I met Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood, in 1939, when the golden boy of the literary twenties was desperate for movie work. Thousands of dollars a week could be made by “name” writers, and “by F. Scott Fitzgerald” had not lost all of its luster, even if he was now considered a fallen star who had reached his zenith with The Great Gatsby, and had faded fast in the thirties of Steinbeck, James T. Farrell, and Clifford Odets.
The Scott Fitzgerald I knew had made some money at MGM, working on an odd assortment of film scripts, but his track record as a screenwriter was negligible. Though he had received a “co-adapted by” credit for his work on Three Comrades (the film based on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel), his producer Joe Mankiewicz had felt it necessary to rewrite Fitzgerald’s script, a blow to Scott’s pride and to his reputation at the studio. While writing books, or memorable short stories (like “Babylon Revisited”), may help you get a foot in the studio door, what you needed to get all the way in and stay in was a solid screen credit, especially on a hit movie. You could write all the May Days or The Rich Boys you wanted, but the tough boys who ran the studios wanted to know what you had done for them lately—i.e., your last assignment, your last “credit” up there on the screen.
After eighteen remunerative but professionally frustrating months at MGM, Fitzgerald had been cast out into that limbo for Hollywood writers euphemistically described as “between pictures.” I still remember my astonishment, my sense of awe, the day my producer (Walter Wanger) called me in to tell me he thought I needed a collaborator on the Dartmouth Winter Carnival movie I was trying to put together, and that the collaborator he had chosen was F. Scott Fitzgerald, now temporarily rescued from limbo.
Not only had I studied Gatsby in college, but, by coincidence, had only recently reread Tender Is the Night, which is simply so exquisitely written it makes you want to cry.
There is no space to dwell on our “Winter Carnival” debacle here, indeed I used it as the spine for a novel called The Disenchanted, about a famous novelist of the twenties who comes a-cropper in the Hollywood thirties. Working to develop a coherent screenplay for a meretricious college romance became an ordeal when Wanger insisted on our flying east and then trekking north to the snow and ice of the actual Winter Carnival. The strain of the trip, and the pressure of the work he so badly needed but couldn’t help resisting, proved too much for his frail nervous system. We drank together and sank together, and Scott was sent home in disgrace.
But the tempest that tossed us and might have driven us apart instead brought us together, and from the late winter of 1939 to the last time I saw Scott, when I dropped in to say good-bye to him before leaving for the East just three weeks before he died, we remained friends. Unlike Hemingway, who bullied me, Scott was unfailingly endearing. After blowing the Wanger assignment, his Hollywood stock had fallen even lower, while his literary reputation, his price on the New York publishers’ market, was in disarray. The Modern Library refused to include Tender in its prestigious list of classics, his lifetime publishers were leery of advancing him money for the novel he wanted to write (his ambitious Hollywood novel, posthumously published as The Last Tycoon), and he was hard-pressed to support his wife Zelda in a sanitarium after her breakdown and to put his adored daughter Scottie through Vassar. Scott was living from hand to mouth, cranking out sad/funny Hollywood short stories for Esquire, and urging his Hollywood agent to find him another filmwriting job that would keep him from going under.
How Scott managed to keep his sanity and his essentially sweet nature during these dark days in sunny California reflected a quality I admired as much as I did the body of his work. He was like a man who refused to be drowned even after going down three times. Somehow he would surface again and heroically tread water.
Another quality of Scott’s was his interest in film-writing and film-making. A host of famous authors or playwrights had come west, putting their literary or dramatic works aside in order to get on that Hollywood payroll. Dorothy Parker, Dashiell Hammett, William Faulkner, Nathanael West, and William Saroyan were a handful of the beautiful and damned who hung out at the Garden of Allah and the backroom of Stanley Rose’s Book Store. Most of them saved their best lines for sarcastic descriptions of the film world. The sharp teeth of dogs biting the hand that fed them. Dorothy Parker had a gift for that even though her much-abused husband, Alan Campbell, handled most of their screenwriting, as I learned firsthand when Ring Lardner, Jr., and I were working with them as “junior writers” on the original A Star Is Born.
