When the Horn Brothers finished their act, the house lights went down. Koster and Bial’s vaudeville theatre, located on New York’s Herald Square, went as black as a mustachioed villain’s thoughts. The Gay Nineties were about to receive a spark which would make them even gayer, but for one moment that spark lay incubating in total darkness. The first-nighters giggled, squirmed in their seats, whispered like children, “What is it?” A machine which the New York Times said looked like “the double turret of a big monitor” began to make “a loud buzzing and roaring.” The eighth act on the vaudeville bill was beginning, but it was like no other act ever seen by an audience before. A shaft of light hung itself like a clothesline from the projector to the screen, and on that screen a picture not only moved but actually danced.
Two pretty girls were wearing pink and blue dresses, their picture as real as if Peter Paul Rubens had painted it, and they were twirling their parasols, doing a dance-step routine. The Dramatic Mirror said, “The effect was the same as if the girls were on stage.”
Then the screen went black and white and suddenly there was the ocean, its waves washing the screen and tickling the inner ear: whoever heard of getting seasick in a vaudeville theatre? The sea rolled for several seconds and the audience seemed to think they rolled, too. The scene changed again as two slapstick comics came on and began swatting at one another. After the comics a tall blonde danced a skirt dance, and the show was over. The act, billed as “Thomas A. Edison’s Latest Marvel, the Vitascope,” was a hit. The Times said that the theatregoers cheered “vociferously.”
The historic year was 1896: the movies, as a popular entertainment, had been born. That same year marked the birth of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The novelist and the film industry grew up together. In 1906, as Marcus Loew—later the founder of Loew’s Theatres and MGM—was beginning to move primitive projectors into his New York penny arcade, Fitzgerald was beginning in show business, too. It was then that the actor Dustin Farnum entered his life, trailing clouds of stage romance. Fitzgerald was living in Buffalo at the time, and Farnum was acting in a Buffalo summer-stock company; he often gave Scott complimentary tickets to his shows. “He used to go to the Wild West movies and the Tech Stock Company,” Fitzgerald’s ledger reports (in the third person); Scott even memorized many of the speeches. Inspired by the theatre world which Farnum had opened to him, Fitzgerald “made up shows in Ingham’s attic,” according to the ledger; these plays were “all based on the American Revolution and a red sash and three-cornered hat.” He even rigged a sheet as a curtain, invited the neighborhood children, and then charged them admission to see his dramas; money and the theatre were already fused in the young impresario’s imagination. There was competition for the boy Fitzgerald, however, just as there was for the young Loew. “Gus Shy’s play put him temporarily in the shade,” Fitzgerald wrote of himself. “Finally the moving-picture machine Lucky’s uncle gave him eclipsed Gus Shy.”
In 1908, the year the Fitzgeralds moved to St. Paul’s Summit Avenue, the movies themselves attempted their own move uptown. A company known as Film d’Art, formed in France for the express purpose of introducing the lowly movie audiences to the world’s greatest stage artists, released its first film, The Assassination of the Duc de Guise. American producers soon took up the idea and, among other things, turned out a completely silent Hamlet which ran just ten minutes. The movies were beginning to mold themselves into a form which might have bored the boy who loved his “Wild West movies,” but which would later interest the grown-up artist in Fitzgerald.
For his third year of preparatory study, Fitzgerald left St. Paul for the Newman School on the outskirts of Hackensack, New Jersey. In his ledger he wrote: “Poor marks and on bounds. Trips to New York.” That year movie audiences around the world were introduced to the fabulous Sarah Bernhardt in a film version of her play Queen Elizabeth (1912), but Fitzgerald paid more attention to Ina Claire, star of The Quaker Girl, and Gertrude Bryan, star of Little Boy Blue. “Confused by hopeless melancholy love for them both,” the author wrote, “I was unable to choose between them—so they blurred into one lovely entity, the girl.” In one of his autobiographical stories Fitzgerald remembered The Girl this way: “Yes, she was, indeed, like that song—a Beautiful Rose of the Night. The waltz buoyed her up, brought her with it to a point of aching beauty and then let her slide back to life across its last bars as a leaf slants to earth across the air. The high life of New York!” Or put more simply: “She didn’t have wings, but audiences agreed generally that she didn’t need them.” So it was that Fitzgerald could hardly think of New York without thinking of the theatres there, and the girls who made them luminous.
