Crazy Sundays: F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood
by Aaron Latham

13 “Action Is Character”


After a shower and a shave, Fitzgerald went to the closet to disturb the last rest of an old suit. As he slipped into the jacket, he found it an old friend, but not the kind of friend you much wanted other people to meet. When he was dressed, Scott went looking for Sheilah. She wasn’t far away. She couldn’t have been, not in the small apartment they had rented in Hollywood when the Encino summer turned too hot. Together they piled into the car and headed for Dorothy Parker’s. The playboy of the twenties was on his way to his last party. At Mrs. Parker’s, Scott found many old friends, but there were many whom he didn’t find. Frank Tuttle of the old Film Guild was there, along with Deems Taylor—Scott hadn’t seen them since those long party nights on Long Island in the twenties. But he missed the Hacketts, who had long since gone home to New York. Anita Loos was missing, too. She had wanted to leave two years before, but Metro had refused to release her from her contract. “So I wrote movies with one hand and a play for Helen Hayes with the other,” she remembers. When her time was served, she headed for Broadway. Fitzgerald wrote Zelda that Fay Wray, the girl in King Kong, had been at the party, but that he had missed her husband, John Monk Saunders. One night Saunders, whose chest had once mesmerized Zelda, had gone to his closet and taken down a robe much like the one which the young Fitzgeralds had ripped open back in 1927. He used the robe’s cord to make a noose.

Fitzgerald was happy to see Dorothy Parker, that old friend from New York whom he had met again at Metro, where she once leaned out of a window in the writers’ building and screamed, “Let me out of here. I’m as sane as you are!” Mrs. Parker was one of the old crowd, but her entourage now included some new faces. Scott stuck to the older people, though he was very much aware of the others. “There was a younger generation there,” he wrote Zelda. “I felt very passe and decided to get a new suit.

The next morning Fitzgerald was back at the 20th Century-Fox studio, back in the little Spanish cottage with the red-tile roof, back in his chair looking at the telephone, waiting for it to ring. He couldn’t go forward with his script until Darryl Zanuck approved his latest scenes. Meanwhile Zanuck’s outer office was crowded with directors, producers, agents, and others who were nothing—only reputations waiting patiently to be made. When the executive got time, he would scan what Fitzgerald had written.

The writers’ cottage where Scott sat was crowded, too—crowded with new people in new suits writing more pages for Zanuck to pass on. Sometimes while he was waiting Scott would go out into the garden that surrounded the cottage and pace its narrow walkways, but these paths, like the wires of a great communications network, always led back to the same telephone.

Darryl Zanuck, the head of 20th Century-Fox, had met Fitzgerald several times at parties in Europe back in the 1920s, and perhaps that was one reason why he had hired him. When Scott heard that Zanuck wanted him, he wrote Zelda, “I think I have a pretty good job coming up next week—a possibility of ten weeks’ work and a fairly nice price [$7000 total] at 20th Century—Fox. I have my fingers crossed, but with the good Shirley Temple script behind me I think my stock out here is better than at any time during the last year.

What he did not write home about was the kind of picture he had been hired to rewrite. After completing his great original, Cosmopolitan, he was now back to adapting another writer’s work for the screen. Moreover, it was only going to be a B picture. The author who had once set out to prove that he was “better than any of the other young Americans without exception” was being asked to write the hind end of a double feature. The story was about an artist who had once been applauded by everyone but who had been undone by drink. Now an old man, he tried to support his daughter by doing odd jobs. Fitzgerald must have wondered if he needed this much irony in his life.