Instead of rejecting screenwriting as a necessary evil, Fitzgerald went the other way and embraced it as a new art form, even while recognizing that it was an art frequently embarrassed by the “merchants” more comfortable with mediocrity in their efforts to satisfy the widest possible audience. Still, Fitzgerald saw screen classics being made by Irving Thalberg (his model for Monroe Stahr in The Last Tycoon), David Selznick, even my father B. P. Schulberg, (at Paramount) who made Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Crime and Punishment, and An American Tragedy. Fitzgerald not only made it his business to go to the movies, he told me, but he'd then go home and outline their plots and sequence development.
In spite of his homework and his proven gifts, Fitzgerald’s stock had virtually reached bottom by the spring of 1940. That’s when an independent producer, Lester Cowan, something of a maverick, and a fast-talker, approached Fitzgerald with an offer to buy his short story Babylon Revisited for nine hundred dollars, with an additional five thousand dollars to write the screenplay. That was known as “peanuts” for an industry willing to pay flamboyant Ben Hecht five thousand a week, but Fitzgerald grabbed it—“a last life-line has been thrown me,” he wrote Zelda in the sanitarium.
Fitzgerald’s life and career seemed to stagger from irony to irony, and here was another one: “Babylon Revisited” in many ways reflected Fitzgerald’s own experience and ordeal. It was perhaps the first (and one of his best) short-story attempts to come to grips with the effects of the Crash. The party was over. Overnight millionaires had jumped out of windows and flappers were no longer flashing their dimpled knees. Zelda’s breakdown and Fitzgerald’s struggle with alcohol and his fall from grace were now expressed in somber, introspective stories like “Babylon, ” in which a young, hard- drinking stockbroker who had a golden touch when the market was soaring loses his wife when he locks her out on a stormy night and she dies of pneumonia, leaving a contrite, shaken Charlie Wales with a nine-year-old daughter (she is eleven years old in the screenplay. ) A bitter sister-in-law blames Charlie for her sister’s death and is determined to raise the child (Honoria in the story and early screenplay drafts) on the grounds that Charlie is an unfit, irresponsible father. The tug-of-war between Charlie and sister-in-law Marion for possession of the appealing Honoria is the essential story of “Babylon Revisited.” But the setting provides the theme: the contrast between the Paris of the twenties and the thirties, the mood change in Charlie who lived it up in the Ritz Bar in the years of the bull market and no tomorrows, and has now returned to Paris to win back his daughter and start a new life. A second chance. Here the reformed alcoholic “Charlie Wales” of 1931 and his embattled creator (nine years later) are as one. Fitzgerald’s reasons for embracing Cowan’s assignment are painfully clear. Like Wales, Fitzgerald has come a long way down from the golden boy of the twenties. Wales’s wife is dead and Fitzgerald had lost Zelda to the twilight years in the sanitarium. In 1940 Fitzgerald was consumed with both guilt and concern for his daughter Scottie. His letters to her are some of his most moving as he lectures her about her education and her progress, worries about money for her and reveals a desperate sense of paternal responsibility, even to worrying what gown she should wear to a certain social event.
At last, Fitzgerald felt, he could pour himself into a work of his own, at last an opportunity to adapt his own published story as a film production that would give him—he boasted to Zelda—“some real status out here as a movie man and not a novelist. ” It was in this mood that he telephoned me on that May 26 to congratulate me on the birth of my first child, Victoria. In her honor, he said, he would now change the name of his child protagonist in the script from Honoria (a bow to his old Cote D’Azur hosts Gerald and Sara Murphy for their daughter) to the name of my daughter. Accordingly, in the screenplay to follow, the child has become “Victoria.” “When she’s old enough to understand, you can tell her that the little girl in the movie, who may be played by Shirley Temple, was named for her!” Scott enthused. That long-ago evening there wasn’t the slightest hint of doubt in his voice. He felt surely on his way to a coveted film credit, establishing himself as “a movie man” after years of trying—a strange goal for the author who rivaled Ernest Hemingway as the most celebrated novelist of his time.
Into the fall, with death waiting to ambush him, Fitzgerald kept working, and dreaming of Hollywood acceptance. But Fitzgerald’s heart would cease to beat on December 21, 1940, with his last screenplay still unproduced. Not yet satisfied with Fitzgerald’s work, Lester Cowan hired the Epstein twins (Casablanca) to do a rewrite, which he sold to MGM for $100,000, under the title of Elliot Paul’s novel, The Last Time I Saw Paris.