Before long he wanted to do more than just “sit in the audience without helping to make the play.” “In school I went off on a new tack,” he wrote. “… my desk bulged with Gilbert and Sullivan librettos and dozens of notebooks containing the germs of dozens of musical comedies.”
That summer, as Mack Sennett was setting up his Keystone studio where “kops” would run riot, Fitzgerald was busy, too. On the train home for summer vacation, the fifteen-year-old author wrote his first full-length play. It was about a cat burglar and it was called The Captured Shadow. Enjoying an autonomy which he would never have once he turned pro, Fitzgerald cast himself not only as the author but also as director-producer and bit player. The other roles were played by his St. Paul friends. The show was performed at Mrs. Backus’ School on August 23, 1912, and the next day the young showman pasted his first notices into his scrapbook. One review said that “much favorable comment was elicited by the young author’s cleverness”—the young author cleverly underlined the words in red. Then, beside all of the reviews, he wrote in big block letters: ENTER SUCCESS.
Later, Fitzgerald wrote a short story, also called “The Captured Shadow,” about writing and staging the play; in it he described what he had learned from his first real attempt at playwriting. For example, there had been one laugh he had not expected. Chinaman Rudd had been entrusted with one of the young playwright’s favorite jokes. When asked what an alderman was, the Chinaman said candidly, “An alderman is halfway between a politician and a pirate.” The audience sat unmoved. A moment later “Bill Kampf absent-mindedly wiped his forehead with his handkerchief and then stared at it, startled by the red stains of make-up on it—and the audience roared. The theatre was like that.”
Years later in Hollywood, as Fitzgerald watched child stars like Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and Freddie Bartholomew moving about the sets, they reminded him of the boys and girls of St. Paul getting up their show. They even gave him an idea. He began to imagine Judy and Mickey and Freddie in a movie based on his story about his first play. It sounded so good that he sent off a memo to Edwin Knopf proposing that Metro do a film called The Captured Shadow. “There is my theme,” he wrote, “the Impresario in the Days of his Youth.” Fitzgerald went on to say that the plot should turn on the hero’s discovery that the only way to get his play staged was “by reducing his ideas (just as we have to do in pictures).” The project ended, however, with Fitzgerald reducing his own ideas and working on a picture assigned him by his bosses.
Since The Captured Shadow did so well in St. Paul it was followed the next summer by The Coward, which played to a sellout crowd at the YWCA auditorium and made a hundred and fifty dollars for the Baby Welfare Association—twice what Shadow had made. Fitzgerald wrote, directed, produced, and this time starred in the play, which concerns a Southerner who at first refuses to fight in the Civil War, then finds the courage to enlist, and becomes a hero. In his scrapbook the author wrote large THE GREAT EVENT. He underlined in red a review sentence which said, “Scott Fitzgerald, the author, played the part of Lieut. Charles Douglas with great success. ”
Show business even helped Fitzgerald pick out a university. “Near the end of my last year at school I came across a new musical-comedy score lying on top of the piano,” he remembered. “It was a show called His Honor the Sultan, and the title furnished the information that it had been presented by the Triangle Club of Princeton University. That was enough for me. From then on the university question was settled. I was bound for Princeton.”
In September of 1913—the year Charlie Chaplin entered the Keystone studio at a salary of one hundred fifty dollars a week— Fitzgerald entered Princeton. The moment he passed his entrance examination, he wired his mother: ADMITTED SEND FOOTBALL PADS AND SHOES IMMEDIATELY. But instead of playing football—or studying either, for that matter—Fitzgerald spent most of his freshman year at the university doing what he had come there to do: working for the Triangle Club. His ledger entries for that year are spotted with the club symbol. “Oct —The A meeting”; “Nov—Working on A lyrics”; “Dec—Working on lights in Casino”; “Feb —Began A play”; “Mar—Working hard on A play.” The results of all this work for Triangle were summed up by Fitzgerald as follows: “I failed in algebra, trigonometry, coordinate geometry, and hygiene.”
