The huge barn of a building was dark except for one corner where two dozen people huddled near a bank of lights like campers warming themselves by a campfire. Some of them were drinking cardboard-tasting coffee from paper cups; when the job was done there would be a champagne party, but now they drank black brew.
“Let’s have it quiet, please,” someone said in a loud voice.
A bell rang and the talking changed to whispers and then to silence the way a theatre hushes when the lights go down. Beneath fifty artificial suns stood Robert Taylor and Margaret Sullavan. A make-up man was just running a comb through Miss Sullavan’s hair—she was playing a downtrodden German girl, but that did not mean that her coiffure had to suffer, too.
“Roll ’em,” said the director.
The camera began to make a very soft whirring sound almost as if it were breathing, nothing louder. The scene marker went in front of the lens for a moment, whack, and then the camera was looking directly at Taylor and Miss Sullavan. She was a frail lovely girl who, like one of the actresses in The Last Tycoon, had “starlight that actually photographed in her eyes.” She played a sophisticated rich girl who had lost all her money after the war; she said her lines, and the microphone suspended from the sound boom just above her head picked up her soft voice. Then the boom swung toward Taylor, who played a fumbling garage mechanic, as he answered Miss Sullavan’s lines with his own.
“All right, cut.”
The camera stopped its breathing; everyone relaxed, took another sip of coffee; then the bell rang and they did the whole thing over again. Miss Sullavan spoke and Taylor answered her. Cut. And again. Miss Sullavan and then Taylor. Cut. And again…
“No,” said the actress and this time the lines weren’t from the script. She thought for a moment to be sure and then said, “I can’t play this.”
She meant that she could not play her lines, the ones F. Scott Fitzgerald had written for her. Suddenly everything stopped— the camera, the bobbing mike, the bells, the coffee drinking. If Miss Sullavan couldn’t play her lines, then something had to be done to fix them. And Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the producer, thought that he was just the man to do it. He had rewritten other big names, so why shouldn’t he rewrite Scott Fitzgerald? (Besides, even today Mankiewicz is a little skeptical of the whole Fitzgerald cult. “What would the Fitzgerald idolatry be like if he were ugly like Sinclair Lewis?”) All Mankiewicz needed was a few nights without sleep, and then “Maggie” would be able to play her lines. It wasn’t his idea. “Maggie was the one who blew the whistle.”
That Mankiewicz rewrote Fitzgerald surprised few old-timers around the MGM plant—he had a reputation for reading scripts with a pencil in his hand to make “improvements.” Edwin Knopf says of Mankiewicz, “It is both Joe’s strength and his weakness that he thought that he could rewrite anyone.” George Oppenheimer sums up the producer as follows: “Joe thinks he’s Shakespeare.” Ogden Nash was least surprised of all. He had recently done what he thought was “a respectable job” on a picture called The Shining Hour. He had worked on the script for months, only to have Mankiewicz rework it in twenty-four hours. The producer finished his rewrite job by applying his pencil to the credits: he crossed Nash’s name off the picture.
But Fitzgerald had not yet learned to expect such help. The rewritten Three Comrades script led to a split between the producer and the writer which never healed. Fitzgerald got so angry that he wrote Mankiewicz a hate letter, but before he could send it off Sheilah Graham intervened. “You’ll only antagonize him,” she argued, “and he’ll never restore your script.” So Scott tore up the letter and wrote a milder protest. Milder, but not mild. Ironically Fitzgerald, in pleading his case, said that he too was trying to help a distressed lady, he too was sorry for poor Maggie:
Well, I read the last part and I feel like a good many writers must have felt in the past. I gave you a drawing and you simply took a box of chalk and touched it up. Pat has now become a sentimental girl from Brooklyn, and I guess all these years I’ve been kidding myself about being a good writer…
To say I’m disillusioned is putting it mildly. For nineteen years, with two years out for sickness, I’ve written best-selling entertainment, and my dialogue is supposedly right up at the top. But I learn from the script that you’ve suddenly decided that it isn’t good dialogue and you can take a few hours off and do much better…
… but to say in detail what I think of these lines would take a book. The last pages that everyone liked begin to creak from 116 on, and when I finished there were tears in my eyes, but not for Pat—for Margaret Sullavan.
My only hope is that you will have a moment of clear thinking. That you’ll ask some intelligent and disinterested person to look at the two scripts. Some honest thinking would be much more valuable to the enterprise right now than an effort to convince people you’ve improved it. I am utterly miserable at seeing months of work and thought negated in one hasty week. I hope you’re big enough to take this letter as it’s meant —a desperate plea to restore the dialogue to its former quality… Oh, Joe, can’t producers ever be wrong? I’m a good writer—honest. I thought you were going to play fair. Joan Crawford might as well play the part now, for the thing is as groggy with sentimentality as The Bride Wore Red, but the true emotion is gone.
When this letter was published years later, people who had seen Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ name on the screen many times but had never registered it, suddenly registered. Sure, Joe Mankiewicz, he was the one who wiped his feet on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s script. The word even went around that Brady, the villain in The Last Tycoon, was modeled after Joe.
“I’ve often been asked to write my side of the story,” Mankiewicz said, taking a break on the set of There Was a Crooked Man in June 1969. Leaning back in his canvas chair, he watched Henry Fonda shove a rifle butt into a prison guard’s stomach. “When I rewrote Scott’s dialogue,” he went on, “people thought I was spitting on the flag.”
But before Mankiewicz could continue the story of what happened between himself and Fitzgerald thirty years ago, a small black actor dressed as a servant came up. The producer did not like the black man’s mustache.
“You’re playing a Tom, you know,” Mankiewicz said. “I don’t think a Tom would have a mustache.”
“Yes sir,” said the Tom and hurried away to shave it off.
The mustache disposed of, Mankiewicz got back to Fitzgerald, explaining his side of what happened as follows:
“I hired Scott for Three Comrades because I admired his work. More than any other writer, I thought that he could capture the European flavor and the flavor of the twenties and early thirties that Three Comrades required. I also thought that he would know and understand the girl.
