Hunt Stromberg was jittery. He tried to sink back in the projection room’s big red overstuffed chair and just enjoy the movie, but of course he couldn’t. Albert Hackett could not relax either. His wife Frances was even worse; she sat nervously thumbing the papers which she held in her hand. They were watching Joe Breen, the industry censor who had come over from the Hays Office. He in turn was watching the screen suspiciously, his eyes like moral spectroscopes straining to pick up anything off-color. Putting something over on Breen was not going to be easy. After all, any man who would order Walt Disney to erase an udder from one of his animated cows was definitely a moral force to contend with.
Only a few days before, Stromberg, the Hacketts, and Breen had been in the same chairs in the same projection room. Now they were having to go through the whole thing again. Reason: Breen had objected to some scenes in Stromberg’s new film Wife Versus Secretary. Today he had returned to see what whitewash the producer proposed so as to cover his moral lapses. Every time they came to one of the “objectionable” scenes, Stromberg would have the projector stopped and signal Mrs. Hackett to read the changes they had concocted. But the trio still hoped to pull the celluloid over Breen’s eyes where one scene was concerned. Stromberg had briefed the Hacketts carefully. When they came to this particular scene, the projector would not stop—perhaps he wouldn’t remember, perhaps they could slip it right past the watchdog’s nose. Of course, if he did remember, if he said something, then they would stop and have Frances read the new version.
On the screen Jean Harlow could be seen leaving a fashionable apartment complex on New York’s East River. She walked quickly —it was a business-like stride—down to the water, where she boarded a huge motor launch. She stood proudly on the prow of the launch as it bore her down-river to a wharf where she was met by a long, black, chauffeur-driven limousine. The limousine in turn ferried her to a tall office building which seemed to be designed to show just how big Big Business could be. Jean stepped from the limousine and entered the building. Deferentially, the elevator boy said, “Good morning, Miss Whitey.” At the top of the building she got out and moved down the hall; everyone whom she met smiled when she smiled; everyone kowtowed with, “Good morning, Miss Whitey.” She went on into her office, closing the door behind her, and then it happened: she sat down at her desk and started typing. She was a secretary!
Breen coughed. He said that no good secretary could earn that kind of money. She had to be selling something besides her shorthand. But the projector did not stop. Stromberg and Breen had wrangled about this opening sequence the last time they met, and Joe had agreed to let it stand if the rest of the picture was cleaned up.
Shortly, however, the film was stopping every few minutes to give Frances Hackett a chance to read the changes which were to bind up the film’s moral abrasions.
Then Stromberg’s jitters grew worse, Albert Hackett leaned forward a little in his seat, and Frances unconsciously pawed her pages. Clark Gable was on his way up to Jean’s apartment. Would Breen remember? Gable walked down the hall into a fantastic penthouse which could have been borrowed from the set of Marie Antoinette.
“Hold it!” said Breen. He remembered. Stromberg turned to signal Frances and she began to read. Yes, the apartment would be cut down to size so that it looked like it belonged to a secretary and not some other kind of woman. After all, they wouldn’t want to suggest that adultery paid. And yes, they remembered the Breen rule that if a man and a woman were on a bed together, at least two feet had to be on the floor at all times. (It was a standing joke that this rule only encouraged perversion.)
Before they went on, Breen told a story just so that they would know where he stood. The story was about a certain Mae West picture: Miss West, Breen explained, had invited a prize fighter up to her room. “Make yourself comfortable,” she told him. “Take off your coat.” As the evening wore on, Miss West grew more and more ebullient until the camera, for modesty’s sake, had to look away. While the audience’s imagination overflowed, so did the river. A flood washed across the screen, with people being helped out of windows, and horses and cows and houses floating away. “It was one of the funniest scenes I ever saw,” Breen said, “but of course I had to cut it.”
That was the cast of mind which Fitzgerald was up against when he began work in January 1938 on a script provocatively entitled Infidelity. Coming a year after Wife Versus Secretary played the nation’s movie houses, it too was about a wife pitted against a secretary, and a Stromberg production also. Breen was doubly suspicious, for, as the producer had already proved, the censor had a good memory.
“We felt so desperately for Scott,” the Hacketts recall, “because we knew it couldn’t be done. They wouldn’t allow it just because it was about infidelity. About the only infidelity you could have in pictures in those days was a man taking another man’s wife to lunch. We didn’t tell Scott that it was impossible because we couldn’t bear to break his heart. He was enthusiastic about his script; he wanted very much to do it. It was the first thing he really came to life on. But Wife Versus Secretary probably put the nail in his picture’s coffin.”
