In July 1937 forty-one-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald, having recovered from his “Crack-Up” but deeply in debt and unable to write commercial stories, went to Hollywood for the third time. During his ebullient years Fitzgerald had predicted that the movies had the potential to outstrip the novel, and he thought that he could always become a Hollywood success if he wanted to. In 1937 he went out for the money. His M.G.M. contract—$1,000 a week for six months with a renewal option of $1,250 for a year—made him one of the highest-salaried writers in Hollywood. Nonetheless, Fitzgerald was incapable of maintaining a take-the-money-and-run attitude; and he went to Hollywood with great expectations and strong resolutions. Writing to his daughter, Scottie, en route to California he explained:
I feel a certain excitement. The third Hollywood venture. Two failures behind me though one no fault of mine. The first one was just ten years ago. At that time I had been generally acknowledged for several years as the top American writer both seriously and, as far as prices went, popularly. I had been loafing for six months for the first time in my life and was confidant to the point of conciet. Hollywood made a big fuss over us and the ladies all looked very beautiful to a man of thirty. I honestly believed that with no effort on my part I was a sort of magician with words—an odd delusion on my part when I had worked so desperately hard to develop a hard, colorful prose style.
Total result—a great time + no work. I was to be paid only a small amount unless they made my picture—they didn't.
The second time I went was five years ago. Life had gotten in some hard socks and while all was serene on top, with your mother apparently recovered in Montgomery, I was jittery underneath and beginning to drink more than I ought to. Far from approaching it too confidently I was far too humble. I ran afoul of a bastard named de Sano, since a suicide, and let myself be gyped out of command. I wrote the picture + he changed as I wrote. I tried to get at Thalberg but was erroneously warned against it as “bad taste.” Result—a bad script. I left with the money, for this was a contract for weekly payments, but disillusioned and disgusted, vowing never to go back, tho they said it wasn't my fault + asked me to stay. I wanted to get east when the contract expired to see how your mother was. This was later interpreted as “running out on them” + held against me.
(The train has left El Paso since I began this letter—hence the writing—Rocky Mountain writing.)
I want to profit by these two experiences—I must be very tactful but keep my hand on the wheel from the start-find out the key man among the bosses + the most malleable among the collaborators—then fight the rest tooth + nail until, in fact or in effect, I'm alone on the picture. That's the only way I can do my best work. Given a break I can make them double this contract in less than two years.
Fitzgerald correctly anticipated that his major problem would be with the collaborative system under which movies were made. He did not work well with collaborators and, moreover, had contempt for the writers he was teamed with. After a dialogue polish job on A Yank at Oxford, Fitzgerald was given the choice assignment to write the screenplay for Erich Maria Remarque's novel about post-war Germany, Three Comrades (1937), under producer Joseph Mankiewicz. It was a major production, starring Margaret Sullavan, Robert Taylor, Franchot Tone, and Robert Young. M.G.M. was a “producer's lot,” and Mankiewicz was a member of the palace guard. He had started as a screenwriter, and his writing credits included Skippy, Manhattan Melodrama, and Our Daily Bread. In 1936 he became a producer at M.G.M. and wasresponsible for The Three Godfathers, Fury, The Gorgeous Hussy, Love on the Run, The Bride Wore Red, Double Wedding, and Mannequin. The director of Three Comrades, veteran Frank Borzage—who had directed Seventh Heaven, A Farewell to Arms, and History Is Made at Night—apparently had no control over the script.
Fitzgerald submitted his screenplay on 1 September 1937: this was the screenplay published here. It is a competent job, but too long and rather slowly paced. (The production script was more than forty pages shorter.) Fitzgerald's problem as a screenwriter was that he was by nature and training a story-teller, accustomed to providing the reader with the kinds of information that could not be dramatized. One of the reasons why Fitzgerald's novels have failed as movies is that his technique was novelistic rather than dramatic, and no screenwriter thus far has been able to translate Fitzgerald's narrative voice into visual images. The opening of this screenplay shows Fitzgerald-the-novelist trying to establish too much background: the defeat of Germany, Pat as an undernourished child, the German inflation, and even an encounter between thirteen-year-old Pat and the three comrades. What might be called the Fitzgerald touch comes at sequences 54-55 and 57 where the switchboard is operated by an angel and a satyr when Bobby (Erich) makes his first call to Pat. This fanciful bit permanently disappeared in the first revise. After turning in his screenplay, Fitzgerald was worried that he would be stuck with a collaborator, and wrote Mankiewicz on 4 September 1937:
This letter is only valid in case you like the script very much. In that case, I feel I can ask you to let me try to make what cuts and rearrangements you think necessary, by myself. You know how when a new writer comes on a repair job he begins by cutting out an early scene, not realizing that he is taking the heart out of six later scenes which turn upon it. Two of these scenes can't be cut so new weak scenes are written to bolster them up, and the whole tragic business of collaboration has begun—like a child's drawing made ”perfect” by a million erasures.