“I didn’t count on Scott for dialogue. There could be no greater disservice done him than to have actors read his novels aloud as if they were plays. Mr. Hemingway, Mr. Steinbeck, Mr. Fitzgerald, Mr. Sinclair Lewis—all of them wanted to write plays and none of them could write one to save their soul. After all, there is a great difference between the dialogue in a novel and in a play. In a novel, the dialogue enters through the mind. The reader endows it with a certain quality. Dialogue spoken from the stage enters through the ear rather than the mind. It has an immediate emotional impact. Scott’s dialogue lacked bite, color, rhythm.”
Whom had Mankiewicz counted on for dialogue, if not Scott? At one point, he had assigned E. E. Paramore to collaborate with Fitzgerald, but the producer had not counted on him for good lines either. “Paramore was a Hollywood hack, a constructionist,” according to Mankiewicz. He was there to help out with technical matters, that was all. In the final analysis Mankiewicz, as always, had depended upon himself. Or as he puts it: “I am a writer who was forced to become a producer. I’m still essentially a writer. I’ve done a great deal of writing on all the films I’ve produced, although I haven’t taken any credit because the Screenwriters’ Guild won’t let me. Scott’s dialogue was unspeakable. On the other hand, I did write All About Eve and I had been nominated for several Academy Awards as a writer. I was considered a damn good writer of dialogue.”
Mankiewicz says of the Fitzgerald letter accusing him of not playing fair, “I never got it. Perhaps he was writing for posterity when he wrote that letter. He might have been boozing it.” Mankiewicz says that the first time he saw the letter was when Edmund Wilson sent him a copy in 1944 and asked if he would object to its being reprinted in The Crack-Up. He wrote back:
I regret to say I have many objections to the publication of the letter you sent me…
Aside from the extremely unpleasant characterization of me that emanates from the letter, I do not want it published for reasons that have to do also with Scott, his good taste and his sense of criticism.
There were many other conferences with him… and he was eventually happy with the final script. As a matter of fact, he offered me his support in a battle I had with the Hays Office about the anti-Nazi aspects of the picture—a quarrel which nearly resulted in my resigning from the studio. As for the points upon which Scott remained adamant, it is unfortunate—or fortunate, depending on the point of view—but he was proved wrong on everyone of them!…
In addition to my profound regard for Scott as a great American writer, I was extremely fond of him personally. To have our relationship characterized by a letter such as the one you have chosen, would not be fair either to Scott or to myself.
The letter was not printed in The Crack-Up, but it was printed in Arthur Mizener’s biography The Far Side of Paradise, which appeared in 1951. It caused the producer no little embarrassment. He might have changed some of Fitzgerald’s words, but he was the producer. That was his job. He had to keep his people in line.
Fonda slammed the rifle into the guard’s stomach once again and spat out his line, “Make you respect me?” Mankiewicz smiled at the words.
Three Comrades ended in a bitter feud in January 1938, but it had started out happily during the pleasant summer of 1937. Fitzgerald had come to town with a master plan for conquering Hollywood, and it looked for a while as if it were working out. “I must be very tactful but keep my hand on the wheel from the start,” he had written his daughter, “… until, in fact or in effect, I’m alone on the picture[s]. That’s the only way I can do my best work.” For a while he had Three Comrades his way— all to himself. And what a picture it was going to be! It was to be based on the novel Three Comrades by Erich Maria Remarque, and with Fitzgerald writing the screenplay there was no reason why it should not be another All Quiet on the Western Front.
Fitzgerald was enjoying his work and life in California. To his editor Maxwell Perkins back in New York he wrote: “Everyone is very nice to me, surprised and rather relieved that I don’t drink. I am happier than I’ve been for several years.”
In late July, as Fitzgerald was just beginning work on the Three Comrades, the story of a tragic marriage, his fifteen-year-old daughter arrived from the East. Helen Hayes brought Scottie out to her father, the actress and the boarding-school girl making the long trip across the continent by train. In Hollywood there was no room for Scottie in Scott’s Garden of Allah apartment, which he already shared with Eddie Mayer; she stayed with Miss Hayes and her husband Charles MacArthur, who had not only written The Front Page with Ben Hecht but also had scripted Princess Alluria with Scott during the summer of 1928 on the Riviera.
“We were holed up at the Beverly Hills Hotel in one of those bungalows,” Helen Hayes remembers. “It was a lovely summer—Scott and Scottie and Charlie and I.” A decade earlier, Miss Hayes and MacArthur, Scott and Zelda had roamed New York together. Now after the long bouts with insanity and alcoholism, the old symmetry of two couples had given way to a more baroque configuration: husband and wife, father and daughter. (In a screenplay called Cosmopolitan, Fitzgerald would later write scenes where a father pretends that a daughter can take the place of a lost wife.) The actress and her screenwriter-playwright husband seemed to represent all that Scott had failed to achieve in marriage and in his assaults on Hollywood, and yet MacArthur and Fitzgerald were absolutely alike in one painful respect: halfway through the 1930s, both authors had found that they could no longer write, and both were still struggling to make the writing go again. Years before, Scott had told Miss Hayes, “Don’t worry about Charlie not realizing his talent. Other men have to do, Helen. Charlie only has to be.” Fitzgerald himself could not, however, take his own advice and so had cracked up trying to do.
“I remember so many evenings that we spent together,” says Miss Hayes, “going to dinner at Stephen Vincent Benet’s in Pasadena, or Zoe Akins’, also in Pasadena, and the odd, strained evenings at Norma Shearer’s in Santa Monica.” Fitzgerald could never forget that crazy Sunday at the Thalbergs in 1931, according to Miss Hayes, and so he “never felt comfortable there—he was apt to kick over the party.”
But Scott’s daughter, now Scottie Smith, remembers enjoying those dinners at Miss Shearer’s more than anything else in Hollywood. Too young to feel the tension, she responded to what she calls the “glamour” of sitting down at the same table with the actress who had played Juliet in the movies and who seemed to embody the great romance of the play itself. “So far Scottie is having the time of her young life,” her father wrote Maxwell Perkins, “dining with Crawford, Shearer, etc., talking to Fred Astaire and her other heroes.”
“Scott relaxed most and was most bedazzled at Marion Davies’,” Miss Hayes says of the star who lived in the Hearst castle as William Randolph Hearst’s protegee. “He might have invented the whole way of life in that Mount Vernon by the sea, like his marvelous ’The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.’ I remember one evening that Scott reveled in at Marion’s when Charlie Chaplin and Bea Lillie got into a hot competition singing cockney songs and doing comical dances together on that white marble bridge over the swimming pool.
