F. Scott Fitzgerald: Scenes from a Hollywood Life
by John C. Tibbetts

F. Scott Fitzgerald was fascinated with movies. Although he never appeared in a film, he and Zelda were impersonated two times—by Gary Cooper and Helen Vinson (Dora and Tony Barrett) in King Vidor’s The Wedding Night (1935); and by Jason Miller and Tuesday Weld in F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood (1976). As for Scott and his mistress, Sheilah Graham, they were portrayed by Gregory Peck and Deborah Kerr in Beloved Infidel (1958), based on Graham’s autobiography. Moreover, Fitzgerald’s early stories and novels were populated with characters who are moviegoers; and they are peppered with references to specific films and screen personalities. He spent his last years working in Hollywood, which he placed at the center of his unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon.

It is in Fitzgerald’s letters that we find revealing insights into his troubled relationship with movies in general and Hollywood in particular. They both affirm and deny two aspects of Fitzgerald’s Hollywood years—on the one hand, that he had become little more than a hack screenwriter; and on the other, that he was a noble artist, unappreciated and put-upon by his insensitive employers. Certainly it is true that not one of the screenplays he wrote from his own works was ever filmed. And among the dozens of movie projects he worked on, only one, Three Comrades (1938), gained him a screenwriting credit—a sad irony for one of the greatest prose stylists of the day. Yet it is a mistake to conclude that Scott’s Hollywood years were a complete failure. The reality, as revealed by the letters, was much more complex.

From the beginning, Fitzgerald seems to have thought of his life and work as a kind of movie. Writing to a college chum in 1919, his description of himself reads like one of Hollywood’s swift and improbable scenarios: “I am frightfully unhappy, look like the devil, will be famous within 12 months and, I hope, dead within 2.” Not surprisingly, Hollywood beckoned after he published his first story for The Saturday Evening Post, “Head and Shoulders” (1919). In a letter dated February 24, 1920, he wrote Zelda that Metro had bought it for $2500. (It was filmed a year later as A Chorus Girl’s Romance, starring Viola Dana and Gareth Hughes). That same year came two more films, The Off-Shore Pirate, also with Miss Dana (adapted from a story of that name), and The Husband Hunter, with Eileen Percy (adapted from “Myra Meets His Family”). And a screen version of his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, was released in 1922, with Marie Prevost.

Encouraged by these early films, his letters show him actively speculating about the possibility of writing for the movies. In the winter of 192l he claims in a letter to a Princeton roommate that he is writing a scenario for actress Dorothy Gish, for which he expected $l0,000. Nothing came of it. In March 1922 David Selznick commissioned a story outline for Transcontinental Kitty, a vehicle for Elaine Hammersmith. Nothing came of this, either.

At first he could afford to dismiss airily these setbacks. In April 1925, when he was making $3,000 per story at The Saturday Evening Post, he wrote to a Princeton classmate: “I’m too much of an egotist + not enough of a diplomat ever to succeed in the movies.” In order to do so, he continued with a touch of bravado, one “must begin by placing the tongue flat against the posteriors of such worthys [sic] as Gloria Swanson + Allan Dwan and commence a slow carressing [sic] movement.”

Nonetheless, he found himself in Hollywood in 1927 for the first of what would be three trips during the next thirteen years. He was commissioned to write an original screenplay for the popular actress, Constance Talmadge, to be entitled Lipstick. After a treatment was prepared, the project was cancelled. Later, in a letter to his daughter, dated July 1937, he looked back on the adventure and admitted the failure had been his fault. “I had been loafing for six months for the first time in my life and was confidant to the point of conciet [sic]. Hollywood made a big fuss over us and the ladies all looked very beautiful to a man of thirty… Total result—a great time + no work. I was to be paid only a small amount unless they made my picture—they didn’t.”