By tutoring over the summer, however, the shaky student managed to come back to Princeton the next fall as a sophomore. But more important to Fitzgerald, he came back not only as a second-year man but also as a successful college playwright. His ledger tells the story: “Sept—Play accepted”; “Nov—A rehearsing”; “Feb —Secretary of A Club on 26th”; “April—New York A show.” The Fitzgerald musical which the Triangle accepted, rehearsed, and then took on a road trip all the way from New York to St. Paul, was called Fie! Fie! Fi-Fi! It was the story of a Chicago gangster who took over Monaco as easily as if it had been a floating crap game. But the gangster is undone by his estranged wife Fi-Fi who, reduced to the position of manicurist in a Monacan hotel, sides with the Monacans and helps them win their country back. The play went well. The Brooklyn Citizen declared: “This delicious little vehicle was announced as a musical comedy and the name can only be disputed to the extent that it is also given to innumerable Broadway productions that possess less vivacity, less sparkling humor, and less genuine music.”
The year Fie! Fie! Fi-Fi! hit New York, so did D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. With this one film the movie industry’s labor pains ended and the modern motion picture was born. The camera panned; it rode with the Klansmen when the Klan rode; it rushed in for dramatic close-ups—all Griffith innovations. No less a critic than Woodrow Wilson said that the picture was “like writing history in lightning.” Fitzgerald saw the film and felt the lightning, too; in 1920 he visited Griffith’s New York studio and “trembled in the presence of the familiar faces of The Birth of a Nation.”
The academic year which followed the success of Fie! Fie! Fi-Fi! might well have been entitled Fie! Fie! Fitzgerald! What happened was this: Edmund Wilson, later a sometimes forbiddingly serious critic, turned out a zany musical drama called The Evil Eye. Fitzgerald, however, was not left out: he wrote the lyrics for Wilson’s book. A quarter-century later the two men would collaborate again—except that it would not really be collaboration, for Wilson’s work on the unfinished manuscript of The Last Tycoon would not begin until Fitzgerald was already dead.
Besides his efforts as lyricist, the author also served the Triangle as photographers’ femme fatale. That is, he posed for publicity pictures dressed, in traditional Triangle kick-line fashion, as a chorus girl. His picture appeared in newspapers all across the country accompanied by the caption: “Considered the Most Beautiful ’Show Girl’ in the Princeton Triangle Club’s New Musical Play.” Charles Bornhapt, a producer, saw the photograph in the New York Times and offered to find the lovely Fitzgerald a role on Broadway.
But again the busy author-actor was in academic trouble. He was on the point of failing at Princeton when what doctors diagnosed as malaria allowed him to retire from school gracefully. “I wore myself out on a musical comedy,” he wrote later, “which I… organized and mostly directed while the president played football. Result: I slipped way back in my work, got [sick], lost a year in college—and, irony of ironies, because of [a] scholastic slip I wasn’t allowed to take the presidency of the Triangle. ” Elsewhere he said: “Almost my final memory before I left was of writing a last lyric on that year’s Triangle production while in bed in the infirmary with a high fever.” Fitzgerald sat in the audience when The Evil Eye played in St. Paul that spring.
At home convalescing, the young dramatist had plenty of time to write another Triangle play—one which, like many of his Hollywood scripts, was never produced. His ledger says “April —Writing A play,” and then adds, “May—Play refused.” So once again he wrote the lyrics for another author’s play, a production called Safety First.
In September of 1917, his senior year, Fitzgerald achieved the rank of professional author, making his first sale—a poem for which Poet Lore paid two dollars. The same year Charlie Chaplin, twenty-seven, made a sale also: he signed a contract with First National for one million dollars a year. Appropriately, one of Chaplin’s first pictures, filmed in 1914, had been called Making a Living.
