Hunt Stromberg looked at his watch nervously. Fitzgerald had reported to his office to discuss what they were going to do about repairing the first few pages of his script for The Women. Stromberg didn’t like them. But as the writer tried to talk his story—never his strength—the producer’s nervousness made him nervous, too. He could not help noticing the perspiration which gleamed across his boss’s forehead and gathered in bright pools about his eyes. The producer looked at the time once again. Stromberg was obviously paying more attention to his watch than to his writer. But he was not clocking Fitzgerald to see how long he had been talking—it had been only a few minutes. Nor was he expecting an important director or star. He wasn’t even looking to see how long until lunch. What Stromberg was doing was checking to see how much longer the pain inside of him would last.
Suddenly the producer stopped Fitzgerald. He wanted to know if Scott could come back later, say in two hours, when they would take up the conference again. Of course Fitzgerald would come back—that was his job. The writer left and Stromberg waited alone. The doctor was coming with the drugs; he would be there soon. The man in pain shifted in his chair and looked at his watch once again.
When Fitzgerald reported back two hours later, Stromberg seemed more relaxed at first. But soon he was after his watch again. Again he was waiting for the doctor to come. Again he put the writer off. Could he come back in the morning?
That night Stromberg decided that he could not wait until morning to solve the opening. He called Fitzgerald at home in Malibu. Could Scott come right over? The writer drove his old Ford—the one which just missed being immortalized in A Yank at Oxford—along ocean-hugging Route One, then cut inland to Beverly Hills. When he parked his runt of a jalopy in front of Stromberg’s mansion, it seemed to make the huge house look even bigger. Fitzgerald was shown in and then taken not to the living room or the study but to Stromberg’s bedroom. Scott found the producer waiting for him in bed, sick. It was a shock, but Fitzgerald understood about being ill and working anyway—many of his short stories had been written while he was confined to bed. The sickroom became their conference room. The author sat beside the bed and, as his superior fought back the pain, they plunged into their comedy, trying to make it funnier and funnier.
Fitzgerald would later write in one of his notebooks that he was tired of his own “rhythm and the rhythms of the people in Hollywood. He wanted to see people with more secrets than the necessity of concealing a proclivity for morphine.” But Stromberg had a good reason for his proclivity. Not long after Fitzgerald transferred to his unit, he had developed a slipped disc which kept him in constant pain, and Stromberg was terrified of pain. He began wearing a corset which was supposed to do the work of his damaged backbone, holding the weight of his head and shoulders. That helped, but the pain continued, and along with the pain, the drugs.
Even loyal old-timers like the Hacketts, people with years of good will behind them, found it hard to face this new, diminished Stromberg. “It was impossible to work with him anymore,” they remember.
The fatal day, so far as the Hacketts’ screenwriting careers were concerned, came when Stromberg called them into his office and told them that from now on they would be writing one The Thin Man picture and one Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy picture a year. “The first Thin Man was a refreshing comedy,” the Hacketts recall, “but after that each one kept getting thinner and thinner.” The couple were equally tired of writing sweet little stories for Jeanette and Nelson. “When I heard what they wanted us to do,” says Albert Hackett, “I went back to my desk and cried and puked into my typewriter.” That day the fabulously successful couple quit the movies and began packing. They were going home to Broadway. MGM lost two of its best screenwriters, Fitzgerald two of his best friends.
As the Hacketts were leaving Hollywood, giving up once they were convinced that the best had already been, Bill Warren was just getting settled in California, hoping to break in. Columbia Pictures brought him out from New York because they were impressed with the detective stories he had been writing at pennies a word for the pulps. He moved into an eight-dollar-a-week room in a Los Angeles boarding hotel and thought that he was living in comparative affluence. When Fitzgerald saw the room, he said, “What are you doing in a dump like that? Come down and live in Malibu.”
Warren moved in with Scott and Sheilah for the summer. “I was nothing but a lackey,” he remembers. “It was always, ’Boy, bring the drinks.’” It was usually late by the time Scott got back to the beach house after a day’s writing at the office. There would be little conversation at dinner. If Scott said anything, it was likely to be something like, “I had an awful fight with so-and-so today.”
Wednesdays Fitzgerald would stay home from the studio. When Warren asked him why, Scott would say, “Well, I’m sick.” On those days when he was “sick,” the older author would take the younger one to the Pickwick Bookstore, where, Warren says, “He would buy me books he thought I should read.” Scott would take Bill to lunch at Musso Frank’s, where other writers ate, where he would be known.
