The title marker, a small hand-held blackboard with a hinged arm on top, flashed onto the screen. It was there to announce in crooked, chalked letters that the strip of film about to be shown was THE REDHEADED WOMAN, TAKE ONE. Marker arm up, whack! The blackboard came away like a curtain rising and there she was—Jean Harlow. Her career had moved ahead in fits and starts until now, but after this movie she would be the new Clara Bow and Pola Negri rolled into one.
The rushes were being reviewed in one of MGM’s many projection rooms, very likely Irving Thalberg’s own. Fitzgerald later described that room in The Last Tycoon:
[It] was a miniature picture theatre with four rows of overstuffed chairs. In front of the front row ran long tables with dim lamps, buzzers, and telephones. Against the wall was an upright piano, left there since the early days of sound. The room had been redecorated and reupholstered only a year before, but already it was ragged again with work and hours.
Gathered in that room to see the new star rising were representatives of all technical departments along with supervisors and unit managers. Since it was an important picture, Eddie Mannix was present. (Eddie, a former bouncer at Palisades Amusement Park and now a special aid to L. B. Mayer, was one executive who gave Fitzgerald trouble from the moment he entered MGM in 1931 to the moment he left for good in 1938.) Ruling over the assembly, his thin knees drawn up beside him in his chair, was Thalberg himself. Everyone was there, in fact, except Jack Conway, the film’s director. “The directors did not appear at these showings,” Fitzgerald would later explain in Tycoon. “—officially because their work was considered done, actually because few punches were pulled here as money ran out in silver spools. There had evolved a delicate staying away.”
On the screen: Harlow had just come home to an apartment which she shared with her girlfriend.
“Going out with Sol tonight?” the girl friend asked (or words to that effect).
“I certainly am not,” Harlow declared, as if she had just been offered sardines when she was expecting filet of sole.
“Why not?” the girl friend wanted to know.
“I met a banker.”
“So suddenly Sol isn’t Prince Charming.”
“That bum!” Harlow exploded and pointed with disgust to the “bum’s” picture on her dressing table.
The camera panned to the picture and everyone broke up with laughter. Everyone, that is, except Eddie Mannix, for the bum in the picture was Eddie himself. He was furious! Where was the director? Who was the smarty playing expensive tricks, anyway? And he wanted the footage shot over again tomorrow, first thing. Unfortunately, Fitzgerald missed the fun. A joke of his own, a well-meant prank, had already cost him his job at the studio.
Fitzgerald had returned to California in November 1931, this time alone. His wife was now at the edge of insanity and much too ill to risk a trip to madcap Hollywood; he left her with her parents in Alabama when he headed west. The author needed money and that had helped him make up his mind to try the movies once again. In the old days he had once locked himself up for ten days, written four short stories, sold them, and used the money to rent a yacht he needed for a party he was giving. But in 1931 there were other bills to pay—bills for his daughter’s schools, bills for his wife’s sanitariums. Yet as badly as he needed the money, he had not come back to pictures for the high salary alone. Perhaps even more important was the novelist’s fear of becoming a museum piece. “As long past as 1930,” he later wrote in his Crack-Up essays, “I had a hunch that the talkies would make even the best-selling novelist as archaic as silent pictures.”
When he arrived, movieland once again “made a big fuss” over him. “Scott Fitzgerald is almost the only writer who never has cause to complain of his Hollywood welcome,” Dorothy Speare observed at the time. “He is famous even in Hollywood, where his meteoric arrivals and departures are discussed in film circles as avidly as they discuss themselves.”
The Glamour Figure of the twenties at first found the Glamour Capital a very comfortable place to be. “The American Riviera and all that,” Fitzgerald called it. In fact, he made himself so much at home that Miss Speare had trouble meeting him. In a Saturday Evening Post article she wrote:
Coming in one night to a party at Carmel Myers’, I find everybody in a state of feverish anticipation. Scott Fitzgerald is here. “All right,” I said, “where is he?”
“Sh, darling!” I’m informed. “He’s taking a bath.”
He takes so long over it that I have to leave before he appears, as we are going to some other castle.
When Miss Speare and Fitzgerald finally did come together, he told her, “You were the last person on earth I wanted to meet after the way we used to slam each other’s work every time we had a chance to be quoted!” In the twenties the two had been pictured in a New York Tribune cartoon quarreling over the role of the Modern Girl, but now the modernity had rubbed off both of them. Besides, heroes of the 1920s had to band together for their mutual protection now that a new decade had come. So Speare and Fitzgerald took a sentimental journey from night club to night club.