If a time comes when I'm no longer useful, I will understand, but I hope that this work will be good enough to earn me the right to a first revise to correct such faults as you may find. Then perhaps I can make it so strong that you won't want any more cooks.
P.S. My address will be, Highlands Hospital, Ashville, N.C., where my wife is a patient. I will bring back most of the last act with me.
Mankiewicz wired reassuringly on 9 September that the part of the script Fitzgerald submitted is “simply swell”; Fitzgerald should not worry about being stuck with another writer. This joshing telegram urges Fitzgerald not to believe the stories about illiterate movie producers: Mankiewicz knows that Shakespeare is under contract to British Gaumont Studios and that “impossible” is one word. Mankiewicz's wire ends with an expression of his hopes for the rest of the screenplay and asks Fitzgerald to return to Hollywood as soon as possible.
When Fitzgerald returned, E. E. Paramore was assigned as his collaborator on Three Comrades to help with construction. Paramore was an experienced Hollywood writer who had worked on The Thundering Herd, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Baby Take a Bow, The Three Godfathers, and The Farmer Takes a Wife. He was best known for his parody of Robert W. Service, “The Ballad of Yukon Jake,” which became a standard recitation piece after it appeared in Vanity Fair in 1921. Fitzgerald and Ted Paramore were old acquaintances—if not old friends—having known each other in New York in the early twenties. In The Beautiful and Damned Fitzgerald had named a foolish character Fred E. Paramore. The collaboration quickly soured as Fitzgerald and Paramore disagreed about the latter's role in the project. Fitzgerald intended to retain final control over the screenplay and regarded Paramore as a junior partner. On 24 October Fitzgerald wrote Paramore stipulating the basis of their collaboration:
I'd intended to go into this Friday but time was too short. Also, hating controversy, I've decided after all to write it. At all events it must be discussed now.
First let me say that in the main I agree with your present angle, as opposed to your first “war” angle on the script, and I think you have cleared up a lot in the short time we've been working. Also I know we can work together even if we occasionally hurl about charges of pedantry and prudery.
But on the other hand 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. My script is in a general way approved of. There was not any question of taking it out of my hands—as in the case of Sheriff. The question was who I wanted to work with me on it and for how long. That was the entire question and it is not materially changed because I was temporarily off my balance.
At what point you decided you wanted to take the whole course of things in hand—whether because of that day or because when you read my script you liked it much less than did Joe or the people in his office—where that point was I don't know. But it was apparent Saturday that you had and it is with my faculties quite clear and alert that I tell you I prefer to keep the responsibility for the script as a whole.
For a case in point: such matters as to whether to include the scene with Bruer in Pat's room, or the one about the whores in Bobby's apartment, or this bit of Ferdinand Grau's dialogue or that, or whether the car is called Heinrich or Ludwig, are not matters I will argue with you before Joe. I will yield points by the dozen but in the case of such matters, Joe's knowledge that they were in the book and that I did or did not choose to use them are tantamount to his acceptance of my taste. That there are a dozenways of treating it all, or of selecting material, is a commonplace but I have done my exploring and made my choices according to my canons of taste. Joe's caution to you was not to spoil the Fitzgerald quality of the script. He did not merely say to let the good scenes alone—he meant that the quality of the script in its entirety pleased him (save the treatment of Koster). I feel that the quality was obtained in certain ways, that the scene of Pat in Bruer's room, for instance, has a value in suddenly and surprisingly leading the audience into a glimpse of Pat's world, a tail hanging right out of our circle of protagonists, if you will. I will make it less heavy but I can't and shouldn't be asked to defend it beyond that, nor is it your function to attack it before Joe unless a doubt is already in his mind. About the whores, again it is a feeling but, in spite of your current underestimation of my abilities, I think you would be overstepping your functions if you make a conference-room point of such a matter.