“There were many things that delighted him,” Miss Hayes remembers, “but all in all, I think Scott was unhappy there from the start. Hollywood was so much more bizarre than even he could be. He hated the awful discipline of the studios. Pictures took writers right back to the working climate of high school. And he was not in the best shape spiritually; he was afraid that his writing gift was going through a tunnel. His few high spots were our evenings together, especially when we went to the Benets’. At the Benets’ he always felt like a first-class passenger again.”
One afternoon, riding through the streets of Hollywood in a taxicab, Fitzgerald leaned close to Miss Hayes and explained in his low, dry way a view of life which sounded like the Biblical story of Joseph. “One changes one’s whole life, not just incidents but one’s spiritual life, every seven years,” he said. “A snake changes its skin every year, our own skin changes every seven years, and so do our lives.”
“He was looking for a new start,” the actress says. “A new cycle. He was three years into famine, but his hope was that after four more bad years he would reach the seven years of plenty.”
When Rosemary left Dick Diver in Tender Is the Night, he missed her and so sought her in the only place where he could still find her, on film at the movies. On the day Helen Hayes left California to return to the New York stage, the Fitzgeralds, father and daughter, reserved a projection room in the basement of the Thalberg Building where “as a sort of ’wake’ for you” (Scott wrote) “Scottie and I ran off Madeleine Claudet.” Fitzgerald went on to say: “Charlie dropped in, and the Fitzgeralds contributed appropriate tears to the occasion—an upshot which, as you will remember, Garbo failed to evoke from this hardened cynic, so I think you have a future. Remember to speak slowly and clearly and don’t be frightened—the audience is just as scared as you are.” The motion picture The Sin of Madeleine Claudet had been produced by Thalberg and largely scripted by MacArthur. It told the story of a mother who is separated from her son. Shortly after Miss Hayes’ departure, Fitzgerald was separated from his daughter. “I must say,” he wrote to friends back east of Scottie’s trip, “that it was an Alice in Wonderland experience for her,” but added, “reports about the talent scouts following her around are somewhat exaggerated.” The daughter went back to school at Ethel Walkers and the father went back to Sheilah Graham.
The letters which Fitzgerald wrote Scottie that fall showed a new joy in his daughter (“I was very proud of you all summer”) and in his work. He seemed to like juggling the shiny names of the stars who would act out his story when he wrote:
News about the picture: The cast is tentatively settled. Joan Crawford had her teeth in the lead for a while but was convinced that it was a man’s picture; and Loretta Young not being available, the decision rests at present on Margaret Sullavan. Certainly she will be much better than Joan Crawford in the role. Tracy and Taylor will be reinforced by Franchot Tone at present writing, and the cameras will presumably roll sometime in December.
Later Robert Young took Spencer Tracy’s place as the third comrade, but that was the only change.
Of the three comrades, Robert Taylor was to have the most important role, that of Bobby Lohkamp. Taylor, of course, had also had the lead in A Yank at Oxford. But Three Comrades, the new Fitzgerald-Taylor vehicle, would differ from Yank in one significant way: it was an important story. The picture was to chronicle the rise of Nazism in Germany—and this on the eve of World War II.
Sheilah Graham remembers how Fitzgerald felt about Hitler:
On Sunday mornings we sit before the Cases’ enormous console radio, listening to Hitler’s speeches. They infuriate Scott. He jumps up and pads restlessly about the room. “They’re going to do it again. They’re going to have another war—and we’ll be in it, too.” He sits down, lights a cigarette, listens again to the ranting, hysterical voice, the thunderous “Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!” It echoes through our little beach house. He turns to me. “I’d like to fly over there and assassinate Hitler before he starts another war. I’d do it, too, by God!” He tells me, with a sudden disarming smile, “You know, Sheilo, I wanted to fight in the last war. They pulled the rug from under me. The Armistice came and I never got across.”
When Mankiewicz’s fight with L. B. Mayer over the anti-Nazi material in the movie erupted, there was no doubt on whose side Fitzgerald would enlist.
After spending August, September, and most of October alone on the picture, Fitzgerald made one of his regularly scheduled trips back east to see Zelda in her sanitarium. These visits were always difficult, even more so this time because Scott was preoccupied with California worries. He was afraid that when he returned to Hollywood he would find a collaborator waiting for him there. Scott wired Mankiewicz about his fears, and the producer wired back:
DEAR SCOTT YOU MUST STOP BEADING ALL THOSE NASTY STORIES ABOUT MOTION PICTURE PRODUCERS. THEY’RE NOT TRUE… I WOULDN’T TRY TO HIRE SHAKESPEARE BECAUSE BRITISH GAUMONT HAS HIM TIED UP STOP… WHERE DID YOU GET THAT BUSHWAH ABOUT ANOTHER WRITER BEST WISHES JOE.
The news was especially welcome under the circumstances. Now that Fitzgerald was sure that he wouldn’t have a new partner in Hollywood, he could concentrate on helping his old partner—what was left of her. When Scott returned to Hollywood, he forgot about the rumors he had heard and got down to work finishing his screenplay. Everything went very well for two weeks, and then Mankiewicz introduced Fitzgerald to the collaborator he had been promised he would not have.
The producer had decided that Scott needed some help and had assigned E. E. (Ted) Paramore to write with him. Fitzgerald must have welcomed his new co-worker with the embarrassment of a man who suddenly encounters someone he thought he had killed long ago. For Paramore, whom Fitzgerald had known years before in New York, had appeared in The Beautiful and Damned as a simpering but “well-intentioned” male Florence Nightingale who labored among the poor trying to teach them to be more like rich folks. Of course the author had changed Ted E. Paramore to Fred E. Paramore, but that fooled no one. At one point in the story, Paramore gets drunk, crawls about the Patches’ living-room on hands and knees whimpering, “I’m not a guest here—I work here.” Now at MGM twenty years later Fitzgerald had to face the real Paramore and try to work here with him.
As might be expected, the two were not an ideal team. They spent much of their time not writing but quarreling about who was in command. At one point, after they had all but stopped speaking, Scott wrote Paramore:
I totally disagree with you as to the terms of our collaboration. We got off to a bad start and I think you are under certain misapprehensions founded more on my state of mind and body last Friday than upon the real situation… When you blandly informed me yesterday that you were going to write the whole thing over yourself, kindly including my best scenes, I knew we’d have to have this out.