Ironically, seven years earlier Fitzgerald had helped drive a nail into that coffin himself. The nail was The Redheaded Woman. Fitzgerald’s script for the picture had not been used, of course, and the project had been passed on to Anita Loos, who had written a very funny script. But not everyone had laughed: some had left the theatres shaking their fists rather than their sides. What bothered them most was not that the Redhead (Harlow) slept around through most of the movie. They were angry because after sleeping around she had not paid the price. Instead, she ended up as the happy mistress of a French nobleman (Charles Boyer, before stardom). Such happiness they could not forgive. The outcry was so great that the Hays Office was frightened into getting tough about censorship, and soon it was busy promulgating new rules. To begin with, the censors decided to whitewash the talkies’ talk, prohibiting the use of such expressions as: cripes, fanny, the finger, Gawd, goose, hell, damn (except in Gone with the Wind), hold your hat, in your hat, madame (if she had girls), nance, nerts, nuts (except meaning crazy), pansy, raspberry (the sound), SOB, son of a, tart, tomcat, and whore, along with all the traveling-salesman and farmer’s-daughter jokes.
Moreover, as a direct result of The Redheaded Woman, the Hays Office issued the following edict concerning infidelity: “Adultery, sometimes necessary plot material, must not be explicitly treated, or justified, or presented attractively.” Fitzgerald’s poignant story flew in the outraged face of this industry law.
It also flew in the face of L. B. Mayer and his highly touted respect for motherhood and the family. Like the Hays Office ruling which allowed all the adultery you wanted so long as it was not justified, so long as the adulterer paid for his or her crime, Mayer’s own code had that same smell of Hollywood hypocrisy.
Hedy Lamarr was one of many who had a chance to study Mayer’s code in a private face-to-face meeting, or rather it would have been face to face if Mayer had been a little taller. The two met in Europe, where Miss Lamarr had just finished Ecstasy, in which she went swimming nude. Mayer had seen the film, and it offended his good taste.
“Ah yes, my dear,” the studio head told the star, patting her ass casually, “I know you would not make a vulgar picture intentionally. But in Hollywood, such accidents don’t just happen.” (The irony of this, Miss Lamarr says, was lost to her at the time.) “We have an obligation to the audience—millions of families. We make clean pictures… of course… if you like to make love… fornicate… screw your leading man in the dressing room, that’s your business. But in front of the camera, gentility. You hear, gentility.”
Miss Lamarr threatened to go.
“You have spirit. I like that,” Mayer said, looking down the actress’s dress with eyes which stood just cleavage-high. “And you have a bigger chest than I thought! You’d be surprised how tits figure in a girl’s career.”
Caught between Hollywood’s defenders of the faith—Breen on one side and Mayer on the other—Scott never had a chance.
One April day Scott and Sheilah drove out along the ocean following Route One, where they hoped to find a home among the “gaudy shacks and fishing barges” of Malibu. They decided on a “cottage” with green shutters, a sunroom, a dining room, a captain’s walk, four bedrooms, and a garden, which rented for two hundred a month—half of what Fitzgerald had been paying at the Garden of Allah.
Scott would leave the cottage every morning and drive for miles along the ocean and then across the city to the studio. In The Last Tycoon he remembered that long drive to work with “the cars stacked and piled along the road, the beaches like anthills without a pattern, save for the dark drowned heads that sprinkled the sea.” On the way to work he would see the sun bathers with their “blankets, matting, umbrellas, cookstoves, reticules full of clothing—the prisoners had laid out their shackles beside them on the sand.” In the evenings Fitzgerald would drive the same road home and the beach people would still be there. Scott lived by the sea but he never sun-bathed, never swam, nor could he imagine what these people did there on the sand all day.
In a sense the cottage became Scott’s hermit’s cave. “By early 1938 we were virtual recluses in Hollywood,” Sheilah Graham remembers. Scott himself wrote, “I’m through. From now on I go nowhere and see no one because the work is hard as hell, at least for me, and I’ve lost ten pounds. So farewell, Miriam Hopkins, who leans so close when she talks, so long, Claudette Colbert, as yet unencountered, mysterious Garbo, glamorous Dietrich, exotic Shirley Temple—you will never know me… There is nothing left, girls, but to believe in reincarnation and carry on.” When the screenwriter and the young gossip columnist did come out of seclusion to attend a rare social function, the couple still seemed like recluses even in a roomful of guests. They would usually withdraw to a corner or a divan of their own. At a party which Alan Campbell gave for the visiting Somerset Maugham, Maugham told his host, “I’m told F. Scott Fitzgerald is in Hollywood. I should like to meet him.” Campbell replied, “You did, tonight—here.” The Fitzgerald who in 1927 had made himself “conspicuous” on his first trip to Hollywood now seemed to be transparent.
And his hypochondria was acting up again. There were all kinds of pills in the Malibu medicine cabinet—depressants to ease the insomnia, “bennies” to accompany the morning coffee, other pills to cure the imagination of its many ills. Scott worried about his tuberculosis flaring up again. He even worried about Miss Graham’s driving. When she went over twenty he would say, “My God, slow down, you’re killing me.” When they went to the movies, Fitzgerald would move two or three times during the evening because he felt the people behind him kicking his chair. For some reason, Miss Graham’s chair was never kicked.