Fitzgerald normally shunned the beach, but one night at about ten P.M. he led Sheilah and Bill down to the edge of the ocean. He was taking them to see what Stahr showed Kathleen in The Last Tycoon: little silver fishes which came rolling in “twos and threes and platoons and companies, relentless and exalted and scornful, round the great bare feet of the intruders, as they had come before Sir Francis Drake had nailed his plaque to the boulder on the shore.”
One summer day a new boarder arrived at the beach house. He was a big, powerful man and, when he shook Warren’s hand, he gripped him by the fingers and squeezed until Bill sank to his knees. Ernest Hemingway, who, Fitzgerald had written, “talked with the authority of success,” had come to Scott, who “talked with the authority of failure,” for a place to stay and some spending money. Fitzgerald had written that he and Ernest could “never sit across the same table again”; he said that they had “walked over one another with cleats.” In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” Hemingway had written that the very rich had ruined Scott Fitzgerald, and since then he had more than once hinted that movie money had taken up the job where the Eastern rich had left off. But now Ernest, who said that he was waiting for a check from one of the national magazines, needed some of that Hollywood wealth. Scott gave him twenty-five dollars a week allowance. Ernest insisted on cash so that there would be no record.
Hemingway would set up a card table out on the beach at night, station a kerosene lantern on it, and, with the waves rolling and the wind tugging at his pages, write For Whom the Bell Tolls in longhand. Warren told Fitzgerald, “He’s just waiting for a columnist to come along and discover him writing that way.” One night Bill went out to watch and Ernest called out, “Boy, take a look at this.” (“Hemingway always resolutely refused to remember my name,” Warren says.) The novelist handed Bill a page on which the handwriting formed an inverted pyramid. Warren says that it was one of the sleeping-bag scenes. At the bottom of the pyramid was the orgasm. The earth moved. Hemingway asked Bill what he thought of it. “I don’t understand it,” said the young man, whose life had been at least more sheltered than Ernest’s. “What does it mean?” After Ernest explained, Bill liked the scene better.
One morning Scott woke Bill and said, “We’re going to Metro.” Fitzgerald wanted to introduce Hemingway to the powers at the studio, proud to show off the famous author to his bosses, proud to dangle impresarios like Louis B. Mayer before Ernest. They rattled up to the Thalberg Building in Scott’s old Ford for what was to be Hemingway’s grand entrance. Deferentially, Fitzgerald guided his friend into the office of Bernard Hyman, a small, retiring man who was one of the most powerful producers at MGM. Ernest looked the little fellow over.
“You’re doing pretty well for a ’Heeb,’” he said.
Mayer was the next to be honored with an introduction. The two bullies were bound to resent one another. Hemingway’s power was in his body, in the guns he shot game with, in the courage he thought he had. Mayer’s power was in his empire and, as it turned out, his police force. The great American individualist shook hands with the head of the great American corporation. The oak tree looked down at the fireplug. In Mayer’s office, Hemingway was so rude that Metro’s dictator called one of his house cops and said, “If this man isn’t out of my office in five minutes, it’s your job.”
After Hemingway had been thrown out, all Fitzgerald said was, “He doesn’t have a car. How’s he. going to get back to Malibu?”
At the end of the workday, Scott and Bill went to look for Ernest. They found him across the street in a bar called the Retake Room. Ernest was inside telling everyone how he had put L. B. Mayer in his place. Scott had a few drinks and soon he too was making Ernest the hero of the incident. As the third member of that party recalls, “Little Billy Warren, who was waiting outside the bar and who didn’t even have a license, had to drive the two drunks home.”
One night Fitzgerald came home to Sheilah as happy as if he had been drinking, but he hadn’t. He had seen an advertisement in the Los Angeles Times: The Pasadena Playhouse was going to premiere a new play based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “A Diamond as Big as the Ritz.” He called the Playhouse and asked them to reserve two seats “somewhere near the back.” Then he ordered a limousine and chauffeur; this event was too showy for his bouncy Ford. Sheilah wore a gray and crimson evening gown; Scott had on his tuxedo. They could have been on their way to one of the debutante parties which the younger Fitzgerald immortalized.
When they reached the Playhouse, there were no crowds in front of the theatre. Fitzgerald wondered if it could be the wrong night and went off to find out. When he returned, he said, “It’s the students—they’re giving the play in the upstairs hall.” The two first-nighters, dressed for box seats and velvet chairs, sat on wooden benches at the back of the hall, once again alone. Just before curtain time about a dozen students wandered in, the girls in skirts and slacks, the boys without ties.