In November Fitzgerald moved out of his Princeton dormitory room and into a barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. So far as the author was concerned, the university had lost its savor. When he had failed to reach the top of the Triangle, Fitzgerald felt that he had lost more than a few hundred watts of limelight: from the beginning, the stage had been to him a political and social instrument. The Triangle presidency would have given him real stature at Princeton, perhaps even gotten him onto the Senior Council. By way of the Triangle, later by way of Broadway and Hollywood, Fitzgerald was to have arrived. But as he later wrote, “There were to be no badges of pride, no medals, after all.”
There were no medals awaiting the author in the Army either: he joined too late to “get over” to the war in Europe. There was something to take the place of decorations, however. In 1918, while Chaplin was filming Shoulder Arms, Fitzgerald, stationed at Camp Sheridan, Alabama, met Zelda Sayre. After the war he went north to New York where he got paid for writing advertising copy and got nothing for writing in a number of other genres. “I had one hundred and twenty-two rejection slips pinned in a frieze about my room,” he remembered. “I wrote movies. I wrote song lyrics. I wrote complicated advertising schemes. I wrote poems. I wrote sketches. I wrote jokes. ” It looked as though Fitzgerald’s writing career would go the way of his football career. Then in 1919 the author scored.
That year the original Metro Company paid out twenty thousand dollars for Blasco Ibariez’ popular novel The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and Charles Scribner’s Sons bought This Side of Paradise. In 1920, the year the novel was published, Marcus Loew bought Metro itself for over three million dollars. Already Fitzgerald as a novelist faced a kind of competition of which Dickens and George Eliot had never dreamed, but he was not worried. He liked show business, all kinds of show business, and that meant movies too.
To read This Side of Paradise is to see again that love, dreams, money, and drama were in some ways wound up on the same reel in Fitzgerald’s imagination. Love was not only the thing all those plays and movies were about. Love itself was a kind of play. It had been that way since those first dramas he made up in the attic. In describing Amory Blaine’s feelings, the author recalled his own love for the theatre, a love which is entwined with his love for The Girl. “The play was The Little Millionaire,” he wrote of one of Amory’s trips to New York, “with George M. Cohan, and there was one stunning young brunette who made him sit with brimming eyes in the ecstasy of watching her dance.” Amory’s friend Paskert puts his own admiration into strong words: “Yes, sir, I’d marry that girl tonight!” But Amory is a more complex lover; he feels a certain ambivalence toward the star and the stage, an ambivalence which would stay with his creator right through his life to his Hollywood days. “I wonder about actresses,” he says. “Are they all pretty bad?”
There were shows in Princeton, too: for Amory, like Fitzgerald, soon discovers that about the only way romance ever entered that isolated college town was by way of the mailman’s pouch or the movie house. The girls on the screen were, in fact, the only members of the opposite sex whom he saw regularly. He enjoyed going to the movies and sitting in the dark while other boys shouted:
“Kiss her, kiss ’at lady, quick!”
When Amory meets Rosalind, love and drama become so entangled in the book and in the author’s mind that the romantic scenes are actually written in dramatic form, as if they were to be enacted in the theatres of New York or on the moving-picture stages of California. For example:
AMORY: Suppose—we fell in love.
ROSALIND: I’ve suggested pretending.
AMORY: If we did it would be very big.
And if love to the young Fitzgerald was drama, then lovers were likely to be actors. As a boy he had once tried to instruct his shy sister on how to act with men: “Expression, that is facial expression, is one of your weakest points,” he wrote. “A girl of your good looks and at your age ought to have almost perfect control of her face. It ought to be almost like a mask… Get before a mirror and practice a smile and get a good one.” Much later at the age of forty he would write in his Crack-Up essays: “And a smile—ah, I would get me a smile. I’m still working on that smile. It is to combine the best qualities of a hotel manager, an experienced old social weasel, a headmaster on visitors’ day, a colored elevator man, a pansy pulling a profile, a producer getting stuff at half its market value…” Yes, Fitzgerald took acting seriously. Rosalind is always playing the little actress and Amory the actor. “He sees himself constantly not as a human being,” wrote Heywood Broun, “but as a man in a novel or in a play. Every move is a picture and there is a cameraman behind each tree.”