But if the author handled himself and his health with an old maid’s care, he was developing new vigor and dash in at least one area of his life: his writing. It was almost as though he consciously conserved his energy so that he would have it to run the writing machine. He took his job of creating for the movies seriously and went about it systematically.
In his younger days, Fitzgerald had methodically analyzed the plots of one hundred Saturday Evening Post stories. He was teaching himself the genre. Now in Hollywood he wanted to teach himself another story form, moving pictures, and he took up the task in much the same way: he had countless movies run off for him in a classroom-sized projection room where he carefully studied each one.
Since he was supposed to write Joan Crawford’s next film, he gave himself a special course in her pictures. Back in the twenties Scott had been captivated by the star. “Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper,” he had noted then, “the girl you see at smart night clubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes. Young things with a talent for living.” But now that admiration was as far away as the author’s own youth. When Miss Crawford had wanted to play Pat in Three Comrades, Fitzgerald had been worried. When she was persuaded to pass up the role, he was greatly relieved. But now he had been assigned to write a movie specifically for her. There was nothing to do—Miss Crawford was going to be his star. All through February Fitzgerald studied her films the way a man who has fallen out of love studies his wife, watching her critically, every familiar gesture an aggravation, and yet making the best he could of the situation.
On the screen: Chained, starring Joan Crawford. Fitzgerald watched intently. The camera zoomed in for a close-up and the screenwriter took a blunt-pointed stub of a pencil down from behind his ear and wrote, “Why do her lips have to be glistening wet?” The actress seemed to be amused at a kind of private joke and the author put down, “Don’t like her smiling to herself—or such hammy gestures that most actresses get away with.” Joan’s smile turned a little sour and Scott noted, “Cynical accepting smile has now gotten a little tired.” Moments later he wrote, “Bad acting to following the stage direction ’as an afterthought.’” The drama heated up. To break her chains, Joan had to prove that her will was stronger than Clark Gable’s. Fitzgerald was unimpressed. “She cannot fake her bluff,” he scrawled, bearing down hard, “or pretend to.”
But the hour and a half which Fitzgerald spent alone with Joan’s image in the small theatre was not all agony. He found that she actually did some things rather well. In one scene she was at the wheel of a motorboat and Scott decided, “Her smile brighter in outdoor situation than in drawing rooms… Outdoor girl better.” The smile changed into laughter and the star’s critic liked that better still. “Hearty laughter rather good,” he put down.
As the movie unwound, however, growing sadder with each reel, Fitzgerald saw that he liked the star better when the smiles and laughter were wiped away. “A sad smile not bad,” he observed, “but the serious expression best.” As he renewed his acquaintance with Miss Crawford, her image told him a lot about what his own opening would have to be like. “Absolutely necessary that she feel her lines,” he wrote. “Must be serious from first. So much better when she is serious. Must have direct, consuming purpose in mind at all points of the story—never anything vague or blurred. Must be driven.” Up on the screen, Crawford saw Gable in a gun shop, and Fitzgerald noticed that there was “a touch of Louise Perkins… Has that groan.” But at the end of the film, the star, the shopgirl’s idol, burst into tears and the effect was spoiled. “Don’t like her voice crying—tremulous.”
Another day Fitzgerald had The Woman run off for him. Later he saw Miss Crawford in a movie called World’s Fair, and his mind must have gone back to the late 1920s when he himself had planned a novel with that title.
In March the author wrote Gerald Murphy:
I am writing a picture called Infidelity for Joan Crawford. Writing for her is difficult. She can’t change her emotions in the middle of a scene without going through a sort of Jekyll and Hyde contortion of the face, so that when one wants to indicate that she is going from joy to sorrow, one must cut away and then cut back. Also, you can never give her such a stage direction as “telling a lie,” because if you did, she would practically give a representation of Benedict Arnold selling West Point to the British.
When Fitzgerald, now well acquainted with the star on the screen, finally encountered her in person, he told her, “I’m going to write your next picture.”
“Good,” she said, drawing her face into that serious, driven expression the author had admired in her movies. “Write hard, Mr. Fitzgerald, write hard!”
As the script progressed there was much searching about for a co-star. When the studio finally made up its mind, it chose as Fitzgerald’s hero an actor who had once portrayed Scott himself in a movie. In a sense, he would be playing the same character over again. The leading man, star of The Wedding Night, was Gary Cooper.
Hunt Stromberg was Fitzgerald’s new boss. The producer towered over Scott and had a luxurious crop of hair which waved at the top of his flag-pole height. His round-lensed glasses and the formal three-piece suits which he sometimes affected gave him the air of a junior faculty member at a university. Since a screenwriter’s prestige in Hollywood was umbilically tied to the prestige of his producer, the move from Mankiewicz to Stromberg was something of a step up for Fitzgerald. In the Stromberg unit he joined a writing staff which included such old friends as Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, and of course the Hacketts.