Scott laughed all through the play and at the end decided, “I’m going backstage. It might encourage them to know the author came to see them.” The young actors could not hide the fact that they were surprised to see Fitzgerald—they had assumed that he was dead.
Fitzgerald helped Miss Graham into her silver-fox jacket and they returned to the rented elegance of their limousine. The fur was the first that Sheilah had ever owned. Scott had given it to her for her birthday. He always laughed at her when she wore it because of the way she sat forward in her seat so as not to crush the fur. Like the old Ford which the author had written into his script for Yank, the fur coat was written into the script on which he was now working. It became a prostitute’s badge.
“Scott would rather have written a movie than the Bible, than a best seller,” says Warren, but once again Fitzgerald had run into trouble on a picture, so that his goal now seemed further away than ever. Warren remembers that one evening “Scott showed me a scene that he had written that day. I was aghast. It was night. The heroine was in her room. The wind was blowing and Scott had her recite ’Invictus’: ’I am the captain of my soul
Bill told Scott, “My God, that would take a whole reel.”
Scott answered, “What do you know? That’s what I get for asking a peasant.”
It is not easy to understand why Fitzgerald was given this particular writing job in the first place. To begin with, the play which he was supposed to adapt had been a smash Broadway comedy; Fitzgerald had written only one comedy since he left Princeton, The Vegetable, and it had flopped in Atlantic City long before it got anywhere near Broadway. Furthermore, the play which he was to make into a movie was by a woman, Clare Booth, and was very much the kind of play a woman would write. There were not even any men in the play, none, the all-female cast being a gimmick which Miss Booth had exploited quite successfully. And yet they wanted Scott to write a woman’s comedy about women to be called The Women. Hollywood was like that.
Being assigned to The Women was a double disappointment for Fitzgerald. Not only had Infidelity been stopped, but he had been transferred onto, then off of, a story which promised to become a classic film memorial to Irving Thalberg. In a sense the picture Marie Antoinette was Thalberg’s own The Last Tycoon— it was to have been his masterpiece, but his death left it unfinished. Fitzgerald had been drawn to Thalberg as the last of the great producers: he was drawn to the producer’s hero, Louis XVI, as the last of another line, the last of the Sun Kings. In his 1921 novel This Side of Paradise, Scott had described “a new generation… grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in men shaken,” but the author himself had never stopped believing in the Gods, wars, kings, and heroes. He wrote only five pages of script for Marie Antoinette, but in these he found space to resist the Age of Steinbeck and to recall a different age which thrived on different beliefs.
“You see, we believe in kings, you and I,” he had Ferson tell the queen; the courtier is trying to explain to Marie why he will not run away with her, why she must stay with Louis. “Oh, I know it’s not the fashion at present. There’s another spirit in the air. But it was a great human idea—the king. You and I were brought up to believe it. We shall die believing it.”
After a few days, however, Fitzgerald learned that he was not to be allowed to continue telling this story of monarchs shaken off the world’s chessboard by the masses. Instead of kings and queens and battlefields, he was given a bridge table and asked to tell the stories of the women gathered around it. Fitzgerald had little enthusiasm for the new project, but he was at least no stranger to the kind of woman he was supposed to write about. In a way, they were like the girls he had described in This Side of Paradise, but now, like the author, they were twenty years older. In Paradise Rosalind had thrown over Amory because he showed no signs of growing rich enough to spoil her. All the girls in The Women have solved that problem: they have found men rich enough. Fitzgerald’s Gloria Gilbert, heroine of The Beautiful and Damned, had been cut from the same lace; Nicole in Tender Is the Night and Pat in Three Comrades had needed spoiling, too, but they had an excuse: they were sick.
The pampered heroine had served Fitzgerald well for many years, but an estrangement was coming. Mary Haines, the protagonist of The Women, would be the last heroine in this tradition about whom the author would ever write. In a note to Stromberg, Fitzgerald imagined “what sort of woman” Mary is when we first see her at the beginning of the story. His descriptions reads like an epitaph for all his old heroines, the ones who were beautiful and damned.