At a little restaurant where “an old man plays old tunes upon a xylophone,” Fitzgerald asked to hear “all the songs to which the generation that he immortalized once danced—’Babes in the Wood’; ’The Crickets Are Calling’; ’Japanese Sandman.’” “So nostalgic,” he said. The twenties were only two years in their grave, and already the music made the man and woman feel like ghosts as the xylophone played:
The crickets are calling, “Enjoy today;
Never mind what comes after.”
At MGM Fitzgerald was working for Thalberg, the man about whom he would later write The Last Tycoon. He had a five-week contract at twelve hundred a week, so this time he would get the money whether they made his movie or not. But on this second trip to Hollywood Fitzgerald was not being asked to do an original—every screenwriter’s ambition. Instead he was supposed to work on a story by an author who was not even an original herself. That is, he was hired to help write a screen adaptation of The Redheaded Woman, a novel by his imitator Katharine Brush. Fitzgerald was faced with the problem of trying to write like a copy of himself, and it showed.
There were other problems, too. As Fitzgerald later explained to his daughter:
Life had gotten in some hard socks and while all was serene on top, with your mother apparently recovered in Montgomery, I was jittery underneath and beginning to drink more than I ought to. Far from approaching it too confidently I was far too humble. I ran afoul of a bastard named [Marcel] de Sano, since a suicide, and let myself be gypped out of command. I wrote the picture and he changed as I wrote. I tried to get at Thalberg but was erroneously warned against it as “bad taste.” Result—a bad script.
Of course, had Fitzgerald been willing to risk “bad taste” in his fight to see Thalberg, he might have found that the undertaking was also a bad bet. Metro’s head of production was an extremely hard-to-see man. Once Thalberg kept Groucho, Harpo, and Chico Marx waiting so long that they got a pan, started a fire in it, and then fanned the smoke under his door. When the great man came bursting out, they met him at the threshold. Fitzgerald did eventually see Thalberg, but it was at Thalberg’s request rather than vice versa; he had just read what Fitzgerald and his collaborator were preparing for Harlow, and he evidently smelled smoke once again.
All that remains of the work which Fitzgerald did for Thalberg is an unfinished seventy-six page script, the one de Sano reworked. (A few years later the studios began preserving copies of all drafts by all writers; not one word written on studio time was to be lost. Not so in the early days; they didn’t hoard and consequently much disappeared, including the Fitzgerald script as it existed before de Sano got his pencil on it.) Fitzgerald later wrote a story about the problems of collaborating. It was called “Teamed with Genius” (1940) and in it the collaborator is seen “working frantically, [making] several dozen small changes. He substituted the word ’Scram!’ for ’Get out of my sight,’ he put ’Behind the eightball’ instead of ’In trouble,’ and replaced ’You’ll be sorry’ with the apt coinage ’Or else!’” With help like that it did not take long for Fitzgerald to find himself “behind the eightball” at the studio.
The collaborators’ unfinished screenplay opens in a roadhouse where we are introduced to the ways of the Redhead. Lily Andrews leaves her date waiting at a table while she goes to the ladies’ powder room. She then exits through the powder room’s back door to meet one of the richest boys in town for a rendezvous in the woods.
A movie which begins in a rest room is not likely to offer the usual Fitzgerald charm. Yet the philosophical terrain in the screenplay, if sometimes rough, is at least familiar. As Malcolm Cowley once wrote, “It was as if all [Fitzgerald’s] novels described a big dance to which he had taken… the prettiest girl… and as if at the same time he stood outside the ballroom, a little Midwestern boy with his nose to the glass, wondering how much the tickets cost and who paid for the music.” Lily Andrews is another character in this tradition. Walking through the forest with the rich boy, she asks if he will take her to the country club someday. He promises that he will. Then the dialogue descends to:
LILY: Would you?—oh really—please—I—I bet you got lipstick all over you-
After this woodland adventure, Lily seems to forget all about the boy who has promised her the country club, getting down instead to more serious business, the seduction of her married boss. It should be remembered that such stories were common at the time: gangsters and fallen women were the screen heroes and heroines of the early years of the Great Depression. Edward G. Robinson and others muscled their way into the theatres with titles like The Big House (1930), Little Caesar (1930), The Public Enemy (1931), The Secret Six (1931), and Scarface (1932). And while the guys were busy climbing out of poverty into gangland, the molls were moving up from the slums to brothels. A prostitute was the heroine in Susan Lenox (1931), followed by Blonde Venus (1932) and Letty Lynton (1932). Like the gangsters, the whores told their audiences that the only way to beat the Depression was to beat middle-class standards. In short, Fitzgerald and de Sano had the right formula in The Redheaded Woman: a girl who does her social climbing in bed. But perhaps they overdid it.