Stromberg had helped the Hacketts when they needed him most, back when they were working for John Considine (“Oh, that dreadful man”). He rescued them and they remained forever grateful; they remember the producer as “creative and understanding.” “With Stromberg,” they explain, “you had a real participation in casting. If someone objected to your script, he would be on the writer’s side, fighting.” And most important of all, he was not under the impression that he was Shakespeare: when he was given a script, he did not immediately sit down to rewrite it.
Fitzgerald liked Stromberg much better than Mankiewicz. He called him “a sort of one-finger Thalberg, without Thalberg’s scope, but with his intense power of work and his absorption in his job.” Still, he confided in a letter to Maxwell Perkins, “Relations have always been so pleasant, not only with you but with Harold [Ober] and with [George] Lorimer’s Saturday Evening Post, that even working with the pleasantest people in the industry, Eddie Knopf and Hunt Stromberg, I feel this lack of confidence.”
Like most movies, this one began with a long wait. Fitzgerald stayed in his office so that he would be there in case the telephone rang—of course, it never did. He tried to catch up on his letter writing, tried to plot out a few stories, but that silent phone could be more distracting than someone who chattered incessantly. So for the most part the author looked out his office window, listened to voices in the hall, cleaned out his desk, sharpened his pencils, waited.
One afternoon when Fitzgerald was sitting in his office, the phone finally rang. It was Stromberg’s secretary: the producer wanted to see the screenwriter right away. Fitzgerald would be right over. When he entered the producer’s office, he found that Stromberg had a title ready for him. What would Scott think of a movie called Infidelity? Fitzgerald said that it sounded interesting. “Kick it around for a while,” the producer instructed. That was how Stromberg often worked. He would call a writer in, drop a title in his head, and then the waiting would start all over again. Now the gestation could begin in earnest. The screenwriter at least had a seed to work with: a name.
The waiting went on and on as the writer “kicked around” Stromberg’s idea. Days passed. The weekend came and Fitzgerald retreated to Palm Beach, where he had an idea. When he returned to the studio, he decided to fill some of his waiting time by writing out plots which had occurred to him. As he attacked his tablet, he grew excited:
I have been playing with [an] idea [which is] utterly fantastic… What would one think of Othello in modern dress on the screen? It would be [a] fascinating job for a writer and, I should think, for a director. Of course the great parts of the Moor, Iago, and Desdemona belong to the ages. There is infidelity for you on a grand scale. The more I think of it, the more I like it…
Then in the middle of his excitement, Fitzgerald cooled: “However, I guess this is too fantastic an idea for Joan Crawford, and… the Moor would have to be changed for the Southern trade…”
From Shakespeare, Fitzgerald turned next for inspiration to another classic showman: Benny Goodman. The author outlined his story idea as follows:
Put Shakespeare aside for a moment. My other brain wave last night concerns a story I thought of in Palm Beach last week. The name of it is Trap Drummer. I have noticed that the drummer in Benny Goodman’s orchestra, to the younger generation, is such a hero that any night at the Palomar last summer one could see hundreds of kids standing around, staring at him. I wondered if he had a wife and what she thought.
Now, supposing there was a trap drummer and Joan Crawford met him and helped him up to a position where he was practically a society pet, an Eddie Duchin; and supposing at this point he met a society girl and Joan Crawford sacrificed him and told him to go off with the society girl and she herself, after the divorce, married a man whom she admired and respected as she never had the trap drummer.
Business of accidental encounters of the two couples.
The trap drummer’s romance with the society girl goes to pot, however, and he needs Joan Crawford; and, seeing that he is drinking himself to death and that his career is going to pieces, she leaves the comfort and security that she has found, goes back to the trap drummer, and there she is again the trap drummer’s wife, sitting in a corner in the night club, watching as he plays sometimes—and people pointing to her with a sort of pity, saying: “Yes, that’s his wife. Isn’t it a pity he’s married to her.” But she knows in her heart that she has done the right thing and knows that he, in the midst of his drumming, looks through the stares of adulation of the young… to her and he knows she is the rock and love of his life.
It is, of course, the woman following her maternal instinct rather than her instinct to be protected. As such it is a true and essential human story. Also it is, as far as I know, absolutely original in that nobody has yet written about orchestra people except in musical terms in the Ben Bernie pictures…
Fitzgerald ended his story with a question: “Do the story and the title have to be the same, or can a story featuring John Crawford be called Trap Drummer? Or would it have to be called The Trap Drummers Wife?”