She is a member of a group, a clan who are brought up with a curious dualism. They are given the best education, tutoring, instruction and chaperonage, but at the same time they are told in a subtle way that they have no special obligations to fulfill, no price to pay for these advantages. Their brothers are at least expected to attain the minimum requirements at Yale, Harvard, Princeton, to fit them to become part of New York’s ruling caste—but not the women. Merely satisfying high school requirements is enough to saturate them with expensive cars, mink coats, fabulous jewelry, so at the age of eighteen they have anything they want, no sense of reward or punishment. They own the earth. We are not going to preach a sermon, but we start with the supposition that this is true. If we make Mary a middle-class woman we have falsified the intention of the play. She belongs to this class and when she sees its general shiftlessness and viciousness she has a hard time getting out of it. That too has a definite part in this story.
This class is pretty new—it grew up in the twenties—her mother was a rich woman but raised in a religious atmosphere —a moral atmosphere. In Mary’s world a woman acts almost entirely according to her temptations. But she must have inherited some taste from her mother and her own home, for she is plainly several cuts above her friends in her standards of conduct.
She had an English nanny, then a French mademoiselle and at twelve was sent to the Spence School in New York, where among her classmates were the plain, clever Nancy, the witty and amusing Sylvia, and Edith, who was perhaps her cousin or a friend of early childhood.
About 1928, when they were nineteen, the four girls made their debut at dances at the Ritz. Nancy wasn’t popular with men—she loved someone who didn’t love her—but the other three were very quickly engaged to three eligible young bachelors. Mary, the prettiest and sweetest, was the first to marry.
She had had little time or occasion to think before marriage and the first few years afterwards were much the same. She was mad about her husband and her two babies. She played occasionally at all the sports she had learned in girlhood—their summer house had a pool and though she quit tennis after the babies came, she still played golf in the nineties and always meant to play more if only to keep her still girlish figure from departing.
What was it that singled her out for a very special blow of fate? She had conformed in every way to the traditions of her class, she had not even availed herself of its privileges of occasionally straying. Why did she lose her husband to a rather low predatory-type female?
It was above all because she was a giver and not a taker, everything had to come to her, not for the asking, but without asking, because she was beautiful. A beautiful girl does not have to fight for men—she has no such training as a girl whose weapons must be guile and charm.
Her beauty has even formed her position among women. Even there life has been easy—she has such a sweet nature that her friends cannot even be jealous of her beauty, so she does not quarrel and cat with them. They show their better sides and she does not suspect their baser motives.
Nevertheless, her best friend has grown to be Nancy—she feels that Nancy is alive. As her twenties pass she has a better time with Nancy, who has ideas and talents, than she has with Edith and Sylvia. These two she takes for granted—part of her life—part of her past.
This note to Stromberg, this history prepared to fill in the past of a Clare Booth character, must have been for Fitzgerald the cause which would prepare for the effects of the drama. Always one with a keen sense of history, he had to know Mary’s background before he could write about her present. But no sooner did he have it down, Mary’s then and now, than he began to think of changing it. He had already done the old Mary, had already written countless stories about girls who had been ruined by their own wealth. Now he wanted to do something different.
So Fitzgerald wrote another note to Stromberg:
Let us change Mary from a passive, simple, easily influenced character, to the exact opposite—an active, intelligent, and courageous character, and see what effect this would have upon the plot of The Women.
For the present, I shall keep to the general line we have, but what she does in the play on good advice she will do now from good sense of her own, and whatever she does on bad advice, she won’t do in quite such a dumb way. Let her actions speak for themselves… Immediately you see we have a new Mary.
To echo the author, immediately you see we have a new kind of heroine, one in some ways more like Sheilah Graham, who took care of Scott, than the Zelda who required so much care herself.
But this new Mary did not intrigue Stromberg or the front office. Fitzgerald was back to the old, familiar heroine he began with. He decided to introduce her to the movie audience much as he had originally described her to Stromberg, by going back and filling in her past, by beginning at the beginning and showing her growing up spoiled. The first shot was to have shown Mary and her friends as babies wheeled through Central Park by German and French nurses. As Fitzgerald pointed out, “Plain American nursemaids or colored girls would be a step down socially.”
Stromberg said no. He did not like Fitzgerald’s little baby-carriage prologue and besides he had an idea of his own. Scott described how that idea came to the producer in one of his Pat Hobby stories:
“Wait a minute! Wait a minute!” the producer said… “I seem to see a dog.” They would wait, tense and breathless, while he saw a dog.
A second dog took its place beside the first in their obedient visions.
“We open on a dog on a leash—pull the camera back to show another dog—now they’re snapping at each other. We pull back further—the leashes are attached to tables—the tables tip over. See it? ”
Fitzgerald saw it. He returned to his desk and wrote the opening scene just as the producer had dictated. Nor did he particularly mind losing his prologue. Later, in The Last Tycoon, he would have Stahr tell his writers, “When you extend a play with a prelude you’re asking for it.”