Paramore was not allowed to completely rewrite Fitzgerald’s script, but on the other hand Fitzgerald never had the picture to himself again.
Relations between the two collaborators never improved. Fitzgerald accused Paramore of writing “Owen Wister dialogue” for a story about Germans. It infuriated Scott, for example, when he would pick up Paramore’s stuff and find a German sergeant popping off with expressions like “Consarn it! ”
After the picture was finished, Fitzgerald put his exasperation with his collaborator into a short, if somewhat self-righteous, fable:
A great city set in a valley desired a cathedral. They sent for an eminent architect who designed one distinguished by a great central tower. No sooner was it begun, however, than critics arose who objected to the tower, calling it useless, ornamental, illogical, and what not—destroyed his plan and commissioned another architect to build a cathedral of great blocks and masses. It was very beautiful and Grecian in its purity, but no one ever loved the cathedral of that city as they did those of Rome and Vienna and the great Duomo of Florence.
After thirty years wondering why, the citizens dug up the plans of the first architect (since grown famous) and built from it. From the first Mass the cathedral seized the imagination of the multitude and fools said it was because the tower pointed heavenward, etc., but one young realist decided to dig up the artist, now an old man, and ask him why.
The artist was too old to remember, he said—and he added, “I doubt if I ever knew. But I knew I was right.”
“How did you know if you don’t know your reasons?”
“Because I felt good that day,” answered the architect, “and if I feel good I have reason for what I do even if I don’t know the reason.” So the realist went away unanswered.
On that same day a young boy going to Mass with his mother quickened his step as he crossed the cathedral square.
“Oh I like our new cathedral so much better than the old,” he said.
“But the academy thinks it’s not nearly so beautiful.”
“But it’s because of the mountains,” said the little boy. “Before we had the tower I could see the mountains and they made everything seem little when you went inside the Church. Now you can’t see the mountains so God inside is more important.”
That was what the architect had envisioned without thinking when he accidentally raised his forefinger against the sky fifty years before.
While the job had gone well, Fitzgerald had not needed gin, but with the coming of Paramore his needs changed. When the letter to his collaborator referred to his “state of mind and body last Friday,” he meant that he had been drunk. Since his letter to Perkins about everyone being “relieved that I don’t drink,” he had done some backsliding.
Once Fitzgerald had gone A.W.O.L. from the studio to accompany Miss Graham to Chicago, where she was to broadcast her gossip column over the CBS radio network. He brought along a bottle of gin on the plane. The trip was planned as a kind of honeymoon for the couple, who had met in Hollywood almost exactly six months before. When in Chicago Sheilah was introduced to Arnold Gingrich, the young editor of Esquire magazine, she shocked him by explaining that she and Scott had come to his city “to consummate our affair.” Girls didn’t talk that way— not in 1937—but Gingrich thought, “Maybe English girls are different.”
The editor remembers Scott’s and Sheilah’s Chicago “honeymoon,” a honeymoon he was trapped into sharing, as follows:”Sheilah had to go to her broadcast and she left Scott sitting in the Drake Hotel. Naturally he picked up the phone and called me, since I was just across the street, and said, ’Come over here.’ The son of a bitch had to pick the one day when I couldn’t. We were firing a guy, Jay Allen. Dave Smart would do the impulsive hiring, but he would turn to me to do the firing.
“I told Scott, ’I’ll call you back just as soon as I can.’”This was a very bad reversal of our relationship—one of high priest to altar boy. I was a Fitzgerald fan who just happened to have a magazine, but I was a prisoner in my own shop. Scott began calling more and more frequently. He had nothing to do so he was drinking, ordering gin. By the time I pried myself loose from the Jay Allen discussion in the afternoon and ran across to see Scott, he was up in his room absolutely polluted.
“Scott had tumblers lined up as if he were going to play musical glasses. They looked like glasses of water, but they were glasses of gin. He was a real Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde character when he had taken on board large amounts of liquor—a vicious drunk, one of the worst I have ever known. He could hardly talk, slurring all his words, trying to tell me about Sheilah, this great new English girl.”Scott was rather puritanical. He was the obverse of Ernest in this way. Very, very rarely would he embellish his speech with a lot of he-man obscenities. But when he was drunk, he was different, and he kept saying, ’I just got to have this cunt.’ At this point he hadn’t yet.
“I thought, My God! let’s see if we can’t get this son of a bitch sobered up a little. I ordered a steak sandwich and a big pot of coffee.”I told Scott, ’Jesus, you’re a mess. You’re not fit company for a dog.’
“Unless he sobered up, it was going to be no honeymoon. He wasn’t up to consomme, much less consummate. I held his nose and poured the coffee down, but he wouldn’t eat.”I said, ’Just pretend it’s medicine.’
“He said, ’No.’”I said, ’I’ll feed you.’
“I literally tried forcing the sandwich into his mouth. Scott thought that it would be a cute idea to eat my finger. The son of a bitch bit my hand as hard as he could. I screamed, yeooooww! At this point Sheilah, whom I had never seen before, walked in.”I yelled, ’The son of a bitch bit my finger!’ That was my opening line to her. I was on the floor for some reason, hands and knees.
“Sheilah looked at Scott and practically said, ’Who’s that?’ She just didn’t recognize this mess. He was pissy-ass, falling-down drunk. Scott was in no shape to travel, and she was very upset because they had a plane to catch.”Sheilah said, ’Scott has to be in Hollywood tomorrow. His option comes up for renewal tomorrow.’
’I got him to drink some more coffee, and then he wanted me to run across the street and get those sketches he’d written, and read them to Sheilah. Sheilah was perfectly willing to read them herself, but no, I had to read them. He lay down on the couch and pretended to be napping, but he was listening to every word, watching Sheilah’s reaction. She was watching him and I was doing a bad job reading because I had one eye on him, too. It was an odd way to meet The Crack-Up.
“When we left the hotel room, I had to pick Scott up and carry him like a sack of potatoes. I had carried him halfway across the lobby of the Drake Hotel when he said, ’I’m all right now.’ I felt like a fool. He walked across the lobby, down the stairs, and got into the airport limousine. He seemed fine.”Later, Sheilah told me what happened on the ride to the airport.