After a script conference with Zanuck and several others, Fitzgerald got down to work. He was under orders to stick as close as possible to Emlyn Williams’ London play The Light of Heart, but Christmas was not far off and the holidays gave him an idea for an original opening. He had learned the power of beginning a motion picture with a nearly silent scene, a Chaplinesque pantomime; he decided to open with a mute portrait of twelve Santas in the personnel room of a London department store. The first eleven Santas are sober—the last one in line adjusts his “beard so as to disguise his mouth as much as possible,” and “reels a little on his feet.” The personnel manager instructs his army of redcoats that the toys they carry are not for sale, then sends them out into the streets where “our Santa Claus… clutches an ash can and hangs there a second.” The unsteady Father Christmas turns out to be Mackay Duncan, a former matinee idol who was washed off the stage in a tidal wave of booze. His biggest problem in his latest role, the one which the department store has hired him to play, is that he comes to believe that there really is a Santa Claus and that he is it. He offers a little boy one of his display toys, but the boy protests, “I haven’t got a bob.” Mackay answers dimly, “The displays are not for sale.” When the department store discovers that Mackay has given everything away, this Santa finds himself unemployed on Christmas eve.

The failed Father Christmas stumbles home to tell his daughter Catherine. She is crippled and that makes it harder for Mackay to confess. But before he can tell her, she informs him that she has just been offered a job singing in a wedding. Fitzgerald understood the touching paradox immediately. Many of his earlier characters had been sound of body but acted like cripples, always leaning on others. But now in Emlyn Williams’ The Light of Heart Scott found a real cripple, a girl with a club foot, who leaned on no one but instead was a crutch to her father. In this sense, she was a kind of sister to Marie Curie in Madame Curie and Mary Waldron in Cosmopolitan, women who represented Fitzgerald’s new heroines, women who supported others. Fitzgerald had not planned it this way but still it was appropriate that the last portrait in his gallery of heroines should be Catherine.

Out of a job again, Mackay Duncan dries out and goes looking for work once more. Here Fitzgerald decided to add an irony not found in the play. He gave Mackay a position as guide at an Ideal Homes Exhibition. Scott, of course, knew that his own credentials for the job were no better than Mackay’s. Ideal Home?—why, a daughter away at school and a wife away at the sanitarium wouldn’t even be enough for a down payment. Mackay is in charge of keeping the customers circulating.

MACKAY: Move along please. MOVE ALONG PLEASE. Move a—long please! Move ALONG, please. MOVE along—please… (Bending forward confidentially) There’s a small fire in the basement, Madame…

Mackay’s creative approach to his job loses him this position too.

Just when it looks as if Mackay Duncan will go on drunkenly staggering after jobs forever, help arrives in the form of a dowager dea-ex-machina. Here name is Lady Machen, and she idolized Duncan when he was a star. Now she resolves to make him one once again. She invites Duncan and his daughter to her country estate. Fitzgerald described the change which the new chance has worked upon Mackay. The author was in a position to appreciate such transformations.

CAMERA FAVORS Mackay who sits with a magazine on his knee. He looks ten years younger; his hair is cut, his suit is new, and he wears horn-rimmed spectacles. Now that he is neither drunk nor suffering from after effects, his true manner emerges for the first time—shy, good-humored and unpretentious. After eight years of desperation… this journey into the world of country houses, leisure, and luxury is a great adventure.

Also present on the Machen estate—assembled there by the muse of melodrama—are a young musician named Robert McClure and a beautiful blonde named Eleanor who expects a proposal from him. Eleanor knows that Catherine is in love with Robert, too, and so refers to her jealously as “the girl with the heart of gold—and the foot.” The three sides of this triangle are brought together one afternoon on Lady Machen’s veranda. There Fitzgerald put together a scene which not only accomplishes the engagement of a man and a women, but seems to wed the silent films of the twenties to the talking thirties. Many of the words are Emlyn Williams’, but the technique is all Scott Fitzgerald—it was the kind of scene he had been working for almost four years to learn how to write: [Quoted at such length not because it is Fitzgerald’s best screenplay but because 20th Century-Fox proved to be the most generous studio with permission.]