Point after point has become a matter you are going to “take to Joe,” more inessential details than I bothered him with in two months. What I want to take to Joe is simply this—the assurance that we can finish the script in three weeks more—you've had a full week to find your way around it—and the assurance that we are in agreement on the main points.
I'm not satisfied with the opening and can't believe now that Joe cared whether the airplane was blown up at the beginning or end of the scene, or even liked it very much—but except for that I think we do agree on the main line even to the sequences.
But, Ted, 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. Whether the picture is in production in January or May there is no reason on God's earth why we can't finish this script in three to four weeks if we divide up the scenes and get together on the piecing together and technical revision. If you were called on this job in the capacity of complete rewriter then I'm getting deaf. I want to reconceive and rewrite my share of the weak scenes and I want your help but I am not going to spend hours of time and talent arguing with you as to whether I've chosen the best or second best speech of Lenz's to adorn the dressing-up scene. I am not referring to key speeches which are discussable but the idea of sitting by whileyou dredge through the book again as if it were Shakespeare—well, I didn't write four out of four best sellers or a hundred and fifty top-price short stories out of the mind of a temperamental child without taste or judgment.
This letter is sharp but a discussion might become more heated and less logical. Your job is to help me, not hinder me. Perhaps you'd let me know before we see Joe whether it is possible for us to get together on this.
This letter is an argument against arguments and certainly mustn't lead to one. Like you, I want to work.
Fitzgerald could never accept the Hollywood condition that, having been hired because of his talent, his work would be altered by lesser writers. Around this time Fitzgerald wrote this parable about the nature of artistic creativity.
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 commissioning 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 Sienna 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 a 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 forfinger against the sky fifty years before.
The first surviving Fitzgerald/Paramore revision was submitted in 5 November 1937; successive revises were dated 7 December, 13 December, 21 December, and 21 January 1938. The last script was tagged:
F. S. Fitzgerald
E. E. Paramore
Script okayed by Joseph Mankiewicz
Although he did not get screen credit, Mankiewicz functioned as the third collaborator and performed an independent rewrite on the final script. Fitzgerald and Paramore received joint screen credit for Three Comrades. In his own copy of the final script Fitzgerald crossed out “okayed” and wrote “scrawled over.” On the first page he noted: “37 pages mine about 1/3, but all shadows + rythm removed.” At sequence 89—Erich's return to Alfons' bar after his opera date with Pat—Fitzgerald wrote: “This is 'authors talking' about a script—This isn't writing This is Joe Manowizf. So slick—so cheap.” And on p. 62—the scene in which Koster urges Pat to marry Erich—Fitzgerald noted: “From here on 17 pps fairly mine not Remarque or anyone else.”
During the reworking of Three Comrades M.G.M. picked up Fitzgerald's option for a year at $1,250 per week. Fitzgerald probably felt confident after he passed this test, and he began feuding with Mankiewicz over the producer's rewriting of the screenplay. Mankiewicz was a successful screenwriter, as well as the producer, and felt that he was equipped to improve Fitzgerald's work. In 1967 Mankiewicz commented: “I personally have been attacked as if I had spat on the flag because it happened once that I rewrote some dialogue by F. Scott Fitzgerald. But it needed it! The actors, among them Margaret Sullavan, absolutely could not read the lines. It was very literary dialogue, novelistic dialogue that lacked all the qualities required for screen dialogue. The latter must be 'spoken.' Scott Fitzgerald really wrote very bad spoken dialogue.” In addition to his pre-production revisions, Mankiewicz rewrote dialogue during shooting.
Given the layers of revision by Fitzgerald, Paramore, and Mankiewicz, it is impossible to be sure which lines and scenes Mankiewicz was responsible for. Fitzgerald's 20 January 1938 letter of protest to Mankiewicz is keyed to the penultimate 21 January screenplay.
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.
Most of the movement is gone—action that was unexpected and diverting is slowed down to a key that will disturb nobody—and now they can focus directly on Pat's death, squirming slightly as they wait for the other picture on the program.
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.
