Fitzgerald in Hollywood: The Great Gatsby-an excerpt from the upcoming book, “6 Degrees of Film”

From the upcoming book “6 Degrees of Film” by M.L. Johnson
F. Scott Fitzgerald, as with all great writers in Hollywood, was part myth and part reality. He tried his luck several times in California, accompanied on his first trip by his equally colorful wife Zelda. Their attitude was condescending, to say the least, as Fitzgerald wrote, “I honestly believed that with no effort on my part I was a sort of magician with words.” Fitzgerald said he felt he “was doing Hollywood a favor.” Their tenure was short and ended badly, with Zelda writing of the film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, “It’s rotten and awful and terrible and we left.”
On his second trip, Fitzgerald embarrassed himself at a party held by famed producer Irving Thalberg. Thereafter, Fitzgerald sought the ever-confident Thalberg’s approval. His need “to conquer Thalberg, to make the man recognize their essential kinship, was mysterious and powerful enough to override even the most contemptuous rebuffs.” All in all, Fitzgerald made three trips to Hollywood. During the third, in 1940, he died from a heart attack. He was forty-four.
Fitzgerald had just about finished his career by advertising many of his greatest shortcomings in the short story The Crack Up. Fitzgerald writes in the story, “As long past as 1930, I had a hunch that the talkies would make even the best-selling novelist as archaic as silent pictures.” After this appeared, a rather devastating article was printed in the New York Post describing Fitzgerald as “jittery, restless” and a novelist “whose twitching face … bore the pitiful expression of a cruelly beaten child.”
Of Hollywood, Fitzgerald wrote, “I hate the place like poison. I should consider it only as an emergency measure.” And yet Fitzgerald was implored by his agent to return. He wrote a (surprisingly) measured, thoughtful response, saying, “No single man with a serious literary reputation has made good there” (Bruccoli XXXX, pg).
Gore Vidal wrote that Fitzgerald was “enough of an artist or romantic egotist to want to create movies.” In “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star,” Vidal wrote:
Fitzgerald thought the way to conquer Hollywood might have been to know the enemy and study their weaknesses. He had sat for hours watching all of MGM’s hit movies from the last fifteen years; [collecting] hundreds of file cards listing tricks of the trade, noting the strengths and weaknesses of individual stars, itemizing well-tried plot lines.
Fitzgerald’s third trip to Hollywood began with the attitude that this time he was determined not to mess it up. But by that time, Fitzgerald was a known entity: a drinker, difficult to work with. Nevertheless, he had a champion among the studio elites in Edwin Knopf, who hired him for a Gary Cooper picture, Three Comrades.
Joe Mankiewicz and Fitzgerald sparred throughout the writing process. Fitzgerald railed against the director’s ttampering with the ending and cutting his dialogue and scenes. Yet, when the two scripts are compared, it’s very hard to see what all the fuss was about; they were actually very similar. Fitzgerald’s dialogue, if anything, was a bit less wordy and pretentious than the script with Mankiewicz’s alterations. Still The Three Comrades was a hit when it opened in 1938, the only script for which Fitzgerald was actually given credit.
Mankiewicz said,
I personally have been attacked as if I had spat on the American flag because it happened once that I rewrote some dialogue by F. Scott Fitzgerald. But indeed, it needed it! The actors … 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.” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote very bad spoken dialogue.
Fitzgerald’s Final Days
After The Three Comrades, Fitzgerald’s contract was not renewed. He wrote, “Baby, am I glad to get out! I’ve hated the place since Monkeybitch [Mankiewicz] rewrote 3 Comrades,” to Harold Ober in the book As Ever.
He had lasted eighteen months and was exhausted—emotionally and physically. He’d given it his best shot and come up short. He had given lavishly of his most valuable obsessions, namely his superior drinking-problem heroes, beautiful doomed girls, and dreams that were either squandered or destroyed.
He’d hardly touched alcohol—a major feat for him—but in the end, Fitzgerald had failed to deliver the goods. In February 1939, he went freelance, the writer’s code that indicated “desperate for work.” He also went on a drinking spree with a twenty-five-year-old named Budd Schulberg,* which was described as his biggest, saddest, and most destructive spree.
Desperate for money, Fitzgerald had hit rock bottom. (At the time of Fitzgerald’s death, none of his major novels were even in print.) Darryl Zanuck gave him a chance in 1940 on a play adaptation. But once again, Fitzgerald was taken off the picture, and this time, Nunnally Johnson was called in to doctor the script. In November of that year, at Schwab’s drugstore, Fitzgerald had a heart attack and died a month later.
“Poor son of a bitch,” was the statement Dorothy Parker made at his funeral. The irony was not lost on her that few in Hollywood knew she was quoting directly from The Great Gatsby!

Published by

MLJ

Author of "6 Degrees of Film: The Future of Film in the Global Village", Ms. Johnson continues to blog on film and publishes a newsletter plus the Flipboard magazine 6 Degrees of Film @ the Movies. Her book is currently available on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Degrees-Film-Future-Global-Village/

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