Somehow Cowan retained Fitzgerald’s screenplay, and in the late forties asked me if I was interested in revising it. I begged off, just as John O’Hara and I had begged off at the suggestion that we collaborate on finishing the half-completed The Last Tycoon. While I felt that Fitzgerald’s adaptation failed to do justice to his short story, there is something about his work, even if it’s not his premium stuff, that is difficult and risky to tamper with.
Not long after, I discussed that problem with Irwin Shaw, whom Cowan had also approached, and who shared my hesitation to walk in Fitzgerald’s footsteps, even along a path more narrow and bumpy than some of the high roads Fitzgerald had taken in his memorable and troubled career.
Going through a carton marked “other people’s manuscripts” a year or so ago, I came across the long-forgotten screenplay and communicated with Professor Matthew Bruccoli, the Fitzgerald specialist, regarding its publication. He agreed with me that there was value in adding Fitzgerald’s own adaptation of his classic short story to the Fitzgerald shelf. Hence, this new volume.
While it may be a minor addition to the collected works, it does represent one of Fitzgerald’s last-gasp efforts at establishing a second career, and as such has historical literary value, as well as containing a host of uniquely Fitzgerald “touches.” Character and staging descriptions display gifts that would not die, along with a feel for dialogue that at its best evokes his special quality. How well he knew how to set a mood, and when it works it is marvelously right.
We move this “lost” manuscript from the shelf to publication with the admission that the piece is flawed. Most authors who adapt their own literary work are stubbornly faithful to their original creations. Fitzgerald, perhaps because he had become so immersed in screen technique, takes enormous liberties with his story, retaining the principal characters, Charlie Wales, Honoria/Victoria, and Marion, but adding an elaborate and sometimes top-heavy plot of business machinations, involving new characters that are still two-dimensional and seem unable to break through the mechanics of the plot Fitzgerald has imposed on them. In his zeal to “make a movie” rather than attempt to retell his short story in cinematic form, he has stood it on its head by having Charlie Wales triumph heroically at the end, even to his knocking out the young thug who’s sent by his former business partner (now enemy) to kill him for the million-dollar-insurance policy this “heavy” has taken out on Charlie’s life. It’s all pretty melodramatic, and it concludes with a happy, Hollywood ending, the unsympathetic sister-in-law thwarted and Charlie and Honoria/ Victoria reunited, with Charlie’s final line, “Aw, there’s a lot to live for. ” Fade out.
The ending of the short story is haunting, Fitzgerald at his best, rather than the rock-’em-sock-’em bathos with which Scott chooses to end his movie. The short story had Charlie on the threshold of regaining Honoria, when two jazzy throwbacks to his twenties merrymaking past show up at the worst possible moment, convincing the unforgiving sister-in- law that despite his protestations, Charlie is still an unfit father for her sister’s precious daughter. Charlie retreats to the Ritz Bar where the maitre’d says, “I heard you lost a lot in the crash, ” and Charlie answers, “I did, but I lost everything I wanted in the boom. ”
The story tapers off into bleak despair, closing with, “He wasn’t young anymore, with a lot of nice thoughts and dreams to have by himself. He was absolutely sure Helen [his dead wife] wouldn’t have wanted him to be so alone.” Of course, Fitzgerald the movie man knew that was all very well, in fiction, but no way to say “Fade Out... The End” on the silver screen. So he flipped the coin from “Tails, you lose, Charlie” to “Heads, you win!”
To read the short story and then study this screenplay is to understand the terrible contortions of an artist driven to turn himself inside out and upside down in one last desperate reach for Hollywood status. Read in this perspective, Babylon Revisited—The Screenplay makes a telling contribution to the life’s work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a project he was still hoping to see on the screen when death wrote its premature Fade Out in the closing days of 1940.
Despite his theory that the novel would become passe, replaced by the new art of the motion picture, Fitzgerald the novelist lives, while Fitzgerald the movie man remains an almost-forgotten footnote to literary history.
—Budd Schulberg May 1993
I saw that the novel, which at my maturity was the strongest and supplest medium for conveying thought and emotion from one human being to another, was becoming subordinated to a mechanical and communal art that, whether in the hands of Hollywood merchants or Russian idealists, was capable of reflecting only the tritest thought, the most obvious emotion.