“Scott asked Sheilah, ’Did I do a good job?’” ’What?’ she wanted to know.
“’Pretending to be drunk,’ he said. ’That little snot was putting me off all day long. He was too busy to see me and I wanted to make him sweat a little.’”Sheilah relaxed.
“There was a girl sitting just ahead of them and Scott said, ’Hasn’t she got the nicest face?’ He was going on and on, as if he were writing a character in a book, practically making verbal love to the girl. She turned and smiled, and he said, ’Silly bitch!’
“There was another bad moment when they opened the door of the limousine. Scott got out and fell flat on his face.”
When Miss Graham got Fitzgerald inside the airport, he was so drunk they refused to allow him on board, so she loaded him into a taxi and drove him around until the next plane was scheduled to take off for the West. That was not until five in the morning. They were in that cab for five hours.
Fitzgerald was afraid that when he returned to the studio after his desertion, he would get fired. But somehow he managed to soothe the angry and to live with the “I-told-you-so” stares. Before long he was back to serious work on Three Comrades.
But relations with his collaborator and producer were growing more and more exasperating, and they never improved. “All the brains come in,” Scott told Sheilah. “They sit around a table. They talk about everything except the subject at hand—and when they do talk about that, they don’t know what they want, they don’t know where we’re going, they repeatedly change their minds—it’s disgraceful.”
Toward the end, Fitzgerald and Mankiewicz could no more appreciate one another’s point of view than Tom Buchanan could sympathize with Jay Gatsby or Gatsby forgive Buchanan. Fitzgerald was a romantic when it came to motion pictures: the script on which he labored became his compelling dream. The producer’s only contribution seemed to be getting between Scott and the green light across the bay. Mankiewicz, on the other hand, had not gotten to be a practical Hollywood success by being a dreamer. Three Comrades was one of many pictures that he would do and he had no romantic illusions about it. It was his picture and he planned to exercise the same authority over it which Tom Buchanan exercised over his wife. On Fitzgerald’s side, it can be said that Mankiewicz was often too heavy-handed; he ruined lines which he probably did not even understand. On Mankiewicz’ side, however, it should be pointed out that he was sometimes right in the changes he made, especially when it came to cutting some of his writer’s longer, wordier speeches. Mankiewicz at least was accustomed to telling stories with pictures rather than words.
It was appropriate that Fitzgerald be given a novel to adapt for the screen, but occasionally the assignment encouraged bad habits such as thinking like a novelist rather than a screenwriter. He sometimes could not resist backsliding into a world where stories are told in words and the only pictures are on the dust jackets. Fitzgerald wanted to begin his screenplay, for example, by literally spelling out what had happened to Germany in the years since the war. He wanted to put titles on the screen which would tell the movie audience that in the 1920s, while the rest of the world grew rich, Germany had grown more and more wretched. He even suggested a graph to show that the national wealth of Germany had fallen dramatically while the cost of living had risen sharply.
Mankiewicz was not happy with all those words and charts on the screen. He called one of his weekly story conferences (“That’s the only way you can work with writers”), and they went over the beginning again and again. All these meetings were much the same. “A four-hour wrangle in a conference room crowded with planets and nebulae of cigarette smoke,” Fitzgerald had once written. “Three men… suggesting or condemning, speaking sharply or persuasively, confidently or despairingly.” In such a room, Mankiewicz scrapped Fitzgerald’s graphs and titles. What the producer wanted was action, motion, and conflict right from the start.
“There should always be a fight between Lenz and Koster,” Mankiewicz told Fitzgerald. “Have them get excited about this. Lenz says: ’I can’t just dismiss everything I’ve dreamed about the last four years.’ Koster defends his own point of view: ’To hell with all that. Theories! That’s what we’ve been fighting for. Now, we’ve got to fight for bread.’ Bobby adores both of them. He agrees with Koster and with Lenz.”
Mankiewicz soon got conflict, all right, but between his writers rather than the comrades in the screenplay. Fitzgerald had come up with what he thought was a good idea for a dramatic opening: a grenade tossed into a plane as it sat on the runway. Paramore took the idea and embroidered it with speeches about the hardships of both war and peace; by the time he was finished, he was as guilty as Fitzgerald had been of wordiness.
“I think the opening is terribly unwise,” Fitzgerald wrote Mankiewicz of the Paramore rewrite job. “My idea of blowing up the airplane is now completely talk. I wanted to have a glimpse of the Comrades, with possibly a dozen short speeches to show the difference between Lenz and Koster, and then go with a bang into Germany as it is today. The material as it is has been said in They Gave Him a Gun, The Road Back, and in a thousand editorials until the mere mention of it strikes the brain cells dead.”
Fitzgerald was learning that too many words were as bad as fog when it came to pictures. In his best scenes, the author overcame his instincts as a novelist and managed to tell his story visually. In one such scene, for example, the comrades, driving a strange-looking car which they built themselves out of automobile scraps, get into a race with an expensive, fashionable Buick. Nor is the race all motion and no meaning, for in a way it symbolizes what the story is about: the comrades, who are garage mechanics, will be racing all their lives against the kind of people who can afford Buicks. After the comrades win the race, they meet the Buick’s owner. His name is Breuer and he insolently asks Gottfried the make of the comrades’ mongrel speedster.
GOTTFRIED: Well, the grandpa was a sewing machine, the grandma was an old radio, and the papa was a machine gun—
Here we have a good example of what Mankiewicz (or someone) accomplished in rewriting Fitzgerald, for in the movie theatres the comrade was made to say:
GOTTFRIED: Well, the grandpa was a sewing machine, the grandma was an old radio, and the papa was an alarm clock—
The difference between the two lines is the difference between an alarm clock and a machine gun. Mankiewicz’ line is a joke, Fitzgerald’s a subdued threat.
