F. Scott Fitzgerald looked down from the silver screen at his Baltimore audience. Once again he was so successful that he made you feel dirty. On his desk lay the manuscript of the best book he had ever written. And at his side as a kind of reward—a golden loving cup for the champion—sat a beautiful woman. She wore a dark shawl over her golden head and a heavy coat with a big floppy collar. She looked at the writer, very serious, through heavily made-up eyes. “I wonder what you were when you were a little boy,” she said through the then fashionable apple-red lips; she had a romantic Russian accent. People were already comparing her to Garbo and Dietrich, and she was all his. “Life was like that, after all…”
In the audience, sitting toward the back of the house and hunched down in his seat, sat a little man with a gray face. The brightly lit author on the screen made the shadow which hung over this man seem all the darker. While the man up there was writing at the top of his talent, the man in the audience thought that his writing career was over.
“I have asked a lot of my emotions,” he had written in his notebooks, “—one hundred and twenty stories. The price was high… because there was one little drop of something—not blood, not a tear, not my seed, but me more intimately than these, in every story, it was the extra I had. Now it has gone and I am just like you now. Once the phial was full—here is the bottle it came in. ”
And for a writer who could no longer write there would be no badges, no medals, no beautiful women—only memories and a mad wife convalescing in a sanitarium. While the author on the screen solved his problems, life was more a puzzle than ever to the author in the audience. The Fitzgerald in the audience could look up at the Fitzgerald on the screen, but did he recognize the man he saw there? No, the real Fitzgerald was not like that anymore. He was cracking up.
The year was 1935. “One harassed and despairing night” only a few weeks back, Fitzgerald had “packed a briefcase and [gone] off a thousand miles to think it over.” He later wrote in his Crack-Up essays: “I took a dollar room in a drab little town where I knew no one and sunk all the money I had with me in a stock of potted meat, crackers, and apples.” The town was Hendersonville, North Carolina, and the author was amused by “the very deferential clerk not knowing that I was not only thousands, nay tens of thousands in debt, but had less than forty cents cash in the world and probably a deficit at my bank.” The only underwear Scott took “was a pair of pajama pants” which after several days of constant wear he thought worthy of “presenting… to the Hendersonville Museum.”
After Hendersonville, Fitzgerald at first seemed to get better, then worse. Years later, while killing time between pictures in Hollywood, Scott scribbled on a scrap of paper a short scene which tried to show the way his crack-up came over him:
A RAILROAD SIDING…
Begin with a montage of the actual crash of a great wreck…
GIRL: Seems to be a general breakdown.
BABNABY: DO I show it that bad?
GIRL: Show what?
BABNABY: The breakdown. I haven’t had it yet.
GIRL: I mean the wreck.
“And then suddenly, surprisingly, I got better,” Fitzgerald wrote in “The Crack-Up,” “and cracked like an old plate as soon as I heard the news.”
Hendersonville, at least, was behind Fitzgerald now, but as he looked up at the author in the movie who lived in a big house in Connecticut, a kind of feudal lord among the immigrants who worked the tobacco fields, his own Baltimore apartment must have seemed small. It was located across the street from the Johns Hopkins University; since Fitzgerald was alone there much of the time, he developed the habit of going days at a time without bothering to change out of his pajamas.
In “The Crack-Up” Fitzgerald wrote that he “liked doctors, and girl children up to the age of about thirteen, and well-brought-up boy children from about eight years on…” He “liked Katharine Hepburn’s face on the screen, no matter what was said about her pretentiousness… and old friends if I only saw them once a year and could remember their ghosts.” But in general he liked very little.
I saw that for a long time I had not liked people and things, but only followed the rickety old pretense of liking… I couldn’t stand the sight of Celts, English, Politicians, Strangers, Virginians, Negroes (light or dark), Hunting People, or retail clerks, and middlemen in general, all writers… and all the classes as classes and most of them as members of their class.
On the movie screen which Fitzgerald watched, the successful author was replaced for a moment by an old depot master. “Better you don’t talk to me,” the old man muttered bitterly to someone. At last, there was an emotion that the broken author recognized. There was someone with whom he could feel kinship.
The movie about Fitzgerald had been written by one of the author’s old friends, Edwin Knopf. The story was actually drawn from Knopf’s own experience, not Fitzgerald’s. But who had ever heard of Edwin-Knopf-the-famous-author? Who had ever associated his name with Dickens, Conrad, Hemingway? Who had ever seen him as the symbol of a generation? So he romanticized himself, took the cloak of Successful Author, and told his story as if dreams came true, as if he actually were Scott Fitzgerald. Knopf proudly sent his screenplay to Scott. In it, he called Scott and Zelda by their real names, but by the time the script had been transferred to the screen, the successful author had been renamed Tony Barnett.