Stromberg was interested, but neither idea bowled him over, so Fitzgerald went away to think again. This time he forgot Shakespeare and put the big-band sound out of mind, too, in order to return to his imagination’s favorite prompt book: his own experience. Infidelity was no stranger to Fitzgerald. He outlined a somewhat autobiographical story to Stromberg and the producer liked it very much. He asked how fast the writing would go. No longer a self-employed novelist but a worker in a movie factory, Fitzgerald was happy to submit a timetable:
|Sequence I||Feb. 23rd||The Waldorf|
|Feb. 24th||Home and morning|
|Sequence II||28th||Seeing her off|
|Sequence III||2nd||Old Secretary|
|Sequence V||11th||Montage & auto|
|Sequence VI||17th||Church & Office with phone number|
|Sequence VII||18th||Breakfast room, phone & bound for party|
|Sequence VIII||22nd||CUT TO husband and back to old beau|
|24th||Crisis with beau and switch|
CUT TO husband.
|Sequence VIII (Cont'd)||30th||New Man|
|31st||Crisis with New Man|
|8th||DELIVERY OF SCRIPT|
|Total 120 pages.|
Fitzgerald pointed out:
That is less time than I took on Three Comrades, and the fact that I understand the medium a little better now is offset by the fact that this is really an original with no great scenes to get out of a book… My plan is to work about half the time at the studio but the more tense and difficult stuff I do better at home away from interruptions.
Stromberg agreed to let Fitzgerald work at home some of the time, which was a rarer privilege than one might imagine. Being cleared for home work was something like a prisoner’s being made a trusty. Sheilah Graham recalls what Scott was like when he worked at their beach house:
Scott, at Malibu. He is in an ancient gray-flannel bathrobe, torn at the elbows so that it shows the gray slipover sweater he wears underneath. He has the stub of a pencil over each ear, the stubs of half a dozen others—like so many cigars— peeping from the breast pocket of his robe… In his room, off the captain’s walk, the floor is littered with sheets of yellow paper covered with a large flowing hand. He uses his stubby pencils—he sharpens them carefully with a penknife, but never to a fine point because he bears down heavily—and writes at furious speed. As soon as one page is finished he shoves it off the desk to the floor and starts the next.
The movie script which was piling up almost like waste paper at the author’s feet was to be an experiment, something so new that it was also very old, as old as silent film. One could almost imagine that Fitzgerald in undertaking this experiment had been taking lessons from Monroe Stahr. In The Last Tycoon Stahr develops a scene in which a girl enters an office, lights a fire in the stove, and then burns a pair of black gloves. When the telephone rings, she answers and says, “I’ve never owned a pair of black gloves in my life.” All the while a strange man is “watching every move the girl makes.” A British writer named Boxley complains that the story is “just melodrama.” But Stahr says, “Not necessarily… In any case, nobody moved violently or talked cheap dialogue or had any facial expressions at all. There was only one bad line, and a writer like you could improve it. But you were interested.” Fitzgerald in Infidelity tells a story which is very different from Stahr’s, but in some respects he tells it the same way. There are very few lines of dialogue, and he hoped that there would be no strained facial expressions, but we are interested. Fitzgerald explained what he was trying to do in a memo to Stromberg: “Note how we… engrave our characters and our situations with practically no dialogue—a completely new technique and one that is not without its air of intrigue and appealing mystery.”
Actually, the technique was not as new as Fitzgerald thought. When the movies had first learned to talk, they had seemed to jabber incessantly, but soon, like a boy with a changing voice, the industry grew unsure of its new vocal cords, and movies became noticeably quieter for a time. Alfred Hitchcock promptly labeled this new reticent breed of films “silent talkies.” This reaction to talk reached its peak in the late thirties just as Fitzgerald was beginning as a screenwriter. Not surprisingly, he suffered much the same sort of growing pains. His Three Comrades was a little like the early talkies, heavy on dialogue; then in Infidelity he decided to shut up and let the pictures do the talking for him. His “silent” talking picture was not so much completely new as very up-to-date. And effective.
On the first page of Fitzgerald’s script we are introduced to two characters known simply as Gray Hair and Rumpled Hair. Descended from Nick Carroway in The Great Gatsby, they are the outside observers through whose eyes we see the story. The two men are at a night club on the roof of the Waldorf, where they entertain themselves by watching several couples at faraway tables through opera glasses. The motion-picture audience was to have been allowed to look through the glasses along with Gray and Rumpled, for the scenes were to have been photographed “through a frame shaped like this 00.” The couples, as viewed through the glasses, were to have been seen moving their lips, but no dialogue was to be recorded on the soundtrack: Fitzgerald by now had decided that the old adage about being seen and not heard should be applied to motion pictures—an art which was, after all, not yet grown up.
Rumpled and Gray look from table to table trying to decide which couples are engaged (ecstatic), married (bored), or cheating (nervous). Like Nick Carroway, the two men with the opera glasses help us to see what matters in the action of others: they help us get the right moral labels stuck on the right people. Fitzgerald was using Rumpled and Gray to educate his audience on how to see his story. Of course, no one ever did see it. Joe Breen took care of that.