Lazy chairs against a wall of ivy and climbing wisteria. Back of the chairs is the glassed-in part of the veranda, used as a semi-conservatory into which we can see clearly. In the glass wall is a glass door. Catherine is on a wicker chaise-longue with a book.
approaching along the veranda, thoughtful…
ROBERT… (suddenly strained): Why do you think you’re constitutionally deformed?
CATHERINE: I’m not in the mood for your frank stunt, Robert.
who has come into the conservatory and not yet seen Robert and Catherine outside.

From this point on, we watch Eleanor behind the glass as if she were a character in a silent movie, seen and not heard. Catherine and Robert continue to play a talkie. He tells her what he has just discovered by telephoning the doctor who delivered her.

ROBERT:… I’ve been trying to trace him for weeks. He’s just told me that you were one of the most perfect babies he ever saw.
looking impatient and pettish. She breaks off the stem of an orchid and starts to pin it on her shoulder. Simultaneously she sees Robert through the glass and brightens. She cannot hear them.

For Eleanor, of course, the people on our side of the glass are the ones in the silent film.

CATHERINE: But… he told my father I was born crippled. Why should he have lied about it?
ROBERT: Because when you were a year old your father had a bad fall with you in his arms. When they found something was wrong, the doctor made out you’d been born like that, to save your father’s feelings. You see, when he fell he— wasn’t sober.
Robert turns and his eyes meet Eleanor’s. He smiles abstractly, and nods as if to say “Just a minute.” She smiles back—it won’t be long now…
ROBERT: DO you realize this means you can have a perfectly healthy child?
CATHERINE (philosophically): You mean I could have had. I don’t see any husbands suddenly rushing at me from nowhere…
ROBERT: Can’t you see that I’m asking you to marry me?…
looking out, frowning. In b.g. through the glass Robert regarding Catherine, whose face cannot be seen… His face tells her everything, and she strains close to the glass trying unsuccessfully to hear and feeling outraged…
…we can clearly see Eleanor through the glass in b.g. walking quickly from the conservatory.

Fitzgerald’s new heroine had beaten just the kind of girl whom the author had once so romanticized.

The weekend among the very rich ends for Catherine and Mackay, and they return to their small room in the great city. The actor and his daughter spend their days getting up the play which Lady Machen had chosen for Duncan’s comeback—Lear. This Shakespearean tragedy was selected for the play within the play because Mackay is about to lose his own Cordelia. Not only is she to be married, but she and her husband plan to go to America to live. Fitzgerald, who felt that he had lost his own daughter, thumbed through his copy of Lear time and time again to find just the right Lear-Cordelia speeches for Mackay and Catherine to practice together.

MACKAY:… O, you are men of stone!
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone for ever!

On the day of the long-awaited opening, Duncan discovers— melodrama will out!—that his daughter is leaving him. He hears the news and cracks like an old plate. Suddenly he can no longer remember his lines. They find Mackay in the street, his body, like the window through which he jumped, shattered.

At first Fitzgerald had been very hopeful about The Light of Heart. Like the actor Duncan, he foresaw a comeback. Scott wasn’t a star nor much competition for Tyrone Power, the studio’s current ne plus ultra. But in playful moods the author sometimes felt like a star and would send his secretary telegrams affectionately signed TYRONE.

With a check coming in regularly now, he sent Zelda some extra money to “spend on something which you need,” along with the following explanation: “This is the third week of my job and I’m holding up very well, but so many jobs have started well and come to nothing that I keep my fingers crossed until the thing is in production.” At the end of the letter, however, he allowed himself a paragraph for hoping. “They’ve let a certain writer here direct his own pictures,” he said, “and he has made such a go of it that there may be a different feeling about that soon. If I had that chance, I would attain my real goal in coming here in the first place.

After six weeks on the picture the writing continued to go well. Fitzgerald was pleased when he reported to his agent that Zanuck was thinking of elevating The Light of Heart from a B production to an A. “I don’t know what the next three months will bring further,” he wrote Zelda, “but if I get a credit on either of these last two efforts things will never again seem so black as they did a year ago, when I felt that Hollywood had me down in its books as a ruined man—a label which I had done nothing to deserve.