Knopf had gotten his start in show business at about the same time Fitzgerald was getting started as a novelist. During those early years he had a theatre in Baltimore where he staged The Czarina. One day, during what was supposed to be a closed rehearsal, Knopf felt someone sitting in a seat directly behind him. He turned to see who it was.
“What are you doing ?” he asked indignantly.
“Watching you direct,” answered a lanky, freckle-faced girl just out of Bryn Mawr.
She had been around the theatre before, looking for a part, so Knopf recognized her, but he could not remember her name.
“I gave her a long lecture,” Knopf remembers. “I told her to go back to Connecticut and get married and have babies. I told her I didn’t like amateurs.”
But when the girl refused to leave, the young director began to reconsider.
—How would she like to be one of the ladies in waiting? The Czarina could always use one more.
—She wouldn’t have any lines.
—That was all right.
—But she would have plenty of curtsies.
It wasn’t much, a curtsy, but it was something. Knopf remembers that she got up on the stage and, “By God! she curtsied.” The director decided to ask the actress her name. She said that it was Katharine Hepburn. That was 1928.
After The Czarina Knopf wrote what was to be for him the fateful play. It was called The Big Pond and Miss Hepburn was cast in the leading role. But then came the breakdown. The strain of trying to do everything for his theatre—writing, directing, producing, publicizing, all at the same time—finally told. Knopf suffered a “crack-up” of his own and, ironically, the experience led him to Fitzgerald. On the advice of his doctor he turned over all his duties to someone else and went to France, where he found the author of The Great Gatsby at work on his next, his fourth, novel.
When Knopf returned to America after a summer of relaxation had pasted over the cracks, he sold The Big Pond to Warner Brothers, then followed his play to Hollywood, where he helped adapt it for the screen. During the years which Fitzgerald spent struggling to pull together Tender Is the Night, Knopf was working his way up in the Hollywood hierarchy, turning out picture after picture.
The script which had Fitzgerald as its hero was written with no particular studio in mind. Knopf was gambling that he could sell it—he was lucky. Samuel Goldwyn had recently dispatched George Oppenheimer to find a vehicle for Anna Sten, a beautiful Russian actress whom the producer hoped to make into another Garbo or Dietrich. After a year of searching, Oppenheimer recommended a script written by his cousin Mildred’s husband, Edwin Knopf. The original title was Broken Soil, but this was soon changed to The Wedding Night—after all, the audience was coming to see a sex goddess, not the farmer’s daughter—and they were in business. Miss Sten starred opposite Gary Cooper, who played Fitzgerald. The real Fitzgerald was impressed by his screen counterpart, but in a strange way. “Gary Cooper’s appeal is just that he can’t act,” the author wrote. “But they think from his unwilling expression—I bet when he takes those silly clothes off he’d be twice as exciting as those silly actors.” The Wedding Night was directed by King Vidor, an old friend of Fitzgerald’s who had been greatly acclaimed for his work on The Big Parade, The Crowd, and Our Daily Bread. The Literary Digest called the film a “fine, mature, and poignant motion picture.”
Knopf did not know that the same year his fictitious Scott Fitzgerald appeared on the screen as the very symbol of the romantic artist, the real Fitzgerald would be writing The Crack-Up. When these essays began to appear in Esquire, however, Knopf saw that being Scott Fitzgerald was a more difficult task than he had imagined. Then he began hearing of Fitzgerald’s debts, all forty thousand worth. Writing The Wedding Night had given Knopf a special affection for the author—he knew that something had to be done.
It was sometime late in 1936 that Edwin Knopf took his idea up to the top floor of the Thalberg Building at MGM where the big boys were, sitting up there on top of everyone else. Knopf wanted to hire a writer, but to do that—to spend money—he had to get the approval of the College of Cardinals: L. B. Mayer, Sam Katz, Eddie Mannix. “I had a hell of a time,” he remembers.
When Knopf suggested to Mayer, the dictator, that they hire a screenwriter named Scott Fitzgerald, the old man looked puzzled.
“Scott who?” he asked.
Sam Katz had never heard of Fitzgerald either.
Eddie Mannix was a little more accommodating. Sitting at his big desk in his big office with a sign above his chair which read DON’T LET MGM’S SUCCESS GO TO YOUR HEAD, he asked:
“What’s he done lately?”
“Not much,” Knopf confessed.
The story editor retreated, leaving the Cardinals to their steam bath, their masseur, and to each other. But he did not forget about his mission. It took a while, but he finally convinced the executives to take a chance on the man who had written The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night.
The next step was to contact H. N. Swanson. The chain worked like this: Fitzgerald was represented in the East by his agent Harold Ober, who in turn was represented in the West by his associate “Swanie” Swanson. When Knopf and Swanson got together, Knopf made his offer: he was authorized to pay Fitzgerald a thousand dollars a week if the author would come to MGM as a screenwriter.