All the while Lily is setting her boss up for the kill, the screenwriters were setting her up for the same thing. By the time they finished with her, she was hardly a sympathetic whore. They had her enter her boss’s wife’s bedroom, where she fingers the wife’s clothes and steals her “Gardenia” perfume. They had her accidentally drop an ice cube down the back of her own dress and scream for her boss to get it. He retrieves the cube and is surprised to find that it is mostly melted. Hot little Lily asks flatly, “What do you expect?”
The last words in the unfinished Fitzgerald-de Sano script were: “You’re not so bad yourself, Big Boy.” Their collaboration had ended as it had begun, with a heavy hand and a cliche. Had the screenplay gone on past page seventy-six, the plans were for Lily to continue her travels from bed to bed—but she was taken out of the writers’ hands before they could finish her nocturnal Odyssey.
It did not take Irving Thalberg long to see that the script on which Fitzgerald and his collaborator were working did not represent the kind of picture he had had in mind. So he called a meeting. Since Bess Meredyth and C. Gardner Sullivan had worked on the project before Fitzgerald and de Sano took it over, they were summoned, too. To begin with, Thalberg didn’t like that opening sequence with Lily in the roadhouse.
“I’d rather assume she’d had some hell-raising doings,” he explained, “… than just see them in a dive together. Your audience[’s] imagination is working for you here if you let it.”
“It seemed tacked on,” one of the writers said—or at least that is how the conversation is recorded in an unpublished draft of Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon.
This scene may be pure fiction, but it probably isn’t. The Redheaded Woman was the only picture Fitzgerald ever worked on with Thalberg; moreover, the movie the writers and the producer are sweating over in the novel is very like Fitzgerald’s script about that Redhead.
In the unpublished Tycoon draft, what happens is this: Stahr has summoned supervisor Reiny Reinmund, director John Broaca, and writers Wylie White and Jane Meloney for a story conference. After he tells them that he does not like their opening and gets them to admit that it seems “tacked on,” he says, “We’ve had that problem before with stage plays.” (Of course in real life The Redheaded Woman was based on a novel rather than a play, so some fictionalizing has been done here.)
“In Tattersall [Stahr explains] we took all the hints of what had gone before and even shot two thousand feet of it. Finally we cut it all—that’s why it was such a short picture. Sherwood knew when he wanted to start his play and he was right. Don’t you think so, Johnny?”
“If you say so, Monroe.”
“I do say so, Johnny. And I’d say so even if something developed out of your scene—if it had action instead of just motion. When you extend a play with a prelude you’re asking for it—you’re including a lot of situations the playwright has already rejected. That’s why he’s reduced them to a mention. Why should we take that mention like one of those dried fish from Ireland and dip in water. You can make it swell but you can’t bring it to life.”
Why Edmund Wilson decided not to include this conversation in his edition of The Last Tycoon is not clear, for it belongs to a scene which he does print. The scene in question appears in Chapter Three, where Stahr goes on to say:
“Ten million Americans would put thumbs down on that girl if she walked on the screen. We’ve got an hour and twenty-five minutes on the screen—you show a woman being unfaithful to a man for one-third of that time and you’ve given the impression that she’s one-third whore.”
“Is that a big proportion?” asked Jane slyly, and they laughed.
“It is for me,” said Stahr thoughtfully, “even if it wasn’t for the Hays Office. If you want to paint a scarlet letter on her back, it’s all right, but that’s another story. Not this story. This is a future wife and mother.”
What kind of girl did Stahr approve of in a picture like this one? Answer:
“At all times, at all moments when she is on the screen in our sight, she wants to sleep with Ken Willard. Is that plain, Wylie?”
“Whatever she does, it is in place of sleeping with Ken Willard. If she walks down the street she is walking to sleep with Ken Willard, if she eats her food it is to give her strength to sleep with Ken Willard. But at no time do you give the impression that she would even consider sleeping with Ken Willard unless they were properly sanctified. I’m ashamed of having to tell you these kindergarten facts, but they have somehow leaked out of the story.”