The Women is a very talkative play. After all, its subject is gossip. Consequently, Fitzgerald’s adaptation of The Women is more a step backwards in the direction of the talkative Three Comrades than a step forward into the quiet world of Infidelity. But most of all, Fitzgerald’s screenplay was a step into the classic Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer mold. To be sure that Fitzgerald understood what type of script was expected of him, Stromberg sent him off to one of the studio projection rooms to see Metro’s Grand Hotel. Ever since the early thirties when Thalberg produced the movie, an all-star extravaganza which paraded many of the company’s most dazzling beauties, including Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, Metro had been known as “the Grand Hotel of the studios.” Besides the mystical Garbo and the voracious Crawford, this distinctly feminine studio also boarded Jean Harlow, the goddess-whore; Myrna Loy, the unlikely wife; Joan Fontaine, the governess who married well; coy Paulette Goddard; musical Jeanette MacDonald; tragic Luise Rainer; and Rosalind Russell, the heavyweight bust. The studio’s favorite subjects were polished, sophisticated, stagy dramas like Hotel. The Women, a polished comedy which would make work for several of the studio’s most important girls, was an ideal MGM property.
The play was not, however, an ideal project for Fitzgerald—it allowed too few moments for screenwriting greatness. Too much of the work had already been done, too much of the dialogue already written. Often the screenwriter followed Miss Booth’s play almost word for word. He could not sharpen her sharp tongue, but he could—in fact, he often had to—censor it. Once again Joe Breen had to be placated. Fitzgerald’s writing on the screenplay soon wore itself into a kind of rut, one familiar to veteran Hollywood writers: Copy a few lines, put in something original now and then just to convince yourself that you are still something more than carbon paper.
Miss Booth’s play, and therefore Fitzgerald’s movie script, was a modern-day, Park Avenue School for Scandal. As Fitzgerald wrote his daughter, “I am doing the screenplay of The Women for Norma Shearer. My God, what characters! What gossip! Let me remind you never to discuss my affairs with a living soul.” Miss Shearer was to play Mary Haines, the victim of the gossip. The cast also embraced Rosalind Russell as Sylvia, described by Fitzgerald as a “Park Avenue b--”; Joan Fontaine as Peggy, who wants children but cannot afford both them and rich friends, too; Phyllis Povah as Edith, who has seen so much of money and maternity that she is bored with both; and Joan Crawford as Crystal, the girl all the others are talking about.
At the beginning of the play Sylvia tells her bridge partners of a fascinating morning she has just spent at the hairdresser’s. While having her nails manicured, some gossip was dropped into the still pool of her mind and she cannot wait to start it making ever wider circles. Miss Booth had Sylvia say of her informant, a young manicurist named Olga, “You know how those creatures are, babble, babble, babble, babble, never let up for a minute! When suddenly she said: ’I know the girl who’s being kept by Mr. Haines!’” Fitzgerald knew Breen well enough to change the line to, “I know the girl that Mr. Haines is crazy about.” By the time the movie was finally made, they had cut the line completely.
In the play Sylvia goes on to philosophize about men, swearing, “I wouldn’t be sure of the Apostle Paul.” Fitzgerald knew that Breen, a Catholic, along with many movie-goers, would be sure, so the saint was spared, i.e., cut from the script. The movie as filmed followed Scott’s lead and also spared Paul.
Not content to do nothing but copy words out of someone else’s play, Fitzgerald would occasionally add a joke of his own, usually a serious one, since he had grown into a grim joker. At one point he had his women get into an argument about which building it was that one of their friends threw herself off of. “It was the one with the ledge,” Edith says, “—because the papers said she bounced.” The talk here is reminiscent of that scene in Tender Is the Night where Hannan and McKibben argue about whether it was the Racquet Club or the Harvard Club to which Abe North, beaten nearly lifeless in a speak-easy, crawled home to die.
Paired with this macabre cynicism in Fitzgerald’s screenplay, one finds a sentimentality about hearth and home. All through Miss Booth’s tough little play, he wrote in lines praising home wherever he could. In one speech he had Mary tell her friends that home means “everything in the world” to her. Now that his own home had come crashing down about him like so many dropped trays, Fitzgerald seems to have developed an orphan’s respect for the institution.