“I wouldn’t insult him with it,” Swanson said.
“It’s a thousand a week more than he’s making now,” Knopf said.
“No,” said Swanson. “No deal.”
“You’re not the one who is going to make that decision,” Knopf told the agent. “Scott’s going to make it.”
Knopf, who never had an agent himself, was no particular fan of Swanson’s. He says, “Swanson is the kind of man who would not be interested in Scott if he were making only a thousand a week.” When Knopf called Fitzgerald in Baltimore, “He was so pleased,” according to the story editor. The author accepted a six-month contract. In an autobiographical sketch called “Afternoon of an Author,” which Fitzgerald wrote not long before leaving for California, he described the “isolation” and the “growing seclusion of his life” in Baltimore. He seemed to have told all the stories he had to tell, and found himself “picking over an already well-picked past.” He wrote that he “needed reforestation” and only “hoped the soil would stand one more growth.” As a novelist Fitzgerald had little left to harvest, so he would go to Hollywood now and sow his soil with exotic seed.
He would begin as a screenwriter, but it was to be only a beginning. He had been thinking about Hollywood for some time now, but what he really wanted was not only to write but to direct—to be Jay Gatsby, stager of lavish entertainments, and Dick Diver, the man whose charm gave shape and meaning to the performance, with a dash of General Grant besides. He wanted to run the show, to be both an artist and a leader of men. To him the director was all of this, “a symbol of power.”
The classic Roman columns stretched for almost half a mile along the front of the MGM studio, giving it the air of a great Coliseum. As Fitzgerald drove down Washington Boulevard that first day and passed along the colonnade, the studio must have looked like the capitol of an empire worth conquering. Of course the author had been to the studio before, back in 1931, and so he knew that the imperial front was really a false front just like the ones they used on the sets—the columns and the marble wall were really just plaster and wood. Once inside you saw that the vast building which appeared to be there was not there at all; the Roman facade which the public saw was just a fence to hide the jumble of shacks and sound stages which made up the studio. Still, the Coliseum effect made its impression, and Fitzgerald began to dream of “all the money and glory beyond the impregnable walls.”
Unfortunately, the world behind the fake columns was even more empty in July 1937 than during Fitzgerald’s first visit to MGM. Thalberg was dead—in his place there now stood a new building which bore his name. Big and square and made of concrete, the structure looked a little too much like a mausoleum. Edwin Knopf’s office was there and the novelist went up to report to him. He was ready to go to work.
“Here came this completely crushed and frightened man,” Knopf remembers, “—the features were there, the drawing, but not the face. He had that almost blue paleness. Not big wrinkles but little wrinkles all over because he was sick.”
Fitzgerald would later describe Stahr’s face in The Last Tycoon in much the same way: “The face… was aging from within, so that there were no casual furrows of worry and vexation but a drawn asceticism as if from a silent self-set struggle—or a long illness.”
George Oppenheimer, who was now at Metro, was also surprised at the change in the author. In the 1920s it had been Oppenheimer who sometimes felt unsure, out of place, while the Fitzgeralds, Scott and Zelda, seemed to be leading the parade. He even remembered an evening a long time before in New York when one member of the author’s family had helped to kiss away his self-consciousness. It had happened at a party which Oppenheimer attended with Beatrice Kaufman.
In the early part of the evening Bea and I became separated in the crowd [Oppenheimer recalls] and I found myself with famous faces all about me but no one whom I knew well enough to approach. Gradually the guests drifted into the dining room. I hung back, hoping that Bea would retrieve me. Just as I was about to give up hope, there appeared in the doorway F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda. They were two of the most beautiful people I had ever seen and both were obviously in their cups. I had never met them but, to my amazement, Zelda came up to me as if I were an old friend, asked me to bring her a drink and some food and to join her on the fire escape since she craved air. Abruptly I was no longer a stranger, but one who had been singled out by the most beautiful woman in the room and, to boot, the wife of my literary idol.
Deep into the night Zelda and I sat on that fire escape, talking, drinking, and necking (a tribal custom of the twenties)…
As I walked home that night I was Amory, Anthony, Gatsby, and Anson lumped into one shimmering youth. Next morning I was still on a cloud, slightly edged with hangover, as I headed for the [Alfred] Knopf office. Just as I reached Fifth Avenue I saw Scott and Zelda about to board a bus.
“Zelda! Scott!” I shouted and sprinted toward them.
They turned and looked in my direction. I needed no lip reading to grasp what Zelda was saying. It was too clear in her bewildered expression. I could almost hear her dulcet voice inquiring of Scott, “Who the hell is that?” as the bus rolled away, leaving behind one more shattered illusion.