Fitzgerald may have made up this speech from beginning to end, but it does have a Thalberg ring to it. Thalberg’s widow Norma Shearer would later turn down a chance to play Scarlett O’Hara because her fans wrote begging her not to portray a “bad woman.”
In the face of Stahr’s criticism, Reinmund insists, “This is the structure we agreed on—” “But it’s not the story,” Stahr interrupts. “Remember this in the future—if I order a limousine, I want that kind of car. And the fastest midget racer you ever saw wouldn’t do.” The Harlow vehicle manufactured by Fitzgerald (as reworked by de Sano) was a racy midget.
It would be a mistake, of course, to take too literally a conversation written in a novel. For one thing, much of what Stahr is given to say must have reflected Fitzgerald’s own ideas about pictures rather than Thalberg’s—after all, he had learned a lot in his years in Hollywood and he was anxious to prove it. Once all reservations have been registered, however, it is still not hard to imagine that a confrontation much like that described in The Last Tycoon actually occurred when Scott Fitzgerald, the boy luminary risen in the East, finally met Irving Thalberg, the young sun risen in the West.
Perhaps Fitzgerald lost his job at MGM simply because he had written the wrong kind of picture for Thalberg. But he more than likely lost it not for his performance as a writer but for his performance as a performer. It happened one “crazy Sunday.” In a story of that name he wrote:
Behind, for all of them, lay sets and sequences, the long waits under the crane that swung the microphone, the hundred miles a day by automobiles to and fro across a county, the struggles of rival ingenuities in the conference rooms, the ceaseless compromise, the clash and strain of many personalities fighting for their lives.
And now Sunday, a day for rest and tea at the Thalbergs’.
It would be a party out of the top drawer. It was a tribute to himself as a young man of promise. The Marion Davies crowd, the high-hats, the big currency numbers, perhaps even Dietrich and Garbo and the Marquise, people who were not seen everywhere.
Fitzgerald drove out to the Thalbergs’ with Dwight Taylor, the only other writer from the studio invited to the tea. After ringing all the right bells and having a series of doors unlocked before them, they were shown into a large living room. “I could see at once that we had landed on our feet,” Taylor remembers. “Everybody who was anybody in the picture colony was there… The room was restless and exciting, with all the glamour of a fair.”
Fitzgerald looked about him and decided that the Thalberg home “was built for great emotional moments—there was an air of listening, as if the far silences of its vistas hid an audience, but this afternoon it was thronged, as though people had been bidden rather than asked.”
Over to one side of the living room stood Thalberg with a group of people who seemed to be standing in line awaiting their turn to try and impress him. Fitzgerald knew that one way to make a bad impression was to look like a “rummie” and so he had decided to stay away from cocktails. But before long someone slid a glass into his hand.
Robert Montgomery was the first to turn against Fitzgerald. At the beginning of the party the actor had wanted to meet the author whom he had long admired; then he did meet him and all that changed. Montgomery had come to the tea in white riding breeches and black boots, looking a little like a penguin. Suddenly Fitzgerald approached him, looked at him queerly as if he really were a relative of that bird, and asked, “Why didn’t you bring your horse in?” The author’s face said that the question was not a joke. The actor turned and walked away.
Then, his “blood throbbing with the scarlet corpuscles of exhibitionism,” Fitzgerald announced to the crowd at large that he wanted to sing. Norma Shearer (Mrs. Thalberg) politely asked what it was that he wanted to sing. A song about a dog, he said, and the maid was dispatched upstairs to get her mistress’ poodle. Ramon Novarro, who played the title role in Ben Hur, was selected to improvise a piano accompaniment. “The others gathered in a half circle near the piano,” Dwight Taylor recalls, “but not too near, their faces devoid of expression, like people gathered at the scene of an accident.”
Cradling the dog like a baby in the crook of his arm, the great author sang his lullaby:
In Spain, they have the donkey
In Australia, the kangaroo,
In Africa, they have the zebra,
In Switzerland, the zoo.
But in America we have the dog—
And he’s a man’s best friend.
While the crowd of professional entertainers smiled and waited indulgently for the punch line, the singer launched into his second verse, one much like the first except with different animals annexed to different countries. And then the big chorus again:
But in America we have the dog—
And he’s a man’s best friend.
Slowly it began to dawn on the restless crowd that that was the punch line. Directly in front of him, Fitzgerald saw “the Great Lover of the screen [glare] at him with an eye as keen as the eye of a potato.” The Great Lover’s name was John Gilbert and he had been known to wear a loaded six gun to such parties.