For love, life, and drama to become confused past all untangling, the only thing that remained was for Fitzgerald and Zelda to act out their real-life love in play form, and that is exactly the job one movie producer offered them. He wanted Scott and Zelda to play their fictional alter egos, Amory Blaine and Rosalind Connage, in the movie version of This Side of Paradise. Fitzgerald’s editor Maxwell Perkins, with ancestors buried in Puritan New England, was horrified by the idea. The author tried to win him over by promising that this would be his “first and last appearance positively.” After all, why shouldn’t the Most Beautiful Show Girl of Princeton’s Triangle Club (and his wife) be seen by all who were willing to buy tickets? Fitzgerald could still remember those days when the movies—as well as magazine editors and publishers—had regarded him as if he were invisible. Now he was beginning to enjoy visibility. But before Fitzgerald could give the producer a definite yes or no, the project was shelved, only to be revived three years later in 1923.
In September of 1920, as the undergraduates were going back to classes and homework at Princeton, Scribner’s brought out a collection of Fitzgerald’s short stories called Flappers and Philosophers. These stories won for the author his first success with motion-picture sales. To Zelda, who had refused to marry him on the grounds that he was poor, he wired the following love note: I HAVE SOLD THE MOVIE RIGHTS OF HEAD AND SHOULDERS TO THE METRO COMPANY FOR TWENTY FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS I LOVE YOU DEAREST GIRL. Metro quickly produced a movie based on the story, calling it The Chorus Girl’s Romance. Not long after, Fitzgerald sold “The Offshore Pirate” to the same company for another twenty-five hundred, and again the story was quickly filmed. It was the kind of success that the author would not fully appreciate until twenty years later, when as a Metro screenwriter he would see how hard getting stories onto the screen could be.
It was appropriate that, of all the stories which Fitzgerald had published, the movie studio should pick the two it did, for both have to do with the world of entertainment. In “Head and Shoulders” the heroine is an actress named Marcia Meadow, and the hero, by contrast, a precocious, monklike student named Horace Tarbox, who is “leading the sophomore class by several lengths.” When Horace and Marcia meet, Horace falls in love and therefore puts aside his life of passive contemplation to enter the world of action: he joins a circus. So the circus, that passing show, becomes one of Fitzgerald’s metaphors for the active world and life itself.
“The Offshore Pirate” is linked to show business more obliquely. The story is about a girl named Ardita who is bored because she is pursued by too many run-of-the-mill heirs to industrial fortunes. Kidnaped by a band of offshore pirates, Ardita asks the leader to tell her the story of his life. “Why?” he wants to know. “Going to write a movie about me?” When Ardita is finally rescued and it is revealed that her pirate is no pirate at all but a young millionaire, she is neither relieved nor disappointed. She simply says in a low voice, “What an imagination! I want you to lie to me just as sweetly as you know how for the rest of my life.” It would seem that in courtship the play is indeed the thing to catch the admiration of a heroine worth having.
In October 1921 the Fitzgerald’s only child, Scottie, was born. The author wired Zelda’s parents: LILLIAN GISH IS IN MOURNING CONSTANCE TALMADGE IS A BACK NUMBER A SECOND MARY PICKFORD HAS ARRIVED. Half a year later in 1922 there was another new arrival, a novel called The Beautiful and Damned. It told the prophetic story of a heroine who loses her beauty and a hero who sinks into alcoholism. One of the characters in the book is a novelist who begins his career with a brilliant novel and ends it “making a great fortune writing trash for the movies.”