But in Hollywood Fitzgerald and Oppenheimer seemed to have traded places. Now, incredibly, people were asking who the hell is Scott Fitzgerald. Now Scott was the one who felt like an outsider. So Oppenheimer invited the author and his daughter Scottie, who happened to be visiting from the East, for dinner one night. Fitzgerald came and seemed to have a good time, but he said almost nothing.
Shortly after arriving in Hollywood, Fitzgerald moved into a Beverly Hills hotel on Sunset Boulevard called the Garden of Allah, where many other screenwriters lived. The Garden had once been the estate of Alia Nazimova, the great silent-screen star; it was composed of small two-story stucco bungalows, each with two apartments, clustered about a main house which had a pool and patio. The effect was that of a small Moroccan village, except that the starlets lounging about the pool wore not veils but the 1930s one-piece. There were palm trees everywhere.
Fitzgerald shared his bungalow with Edwin Justus Mayer, the writer who twenty years earlier had said that Scott’s success made him “feel dirty.” Other old friends out of Fitzgerald’s past were also living at the Garden of Allah—people like John O’Hara, who had just written Butterfield 8, Marc Connelly, author of The Green Pastures; and Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell.
Humorist Robert Benchley lived there too, and it was at a party in his bungalow that Fitzgerald and Sheilah Graham first saw one another. They did not speak, but each made an impression on the other. “Smiling faintly at him from not four feet away was the face of his dead wife, identical even to the expression,” Fitzgerald would later write of Stahr in The Last Tycoon; of course the author’s own wife was not really dead, only crazy. “Across the four feet of moonlight, the eyes he knew looked back at him, a curl blew a little on a familiar forehead; the smile lingered, changed a little according to pattern; the lips parted— the same. An awful fear went over him, and he wanted to cry aloud.” Fitzgerald stared at Miss Graham and then got up and rushed out of the room.
When he was gone, Miss Graham asked Benchley, “Who was that man sitting under the lamp? He was so quiet.”
“That was F. Scott Fitzgerald—the writer,” Benchley said. “I asked him to drop in. I guess he’s left—he hates parties.”
Miss Graham was sorry that she had not spoken to him. She had often used his name in her column “SHEILAH GRAHAM SAYS.” When she wanted to suggest that someone was passe, she would say that they were “as old-fashioned as F. Scott Fitzgerald types.” She had not, however, read anything that he had written.
The author and the columnist met again at a Writers’ Guild dinner dance at the Coconut Grove. Miss Graham noticed Fitzgerald sitting alone at Dorothy Parker’s table; he was watching her. “Immediately things changed,” Fitzgerald wrote in Tycoon. “… the people shrank back against the walls till they were only murals; the white table lengthened and became an altar where the priestess sat alone. Vitality swelled up in him, and he could have stood a long time across the table from her, looking and smiling.”
Miss Graham suggested that they dance. “I’m afraid I promised to dance the next one with Dorothy Parker,” Fitzgerald said. “But after that—” But there was no after that; the speeches started and went on and on.
The next Saturday, Eddie Mayer asked Miss Graham to dinner, sweetening the invitation with the information that Fitzgerald would be there, too. Actually Fitzgerald had asked Mayer to ask Sheilah. She remembers in detail what happened that night:
We met at the Garden of Allah and went to the Clover Club, a gambling place with dining and dancing upstairs. Scott said little on the way out—there was a reticence about him that made me feel he belonged to an earlier, quieter world. His clothes, too, spoke of another time: he wore a pepper-and-salt suit and a bow tie, and though this was July, a wrinkled charcoal raincoat with a scarf about his neck and a battered hat. It was hard to believe that this was the glamour boy of the twenties. At the bar we were introduced to Humphrey Bogart and his wife, Mayo Methot, “Won’t you have a drink with us?” Bogart asked Scott.
He shook his head and said, pleasantly, no. Bogart seemed surprised. We sat with them for a few minutes and Scott made some light jokes about a picture he was writing for M-G-M. The Bogarts laughed and I caught respect and deference.
After that, Fitzgerald and Miss Graham began seeing one another regularly. He bought a second-hand Ford coupe, which he would drive up her hill every evening about six o’clock. The car rattled and had a funny horn. Miss Graham says that Fitzgerald, “with his battered collegiate hat and raincoat, his pullover sweaters and jaunty bow ties… reminded me more and more of all I had read about American college boys of the twenties.” What she did not know was that Scott had written the jalopy and the costume and even a little of her into the picture on which he was working.
The movie, Fitzgerald’s first assignment, was a comedy about an American Rhodes scholar and his adventures in England. The reputation the author had won for This Side of Paradise had stayed with him and so, twenty years after Paradise, he was put to work on a movie about the college scene. His producer was Michael Balcon, later the head of Britain’s prestigious Ealing Studio and the dean of British film makers. With a genius like Balcon in command and an author like Fitzgerald writing his story for him, MGM might well have asked this production company to turn out a masterpiece—and received what it asked for. Instead, it asked them to turn out A Yank at Oxford—which was, after all, a funny film.