I think you now have a flop on your hands—as thoroughly naive as The Bride Wore Red but utterly inexcusable because this time you had something and you have arbitrarily and carelessly torn it to pieces. To take out the manicurist and the balcony scene and then have space to put in that utter drool out of True Romances which Pat gets off on page 116 makes me think we don't talk the same language. God and “cool lips,” whatever they are, and lightning and elephantine play on words. The audience's feeling will be “Oh, go on and die.” If Ted had written that scene you'd laugh it out of the window.
You are simply tired of the best scenes because you've read them too much and, having dropped the pilot, you're having the aforesaid pleasure of a child with a box of chalk. You are or have been a good writer, but this is a job you will be ashamed of before it's over. The little fluttering life of what's left of my lines and situations won't save the picture.
Example number 3000 is taking out the piano scene between Pat and Koster and substituting garage hammering. Pat the girl who hangs around the garage! And the re-casting of lines—I feel somewhat outraged.
Lenz and Bobby's scene on page 62 isn't even in the same category with my scene. It's dull and solemn, and Koster on page 44 is as uninteresting a plodder as I've avoided in a long life.
What does scene 116 mean? I can just hear the boys relaxing from tension and giving a cheer.
And Pat on page 72—“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 or one of more bespectacled ladies in Mrs. Farrow's department. Books and music! Think, man! Pat is a lady—a cultured European—a charming woman. And Bobby playing soldier. And Pat's really re-fined talk about the flowergarden. They do everything but play ring-around-a-rosie on their Staten Island honeymoon. Recognizable characters they simply are not, and cutting the worst lines here and there isn't going to restore what you've destroyed. It's all so inconsistent. I thought we'd decided long ago what we wanted Pat to be!
On page 74 we meet Mr. Sheriff again, and they say just the cutest merriest things and keep each other in gales of girlish laughter.
On page 93 God begins to come into the script with a vengeance, but to say in detail what 1 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—to put back the flower cart, the piano-moving, the balcony, the manicure girl—all those touches that were both natural and new. 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.
Mankiewicz has stated that he never received this letter, which survives in a carbon copy in Fitzgerald's papers. Since there is no closing on the letter, it is possible that Fitzgerald did not send it.
As the screenplay evolved, its political content became more pointedly anti-Nazi, although the Nazis were not identified. A private screening was arranged for the German consul in Los Angeles, who naturally objected to the anti-Nazimaterial in Three Comrades. It was suggested to Mankiewicz by Joseph Breen, the industry censor, that the movie could be altered to show that it was about the communists—not the Nazis. Mankiewicz refused to accommodate the Germans and threatened to resign from M.G.M. He remembers, “The next day I went into the commissary, and Scott was there. He ran up, threw his arms around me, and kissed me.”
Before Three Comrades was released, it was previewed for the exhibitors, who complained about the ending. The 1 February 1938 screenplay and the released print both end with Koster and Erich visiting the graves of Pat and Lenz before leaving Germany for South America. As they walk away from the cemetery, they are joined by the shadowy figures of Pat and Lenz. Fitzgerald wrote to M.G.M. executive producers Eddie Mannix and Sam Katz a letter which he preserved with the notation “Unsent—needless to say”:
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 Captain's Courageous at this stage, I feel they would have had Manuel the Protugese live and go out west with the little boy and Captain's 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.
I think in Three Comrades we run the danger of having the wrong head go on the right body—a thing that confuses and depresses everyone except the ten year olds who are so confused anyhow that I can't believe they make or break a picture. To every reviewer or teacher in America, the idea of the comrades going back into the fight in the spirit of “My Head is Bloody but unbowed” is infinitely stronger and more cheerful than that they should be quitting—all the fine talk, the death of their friends and countrymen in vain. All right, they were suckers, but they were always that in one sense and if it was despicable what was the use of telling their story?
The public will feel this—they feel what they can't express—otherwise we'd change our conception of Chinese palaces and French scientists to fit the conception of hill billies who've never seen palaces or scientists. The public will be vaguely confused by the confusion in our mind—they'll know that the beginning and end don't fit together and when one is confused one rebels by kicking the thing altogether out of mind. 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 inconquerable, side by side back into the fight.
It is not clear what the exhibitors wanted, but it is a safe guess that they objected to Pat's death. Fitzgerald's letter to Mannix and Katz indicates that he wanted to show Koster and Erich returning to the fight against the Nazis. He was overruled.