At first, Gray and Rumpled’s game seems easy. It grows more difficult when they turn their glasses on a man and woman who are obviously not strangers, but who treat one another with the caution and politeness usually reserved for new acquaintances. Fitzgerald called the couple “silent and inscrutable”—they are bound to one another and yet there is a barrier between them. The man and woman are the hero and heroine of the story, Nicolas and Althea Gilbert. Puzzled, Gray Hair and Rumpled Hair decide that this spying is a silly game anyway; they give up and leave the roof. It is left to us to judge where Nicolas and Althea, more complicated than the other couples, fit in along that spectrum which runs from engagement through marriage to infidelity.
As Fitzgerald fashioned the story of Nicolas and Althea Gilbert, his thoughts went back to southern France and the fall of 1924, when he and Zelda had met a French flier named Edouard Josanne. Josanne was hard and handsome and brave like Tommy Barban in Tender Is the Night. Zelda wrote that he had a head of gold like “a Christmas coin… broad bronze hands… convex shoulders… slim and strong and rigid.” When Fitzgerald discovered that the flier, who came evening after evening to sit in the garden and talk about smoking opium in Peking, was also Zelda’s lover, the bitter fights began. Josanne departed, leaving Zelda a letter in French and his photograph. “It was the most beautiful thing she’d ever owned in her life, that photograph,” Zelda wrote of herself. “What was the use of keeping it?… There wasn’t a way to hold on to the summer, no French phrase to preserve its rising broken harmonies, no hopes to be salvaged from a cheap French photograph. What ever it was that she wanted from [him], [he] took with him…” At first, things seemed to get better. A month after the affair ended, Fitzgerald wrote in his ledger that he and Zelda were “close together” again. But years later he admitted: “That September 1924 I knew something had happened that could never be repaired.”
That was the emotion behind Infidelity, but he told the story with the roles reversed. Althea accompanies her mother on a vacation to Italy. A former secretary who once loved Nicolas drops by his office one afternoon, stays for dinner, then goes home with him at night to see the house she might have lived in if his father had not intervened. The butler is clearing away the breakfast dishes the next morning when Althea returns unexpectedly. Indicating her plate, the butler asks the secretary if she is through. She is, of course, and so is Nicolas and Althea’s marriage as they have known it.
Throughout his screenplay Fitzgerald continued to emphasize sight over sound, pictures over words. Picture: Althea, “with a not too emphasized gesture, turns her wedding ring with her thumb.” Picture: Althea, passing the fireplace, catches her fur coat on the spike of an ornate andiron; she frees herself quickly and goes on, but Nicolas remains behind to quickly bend off the offending point. Picture: At breakfast, Althea waits to see if Nicolas will notice that she has ordered a new kind of ham for the cook to prepare. Nicolas brightens when he notices his wife’s attention.
NICOLAS (puzzled): Well?
NICOLAS: What, nicer?
ALTHEA: The ham. It’s sent up from the South.
Nicolas’ eagerness fades. One cannot help wondering if Zelda, reared near Montgomery, Alabama, ever had ham sent up from the South.
To forget the night which ruined his marriage and to stop thinking for a while, Nicolas decides to give a party on his Long Island estate. Once the backdrop for weekends of consuming love, it has now lain idle for two years. To this party Nicolas invites not the senators, bankers, and heiresses of his social set, but the entire cast of a Broadway show in which he has invested. This is to be an evening where Jay Gatsby himself could walk the bright lawns and feel at home.
As the show people gather and the great house is lit once again, Nicolas talks with an actress named Alice:
ALICE: I never understood what you’d do with a big house unless you had a thousand children.
NICOLAS: Nothing but vanity. Or else sometimes you think you’re so much in love that your love could fill the biggest palace conceivable.
By this time, Nicolas and Althea’s love no longer fills the palace, nor have they filled it with children. In The Last Tycoon Stahr’s tragedy is the barren “Waste Land of the house [begun] too late.” In Infidelity, the Gilberts’ tragedy is the Waste Land of a house abandoned too soon. The kingdom is to have no heir. We were to witness the fall of the Gilberts just as the author himself, in a different way, had witnessed the fall of the Fitzgeralds.
Rather than a thousand children, Nicolas filled his mansion with actors and actresses, dancers and musicians. There are rows of limousines hired to ferry the guests to and from the party: there is a big swing orchestra: there is a huge canvas sprawled across the lawn and covered with dancers. But Nicolas is still lonely even in this crowd. The irony of infidelity is that rather than joining Nicolas to more of humanity, it has cut him off from even those to whom he once belonged. While the party roars downstairs, the master of this mansion makes a solitary tour of empty bedrooms. Once again the story was to have been told in pictures without words. The deserted rooms were to have provided a visual metaphor for the fall of the House of Gilbert. Nicolas sees a live mouse, the unlikely inheritor of this abandoned place. He passes among billiard tables, all of them covered with canvas sheets. He enters the master bedroom, where the chairs, the bureau, and the lady’s vanity are all shrouded in canvas. The last scene in the unfinished script ends with Nicolas staring at a large bed which, like everything else, has been covered to keep off the dust.