The Fitzgerald scene which caused the most consternation portrayed a telephone call from Bobby to a girl named Pat. The contents of any script in progress is usually a well-guarded secret even within the walls of a studio itself: there is that persistent fear that people will steal anything that isn’t copyrighted. But somehow, despite the attempted secrecy, the story of what Fitzgerald had done got out and it spread like scandal. “It upset everyone at the studio,” Edwin Knopf remembers. The scene began with Bobby at a telephone. CUT TO: Saint Peter in heaven sitting at a switchboard. This saintly operator rings Pat’s number for Bobby. CUT TO: Pat answering her phone. This humor went over like a fly in L. B. Mayer’s chicken soup. It was not long before all the MGM lions up there on the top floor were roaring. The one who roared the loudest was Eddie Mannix. From beneath his MGM’s SUCCESS sign he bellowed, “What the hell does he think he’s writing about?” And anyway, “How do you photograph that?” Saint Peter was hastily cut from the script.
Once Bobby meets Pat, we begin to see that Remarque’s novel Three Comrades was, strangely, the kind of book which Fitzgerald himself might have written. It was about his kind of people. Pat had once been one of the very rich and, although the war had stripped her of her fortune, she still possessed the tastes of the rich: music, the dance, the opera. Bobby, on the other hand, was nothing but a garage mechanic. In better days he might have risen higher, but in postwar Germany he was trapped in his caste, and his feelings of despair as he courts Pat remind one of Fitzgerald’s own as he kept trying somehow to put together enough money to persuade Zelda to marry him. “She’s a rich man’s girl,” Fitzgerald had Gottfried say of Pat. “What can Bobby do?”
Much of what Bobby does do in his attempts to win the rich man’s girl is embarrassing, and it is out of this embarrassment that Fitzgerald creates some of his most affecting scenes. One of these depicts Bobby’s first call on Pat at her apartment. When the front door is opened to him, he finds his way barred by a baby grand piano which stands athwart the entrance. Pat asks him to go around to the bedroom door, explaining that with so little space she was forced to choose between having a door and a piano. Bobby shyly refuses the bedroom door, making his entrance by crawling under the piano. In Remarque’s novel there is no piano in the way. We are told only that Bobby “began to feel rather awkward.” But here Fitzgerald managed to think in terms of moving pictures rather than words. The piano becomes a visible metaphor for all that stands between Bobby and Pat. And yet Bobby, for all his awkwardness, penetrates this cultural barrier. Mankiewicz seems to have liked the scene, for it was filmed and used in the movie.
In another scene, however, Bobby crosses cultural boundary lines and literally falls apart. Dressed in makeshift evening clothes—borrowed tails which are threadbare, tie held down in back with string, top hat which won’t open—Bobby takes Pat to the opera and then dancing. All goes well so long as Bobby remains perfectly still, but when he rises to dance trouble dogs his steps. As he begins to try to waltz, pins fly, strings come undone, and the suit splits under the arms, the rips forming great gaping smiles which seem to participate in the general laughter. In the novel Bobby feels out of place at the night club, but all his discomfort is trapped inside his head—there is nothing to see. Fitzgerald rethought this discomfort in terms of what a camera could record, and came up with a way to actually picture Bobby’s composure coming apart. Mankiewicz filmed the scene just as Fitzgerald had written it.
When Bobby rejoins his friends after his dance-floor disaster, Koster comforts him with advice which echoes The Crack-Up, where Fitzgerald wrote, “At three o’clock in the morning, a forgotten package has the same tragic importance as a death sentence… and in the real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.” What Koster tells Bobby is:
KOSTER: Forget it. Very few things will stand inspection at three o’clock in the morning.
Mankiewicz rewrote Fitzgerald’s scene so that most of the three-A.M. bitterness was emptied out of it. The grimness of the original lines became the Brothers Grimm in the producer’s version:
KOSTER: Hello, Cinderella—got both your slippers on?
In the margin of his copy of the final shooting script, Fitzgerald wrote, “This is ’authors talking’ about a script. This isn’t writing. This is Joe Mankiewicz. So slick—so cheap.”
Fitzgerald and Mankiewicz often disagreed over characterization. Mankiewicz did not like the way Bobby was turning out and he was worried about Pat. One day he called Fitzgerald in and told him, “Be very careful with Bobby. Give him some smart answers now and then. Don’t make him too much of a dolt. When Lenz kids Bobby, let Bobby kid Lenz. Don’t let Pat fall in love with a ninny.”
Mankiewicz’s objection to Fitzgerald’s treatment of Pat was more specific. Scott thought that Pat should use whatever she had left in the way of money and influence to help the comrades, but Mankiewicz blocked that idea. He called his writers into the conference room and told them how he saw Pat.
I don’t agree… that Pat has to make some physical contribution to the well-being of those three guys, particularly since the entire motive of Pat’s taking her own life at the end of the picture is the realization that she can be of no help to these three men… Pat is a spirit—the spirit of the silver dress. These men fight to keep this for Bobby. But the dress must tarnish and fade. All she can ever do for Bobby, she has already done. She can now only grow weaker—older and uglier. All she can ever be is a memory, and maybe being a living memory is what brings such hardships to the three… At the beginning of the story, she gave up fighting for her own life—how can she go on and fight for them?
Fitzgerald accepted this eloquently phrased view of Pat but was furious about other Mankiewicz changes. In one scene Scott had placed Pat at her prized piano where all through the dialogue she plays snatches from the classics. Mankiewicz moved the scene into the comrades’ garage and replaced the music with the regular thud of Koster’s hammer as he repairs a car. Fitzgerald felt that he had written a highly civilized scene only to have someone with mechanic’s grease on his hands come along and smudge it up. In that letter which Mankiewicz says he never received, Fitzgerald wrote that “Example number 3000” of what the producer had done wrong was “taking out the piano scene between Pat and Koster and substituting garage hammering. Pat the girl who hangs around the garage!… I feel somewhat outraged. ”
In another scene Fitzgerald had Pat tickle Bobby’s nose with an anemone. Bobby guesses that the flower is a rose, then a violet, then a lily. “I’ve always got by on those three,” he tells his new bride. Mankiewicz rewrote the scene so that Bobby’s limited horizon—something else to blame on the war—is pointed up more bluntly. Bobby asks the cliche question: what will they talk about for the rest of their lives? Pat says that she will teach him books and music, and they will talk about those since they’re always safe. Fitzgerald saw his heroine being made over into a kind of schoolmarm and exploded:
“… books and music—she’s going to teach him.” My God, Joe, you must see what you’ve done. This isn’t Pat—it’s a graduate of Pomona College… Books and music! Think, man! Pat is a lady—a cultured European—a charming woman… I thought we’d decided long ago what we wanted Pat to be!