Mary Haines’ home is threatened by Crystal Allen. Crystal bestows her favors on Mary’s husband and he in turn opens his charge accounts to her. Armed with her new visa to the world of the upper classes, credit, this shopgirl boldly invades an exclusive couturier’s in a determined quest for the lingerie equivalent of a Diamond as Big as the Ritz. “I’d like to see,” Crystal announces proudly, “the best underwear in the world.” To go with her fine underthings, Mr. Haines buys his paramour a gift which becomes her most prized possession: a silver-fox jacket.
Why did Scott write Sheilah’s silver-fox fur into his script? Was it the bitch in him? Or was he simply being the good artist, never wasting anything? Helen Hayes remembers that “Sheilah Graham was good to Scott, but he wasn’t nice enough to her—ever.” The actress believes that the gossip columnist “represented to Scott’s fevered mind the second-rate he had fallen into.” Zelda had been first-rate, like the twenties, but with the twenties’ fatal flaw, burning with the bright, short-lived flame of paper when set afire; she had been greatly admired, but in a moral sense never quite admirable. Sheilah embodied a diminished decade, the thirties; she was not dazzling the way Zelda had been, but as a worker, an achiever, a caring nurse, she was admirable. Zelda and Sheilah were opposites which the author held unreconciled in his mind: the beautiful girl who was damned, and the not-so-beautiful girl who was his personal savior. In his writing Fitzgerald was turning away from young “flappers” in favor of heroines who could better cope with the new, harder times, but still he felt the loss, and sometimes made Sheilah feel it, too.
Although Fitzgerald did not invent the story or the characters, The Women turned out to be a good vehicle for the author’s continuing ambivalence toward the very rich and the very spoiled. The opposing emotions in the author’s mind were matched by opposing characters in the play. That is, some of the rich women in the story are sympathetic, but others are what Scott called rich “b-s.” Fitzgerald sorted out the one from the other, of course, according to whether they were spoiled by their fortunes or did something worth while with them. This concept of “richesse oblige” reveals less about the way Fitzgerald’s mind was working than do his examples of what he thought of as worth-while uses of wealth. Once again he chose to recommend the home: the good rich use their money to strengthen the home, the bad rich neglect their families.
Mary’s greatest problem is that she has spent too much time with the do-nothings of the social world, the Sylvias, Peggys, and Ediths, so when her home is threatened she too does nothing. Her daughter, Little Mary, pleads, “Oh, mother, why don’t you do something!” But instead of fighting, Mary retreats to Reno.
The Beautiful and Damned had been a kind of vindication of a leisure class who never did much of anything, but now Fitzgerald was sick of that type. In July, while he was hard at work on The Women, he wrote a shrill letter to his daughter which made his opinion of idlers very plain:
… [Zelda] wanted me to work too much for her and not enough for my dream. She realized too late that work was dignity, and tried to atone for it by working herself, but it was too late and she broke and is broken forever…
For a long time I hated her mother for giving her nothing in the line of good habit—nothing but “getting by” and conceit. I never wanted to see again in this world women who were brought up as idlers… I think that idlers seem to be a special class for whom nothing can be planned, plead as one will with them—their only contribution to the human family is to warm a seat at the common table…
You don’t realize that what I am doing here is the last tired effort of a man who once did something finer and better. There is not enough energy, or call it money, to carry anyone who is dead weight, and I am angry and resentful in my soul when I feel that I am doing this… You have spent two years doing no useful work at all, improving neither your body nor your mind, but only writing reams and reams of dreary letters to dreary people… It is like an old gossip who cannot still her tongue.
It is almost as though Fitzgerald had gotten his daughter confused with one of the characters in the screenplay which he was writing.
One of the advantages of authorship over parenthood is that fictional characters have to do what the man with the pencil wants them to. So at the end of his screenplay Fitzgerald reformed Mary as he often despaired of reforming his daughter (who after all was not nearly so wild as he had been). Through most of the script Mary serves simply as another spoiled heroine, but in the end she becomes something more: a defender of the home. As a girl, Mary’s head, like that of Rosalind and Gloria before her, might have been turned by the glitter of society, but as a middle-aged mother her heart is moved by her family. To make this point, Fitzgerald thought nothing of changing Clare Booth’s ending.
In a note to Stromberg he argued that “the biggest triumph is not of Mary over Crystal but of the home over the more predatory and destructive habits of the female.” He went on to suggest that this point could be best made by changing the setting of the play’s last scenes. On Broadway these scenes had taken place in the powder room of a fashionable night club: word is sent into the powder room that Stephen Haines wants to see his wife, and the original Mrs. Haines (Mary), rather than the new Mrs. Haines (Crystal), goes out to meet him. “But I think in the picture,” Fitzgerald wrote, “it would be best to take the action back to Mary’s house… The last scenes should show Mary coming into her house, waking her daughter, having a momentary scare whether or not Stephen is coming—then the door slowly opening from outside.”