In 1931 he came back to work, this time to MGM under Irving Thalberg. The bravado was wearing off. It was a difficult time and Scott needed money. Zelda had been hospitalized the year before in the first of several mental breakdowns, and his own drinking problems were growing acute. He found himself saddled with a vehicle for Jean Harlow, Red-Headed Woman, but his efforts were rejected and he was replaced by veteran Anita Loos. In a letter to Max Perkins, dated November 8, 1934, he complains that other projects—treatments of Tender Is the Night and a project for comedienne Gracie Allen—were “no go.” He left with the money but no work to show for it. In the aforementioned letter to Scottie, Fitzgerald noted that he had been “disillusioned and disgusted,” that he vowed then never to go back. “I wanted to get east when the contract expired to see how your mother was,” he added. “This was later interpreted as ‘running out on them’ + held against me.”

Increasing debts forced him to reconsider a return to Hollywood in 1936. This was an altogether different Scott than the brash youth of a decade before. Alarmingly, his steady income from stories for the Post had dried up, and he could write nothing saleable. His desperation for film work is evident in several letters to his agent, Harold Ober, including one dated February 8, 1936 in which he beseeches Ober to use his connections to get him a job: “It seems odd having to sell you such a suggestion when once you would have taken it at my own valuation, but after these three years of reverses it seems necessary to reassure you that I have the stuff to do this job and not let this opportunity slide away with the rumor that ‘Scott is drinking’ or ‘Scott is through.’” Finally he worked a six-month deal with MGM at $l,000 a week. He admitted in a letter to Anne Ober, dated July 26, 1937, that he would have to resist the distracting glamor of the place: “From now on I go nowhere and see no one because the work is hard as hell, at least for me and I’ve lost ten pounds. So farewell Miriam Hopkins who leans so close when she talks, so long Claudette Clobert as yet unencountered, mysterious Garbo, glamourous Dietric, exotic Shirley Temple—you will never know me.”

After doing some revisions on the script for A Yank at Oxford, he finally scored his first and only screenwriting credit for an adaptation of Erich Remarque’s Three Comrades (1938). He was delighted with the credit. “It’s nice work if you can get it,” he observed wryly to Anne Ober on Christmas 1937, “and you can get it if you try about three years.” However, on January 20, 1938, Scott was reacting bitterly to producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ tampering with his script. The passage is worth quoting at length:

“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… You are or have been a good writer, but this is a job you will be ashamed of before it’s over… Oh, Joe, can’t producers ever be wrong? I’m a good writer—honest. I thought you were going to play fair.”

Later in a letter to Anne Ober dated February 1938, he complained about the censors’ cuts in the picture, concluding, “So what we have left has very little to do with the script on which people still congratulate me. However, I get a screen credit out of it, good or bad, and you can always blame a failure on somebody else.”

Subsequent projects, however—all adaptations of other writers’ works—were rejected or uncredited, including a Joan Crawford vehicle, Infidelity, a project that ran afoul of the Hays Office censors; The Women, based on Clare Boothe Luce’s sophisticated Broadway comedy; a Garbo vehicle, Madame Curie; Raffles, a Goldwyn project with David Niven; and some retouching on Selznick’s Gone with the Wind (all of Scott’s notes on the script are included in this book). In the summer of 1940 he composed a screenplay of his story, “Babylon Revisited,” retitled Cosmopolitan. Nothing came of the attempt. (In 1954 MGM produced a movie version of “Babylon Revisited,” retitled The Last Time I Saw Paris, written by Julius and Philip Epstein.)

Fitzgerald was never able to conquer or come to grips with the essentially collaborative nature of screenwriting. He sought complete control over his screenplays, expressing in many letters his hatred of the committee aspect of writing, of working in collaborative teams or in groups of three or more. “No single man with a serious literary reputation has made good there,” he wrote Harold Ober on December 3l, 1935. He added that he could work with someone else only if he were “some technical expert,” someone who not only “knew the game, knew the people, but would help me tell and sell my story—not his.” Instead, most of his assignments in Hollywood were to write screenplays of the work of others, or to rewrite screen­plays begun by other writers. Purportedly, he had no real feel for story construction, tended to overplot, and indulged in excessive dialogue. As Billy Wilder noted, “He made me think of a great sculptor who is hired to do a plumbing job.”