The euphoria could not last. Quarrels sprang up in the conference room at 20th Century-Fox. The Zanuck people thought Scott’s story was too gloomy. They especially did not like a scene which pictured the girl with the clubfoot acting like a normal girl, dancing with the man she loved. One night Scott waited up even later than usual at 20th. It was well after midnight, but the author and his secretary were still at their posts beside the telephone. There was nothing to do to fill up the waiting time. The writer could not even try to think out his next scene—not until he was sure that this one had been okayed. The studio was quiet now. There were no typewriters, no conversations, only the sounds of many people waiting. And then, occasionally, a waste-basket would rattle. Offices which were impossible to get into during the day now opened immediately to admit cleaning ladies.

Fitzgerald listened, looked out at the dark, sharpened his pencils. As he grew tireder, the hours of walking up and down dictating began to tell. His feet hurt. The author hoisted one foot after the other up onto his desk. Carefully prying off his tight-fitting shoes, he confided to Miss Kroll, “I’m beginning to feel the squeeze.”

In a letter to Zelda written a few days later, he reported, “I don’t know how this job is going… Things depend on such hairlines here—one must not only do a thing well but do it as a compromise, sometimes between utterly opposed ideas of two differing executives. The diplomatic part in business is my weak spot.

On October 19 Fitzgerald wrote his agent, “You are a tactful man but I felt a certain tacit reproof in your voice this afternoon. You thought either I should have (a) rejected the script as gloomy or (b) done a better job at brightening it. Well, at the end of two weeks I did feel it wasn’t good for a great movie, but Zanuck had been so stirred by my ideas at the first conference… that I thought I must be wrong.

The Emlyn Williams play was passed on to the man whom Fitzgerald two years before had tried to order out of Hollywood. Nunnally Johnson, who hadn’t taken the advice and who never knew that Scott had written an adaptation of The Light of Heart, turned out a script which was filmed in 1942 under the title Life Begins at 8:30. Fitzgerald’s screenplay had been written by a grim man in a grim season, and it showed. Johnson had brightened up the movie so that Bosley Crowther, writing in the New York Times, called it “a tears-and-laughter story of a liquidated actor” which is sad but “not grim.” The critic called Monty Woolley, who starred in the film, “the man who came to dinner— with a load.” Johnson had even contrived a happy ending where Fitzgerald’s ending had been another dirge.

The day Scott discovered that there was no hope at all for his picture, he wrote Zelda. For the first time in weeks, he said nothing about his script. Instead, he was full of his book. “I’m trying desperately to finish my novel by the middle of December,” he wrote, “and it’s a little like working on Tender Is the Night at the end—I think of nothing else… My room is covered with charts like it used to be for Tender Is the Night, telling the different movements of the characters and their histories. However, this one is to be short, as I originally planned it two years ago, and more on the order of Gatsby.

The next week he wrote, “I am deep in the novel, living in it, and it makes me happy. It is a constructed novel like Gatsby, with passages of poetic prose when it fits the action, but no ruminations or side shows like Tender. Everything must contribute to the dramatic movement.” At the end of the letter he said, “Two thousand words today and all good.

Then the letters stopped for a fortnight. When they resumed, there was a worried irritation in the voice. “No news,” Fitzgerald said, “except that the novel progresses and I am angry that this little illness has slowed me up.


Fitzgerald was in Schwab’s to buy cigarettes. Every American small town in the 1930s seemed to be built around not City Hall but the local drugstore, and Hollywood, the arch small town, was no different: it sometimes seemed to be built around Schwab’s. It was like an extension of some studio’s commissary, the kind of place where you might see Joan Crawford buying bobby pins. Scott was taking it all in, not missing a thing—a novelist could not afford to—when suddenly all his mental notes were erased. He had almost lost it all. Somehow he held on. He even got together the strength to walk home.

It was a dull November afternoon. Sheilah was on the sofa listening to Bach’s Singet dem Herrn, so she did not hear Scott return. He wasn’t making much noise. When she looked up, he was trembling as he lowered himself into a chair. “Is anything the matter, Scott?” she asked and hurried to turn down the music. He took his time about lighting a cigarette, lifting the match carefully; then he answered.