The novel, however, does not dismiss all movies as trash. In fact, the world of the movie studio is once more seen as a metaphor for the world of action. Again and again Gloria Gilbert Patch is offered the opportunity to enter this world, but Anthony is opposed. “It’s so silly!” he argues. “You don’t want to go into the movies—moon around a studio all day with a lot of cheap chorus people.” “Lot of mooning around Mary Pickford does!” says Gloria. “… Perhaps if I did go into this for a while it’d stir you up so you’d do something.” She finally relents, however, and—like Anthony—does nothing. Her failure to go into the movies pairs with Anthony’s failure to go to war, even as a war correspondent. Neither acts.
While Scott worked on his book about Gloria Gilbert, the star who never was, Zelda herself was trying to make up her mind about a movie career. One of the Fitzgeralds’ friends posed the problem in his diary. “What shall Zelda do?” he asked. “I think she might do a little housework—[apartment] looks like a pig sty… I told her she would have to make up her mind whether she wanted to go in movies or get in with young married set. To do that would require a little effort & Zelda will never make an effort.”
Happily, the fictional Gloria did finally make her way to the screen, her chance coming in the movie version of The Beautiful and Damned. Fitzgerald sold the novel to Warner Brothers in 1922 “for $2,500 which seems a small price… Please don’t tell anyone what I got for it.” The movie starred Marie Prevost as Gloria and Kenneth Harlan as Anthony, and was described by one reviewer as “one of the most horrific motion pictures of memory.”
Fitzgerald followed The Beautiful and Damned with a collection of stories called Tales of the Jazz Age. In that volume he gave the world a larger-than-life symbol of absolute wealth: it was a “diamond bigger than the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.” In his story “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” this emblem of extravagance is paired with another larger-than-life symbol: Hollywood. For who besides Hollywood would be more suited for the job of fashioning a setting for such a gem? When hero John Unger asks about the architect who planned the mansion built atop the great diamond, Percy Washington answers, “I blush to tell you, but it was a moving-picture fella. He was the only man we found who was used to playing with an unlimited amount of money…” The moving-picture man did, however, have his drawbacks—“he did tuck his napkin in his collar and couldn’t read or write.” It would therefore seem that even in his twenties, before any real exposure to the medium, Fitzgerald felt the same love-hate for Hollywood that he felt for the very rich. Just as he saw that the rich could be both romantic and cruel, so he saw the two faces of the movies. If one mask smiled and dispersed “an unlimited amount of money,” another mask wore its napkin at its chin and was illiterate.
In his quest for the kind of wealth represented by the imaginary diamond, Fitzgerald turned to the stage with a play called The Vegetable, or from President to Postman. He wrote Perkins that he was writing “an awfully funny play that’s going to make me rich forever. It really is. I’m so damned tired of the feeling that I’m living up to my income.” Of course the near-miss aspirant for president of the Triangle Club had his designs on more than wealth. In another letter to Perkins, and in an equally self-assured tone, he wrote, “It is, I think, the best American comedy to date and undoubtedly the best thing I have ever written.”
The year 1923 was an important one in the history of entertainment. That year Rene Clair released his first film, Paris Qui Dort; Cecil B. De Mille premiered his landmark extravaganza The Ten Commandments; and Irving Thalberg, about whom Fitzgerald would later write The Last Tycoon, went to work for Louis B. Mayer. Fitzgerald himself opened The Vegetable, “the best American comedy to date,” and it bombed. The unlucky day was November 20, the place the Apollo Theatre in Atlantic City.