The author’s protest was ignored.
Producer Mankiewicz had hired Fitzgerald because he would know and understand a girl like Pat. Once she falls ill, her lungs hemorrhaging, and is forced to retreat to a Swiss sanitarium, Fitzgerald found himself writing out of his own despair. Know the girl indeed!
In Paris one day back in 1930, Zelda had been so afraid that she would be late for her ballet lessons that she had started changing into her tights in the taxicab. When the cab got held up in traffic, she bolted and ran the rest of the way. Fitzgerald took her from the dance studio to a hospital at Malmaison where she stayed ten days repeating over and over:
“It’s frightful, it’s horrible, what’s going to become of me, I must work and I no longer can, I must die and yet I have to work. I’ll never be cured, let me go, I have to see ’Madame’ [her dancing teacher], she has given me the greatest joy in the world, it’s comparable to sunlight falling on a block of crystal, to a symphony of perfumes, to the most perfect strains of the greatest masters of music.”
From Malmaison, Fitzgerald took his wife to sanitariums in Switzerland and then to others in this country, including the Phipps Clinic of the Johns Hopkins University hospital.
Yes, Fitzgerald knew about the late twenties and early thirties and what they could do to a man’s girl. Pat was not only no stranger, she was practically a member of the family. No wonder there was misery to pay when Mankiewicz “took a box of chalk” and touched up her portrait.
Fitzgerald had written Tender Is the Night out of his and Zelda’s tragedy, and now in Three Comrades he was telling the story all over again. From the point of her hemorrhage on, Pat— like Dick Diver’s Nicole—will be not only Bobby’s wife but his charge. She will be his to love but also to nurse and care for. Nor is the illness of either wife, Nicole or Pat, merely a personal catastrophe: it is also a social catastrophe. Their infirmities mirror the world’s own.
The war has cost Pat more than her fortune.
PAT: Everyone said that I was a fool—that I ought to save my money and go to work. I wanted to be very gay and irresponsible. (Pause.) I was frightened enough sometimes—as if I was in the wrong seat at the theatre.
Of course what Pat says is true: her family was once rich and it did lose its money. But what we later come to see is that Pat is really talking about the loss of her health, not her riches. Weakened by the war, she is heading for a crash, but she has decided to go on living to the full, living on margin “even if only for a little while.” This scene went into the movie untouched.
This idea—that one could go bankrupt physically, even emotionally and morally, as well as financially—had been embedded in Fitzgerald’s imagination for years. In 1931 he had published a story entitled “Emotional Bankruptcy.” Later on he had carried the theme over into Tender Is the Night, where Dick Diver gives so much to so many undeserving people that he wears himself away from inside. And Fitzgerald thought the same thing had happened to him. At about the same time that he was working on Three Comrades, he was writing letters to his daughter which warned:
Our danger is imagining that we have resources—material and moral—which we haven’t got. One of the reasons I find myself so consistently in valleys of depression is that every few years I seem to be climbing uphill to recover from some bankruptcy. Do you know what bankruptcy exactly means? It means drawing on resources which one does not possess. I thought I was so strong that I never would be ill and suddenly I was ill for three years, and faced a long, slow uphill climb. Wiser people seem to manage to pile up a reserve.
And now, in his movie script, the author tried to infuse his own heritage of bankruptcy into Pat’s lines. “Everyone said that I was a fool—that I ought to save my money and go to work”—how many people had said the same of Scott. And now he and Zelda, like Pat, were bankrupts in their own way, but they had lived as they liked “even if only for a little while.”
The script’s closing moments take place in a cemetery where the surviving comrades have come to visit Pat. Koster says the only words, “There’s fighting in the city.” Along with these last pages, Fitzgerald handed in a request:
About the ending. I beg you not to fool with it too much. The effect was obtained in a happy moment and shifting about may completely ruin it… The tp-tp-tp of the gun, the walk down the hill like the descent from Calvary, and Koster’s single understated remark—have greater emotional rhythm than any static picture of a grave that can be devised. It’s like the wreaths floating in the water in Captains Courageous. If you stand still in the presence of death your emotions grow dead, too.
Fitzgerald’s plea failed to convince Mankiewicz that the ending could not be improved. He did not have the comrades stand still, as Scott had feared, but rather run away—at least, flight is implied. There in the cemetery, just before the fade-out, Mankiewicz had Bobby say that he wished Pat were going to South America with them.
When Fitzgerald saw that Mankiewicz had the comrades fleeing the fatherland, he not only complained to Joe, but also wrote a letter to Joe’s bosses, Eddie Mannix and Sam Katz. The letter, which Scott decided not to mail, read as follows:
I have long finished my part in the making of Three Comrades but Mank- has told me what the exhibitors are saying about the ending and I can’t resist a last word. If they had pronounced on Captains Courageous at this stage, I feel they would have had Manuel the Portuguese live and go out west with the little boy, and Captains Courageous could have stood that much better than Three Comrades can stand an essential change in its story. In writing over a hundred and fifty stories for George Lorimer, the great editor of The Saturday Evening Post, I found he made a sharp distinction between a sordid tragedy and a heroic tragedy—hating the former but accepting the latter as an essential and interesting part of life.
Certainly this step of putting in the “new life” thought will not please or fool anyone—it simply loses us the press and takes out of the picture the real rhythm of the ending, which is:
The march of four people, living and dead, heroic and in-conquerable, side by side back into the light.
Fitzgerald thought that by going to South America the surviving comrades turned the story from tragedy into escapism. All right, so their dreams were—in the words of The Great Gatsby— “already behind them, somewhere back in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields… rolled on under the night.” But that was no reason to stop fighting. The only brave step was to “beat on, boats against the current,” even though they could not win, even though they would always be “borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Of course, when Gatsby was killed, Nick Carroway retreated to the Midwest just as Bobby and Koster were retreating, but Fitzgerald had gone beyond that now. He had cracked up and then come back to fight again, and he expected no less of others.
Could Mankiewicz have foreseen the ironic tricks which history would later play, perhaps he would have been more anxious to listen to Fitzgerald’s objections to sending Bobby and Koster to South America. But how could he know that after World War II thousands of Nazis would themselves flee Germany for South America, almost as if following the comrades?