“I almost fainted at Schwab’s. Everything started to fade. I think I’d better see Dr. Wilson in the morning.”

The next day Fitzgerald drove downtown to his doctor’s office. When he returned he announced, “I had a cardiac spasm.

Not long before, he had written Zelda, “Weeks of fever and coughing—but the constitution is an amazing thing and nothing quite kills it until the heart has run its entire race.

From the time of the heart spasm, movies were out. He wrote his daughter the day that it happened, but saved all news about his health for what tried to be a matter-of-fact postscript. “P.S… The phone rang after I finished this letter,” he said, “and the doctor after seeing my cardiogram has confined me to the house. So at this moment I couldn’t go to the studios if I wanted to.

Under a strange kind of house arrest—the only guard his own heart—Fitzgerald continued to work on his novel. He could not go near the studios but in a sense they were still very close to him. He even wrote most of the dialogue for his book the way they had taught him at the studios, walking up and down, dictating to his secretary. When he couldn’t walk, the secretary would sit beside his bed.

And out of all that pacing and dictating came a dialogue and action that was different from anything Fitzgerald had written in any of his earlier books. In Tender Is the Night especially there had been very little that was actually said or done, but that was because, as Fitzgerald himself explained, Tender “was shooting at something like Vanity Fair.” It was a psychological novel. Now, however, he was trying to write a dramatic novel and, as he said, that kind of writing “has canons quite different.” In fact, The Last Tycoon is so much more dramatic than any of his other stories that it sometimes seems to be a printed talkie.

On the black and white pages there could be no real pictures for the eye, but for the imagination there was much to see: the lights like fireworks as the plane dropped down into Los Angeles, the earthquake and even a flood with the heroine served up to the hero on a huge papier-mache head of a goddess floating in a rampaging drainage ditch. Fitzgerald had learned that the best movies emphasize the visual, and he must have decided that a great novel needed bold visions, too.

In Tender Is the Night we must generally take Dick Diver’s charm on faith, or infer it from his effect on others, but Stahr’s leadership and his production genius are another matter. They are demonstrated for us, acted out in the story. We follow Stahr through a day at the studio and see him coach Boxley, review the day’s rushes, remove a director who has been dominated by his star, help a cowboy who suddenly finds himself impotent, and preside over a story conference where he calmly tells his writers that they have written the wrong kind of story. As Fitzgerald wrote in his notes for The Last Tycoon: “ACTION IS CHARACTER.” This was perhaps the most important lesson Fitzgerald learned in Hollywood. It was an existential rule not only to write by but to try to live by. In the novel Stahr is a leader only to the extent that he leads, and the man behind the novel, Scott Fitzgerald, had come to realize that he was a writer only to the extent that he wrote. He had outgrown that old idea that character is a pretty face or a good profile or fine dreams. Like Mme. Curie, Mary Waldron, and even the crippled Catherine, Stahr finds his character, and therefore his integrity, his dignity, in hard work. And Fitzgerald too, writing in bed with the last of his life’s strength, hoped to work for, to earn, his own character.

But to learn that “ACTION IS CHARACTER” is one thing, and to learn it in time is another. Fitzgerald returned to the novel too late, just as Stahr found Kathleen too late. Stahr and Fitzgerald had found their new heroine, but the producer lost her because for once he did not act in time, and the novelist lost her because he died before he could finish her portrait, enshrining in a book the kind of heroine he had already created for the movies.

Stahr liked Kathleen because she was not at all like the other girls he kept meeting, nor was she much like the girls to be met in the fiction Fitzgerald wrote before coming to Hollywood. “This girl had a life,” the author wrote in his notes, “—it was very seldom he met anyone whose life did not depend in some way on him or hope to depend on him.” Had it worked out, she might have been to Stahr what Mary Waldron was to Charles Wales, what Marie was to Pierre Curie.