The movie was released in June 1938, and Fitzgerald's prediction about its failure was wrong. It was a marked success, making the best-10 lists for the year. Margaret Sullavan received an Academy Award nomination, as well as the New York Critics Award and the British National Award.
Three Comrades was the only screen credit Fitzgerald received. He worked out his M.G.M. contract on Infidelity, The Women, Marie Antoinette, and Madame Curie; but none of his screenplays was produced. After M.G.M. dropped his option in 1939, Fitzgerald freelanced at other studios before starting The Last Tycoon—which, in its unfinished state, is the best Hollywood novel ever written. In 1977 Hollywood turned The Last Tycoon into the worst movie ever made.
F. Scott Fitzgerald died in Hollywood on 21 December 1940. His last stand in Hollywood occupied forty-two months—eighteen on the M.G.M. payroll. The question of how good a screenwriter Fitzgerald really was remains open, for critics have disagreed. After Three Comrades Fitzgerald found no satisfaction in movie work and relinquished his hopes for a new career. He hated the drudgery of movie writing and resented the authority exercised over him by lesser talents. Nonetheless, Hollywood was good for—if not good to—Fitzgerald. He was not a broken hack working on cheap movies. His Pat Hobby stories are not a self-portrait. Hollywood money enabled Fitzgerald to reconstruct his life. At the end he was writing as well as ever. But he was writing a novel.
There is in the F. Scott Fitzgerald correspondence about Three Comrades an incredible innocence, as well as the integrity of an artist working in a field where he has not the final say over his work. Fitzgerald must have known by the time he went to work on Three Comrades that what the studio—as represented by producer Joseph Mankiewicz—wanted was not quality or believable characters, but a picture that would satisfy the desires of a mass audience. Fitzgerald was hired to adapt a novel into a screenplay, and Mankiewicz was responsible for making a film that would bring in an audience.
The writer who becomes so emotionally involved in his screenplay may be honest, sincere, and have other artistic virtues; but, as with Fitzgerald, those are not the ones sought by the studios. His deep concern about his dialogue being true to the characters indicates a lack of understanding on several levels. The unity of his characters would not have meant as much to viewers as Fitzgerald believed; and a novelist's dialogue is rarely used in film, as the very nature of dramatic dialogue is different from the novelist's and serves a different purpose.
The version of Three Comrades published here is not a screenplay in the sense that it is not a finished blueprint for the making of a motion picture. The motion picture was eventually filmed from the shooting script that evolved from the collaboration of Fitzgerald, and E. E. Paramore—with Mankiewicz' final revisions. It has been customary in the film industry to use the talents of novelists to assist in adaptations or even write original stories for film. These served as the basis of the work eventually completed by professional screenwriters, in many instances wonderful craftsmen. (Mankiewicz went on to win Academy Awards in consecutive years for All About Eve and Letter to Three Wives.): The Three Comrades script has value for the study of adaptation. Whereas the novelist need not limit the number of crises which make up his tale, the screenwriter generally must hold to about twenty-five, averaging about five pages a scene. This requirement means that Fitzgerald had to restructure the Remarque novel into a dramatic form with all of the requirements of the motion picture script: conflict, opening exposition, rise to a climax, character change, and denouement. In addition, he had to make visual what the novelist had the liberty of placing in a character's head. Fitzgerald was not deeply concerned with the proper script form. In all probability, he was not even expected to create a shooting script, as M.G.M. knew that his version would be reworked by someone else who better understood the problems of production.
In recent years the script has been simplified, so that the technical knowledge which was once expected of the writer is no longer important. The screenwriters write in master scenes, not bothering to call for new camera shots when everything takes place in one location. The writer knows the scene will be shot several times from several different directions, and there is no way he can describe that or hold a director to a visual concept. Also, the contemporary script increasingly leaves out all camera directions, as the writer has become more concerned with what is taking place on the screen than with how it gets there. For that reason, this F. Scott Fitzgerald script is interesting for its historical value, as well as its insights into how one novelist reworked the structure of another novelist into a dramatic form. If the reader has the interest to look at the work with care, he will place the novel and the screenplay side by side and compare the changes to see how the adaptation was accomplished. At no time should the reader of this screenplay forget that what he is reading was never intended to be a work of literature, but the sketch for a blueprint—which other writers turned into the final blueprint from which the director and film crew created a motion picture.