The picture went before the cameras in January. All through the winter and into spring the shooting continued, and Mankiewicz went on making improvements.
L. B. Mayer, Mankiewicz, and a Nazi sat together in a projection room in the basement of the Thalberg Building. As the unruly German crowds poured onto the screen, the little room itself seemed crowded, too. The Nazi was obviously uncomfortable and Mayer, who watched the German the way a honeymooning wife watches her husband, was uncomfortable, too. When Gottfried was killed they both seemed pained, but perhaps for the wrong reasons. Mayer had invited the Nazi, a representative of the German consulate in Los Angeles, to this secret screening, to see if he had any objections to the film. He had, but Mankiewicz said that he would not make any cuts.
Joe Breen, the censor, was brought into the fight, and he applied pressure, too. After his office reviewed the film, he had a suggestion to make which he thought would resolve all the problems and save the picture. Why not schedule some retakes, he said. With a little rewriting these scenes could be made to indicate that this was not the rise of Nazism in Germany, but the rise of communism. Mankiewicz said that if they turned his Nazis into communists, he would resign from the studio.
“The next day I went into the commissary,” the producer remembers, “and Scott was there. He ran up, threw his arms around me, and kissed me.”
By the time the picture opened in June 1938, Fitzgerald’s affection for Mankiewicz had vanished. Scott took Sheilah Graham to the premiere and as they drove toward Hollywood he told her, “At least they’ve kept my beginning.” In the theatre, however, as the lights went out, the gloom descended. Miss Graham remembers:
As the picture unfolded, Scott slumped deeper and deeper in his seat. At the end he said, “They changed even that.” He took it badly. “That s.o.b.,” he growled when he came home, and furiously, helplessly, as though he had to lash out at something, he punched the wall, hard. “My God, doesn’t he know what he’s done?”
Fitzgerald and Miss Graham, Ted Paramore and Mankiewicz —they all waited for the notices. Some of the reviewers agreed with the disappointed Scott, holding that the story was too sentimental. “If you have tears prepare to shed them, for Three Comrades is a tear jerker,” Philip T. Hartung said in Commonweal. But he added that even though “the whole affair is too sentimental… conditions in Germany after the war warrant emotion and tears.” Time magazine called the picture “a story, beautifully told and consummately acted, but so drenched in hopelessness and heavy with the aroma of death… that its beauty and strength are often clouded and betrayed.” Otis Ferguson wrote in The New Republic that the film seemed a little wordy. He went on to say that the story
wrings the heart rather than warms it… It is a queer picture to talk about: there is no doubt it is a good one, and strange; but the goodness is mostly in its eloquent statement of the fringes of a national tragedy, things so sobering and deep that I scarcely know whether it is your duty to go to see it and be torn, or to keep clear and just see Vivacious Lady over again.
When the New York Times reported its verdict, however, Mankiewicz felt that his picture had been vindicated. Frank S. Nugent wrote: “Let us come to the point at once: The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer version of Erich Maria Remarque’s Three Comrades… is a superlatively fine picture, obviously one of 1938’s best ten, and one not to be missed.” He praised the director Frank Borzage for achieving “once more the affecting simplicity that marked his Seventh Heaven… and A Farewell to Arms.” Nugent also lauded the actors: Franchot Tone, who “turned in a beautifully shaded portrait of Otto Koster,” and Robert Young, “almost equally effective as… Gottfried.” Margaret Sullavan overwhelmed him. He spoke of “a shimmering, almost unendurably lovely performance… Invite us now and you’ll have us nominating her for Scarlett…” Nugent chided only the widow-peaked actor Robert Taylor, whom he had not much liked in A Yank at Oxford either. The critic said, “As the third of the comrades, Mr. Taylor has his moments of sincerity, but shares them with those suggesting again the charming, well-fed, carefully hair-groomed leading man of the glamour school of cinema.”
Mankiewicz could not resist gloating a little. He pointed out that the tears in Fitzgerald’s eyes for Margaret Sullavan “were quite the most unnecessary he ever shed.” Besides the plaudits of the Times, she won the New York Critics Award and the British National Award for her performance.
The picture did well, but Fitzgerald never forgave Mankiewicz for retouching his script. In one of his Pat Hobby stories he had a writer much like himself threaten a producer much like Joe: “When I do write a book… I’ll make you the laughingstock of the nation.” And the author did have cause to complain. “37 pages mine,” he scrawled on the producer’s shooting script, “about 1/3, but all shadows and rhythm removed.” And it is certainly true that Mankiewicz cut many good Fitzgerald scenes while building up the sentimental ones which remained. On the other hand, for all the tears which should have been wrung out of the last reel, the picture was nothing to be ashamed of—it was a good movie. Moreover, irony of ironies, the producer whom Fitzgerald hated the most was also the one who used more of what the author wrote than any other Hollywood producer before or since. Scott even got a raise—up to twelve hundred fifty a week from one thousand—as a result of his work for Mankiewicz. And his contract was extended for another twelve months.
Most important of all, it was at the bitter premiere of Comrades that Fitzgerald saw his name on the screen for the first and last time. Thanks to this screen credit, which he shared with Paramore, the author received a letter from Quigley Publications which said that Three Comrades had earned the rating “Box Office Champion,” and that his name would therefore “find a prominent place in the 1939 edition of FAME”— FAME was written in red letters. Fitzgerald was no longer Scott Who?—he was making a name for himself as a script writer. But if Hollywood was beginning to discover who he was, the author himself was not so sure: he began to wonder about his own identity. One day he sent himself a postcard: “Dear Scott,—How are you? Have been meaning to come in and see you. I have been living at the Garden of Allah. Yours, Scott Fitzgerald.”
In his next script Fitzgerald turned his imagination from the foreign soil of Germany to more familiar ground. The new story, an original, was to star Joan Crawford, and it read like The Great Gatsby revisited. He cared about this film, to be called Infidelity, even more than he had about Three Comrades, but the obstacles inevitably arose and Fitzgerald found that there was nothing to do but break his heart against the stone wall of the Hays Office.
Published as Crazy Sundays: F. Scott Fitzgerald In Hollywood by John Aaron Latham (New York: Viking P, 1971).