last novel, Fitzgerald returned partly to his own past. He had always been aware of his literary models. For Gatsby, for example, he wrote that he had been influenced by those who were writing the dramatic novel, a novel of selectivity. Tender is the Night, he said, was more like the longer novels of the past, which he called the philosophical or psychological novel. The Last Tycoon was to be similar to Gatsby with a similar number of chapters, similar number of words, and so on. The published plans show us how much it intentionally resembled Gatsby in form. “It is a novel a la Flaubert without ‘ideas’ but only people moved singly and in mass through what I hope are authentic moods… The resemblance is rather to ‘Gatsby’ than to anything else I’ve written,” he wrote his wife in 1940 (Life in Letters, 470-1).
Fitzgerald was writing a love story, about a great leader, and about Hollywood. He researched his subject. The notes to The Last Tycoon include references to Terry Ramsaye’s two-volume history of the silent screen, A Million and One Nights, director William deMille’s autobiography, Hollywood Saga, and articles in Fortune about MGM and Thalberg. Other notes include requests to his secretary, Frances Kroll, to go to the Pickwick, a Hollywood bookstore, to purchase film books as well as getting others from the public library and doing research there about Thalberg’s life.
Cecilia Brady was based partly on Fitzgerald’s daughter. His relationship with Sheilah Graham was translated partly into the relationship between Kathleen Moore and Stahr. The notes to the novel as well as Fitzgerald’s correspondence also give us clues to the sources of a few of the other characters. Irving Thalberg, head of the studio at MGM in the late 1920s and early 1930s, for example, is mentioned a number of times. To Kenneth Littauer, of Collier’s magazine, Fitzgerald wrote: “Stahr… is Irving Thalberg—and this is my great secret…” Others mentioned include actor Harry Carey as a model for Johnny Swanson, studio boss Marcus Loew as a model for Mr. Marcus, producer Harry Rapf as a model for Leanbaum, Joseph M. Mankiewicz for Jacques La Borwitz, novelist Aldous Huxley as a model for the writer Boxley, and so on. But Fitzgerald was writing fiction. This is what he wrote Littauer and what is most obvious in his portrayal of Monroe Stahr, who has some of the characteristics of Fitzgerald’s friend, director King Vidor, some of theater impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, and probably those of a half dozen others, including, of course, Fitzgerald himself. He told Littauer that “he [Thalberg] may be recognized—but it will also be recognized that no single fact is actually true.” Fitzgerald even explained this in an inscription intended for Norma Shearer. He wrote: “Though the story is purely imaginary perhaps you could see it as an attempt to preserve something of Irving” (Life in Letters, 409, 468).
Stahr was meant to be the exemplification of the great leader as Thalberg had been for Fitzgerald. But Thalberg was only one of the great leaders he admired or read about. Fitzgerald was a history buff. His library contained many historical works, in particular about the French Revolution, the Civil War, and World War I, and he had always been interested in the lives of great men. In the late 1920s, he had even discussed with King Vidor the possibility of collaborating on a film about Napoleon.
It is also not too fruitful to attempt to accurately date the events in the novel. According to the letter to Littauer it was set during four or five months in 1935. Many of the songs mentioned in the novel come from 1934-5. Cecilia Brady, his narrator, says the events take place five years earlier. Does this mean five years before the intended date of publication, 1941, that is 1936? At another time, Fitzgerald suggested that it was set in approximately 1932. Some of the films alluded to in the novel were being made during Fitzgerald’s 1931-2 trip to Hollywood; others were being made during his final years there. As with his characterizations, here too the films are mixed up. For example, the film that the English scriptwriter Boxley is working on—the writers feel it has too many characters and Boxley suggests that it needs even more—not only has characteristics of Infidelity but also the 1932 Grand Hotel and the 1939 Stagecoach, both of which Fitzgerald mentioned in his notes. The film that Broaca, Rienmund, and the others are discussing has characteristics of Red Headed Woman (Stahr says, “The premise of this story is that the girl did have dumb admiration for her boss”), and possibly Three Comrades and director W. S. Van Dyke II’s San Francisco (LOTLT, 39).