The paradox is that despite these failures, Hollywood still represented for Fitzgerald a last chance for renewed fame and fortune. He was making money, more money per week than Nathaniel West and, later, William Faulkner. The letters reveal that his earnings in 1939-40—in excess of $40,000—got him out of debt for the first time in nearly a decade. Indeed, they reveal hopes for more movie work and portray a man trying to regain control of his life—battling his alcoholism, recovering a faith in his writing, and trying to stabilize his relationship with columnist Sheilah Graham. While on the one hand, he could write to Alice Richardson, July 29, 1940 and attack the odiousness of the movie colony—”Isn’t Hollywood a dump—in the human sense of the word? A hideous town, pointed up by the insulting gardens of its rich, full of the human spirit at a new low of debasement?”—he also wrote to Zelda on May 8, 1940 that he prefers writing for the movies than for magazines that “the standard of writing from the best movies, like Rebecca, is, believe it or not, much higher at present than that in the commercial magazines such as Colliers and the Post.”

It is also clear that the Hollywood years gave Scott a wealth of new material for his writing. As Tom Dardis notes in his book on Hollywood screenwriters, Some Time in the Sun, since the early 1930s Scott’s prose fiction had gone stale—”Fitzgerald had not really lost his ability to write—what he needed most… was something new to write about.” Thus, as Gene Phillips affirms in his study, Fiction, Film, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, “the time he spent there was not wasted… Indeed, his experiences in Hollywood often provided fodder for his fiction, both short and long.” For example, there are many references in the letters to the genesis of the seventeen “Pat Hobby” stories (“If you think I can’t write, read these stories,” he wrote Harold Ober on October 7, 1939). Pat is a seedy, down-at-the-heels scriptwriter, who, according to Fitzgerald, was not autobiographical so much as someone “to whom I am rather attached.”

And of course there is Scott’s growing enthusiasm for his new novel, The Last Tycoon. It began as a short story, “Crazy Sunday,” and began to develop in novel form under the tentative title, The Love of the Last Tycoon. We learn from a letter to Max Perkins, dated May 22, 1939, that initially Scott was anxious that the book not be construed as being about Hollywood: “I am in terror that this mis-information may have been disseminated to the literary columns.

If I ever gave any such impression it is entirely false: I said that the novel was about some things that had happened to me in the last two years.” Perhaps Scott was afraid that if the news got out, future employment would be jeopardized. Later, in a long letter to Kenneth Littauer, fiction editor at Collier’s magazine, dated September 29, 1939, Scott writes in great detail about Tycoon, admitting to what he called his “great secret”—that the character of Hollywood producer Monroe Stahr is indeed based on Irving Thalberg (“one of the half-dozen men I have known who were built on the grand scale”). Scott concludes on an optimistic note about the project: “There’s nothing that worries me in the novel, nothing that seems uncertain… I hope it will be something new, arouse new emotions perhaps even a new way of looking at certain phenomena.” Six chapters had been written when Fitzgerald died on December 2l, 1940.

When the incomplete work was published a year later, Ernest Hemingway pronounced it a work of controlled craftsmanship and precision of language “unlike anything he had written before.” And most observers today agree with Tom Dardis that The Last Tycoon is a heroic book, “a fascinating work that established beyond any question that Fitzgerald had indeed regained his ability to write as well as he ever had in the past.”

It brought a curious kind of symmetry to his authorial career. Among the significant parallels between it and his early novel, The Great Gatsby (1924)—hinted at in Fitzgerald’s letter to Kenneth Littauer—were the characters of, respectively, Hollywood producer Monroe Stahr and entrepreneur/racketeer Jay Gatsby. Both were handsome, confident, self-made men presiding over empires founded on illusion and glamor. Both were tragic figures rejected by their lovers and doomed by forces from the past. And both, at the cost of their lives, recovered their dignity and ideals. The same is true of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who found at last in the brittle dreams of Hollywood a new meaning and purpose.

Notes: F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1994.