The play was the story of Jerry Frost, a downtrodden railroad clerk who dreams the American Dream of becoming President. In the second act the clerk’s fantasy was acted out so that the audience actually saw Jerry functioning as President. Of course the satire worked the other way, too. Fitzgerald was also showing the clerkishness of the then President Harding. In the last act Jerry wakes up and becomes the postman he had wanted to be in the first place—happy ending. “His main point,” writes Arthur Mizener, “is that the American dream of rising from newsboy to President is ridiculous and that the Jerry Frosts of this world are far happier being the postmen nature made them than being presidents.” Even Edmund Wilson, sometimes a harsh critic of Fitzgerald’s thought processes, seemed pleased with the intellectual content of the drama: “I think you have a much better grasp on your subject than you usually have,” he wrote his old Princeton friend, “—you know what end and point you are working for as isn’t always the case with you.” But if the play made points, it did not make people laugh—or so the audience seemed to think. Playing on his hero’s cold name, Fitzgerald described opening night as follows: “It was a colossal frost. People left their seats and walked out, people rustled their programs and talked audibly in bored impatient whispers. After the second act I wanted to stop the show and say it was all a mistake but the actors struggled heroically on.” One of those who walked out while the play was still in progress—according to Ernest Truex, who played Jerry Frost—was Fitzgerald’s close friend Ring Lardner. Accompanying Ring was F. Scott Fitzgerald himself. Some time later when Harold Ober, Fitzgerald’s agent, tried to revive interest in the play, the author wrote him: “… the whole thing has already cost me about a year and a half of work so I’d rather let it drop. It’s honestly no good.”
Fitzgerald’s dream of the boy from St. Paul who grows up to be the George Bernard Shaw of the American theatre had for the moment proved as futile as dreaming of the Presidency. But Fitzgerald was still in no mood to give up show business. For even as The Vegetable was failing, interest in a movie version of This Side of Paradise revived, and Fitzgerald was to help write the screenplay. Famous Players paid him ten thousand dollars; for their money they were to receive the rights to Paradise and what the author called “a ten-thousand word condensation of my book.” “This is not a synopsis,” he told a reporter, “but a variation of the story better suited for screening. ”
The treatment which Fitzgerald wrote for Famous Players began with a discussion of what the author thought the movie should be about. “The theme,” he explained, “should be the struggles of the ideals of the young, as exemplified by Amory and Rosalind, against the snobbish and mercenary world into which they were born.” “The spirit of the picture,” he went on to say, “should be that of the book—the affairs of youth taken seriously.” The problem was that in plotting his movie the young author took the affairs of youth a little too seriously—so seriously, in fact, that all loves and hates, happinesses and sorrows, are magnified to the point of melodrama. At one moment the heroine is reduced to tears, at another the hero is elevated to the lofty position of Christ figure.
Scott had not worked out exactly what scenes should be included in the movie, but he did know how he wanted the audience to feel about his hero—sympathetic.
In order to gain sympathy for Amory at the very start, it would be best to show movie audiences more obviously that he is a victim of environment and wrong education… Some nurse might point out St. Francis of Assisi or Sir Galahad to him as a great Saint and Amory might be thrilled, but his mother might angrily snatch him away and point to Lord Chesterfield as a better model for a boy.
By the time Amory arrives at Princeton, “he is a complete product of his environment: arrogant, lazy, selfish—everything that the world wishes onto a child of wealth.”
But at the university Amory, by now “an impossible little snob,” meets Burne Holiday and “learns that here in college, away from sycophants and snobs, there is such a thing as an honest admiration for nobility of character.” Amory has now outgrown Lord Chesterfield; with Holiday as his new saint, he mends his faults so that “the spark of divinity, so nearly extinguished, comes back to life.”
Fitzgerald described the two girls in Amory’s life in terms of the Jazz Age: Eleanor is “the spirit of wild jazz” and Rosalind “the spirit of, on the whole, good jazz.” He went on:
We could contrast Rosalind and Eleanor not as the bad modern girl and the good, non-existent 1890 girl, but both as Jazz Age girls using the manners of this age in different ways. There is a new generation of movie patrons growing up who never lived in any age but the age of jazz music and wouldn’t recognize the innocent country girl if they saw her—or if she existed.
Like many of Scott’s later movie ideas, this one would have been hard to photograph, since jazz is invisible, but still the description retains its charm, for the author was reinterpreting his girls in the terms of an age they helped to create.
Amory discovers that he prefers good jazz to wild, but he also finds that Rosalind sometimes degenerates into cacophony: she has a tendency to be “lazy, mercenary, and selfish, all these qualities being cultivated by a silly, avaricious mother.” The girl’s “shortcomings… strike a sympathetic chord in him, because of their similarity to his own,” and soon he “falls deeply in love.”