Of course, some events are based partly on actual occurrences, such as the famous earthquake in the studios in 1936. But Fitzgerald was not in Hollywood in that year and there had been other earthquakes. And while the rivalry between Stahr and Brady is based on the rivalry between Thalberg and head of MGM Louis B. Mayer, Mayer and Thalberg, so far as we know, never attempted to murder each other as was planned for the novel.
Part of the greatness of this final novel is how well it reflects Fitzgerald’s ambiguous feelings about Hollywood. And the description of what happens in the film studios has yet to be equaled.
But above all there is the exceptional rhythmic prose style. The description of a kiss at Kathleen’s door is only one example. Stahr asks Kathleen if she has her key and she replies that she does. Then Fitzgerald writes:
This was the moment to go in but she wanted to see him once more and she leaned her head to the left, then to the right trying to catch his face against the last twilight. She leaned too far and too long and it was natural when his hand touched the back of her upper arm and shoulder and pressed her forward into the darkness of his throat. She shut her eyes feeling the bevel of the key in her tight clutched hand. She said “Oh” in an expiring sigh and then “Oh” again as he pulled her in close and his chin pushed her cheek around gently. They were both smiling just faintly and she was frowning too as the inch between them melted into darkness. (LOTLT, 86)
In short, the film work was beneficial. It extricated Fitzgerald from a period in which he had been depressed and incapable of writing successfully. It enabled him to repay most of his debts and it gave him the time to start his last novel. It provided him with a plot. His unfinished novel captured a unique portrayal of the film industry. He left us with a wonderful work in progress. Undoubtedly, the final version would have been greater.
All references to The Last Tycoon in this chapter are from The Love of the Last Tycoon, ed. Bruccoli. The quotation from The Beautiful and Damned is from the 1998 edition.
AA Afternoon of An Author
ATSYM All the Sad Young Men
B&D The Beautiful and Damned
B&J The Basil and Josephine Stories
F&P Flappers and Philosophers
GG The Great Gatsby
LT The Last Tycoon
LOTLT Love of the Last Tycoon
PH The Pat Hobby Stories
TJA Tales of the Jazz Age
TITN Tender is the Night
TSOP This Side of Paradise
Apprentice Fiction The Apprentice Fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald (ed. Kuehl)
As Ever, Scott Fitz As Ever, Scott Fitz: Letters Between F. Scott Fitzgerald and His Literary Agent, Harold Ober 1919-1940 (ed. Bruccoli and McCabe Atkinson)
Bits Bits of Paradise
Correspondence The Correspondence of F. Scott Fitzgerald (ed. Bruccoli and Duggan)
Crack-Up The Crack-Up (ed. Wilson)
Dear Scott/Dear Max Dear Scott/Dear Max: The Fitzgerald-Perkins Correspondence (ed. Kuehl and Bryer)
Ledger F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Ledger (ed. Bruccoli)
Letters The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald (ed. Turnbull)
Life in Letters F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters (ed. Bruccoli)
Notebooks The Notebooks of F. Scott Fitzgerald (ed. Bruccoli)
Price The Price Was High: The Last Uncollected Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald (ed. Bruccoli)
Short Stories The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A New Collection (ed. Bruccoli)
Stories The Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald
Alan Margolies is Professor of English, Emeritus, John Jay College, City University of New York. He has published numerous essays on Fitzgerald’s work and life. He is co-editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald: New Perspectives (2000). He is editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s St. Paul Plays, 1911-1914 (1978) and Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned (1998), co-editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald: Manuscripts (1990-1), co-editor of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society Newsletter (annually) and co-founder and VicePresident of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society.
Published in The Cambridge Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald edited by Ruth Prigozy (Cambridge University Press 2002).