In Cosmopolitan Nicolas walked through the emptiness of his unused mansion, finally stopping in his bedroom where even the bed is covered to keep off dust. His tragedy is a house vacated before its time, just as Stahr’s tragedy is the “Waste Land of the house too late.” Stahr and Kathleen drive out to the producer’s unfinished home together. It looks like the half-done houses on the sets at the studio, and what the man and woman say to one another there reads a little like a scenario, one of the good ones.

“I’m building a house out here,” Stahr said, “—much further on. I don’t know why I’m building it.”
“Perhaps it’s for me,” she said.
“Maybe it is.”
“I think it’s splendid for you to build a big house for me without even knowing what I looked like.”
“It isn’t too big. And it hasn’t any roof. I didn’t know what kind of roof you wanted.”
“We don’t want a roof. They told me it never rained here. It—”
She stopped so suddenly that he knew she was reminded of something.
“Just something that’s past,” she said.
“What was it?” he demanded, “—another house without a roof?”
“Yes. Another house without a roof.”
“Were you happy there?”
“I lived with a man,” she said, “a long, long time—too long. It was one of those awful mistakes people make. I lived with him a long time after I wanted to get out, but he couldn’t let me go. He’d try, but he couldn’t. So finally I ran away.”
He was listening, weighing but not judging…
“We were too close,” she said. “We should probably have had children—to stand between us. But you can’t have children when there’s no roof to the house.

The studio is really Stahr’s home, and his house—complete with prop department grass and a projector in the living room— is really a studio. Pictures might be begotten here, but nothing else. The Last Tycoon is a monument to new techniques, but also to a new sentiment. Over the course of Fitzgerald’s writing career, there had been a shift from the nostalgia for what is lost in the past to a nostalgia for what will be lost in the future: the children that Nicolas and Althea will never have, the house which Stahr will never finish. Nicolas’ and Stahr’s defeats, of course, seem to prophesy the final, unintended nostalgia of The Last Tycoon itself, the great fragment.

During the 1930s the novel and the movies seemed to flow into one another, two fictional streams joining and altering one another’s course. Novels helped to flesh the movies out, giving them fully developed stories to tell, but at the same time the pictures taught the novels to pick up their pace, so that they moved faster than a Victorian walk. In The Last Tycoon F. Scott Fitzgerald, the novelist who was also a screenwriter, was one of the first to bring good movie writing and good novel writing together between the same covers. His first works had made him sound a little like a late-blooming Victorian, but now as an old man of forty-four he was putting together a story which was newer than Hemingway. Hollywood had used him and cheated him and neglected him, but it had also taught him.

On December 14 Fitzgerald wrote Zelda:

The novel is about three-quarters through and I think I can go on till January 12 without doing any stories or going back to the studio. I couldn’t go back to the studio anyhow in my present condition, as I have to spend most of the time in bed, where I write on a wooden desk that I had made a year and a half ago. The cardiogram shows that my heart is repairing itself, but it will be a gradual process that will take some months. It is odd that the heart is one of the organs that does repair itself.

Fitzgerald used to say, however, that he sometimes knew more in his books than he did in real life. And in the book which he was writing now, the optimism of the letters was absent. At one point he says of Stahr:

He was due to die very soon now. Within six months one could say definitely. What was the use of developing the cardiograms? You couldn’t persuade a man like Stahr to stop and lie down and look at the sky for six months. He would much rather die. He said differently, but what it added up to was the definite urge towards total exhaustion that [the doctor] had run into before. Fatigue was a drug as well as a poison, and Stahr apparently derived some rare almost physical pleasure from working lightheaded with weariness. It was a perversion of the life force he had seen before, but he had almost stopped trying to interfere with it. He had cured a man or so—a hollow triumph of killing and preserving the shell.

Next: Epilogue

Published as Crazy Sundays: F. Scott Fitzgerald In Hollywood by John Aaron Latham (New York: Viking P, 1971).