Fitzgerald believed in his script the way one believes in an old friend: it was like a visit paid to the world of The Great Gatsby thirteen years after the book’s publication. Like the 1925 novel, it told the story of the infidelity of a husband set against the backdrop of expensive New York homes and lavish country estates on Long Island’s fashionable northern shore. What separated Infidelity from Gatsby, however, was the author’s feelings toward the adulterer. As Fitzgerald had grown older, he had come to better understand Tom Buchanan’s sin. First there had been Zelda and Josanne, and now Scott and Sheilah.
In a memo to Stromberg, Fitzgerald says of the secretary who destroys Nicolas’ marriage:
A turn of the wheel… a flip of the coin… and this girl [Myrna Loy] might have been Gary’s [Gary Cooper’s] wife. How often this happens in life! And this is one of the big broadsides we are firing dramatically… For every man—and every woman—has more than one woman in their lives… How strange it seems sometimes that a certain relationship was not consummated—and yet it is simple to explain—everyone knows the thread of incidents affecting each life.
Years before, Fitzgerald had written of Gatsby’s loss of Daisy: “He must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream.” By 1938 the author himself had lost Zelda—not to another man but to insanity. Now he too knew what it was to pay the high price of the single dream, so he tried to believe that there could be more than one dream. He tried to believe that by living with Sheilah Graham he could recoup some of his losses. In Gatsby, when Nick Carroway discovered that Tom was unfaithful to Daisy, he felt like calling the police. In Infidelity, when the same crime is discovered, the author calls for understanding. By now he knew what it was like to be in the adulterer’s place.
In fact, that was to have been the key to the last few minutes of his movie. Fitzgerald outlined what he had in mind in a treatment where Althea actually sees herself—and the audience sees her on the screen—in the place of the secretary who falls in love with Nicolas. The experience teaches her compassion. Fitzgerald used to say that a writer never wasted anything. His inspiration about characters in a movie seeing themselves in someone else’s place never made it onto the screen, but it did make it into a book. In The Last Tycoon Boxley is brought in to doctor a script that a team of veteran writers have bogged down on. He has an idea. “Let each character see himself in the other’s place,” Boxley suggests. “The policeman is about to arrest the thief when he sees that the thief has his face. I mean, show it that way. You could almost call the thing Put Yourself in My Place.”
Stromberg was uncertain about this idea. He knew the old rule: fantasies don’t make money. (That was before Mary Poppins.) One problem was that photography was such a realistic art that it often undercut any make-believe one attempted to film. Still, Fitzgerald’s idea might have worked. It played, after all, on the movie’s magic for making audiences see themselves as anything from Tarzan swinging through the jungle to Little Caesar mowing down everyone who got in his way. By carrying this one step further, Fitzgerald hoped to convert the audience’s imagination into a moral force. If people could see themselves as Iris (or Nicolas or Althea), then perhaps they could understand and forgive the infidelity. Perhaps such understanding was the function of art. The screenwriter never got a chance to find out. Before he could finish his script, something happened.
At the bottom of page 104 of the script, Fitzgerald wrote: “There will be about 15 or 20 pages to the end.” Then he turned in his nearly completed scenario to Stromberg and headed east. Like Nicolas Gilbert, Fitzgerald did not have much of a family anymore, but he was determined to spend Easter with what he had left of one. Since he was anxious to prove to that family that he was still a writer and a good one, he took along a copy of Infidelity. The father met his daughter Scottie in Baltimore and they set off by rail for Norfolk, Virginia, to collect Zelda from her hospital. In a compartment in the Baltimore-Norfolk train, Scottie, who was then just sixteen years old, read her father’s story about the tragedy of adultery. It was a dismal Easter for these people who now only followed the rickety old pretense of being related to one another. Scott and Zelda fought, and Scott drank. But at least one good thing had come out of the visit: the father had proven something to his daughter.
When he returned to Hollywood, however, he discovered that the script which his daughter had admired was not going to be produced. With only twenty pages to go, Joe Breen had blackballed it. This was an era when everyone was making movies for the family, and America’s First Family was not the Roosevelts but the Hardys. Almost everyone in the country knew Andy Hardy (Mickey Rooney), Judge Hardy (Lewis Stone), Mother (Fay Holden), Aunt Millie (Sara Haden), Andy’s girl friend Polly Benedict (Ann Rutherford) and the little girl next door who sang (Judy Garland). Infidelity had no place in this world.
Fitzgerald wrote his daughter:
We have reached a censorship barrier in Infidelity, to our infinite disappointment. It won’t be Joan’s next picture and we are setting it aside awhile till we can think of a way of half-witting halfwit Hays and his Legion of Decency. Pictures needed cleaning up in 1932-33 (remember I didn’t like you to see them?), but because they were suggestive and salacious. Of course the moralists now want to apply that to all strong themes—so the crop of the last two years is feeble and false, unless it deals with children.
In The Last Tycoon the disappointed screenwriter would state flatly that Hollywood’s “golden age [came] before the censorship.”