There was story conference after story conference, and then Fitzgerald got down to “the endless detail of script revision.” Knopf had assigned him an office in the Thalberg Building and there he sat day after day, a Coca-Cola bottle on his desk, scripts in cheery sky-blue covers beside the Coke. Above Fitzgerald sat the big boys. Below him in the basement were the archives, the “morgue,” which contained many more unproduced scripts than the other kind. And all about him for miles around stretched the permanent sets—old castles and Western towns, and even the good ship Bounty. Here and there among the sets were great stacks of stock-piled icebergs, trees complete with stands, Greek columns with stands, Gothic towers (both miniature and life-size), and papier-mache boulders as light as balloons—scraps left over from some of the biggest, most gluttonous entertainment orgies ever staged.
The idea of doing a picture on Oxford had been hanging around Metro for years. The project was first entitled Yale Versus Oxford, but none of the writers could get hot on it. In 1937, when the studio decided to open up a new studio, and hopefully a new cinema frontier, in England, the Yale-Oxford story was revived. The tale was tinkered with; then Yale was expelled from the scenario so that the writers could concentrate on the English university alone. The title became A Yank at Oxford and Robert Taylor was picked to be the Yank. At a much publicized London lunch, L. B. Mayer, a powerfully built little fireplug of a man, explained the casting as follows: “If ever there was an American young man who could logically by culture and breeding be called a Britisher, it’s Robert Taylor.”
The original “story idea” came from John Monk Saunders, the man whose chest had intoxicated the Fitzgeralds back in 1927. Alistair Cooke, writing in The New Republic, would later say:
No Englishman could have written a story so contemptuous of Lakedale State College (founded 1903) or kneeled in such lyric fervor before the spectacle of dinner in hall or the ritual of a Bump Supper (what possibilities here for funny and sordid truth). A Rhodes scholar might have done it—and that in fact is the answer. A Rhodes scholar did, Mr. John Monk Saunders.
Frank Wead, a veteran Metro screenwriter, was given first crack at turning Saunders’ “idea” into a script. He had done a hundred and one pages when Fitzgerald arrived and was put on the story, writing behind him. This system for mass-producing scripts had been started by Thalberg; Fitzgerald described how it worked in The Last Tycoon, where Monroe Stahr tells Prince Agge:
“We have all sorts of people—disappointed poets, one-hit playwrights—college girls—we put them on an idea in pairs, and if it slows down, we put two more writers working behind them. I’ve had as many as three pairs working independently on the same idea.”
“Do they like that?” [Prince Agge asks]
“Not if they know about it. They’re not geniuses—none of them could make as much any other way.”
Thalberg was dead, but his system wasn’t. So Fitzgerald was given Wead’s unfinished script and asked to touch up what was there and write an ending. For some reason he was not assigned a collaborator. They were giving him a chance to go it alone.
Scott got down to work, but before he had gotten far with his revisions, he was interrupted by an actress who said that she was in distress. Scott had long done his writing for a particular girl. At Princeton he had composed what amounted to whole books of letters to Ginevra King. Later he wrote Zelda miles of letters from New York. This Side of Paradise had been written, in part at least, to win The Girl, and it had succeeded. Now in Hollywood Scott was once again writing for a woman, Miss Maureen O’Sullivan, but scripting her lines was like paying homage to some Platonic conception of beauty: he had never seen his star in the flesh.
Then one day while he was writing, a messenger came to Fitzgerald’s cubicle to deliver a note from the actress which said, “Miss Maureen O’Sullivan wishes you to have luncheon with her tomorrow. You may get in touch with her in her dressing room.” (Scott kept the scrap of paper for the rest of his life.) When Fitzgerald reported to Miss O’Sullivan’s dressing room, she asked him to come out to her house at Malibu at noon the next day. The writer accepted.
Scott drove his old Ford out along Route One past all the sea-food restaurants and seaside motels to where bright, expensive beach cottages were strung out single file on a shelf of land at the water’s edge in much the same way that the Coke bottles were lined up in his office. Miss O’Sullivan had a motive for inviting Fitzgerald out to Malibu, where she had rented Jack Warner’s house for the summer: she wanted to go over the script for A Yank at Oxford with him. She remembers complaining to Scott that the role of Molly read like “one of those very dull ingenue parts, just a love interest.” She asked him “to liven it up, to make it more interesting, to come up with an angle.”
Scott always fell in love with actresses. The first had been Ina Claire in The Quaker Girl and now the latest was Maureen O’Sullivan in A Yank at Oxford. Like Monroe Stahr’s seaside home in The Last Tycoon, Jack Warner’s beach house had an air of a sound stage about it—it was made for drama. Scott and Maureen were alone, playing what the movie people call a “Two-Shot Close-Up,” and literature’s retired leading man was doing all right. The writer who was quietly invisible about the studio was a changed man in the presence of his star. “He seemed flamboyant,” Miss O’Sullivan remembers. “He seemed vital. He was great fun.”