The movie, when filmed, chose neither the suspense of Clare Booth’s ending nor the return home of Fitzgerald’s. One of Mary’s friends simply comes into the powder room and says, “Stephen’s out there—he’s waiting for you.” Mary starts out to meet him, spreads her arms, The End.
Throughout Fitzgerald’s screenplay one has the sense of a visit paid to the world of This Side of Paradise twenty years later. A real sadness lies half-hidden in that last scene, for The Home emerges as the place where paradise is supposed to be when a man or woman reaches middle age, as Fitzgerald had; but twenty years after the publication of This Side of Paradise a real home was exactly what Fitzgerald did not have.
Fitzgerald’s script ended happily for Mary, but once again the author was not so lucky. As with Three Comrades, he had no sooner finished his solo script than a collaborator was put on the story with him. First, he was teamed with Sidney Franklin, who was not so much a writer as a brilliant director. Since their talents were so different, the two men did not really track up one another’s snow.
But then Franklin was moved out and Donald Ogden Stewart moved in. Fitzgerald and Stewart had grown up in St. Paul together, and evidently the two boyhood rivals wasted no time in becoming studio rivals, for Fitzgerald later wrote in his notebooks:
Don Stewart, unlike Elsa Maxwell, yearned after higher things. This yearning he indulged in a series of modest parodies which he declared were “better than Candide.” However the attempt to convince himself brought on a short paranoia during which he made efforts to pull down the pillars on all our heads and hide in the ruins.
The Fitzgerald-Stewart collaboration came to nothing. “Hunt was difficult to please,” Fitzgerald later recalled, “… and toward the end Don and I lost interest.”
One day Stromberg had an idea. Get a woman! He called in Jane Murfin to adapt The Women for the screen. This time Fitzgerald was spared the pain of seeing someone else rewrite his words. Miss Murfin simply threw out his scripts entirely and started over from the beginning. Fearing the wrath of the censor, she was even more of a schoolmarm than Fitzgerald had been. Like him, she cleaned up Miss Booth’s language so that ladies would not be afraid to come and see The Women. But she went even further. She cut one of the funniest scenes in the play, one which Fitzgerald had had the temerity to retain. It took place in the maternity ward where Peggy visits Edith and her newborn baby only to discover that, over the protests of nurses, the new mother has elected to suck on a cigarette while the baby performs a similar action on her. Peggy says, “Oh, Edith, isn’t he divine!” Then stepping closer she cries, “What’s that on his nose?” Edith: “What nose? Oh, that’s an ash.” Inasmuch as Hollywood was anxious not to offend motherhood—it being widely held that Mother chose the movies the family would see—Miss Murfin allowed no ash to tarnish the madonna image.
By April 1, 1939, almost a year after Fitzgerald had begun the job, Miss Murfin finished it. Or so she thought. The blue cover came off her neatly mimeographed script and the pages were slipped into the new gold binding which signified final shooting script. The cameras were ready to roll. Then Stromberg reread the script one more time just to be sure, and discovered that he was not sure at all. Something was wrong. He had another idea. Get another woman!
Anita Loos was in her office working on dialogue for Gable or Tracy or Garland or someone when her phone rang. Stromberg wanted to see her. When she reported to his office, he told her what the problem was. “We had to take out all of Clare Booth’s dirty jokes,” he said, “and now the script isn’t funny any more.” He wanted her to put laughs back into the story—clean laughs. They didn’t hold up the picture. Miss Loos rewrote the script on the set, staying sometimes days, sometimes hours ahead of the camera.
The director to whom Miss Loos fed her dialogue was George Cukor. Known as a woman’s director, he had just been replaced by Victor Fleming on Gone with the Wind because Clark Gable and David Selznick thought that he was giving all the best scenes to Scarlett O’Hara. Cukor in turn replaced Ernst Lubitsch on The Women, Lubitsch switching over to direct Ninotchka, and the movie-factory wheels kept turning. In fact, the assembly line turned out to be so impersonal that Cukor never realized that his old friend Fitzgerald had ever worked on the movie which he was given to direct.