“A sharp pang of doubt” went through the singer but he could no more stop himself from singing a third and fourth verse than he could stop himself from drinking. As Fitzgerald wrote of his hero in “Crazy Sunday”:
… as he finished he had the sickening realization that he had made a fool of himself in view of an important section of the picture world, upon whose favor depended his career… He felt the undercurrent of derision that rolled through the gossip; then—all this was in the space of ten seconds—the Great Lover, his eye hard and empty as the eye of a needle, shouted “Boo! Boo!” voicing in an overtone what he felt was the mood of the crowd. It was the resentment of the professional toward the amateur, of the community toward the stranger, the thumbs-down of the clan.
The next day Fitzgerald dropped by Dwight Taylor’s office, a glass cubicle which held the writer like a cellophane bag. When he walked in he was wearing that funny half-smile that he must have worn in Paris when he chewed up twenty-dollar bills and spat them out a taxicab window. It was the smile of the practical joker who had scandalized Hollywood in 1927 and the smile of the man who had just recently gone to Carmel Myers’ to take a bath.
“Nice party,” he observed to Taylor.
“How was I?”
“Not so good,” Taylor told him.
The smile and the face changed. You don’t really want to see me, you’re only being polite. It was an old face now; its lines had re-formed themselves into the mask which Fitzgerald would show to Hollywood when he returned for the last time in 1937.
“This job means a lot to me. I hope I didn’t make too much of a jackass of myself,” he said. He talked about the bills for Scottie’s schooling and the bills for setting props under Zelda’s mind. “I don’t know why I chose yesterday of all days to go off,” he told Taylor. “I always do that—at just the wrong time. I’ve been under quite a strain.”
Fitzgerald went off to the commissary for a Coke and a chance to think over Taylor’s disapproval. The big room was crowded and looked like a circus side show. Mixed in with the stars, secretaries, and carpenters were tables where sat sad, lovely Siamese twins, mean-faced dwarfs, and one proud giant—the studio was shooting a movie called The Freaks. Scott sat down at a table near some of the deformed and they deepened his somber mood, but when he returned to his office, he found good news waiting. Fitzgerald hurried off to tell Taylor. His face had found its strength once again as he read aloud the telegram he had just received from Norma Shearer: I THOUGHT YOU WERE ONE OF THE MOST AGREEABLE PERSONS AT OUR TEA. Scott thought the gesture was “the sweetest thing I ever heard of in my life!” He relaxed. At the end of the week they fired him.
A box of gardenias and a card signed F. Scott Fitzgerald were delivered to Dorothy Speare the day after the author got sacked. The flowers touched her—a funeral wreath for the hatchet they had buried and all that. For a moment she even wondered if the old feud might not turn the corner into romance. Then the phone rang and Miss Speare heard the voice of a girl who wrote for one of the fan magazines. Did Miss Speare like the flowers? Yes. “You see, Scotty left in such a hurry, darling,” the voice explained, “he just asked me to take care of you and all the others who were so nice to him. I’m so glad you liked them.” Perhaps Miss Shearer received flowers, too.
Fitzgerald’s old friend Anita Loos was called in to rewrite Scott’s script and she did a spicy job. Her Lily was still hot enough to melt ice cubes, but the new screenplay was more than a scorcher—it was a funny scorcher. Miss Loos hoped that if you kept people holding their sides, they wouldn’t have time to wag a finger. Still, some people did object to the picture, among them the film’s own director. Thalberg had assigned Jack Conway to do The Redhead, but after Conway read the script he no longer wanted the job. He said that he had known women like Lily and that they hurt too many people. But Thalberg insisted and Conway acquiesced, all except for one scene. The director said that Miss Loos would either have to rewrite it or direct it herself. Thalberg called his lady screenwriter and told her about Con-way’s ultimatum. She powdered her nose and then headed for the set. To direct.
Meanwhile, Fitzgerald was on his way back east, back to his wife and back to the novel. “I left with the money,” he later wrote, “for this was a contract for weekly payments, but disillusioned and disgusted, vowing never to go back…” And yet the last line of his story “Crazy Sunday” vowed “with a certain bitterness” something else. “Oh, yes, I’ll be back,” the hero thinks, “—I’ll be back!” He had failed this time, a second time, but he would keep his promise. “Oh, yes.”
In fact, once he finished Tender Is the Night as a novel, he began immediately trying to turn it into a movie. He even decided who should be in it. As Dick Diver he wanted the man whom he had insulted at the Thalbergs’ party: Robert Montgomery.