Fitzgerald’s high spirits probably had two causes. First of all, he was warmed by the proximity of one of the most beautiful women in the world. But he was also warmed by what he was drinking. The author and the actress sat in a big room off the bar and toasted one another with mint juleps. Miss O’Sullivan was to Fitzgerald a strange constellation: she was Irish but she liked Southern juleps. She reminded him of his Old Country forefathers and of Zelda all at the same time. Fitzgerald reminded Miss O’Sullivan of her past, too. She was just over from Ireland and she found him “almost a European character.”
Sobriety had held Fitzgerald down like some unforgiving hyper-gravity ever since he had arrived in Hollywood. Now the mint juleps seemed literally to give him wings. “He strode about the room,” Miss O’Sullivan recalls, “with his arms waving in the air. It was a wonderful afternoon.”
When Fitzgerald returned to the studio, he tried to find the angle which the actress, his fellow countryman, had requested. Evidently he succeeded. “I remember liking what he wrote for me,” says Miss O’Sullivan. “He added the Fitzgerald touch.”
Reading and rereading the script which he was to improve— Wead’s script—Fitzgerald must have felt a little as if he held in his hands a dramatized version of his own autobiographical short story “The Freshest Boy.” For Lee Sheridan (Robert Taylor) arrives at Oxford in much the same frame of mind as that which afflicts Fitzgerald’s Basil Duke Lee when he arrives at St. Regis: he is arrogant, especially about his prowess at sports. Of course the similarity between Lee and Basil is a kind of family resemblance shared by almost all heroes of stories about brash New Boys who matriculate at Old Schools and must learn to conform to Old Traditions before they finally win everyone’s respect. All the same, in Lee Sheridan, Fitzgerald met an old friend.
Still, he agreed with Miss O’Sullivan that something was missing in the Wead script, and he thought that he knew what it was. In Wead’s story the conflict was sometimes between two individuals, sometimes between the individual and society, almost never between two cultures. The Yank could have been an Armenian at Oxford and it would not have changed the story; Molly was supposed to be English, but Wead made her sound like the kind of girl whom Lee might have found next door in Lakedale, U.S.A. Fitzgerald thought that that was wrong and so he set out to stress the Yank’s Yankness and Molly’s Britishness.
He began at the beginning, rewriting Wead’s first scene completely. When he showed the scene to Balcon, the producer liked it. The upstart screenwriter had outwritten the veteran—it was that easy. When the cameras finally rolled in Denham with Jack Conway directing (he also did The Redheaded Woman), they photographed not the track-meet opening which Wead had written, but Fitzgerald’s send-off at the train depot. Three college boys, costumed as fife and drummers of the American Revolution, march down the main street of Lakedale playing “Yankee Doodle.” Lee Sheridan, who is surrounded by a crowd as he prepares to embark for England, laughs when he hears the musicians.
LEE: Hey, you nuts? Do you think I’m going to war?
OLD MAN (in the crowd): You never can tell.
Lee climbs into the train, waving good-by and promising that he will take charge of matters once he gets to Oxford. Fitzgerald’s hero was off for the mother country and Fitzgerald himself— clear the tracks, everyone—was on his way, too. Lee fully expected to become an important man on the other side of the ocean, and Fitzgerald surely expected to become the same in California: he wanted to be “Czar of the Industry right away.” Lee was the great American athlete—if you didn’t believe it, just give him an opening and he would tell you—and Fitzgerald was the great American author. There was no telling how far they might go.
The Spirit of Seventy-Six scene at the depot was a happy beginning for both the picture and the author’s career, for it sets the stage for the drama of manners which Fitzgerald thought should carry his story. The old man in the crowd was right. Lee is going to war. He will be forced to fight the Revolution all over again on English soil, but instead of popping away with a musket, he will pop off with American slang. Rather than country against country, it will be the English culture versus the American, the Yankee Doodle dandy versus the Oxford “gentlemen.”
Lee’s problems begin almost as soon as he reaches Oxford and starts talking. The British students consider his constant bragging very un-Oxford and at one point remove his pants to cool off his self esteem. Nor does Lee like his fellow classmates any better than they like him. But there is one exception, the pretty English coed Molly Beaumont. In the Wead script the love story had been just another boy-girl romance—Miss O’Sullivan was bored just thinking about the role. Fitzgerald decided to enlarge the scope, to make the love story an America-England affair, and so wrote several new scenes.