When Amory’s mother dies and his fortune is wiped out, however, the blow brings “terror to Rosalind as money is to her a prime requisite.” She cannot stop loving Amory, “but heavens! what can she do without money?” She writes in her diary that the only way she could ever bring herself to marry Amory “would be sometime when she is thoroughly tight.” She does, of course, get tight, and:
They go to a dreadful little apartment of a Brooklyn clergyman… The surroundings start to sober her. She realizes that this is the sort of place she will have to live in with Amory… Amory runs down to the florist on the corner to buy Rosalind some flowers. While he is gone Rosalind opens her diary (which she carries everywhere) to the page in which she wrote that the only time she could marry Amory would be when she was tight. She scrawls after it: “I’ve sobered up. Good-by.” Then she hurries home. Amory comes back with a cheap little wedding bouquet… and finds her good-by message. It all but kills him, while Rosalind, headed home in a taxi, is weeping.
Fitzgerald must have hoped that his audience would do likewise.
Scott made matters worse—both for Amory and for his movie— by bringing Burne Holiday back into the story. Holiday, now wealthy, begins to court Rosalind, and one night Amory hears that the girl he loves and his former idol have eloped. Too late, he sets out to try to stop them. “Rosalind and Holiday are married… they go off through the rain, Holiday driving, and the accident takes place. Holiday is killed… Amory comes upon the accident.” In the novel, when Dick Humbird is killed in a car crash, it is the very randomness, the pointlessness, of the death which strikes and frightens us. When Burne Holiday dies a similar death in the movie version, however, we feel that it has all been contrived by the author so that Amory will get the girl.
Now that her husband is dead, “Rosalind’s big moment has come… She tells Amory that they were not eloping, that Holiday brought her out to talk to her and lecture her on her worthless-ness. And so Rosalind gives Amory back his soul.” Amory’s “Christ vision,” which Fitzgerald saw as the “high point” of his picture, is at hand. “He picks up the body of his dead friend and as he stands looking into his face, a look that is Christlike comes over him.” In the last scene of the movie treatment, “Amory takes [Rosalind] in his arms and we realize that, at last, he is strong enough to work out the destinies of both of them.”
The movie was different from the book: this time the boy was to get the girl. The author, of course, had gotten his girl so why shouldn’t his hero get his? Scott would later write of his own courtship of Zelda.
It was one of those tragic loves doomed for lack of money, and one day the girl closed it out on the basis of common sense. During a long summer of despair I wrote a novel instead of letters, so it came out all right, but it came out all right for a different person.
And the same might be said of Amory: the Amory who lost Rosalind in the novel is “a different person” from the Amory who wins her in the movie version of Paradise. In the novel, Amory appeared as a kind of “spoiled priest,” but in the movie he is made over into a Savior and the whole story is shifted a little too close to Paradise for comfort.
Back in 1920 Fitzgerald had told a reporter quite prophetically, “I suspect it must be difficult to mold my stuff into the conventional movie form with its creaky mid-Victorian sugar. Personally, when I go to the pictures, I like to see a pleasant flapper like Constance Talmadge or I want to see comedies like those of Chaplin’s or Lloyd’s. I’m not strong for the uplift stuff. It simply isn’t life to me.” What better critique of Fitzgerald’s own adaptation of This Side of Paradise for the movies? The movie industry had come a long way since that night when Edison showed his pictures in Koster and Bial’s vaudeville theatre, but Fitzgerald’s idea of the movies had not come nearly so far. He took his lifelike modern novel and turned it into a gaslight drama which would have been more at home back in the nineties. Scott and Zelda did not star in This Side of Paradise because the picture was never made.
Paradise did not make Fitzgerald’s Hollywood fortune, but the young author was not discouraged. Before long he would be on his way to Hollywood in person, not only to try out as a screenwriter but to screen-test as a leading man.