Besides a woman screenwriter, Cukor had a cast of one hundred thirty-five women to direct, among them the studio’s top stars. In a manly effort to keep the same cat fights from erupting off-camera as were being photographed on, the director developed a new method for calling his ladies to the sound stage when shooting was about to begin. Tradition dictated that the star be called first, but when a picture boasts Shearer, Crawford, Goddard, Fontaine, and Russell, all at the same time, who is the star? Cukor solved his dilemma by dispatching five boys to knock on all five doors simultaneously.
At a party one night Ernst Lubitsch saw Rosalind Russell dancing with Cukor and cracked, “Trying to get a close-up in the picture, I see!” He thought a while and then, referring to Irving Thalberg’s widow, added, “But if you want to stay in the picture, you’d better dance with Miss Shearer.” Miss Russell took his advice: she and Miss Shearer danced the next number together.
Even before filming began, there was concern that especially Miss Shearer and Miss Crawford would try to live rather than act their clawing roles: long-time rival top cats at the studio, they had never before worked the same picture. When Thalberg had been alive, Joan had complained, “How can I compete with Norma when she sleeps with the boss?” Now that Thalberg was dead, she was damned if she was going to treat her rival as Queen of Metro. The worst moment came during rehearsals for the only scene which Norma and Joan would ever play together in this picture or any other. It was, appropriately, the scene where the wife (Norma) confronts her husband’s mistress (Joan). Miss Crawford, as actors’ courtesy demands, was “feeding” Miss Shearer lines while Cukor rehearsed shots which would be made of Norma alone. But Joan’s full attention was not on aiding her rival; she was also knitting, her needles clicking loudly. Norma asked Joan to stop, but Joan wouldn’t. Then Norma turned to the director and demanded, “Mr. Cukor, I think Miss Crawford can go home now and you can give me her lines.” Cukor ordered Crawford off the set. That night Miss Shearer, who had once sent Scott Fitzgerald a telegram to try to patch over an embarrassing moment, received a wire from Miss Crawford which resulted in their never speaking to one another again—except to finish their cat-fight scene in the movie.
The picture premiered in September 1939 and soon had everyone gossiping. Time magazine liked the film but noted that “Prima Donna Shearer, for purely professional reasons, saw to it that she was billed above rival Prima Donna Crawford, stipulated that her name should be advertised in type half as large as the title and twice as large as that Lesser Luminary Russell.” Philip T. Hartung, writing in Commonweal, took an old-fashioned high moral line. “Men will find The Women unbelievable (if they have any gallantry),” he said. “Women will find The Women beautifully costumed, exaggerated and vulgarly frank… Children will find The Women—children better stay home.” Otis Ferguson observed in The New Republic, “It is a holiday from Hays all right: there is more wicked wit than Hollywood has been allowed since The Front Page.” Frank Nugent in the New York Times declared:
… the most heartening part of all… is the way Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, and the others leaped at the chance to be vixens. Miss Shearer… is virtually the only member of the all-female cast who behaves as one of Hollywood’s leading ladies is supposed to. And even Miss Shearer’s Mary sharpens her talons finally and joins the birds of prey… We don’t know when we’ve ever seen such a terrible collection of women. They’re really appallingly good, and so is their picture.
Once again one of Fitzgerald’s pictures had gotten good notices, but he failed to share in the glory. By the time the movie was released, he was looking for another job. While The Women was making money all across the country, Fitzgerald wrote his agent Leland Hayward that it would be futile to ask Stromberg for employment. “Hunt and I reached a dead end on The Women,” he said. “We wore each other out. He liked the first part of a picture called Infidelity that I wrote so intensely that when the whole thing flopped I think he held it against me that I had aroused his hope so much and then had not been able to finish it.”
At the beginning of his work on Infidelity Fitzgerald had written to a friend, “this time I have the best producer in Hollywood.” Half a year and two unproduced scripts later, he scrawled in an uneven hand on a scrap of paper:
Stromberg’s assorted pickles gather near
The wedding of the sickle and the dove
All bridle-stiff with waiting we are here
To make a song of petty-bourgeois love
And flog dead horses through the afternoon
Specifically the Metro-Goldwyn mare
We who were meant to sing a newer tune
Lie fallow in the Metro lion’s care
Stromberg, the name is like a solemn drum
Beaten upon an ice floe in the north
Grant that we shall not always rest here dumb
Give us a date, let us for god pour forth
The woes of pretty faces
In the fall of 1938, as Fitzgerald began work on bis fifth script for Metro, he was growing panicky. “I am intensely busy,” he wrote his daughter. “On the next two weeks, during which I finish the first part of Madame Curie, depends whether or not my contract will be renewed.”