In the most original of these, Molly and Lee go motoring through the English countryside—like a younger model of Scott and his own English girl, Sheilah, rattling through Beverly Hills. At one point they stop and Lee uses a bar of soap to decorate the car in what he calls American college fashion, scrawling all manner of slogans:
LEAP IN-LIMP OUT
HELLO, CHICKEN, HERE’S YOUR COOP
PAIR CONDITIONED-110° IN HERE
One of Lee’s mottoes is LOVE AT WORK, but he might well have written NOVELIST AT WORK. Movies supposedly depend primarily on pictures, books on words, but in this scene Fitzgerald mixes his media and shows us pictures of words. Somehow these pictured words seem entirely appropriate for a novelist just embarking on a career in the movies. We seem to be atop the Great Divide which separates the publishing houses of the East from the picture studios out West.
Molly watches Lee for a while and then decides that she wants to play too.
MOLLY: Oh, I’ve got a good one. Why is our car like a baby? Because it has a rattle.
LEE (touching Molly’s head): Rattle.
Molly grows more serious and asks Lee:
MOLLY: You’re not really such a barbarian as you seem— you do eat the same food as we do… but do you speak the same language as we do?
Molly is right. She and Lee do not speak the same language, and that is their problem. Yet what separates them is more than any mere accent, for by language we are meant to understand more than words. We are meant to see language in a metaphorical sense as a kind of cornucopia containing all one’s manners and mannerisms—one’s culture, in short. If Lee does not speak Molly’s language, she comes no closer to speaking his. As Fitzgerald pointed out in a note to his script, “Molly completely fails to catch the rhythm of Lee’s American expressions. Hers are all stilted.”
As the old Ford huffs and puffs back into Oxford looking like graffiti on wheels, Lee tells Molly, “It’s good to see yourself as others see you.” What he does not notice is that students, professors, policemen, and the general populace of Oxford are laughing themselves silly as the Ford rolls past. By this time Fitzgerald had learned that the moving-picture camera could do more than simply frame a story—it could help to shape it. Here it is an ideal tool for picturing irony. For centuries novelists —Fitzgerald included—had been achieving irony by showing us characters whose vision was more limited than our own. In reading about them we seemed to look over their shoulders smiling to ourselves. In The Great Gatsby, for instance, we seem to see the objects of Gatsby’s love dream—the enormous house and Daisy—not only as he sees them, but in a larger context. But with the coming of pictures the audience could do more than seem to look over shoulders. We are actually there as Lee and Molly drive through Oxford, oblivious to the fact that they are the town joke. The larger context becomes the larger picture, the picture which the camera and the audience see, but Lee and Molly do not. When Molly finally does notice the hilarity, she abandons the car, flushed with embarrassment, but Lee never catches on at all.
Fitzgerald dutifully turned in this scene just as he had his “Yankee Doodle” opening, but someone—it could have been anyone from Balcon all the way up to Mayer himself—did not like it. In its stead, a roller rink full of lots of nice motion and very little meaning went before the cameras. Going around and around and around the rink, the hero and heroine encountered no noticeable cultural hurdles.
Most of the scenes which Fitzgerald wrote for A Yank at Oxford went the way of his rattle-trap Ford scene—they were junked. As the rewriting went on and on, the Yank had much of his Yankness bled out of him to the point where in the finished picture it is hard to see what Fitzgerald had been trying to do.
“Suffice to summarize,” Fitzgerald wrote Mrs. Harold Ober of his first weeks as a full-time screenwriter. “I have seen Hollywood —talked with Taylor, dined with March, danced with Ginger Rogers (this will burn Scottie up but it’s true), been in Rosalind Russell’s dressing room, wisecracked with Montgomery, drunk (ginger ale) with Zukor and Lasky, lunched alone with Maureen O’Sullivan, watched Crawford act, and lost my heart to a beautiful half-caste Chinese girl whose name I’ve forgotten.”
Meanwhile his scenario was passed on to Malcolm Stewart Boylan and Walter Ferris, and they began working behind him just as he had worked behind Wead. Toward the end, George Oppenheimer was called in to nurse the script through its last revision. He had become what was known as a “screenplay doctor” and producers called him in, as one calls any doctor, when there was trouble.
At the endless story conferences where A Yank at Oxford was defended and debated and ridiculed, Oppenheimer, the doctor, managed to have some of Fitzgerald’s lines restored. But most of the author’s weeks of work on the motion picture were wasted, except as a lesson in Hollywood writing: Fitzgerald had learned something about how to put a scene together, but also how the scenes were likely to be treated.
As with most Hollywood productions, rewriting went on and on in accordance with Parkinson’s Law: the reworking expanded to fill all the time allowed for it. So when Robert Taylor and the MGM production crew set off by rail for New York on their way to England, Oppenheimer was on the train. “I tried to write only one word a day,” he says, “so that they would have to take me to England.” But alas, Balcon decided in New York that Oppenheimer had done enough, and sent him home to Hollywood.