After a scheme to change the picture’s name from Infidelity to Fidelity miscarried, there were other attempts to outwit the halfwit censors. Breen thought that Scott’s projected ending— the reconciliation between Althea and Nicolas—was tantamount to advertising that crime paid. So the author worked out what he hoped would be a compromise. He outlined his idea to Stromberg this way:
First let me state it in terms of a parallel, highly justified in this case because adultery is a form of thievery…
A certain man [Nicolas], in co-operation with an unknown accomplice [Iris], has stolen from his partner [Althea]. The partnership is dissolved.
After ten years the partners meet. The thieving partner has been forgiven in a certain way but has not been reinstated in partnership nor does he expect it. He finds, though, that his unknown accomplice has returned and is engaged in once again trying to steal from his former partner [having an affair with Althea’s new husband].
… He steps in to right the wrong. In the process of so doing, it is necessary that the old accomplice be ruined—and also that he shall be received back into partnership.
Fitzgerald went on to explain: “A Catholic like Breen would, I think, accept the morals of this situation completely. The thieving partner is redeemed. The unreformed accomplice is punished.” But Breen did not accept it. The idea got nowhere. Finally Stromberg’s patience wore out. He was through fighting the Hays Office. He gave up and assigned Fitzgerald to another story. Like Nicolas Gilbert’s unborn children, Scott Fitzgerald’s unborn screenplay—one of the best he would ever write—went into permanent storage.
After working for three months on the picture, Fitzgerald came home one evening and told Sheilah, “I’ve been taken off the story.”
She knew how much Infidelity meant to him, so she tried to cheer him up. “Let’s have some people over,” she suggested. “Why don’t you invite a lot of your friends.”
“That’s it,” said the author. “We’ll have a party.”
And they had one: to celebrate the disaster. When the guests began to arrive, they included Eddie Mayer, Nunnally Johnson and his wife Marion, Cameron and Buff Rogers, Bill Warren (who helped with the adaptation of Tender Is the Night), and with him the lovely actress Alice Hyde. For most of the evening Fitzgerald was an excellent host, organizing Ping-Pong matches, boxing with Eddie Mayer’s seven-year-old son Paul, serving drinks, being his old expansive Dick-Diver self. Best of all, the only thing that he would drink was water.
Some neighborhood children came over and the author brought out a deck of cards. “Would you boys like to see a wonderful card trick?” he asked. “Only one other man in the world can do this. And he’s a lifer at San Quentin, who spent ten years in solitary where he thought up this trick.” He rolled up his sleeves. “Watch! Abracadabra.” He closed his eyes and whirled three times. Then out of the deck on demand came an ace, a king, a ten, a four.
The prized script seemed to have been forgotten. Fitzgerald seemed happier than he had in some time. Suddenly Sheilah realized why. The water that Scott had been drinking was gin. The drink soon began to take its toll. The author took Alice Hyde aside and told her confidentially that Bill Warren had syphilis. After the news had had time to do its mischief, he took Bill aside and asked, “What’s the matter, old man? Seems she can’t stand you. You haven’t said anything offensive, have you?”
As the guests began to leave, Fitzgerald escorted them to their cars. As he was escorting Nunnally and Marion Johnson, he suddenly changed his mind about seeing them out and asked Johnson to step into the den.
“He seemed a little frantic, a little wild,” Johnson remembers. “He locked the door and dramatically dropped the key in his pocket. Then he began ordering me to leave town.”
With the door locked, Johnson was not sure how that was possible.
Scott told him, “Listen, Nunnally, get out of Hollywood. It will ruin you. You have a talent—you’ll kill it here.”
Johnson recalls the rest of what happened that evening as follows:
“This was a crusade for about twenty-five minutes. He wanted to deliver me from this hell I was in. I told him that since I was doing better than I had ever done in my life, I didn’t want to be saved. I finally asked Scott, ’Have I got to fight to get out of this room?’ My wife and Sheilah started knocking on the door. When he let me out, we went outside to the car and started to drive away, but he followed us down the road. I stopped to see what he wanted and he said, ’I don’t suppose you’ll ever come back!’”I asked him, ’Why not, Scott?’
“He shouted, ’Because I’m living here with my paramour!’”I had seen that word written down before but I had never heard it spoken. I turned to my wife and said, ’Good God, I didn’t know Scott was a Methodist.’
“My wife said that he wasn’t, that he was a Catholic, but I said that no one but a Methodist would use a word like that.”
Johnson had escaped from Fitzgerald’s house, but neither he nor Scott escaped from Hollywood. Johnson went on to write the fine script for The Grapes of Wrath; Fitzgerald’s next writing job was on a movie which was to star Irving Thalberg’s widow. But even while he was writing dialogue for the new screenplay, he kept submitting plans for the revival of the story which the censors had stopped. A year later, when he began The Last Tycoon, the author wrote his daughter that the novel was his “first labor of love… since the first part of Infidelity.”