... there was a rankling indignity, that to me became almost an obsession, on seeing the power of the written word subordinated to another power, a more glittering, a grosser power....
—F. Scott Fitzgerald
In The Love of the Last Tycoon, the Hollywood novel F. Scott Fitzgerald was writing at his death, this exchange occurs between the brilliant producer Monroe Stahr and the English novelist George Boxley:
“I don’t think you people read things. The men are duelling when the conversation takes place. At the end one of them falls into a well and has to be hauled up in a bucket.”
“Would you write that in a book of your own, Mr. Boxley?”
“What? Naturally not.”
“You’d consider it too cheap.”
“Movie standards are different,” said Boxley, hedging.
Since Fitzgerald wrote the screenplay for his story “Babylon Revisited” to support his work on The Love of the Last Tycoon, the pronouncements on the movies in the novel-in-progress bear on his practices as a screenwriter. He perforce set different standards for his movie work.
For the “Babylon Revisited” assignment Fitzgerald was required to enlarge a short story with very little action into a full-length screen drama by providing a new plot. Another Stahr instruction to Boxley is that “There’s always some lousy condition” in movie-making. The lousy condition for the “Babylon Revisited” screenplay—that it was intended as a vehicle for Shirley Temple—necessitated that the child’s role be augmented.
Fitzgerald’s February 1931 Saturday Evening Post story occupies three days in Paris subsequent to the 1929 stock-market crash. It begins with Charlie Wales (Bonnie Prince Charlie? the Prince of Wales? Charlie Wails?) in the Ritz Bar, the epicenter of Babylonian dissipation for wealthy American expatriates during the twenties. He has returned to Paris to regain his daughter, Honoria, and the honor he sacrificed to alcoholic revelry during the boom. He is sober, solvent, and responsible. That evening Charlie visits Honoria; she is in the legal custody of his sister-in-law, who holds him responsible for his wife’s death as the consequence of a drunken marital quarrel.
Charlie spends the next day with Honoria, encountering a pair of his erstwhile drinking companions. That evening Charlie obtains the promise of Honoria’s return to him. On the evening of the third day of the story Charlie’s discussion of arrangements with the sister-in-law is interrupted by the invasion of his uninvited drunken friends. These reminders of what Charlie had been deprive him of Honoria again. After returning to the Ritz Bar he ruminates on the distorting power of Paris in the twenties:
—The men who locked their wives out in the snow, because the snow of twenty-nine wasn’t real snow. If you didn’t want it to be snow, you just paid some money.
The short story is encapsulated in these thirty-two words that bear the blindstamp of Fitzgerald and identify “Babylon Revisited” as his. (He is echoing “Ou sont les neiges d’antan?”) But there is no way to photograph these words: they do not appear in the screenplay.
In converting the material of the “Babylon Revisited” short story to images on the screen, Fitzgerald removed the revisited theme. Charlie does not return to Paris to recover his Honoria; in the screenplay Victoria seeks him out in Switzerland. Fitzgerald’s own copy of his screenplay, dated August 1940, is titled Cosmopolitan—not an improvement in terms of appropriateness. It includes an “Author’s Note”:
This is an attempt to tell a story from a child’s point of view without sentimentality. Any attempt to heighten the sentiment of the early scenes by putting mawkish speeches into the mouth of characters—in short by doing what is locally known as “milking it, ” will damage the force of the piece. Had the present author intended, he could have broken down the sentimental section of the audience at many points, but the price would have been the release of the audience too quickly from tension—and one would wonder at the end where the idea had vanished—or indeed what idea had been purchased. So whoever deals with this script is implored to remember that it is a dramatic piece—not a homey family story. Above all things, Victoria is a child—not Daddy’s little helper who knows all the answers.
Another point: in the ordinary sense, this picture has no more moral than Rebecca or The Shop Around the Corner—though one can draw from it any moral one wishes about the life of the Wall Street rich of a decade ago. It had better follow the example of Hamlet, which has had a hundred morals read into it, all of them different—let it stand on its own bottom.
By all means—“let it stand on its own bottom.”
—M. J. B.
Published in Cosmopolitan: A Screenplay by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1993).