As for Robert Taylor, he set off for England like the character he was going to play, with bands blaring and girls cheering. But along the way he had some trouble and, by the time his ship docked on the other side of the Atlantic, he could not have been more out of character had he tried. If Lee Sheridan had come upon Oxford beating his own drum, Taylor wanted to slip ashore like contraband.
Things had started to go wrong in Phoenix, Arizona, where a girl threw herself onto Taylor’s lap and then announced to the press that her boy friend’s lap was more fun. The star began to feel insecure. Then in New York a reporter asked him if he had hair on his chest. He was so shaken that once at sea he informed Metro’s publicity agents that he could not face the British press. The publicity men wired ahead to Howard Strickling, the studio’s head of publicity who was then in London preparing a big welcome, to ask if they could sneak Taylor into England. Strickling wired back NOTHING DOING. When the ship bearing the star pulled up to the pier, Strickling told the reporters how frightened Taylor was, and asked them to lay off the hair on his chest and his widow’s peak; then he went in to see Taylor and gave him to understand that this was a critical moment in his career. Both the actor and the press rose to the moment. The interview marked a turning point in Taylor’s relations with newspapermen.
L. B. Mayer, like any American going abroad, knew enough to take along plenty of American products like Taylor and Lionel Barrymore. But there came a point where native actors and actresses had to be hired, and this task was assigned to the Britisher, Balcon. All went well until Mayer noticed how much the producer had offered an unknown actress just out of the Royal Academy. He demanded that Balcon find someone cheaper, but the producer refused to back down and so Vivien Leigh was introduced to American movie audiences. Later, on the set of Gone with the Wind, Fitzgerald would write for Miss Leigh once again.
A Yank at Oxford was finished and ready for release in February 1938. When the screen credits were finally passed around, Wead was left out and so was Fitzgerald. Instead, for one blink of the eye, the following appeared on the movie screens: Screenplay by Malcolm Stewart Boylan, Walter Ferris, and George Oppenheimer. By then Oppenheimer, the script doctor, was used to seeing his name at the end of such lists, although he was still a little sensitive about it. One day Bronislau Kaper, who had recently joined Metro’s music department, told George, “I always thought your name was ’and George Oppenheimer.’” The joke spread through the studio like gossip. Soon he was “and George Oppenheimer” to everyone. “He hated it,” Edwin Knopf recalls.
A Yank at Oxford opened at the Capitol Theatre in New York on February 24, and not everyone liked it. Characteristically, Time magazine thought that Yank was un-American. “M-G-M made Robert Taylor what he is today,” Time said, “but is far from satisfied. His saccharine cinema roles and cream-puff publicity have all too closely linked the word ’beauty’ with the name ’Taylor.’ Something had to be done to make him an unhissable he-man… Last week cinemaddicts viewed the results:… with typical prodigality, M-G-M tries to save Robert Taylor’s face at the expense of the U.S.’s.” Alistair Cooke told New Republic readers that the picture “was made by Metro in England and in awe.” He called the film “a spellbound tribute to a conception of cultural leadership which probably survives nowhere but in the movies, but which thereby seeps through to two hundred million customers a week, grateful anyway to have their miasmic notions of Oxford jell into something.” Had such Fitzgerald scenes as the one where Lee decorates the old Ford not been cut, Cooke might have liked the picture better. At any rate, the Yank would have appeared brighter; he is obviously a better sloganeer than Molly.
The New York Times, however, liked the picture as it was, calling it “an uncommonly diverting show.” But movie critic Frank S. Nugent could not resist a few digs at Taylor, commenting that “we still regard that widow’s peak with a cynicism the feminine contingent rightly defines as envy.” Nugent went on to say that Yank “evoked a wholly satisfying picture of Oxford life… In fact, we even found ourselves rooting for Mr. Taylor in the Oxford-Cambridge crew race. But subconsciously that might have been because we were so glad to see him overseas.”
While A Yank at Oxford played at the Capitol, the Strand was advertising Edward G. Robinson in A Slight Case of Murder and Radio City Music Hall was showing David O. Selznick’s acclaimed The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. You Can’t Take It with You won the Academy Award that year; other outstanding pictures of 1938 included Boys’ Town with Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracy, Test Pilot with Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, Bringing Up Baby with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, and the nostalgic Alexanders Ragtime Band, with Don Ameche. Then toward the end of the year Fitzgerald’s next picture appeared and it ranked with any of these.
The movie told the story of three Germans and their hardships after World War I. It won Fitzgerald his first screen credit and even a handshake from L. B. Mayer himself. By then Mayer knew the answer to “Scott who?” But he knew Scott Fitzgerald not as the author of The Great Gatsby or Tender Is the Night. He knew him as the man who wrote Three Comrades, one of the ten best movies of 1938.