Fitzgerald and the Movies

by Judith S. Baughman

     Although Fitzgerald was an unsuccessful screenwriter, he was not, as legend has it, a pathetic, abused victim of the movie industry.  During two of his three stays in Hollywood, he was given choice writing assignments and was paid well for his work. 1   That he failed as a screenwriter was largely the result of his fundamental distrust for the medium, which he regarded as a debased alternative to print.  He felt that movies sacrificed individual vision by insisting on collaboration among screenwriters, and he was unwilling or unable to collaborate.  In his 1936 essay “Pasting It Together,” Fitzgerald stated:

            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.  It was an art in which words were subordinate to images, where personality was worn down to the inevitable low gear of collaboration.  As long past as 1930, I had a hunch that the talkies would make even the best selling novelist as archaic as silent pictures. . . . [T]here was a rankling indignity, that to me had become almost an obsession, in seeing the power of the written word subordinated to another power, a more glittering, a grosser power. . . .2

     Fitzgerald’s negative attitude undoubtedly affected his screenwriting.  In a 26 July 1937 letter to Anne Ober shortly after he began his third and final stay in Hollywood, he confessed that he found the work “hard as hell.”3  Some three years later in a letter to Maxwell Perkins, he denigrated both screenwriting and his performance as a screenwriter: “I just couldn’t make the grade as a hackthat, like everything else, requires a certain practiced excellence.”4  Although Fitzgeraldparticularly during his last years in Hollywoodhonestly tried to learn the art of screenwriting, he continued to believe that the movie medium was suitable for “none other than children’s stories,”5  as he told Scottie Fitzgerald in a winter 1939 letter.  He could not master either the theoretical concepts or the idiom of writing for the movies.

     Fitzgerald first went to Hollywood in January 1927 to write an original flapper comedy, “Lipstick,” for United Artists.  He was paid $3,500 in advance money and was to collect $12,500 on acceptance of his script.  During their two months in California, the Fitzgeralds led an active social life.  As he recalled to Scottie:

Hollywood made a big fuss over us. . . . I honestly believed that with no effort on my part I was a sort of magician with wordsan odd delusion on my part when I had worked so desperately hard to develop a hard, colorful prose style.    

Total resulta great time + no work.  I was to be paid only a small amount unless they made my picturethey didn’t.6 

This brief stay in Hollywood had significant consequences, however, because Fitzgerald met two figures who would prove important to his later novels.  The young actress Lois Moran, who charmed Fitzgerald and provoked resentment in Zelda Fitzgerald, became a model for Rosemary Hoyt in Tender Is the Night.  Irving Thalberg, who was the “boy genius” head of production at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and who impressed Fitzgerald “by the shrewdness of what he saidsomething more than shrewdnessby the largeness of what he thought”7 inspired the character Monroe Stahr in The Love of the Last Tycoon.

     Fitzgerald only reluctantly agreed to his second Hollywood stay in November and December 1931.  He and his wife had recently returned to America following Zelda Fitzgerald’s discharge from a psychiatric hospital in Switzerland. When Thalberg and MGM offered him $1,200 a week to rewrite a screenplay based on Katherine Brush’s novel Red-Headed Woman, Fitzgerald accepted.  In Hollywood he quarreled with his collaborator, Marcel de Sano, and their completed screenplay was rejected as too somber a treatment of a woman who advances herself through sex.  Fitzgerald later recalled in his July 1937 letter to Scottie:  “I left with the money [$6,000], 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. . . . This was later interpreted as ‘running out on them’ + held against me.”8  During his 1931 stay, he attended a party hosted by Thalberg and his wife, actress Norma Shearer; in the course of the party Fitzgerald got drunk and sang a comic song.  He drew on this material for one of his best-known Hollywood stories, “Crazy Sunday.” 9  

       In the summer of 1937 Fitzgerald again went on the MGM payroll.  His July 1937 letter to Scottie recorded both his relief at finding a solution to his mounting financial difficulties and his determination to succeed at last in Hollywood: “I feel a certain excitement.  The third Hollywood venture.  Two failures behind me though one no fault of mine. . . . I want to profit by these two experiencesI must be very tactful but keep my hand on the wheel from the startfind out the key man among the bosses + the most malleable among the collaboratorsthen 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.”10  His original contract stipulated $1,000 per week for six months, with an option for an additional year at $1,250 per weekwhich he received.  Among the working notes for The Love of the Last Tycoon is Fitzgerald’s tongue-in-cheek assessment of the pay scale for screenwriters:

     Junior writers $300

     Minor poets $500. a week.

     Broken novelists $850. - $1000.

     One play dramatists $1500.

     Sucks - $2000. Wits - $2500.11 

     Fitzgerald’s first assignment under his 1937 MGM contract was to polish the screenplay for a college movie, A Yank at Oxford; his contributions were not extensive enough to earn him a creditor listing on screen as an author of the scriptthe means by which a movie writer’s value is judged.  Fitzgerald’s only screen credit came with his next and most important assignment for MGM, the screenplay for Three Comrades, Erich Maria Remarque’s novel about post-World War I Germany. Fitzgerald expected to work alone, but his early partial draft proved too novelistic.  He was then required to collaborate with E. E. Paramore, an experienced screenwriter whom Fitzgerald regarded as a hack and with whom he quarreled.  The pair submitted six revisions of their screenplay between November 1937 and February 1938.  When Joseph Mankiewicz, their producer, rewrote Fitzgerald’s dialogue because the actors complained that their lines were too literary to be convincing, Fitzgerald was outraged and predicted that the movie would flop.  Despite his dire predictions, Three Comradeswhich starred Robert Taylor, Franchot Tone, Robert Young, and Margaret Sullavanwas a popular and critical success, ranking as one of the ten best movies of 1938.  During the remainder of the year, Fitzgerald worked on MGM screenplays“Infidelity,” Marie Antoinette, The Women, and Madame Curiewhich were either unproduced or reassigned to other writers.

     When Fitzgerald’s MGM contract expired in January 1939, it was not renewed.  During his last weeks on the MGM payroll, he was loaned to Selznick International where he briefly worked on Gone With the Wind. (He later claimed that he was let go by Selznick because he was unable to make Aunt Pitty sufficiently quaint.)  In February 1939 United Artists teamed him with Budd Schulberg on Winter Carnival, but Fitzgerald was fired for drunkenness at Dartmouth College, an episode that provided material for Schulberg’s 1950 novel The Disenchanted. Thereafter Fitzgerald free-lanced at several studiosincluding Paramount, Universal, Goldwyn, and Twentieth Century-Foxbut his screenplays were not produced.  His only Hollywood assignment to work on his own material came in 1940 when independent producer Lester Cowan hired him to write a screenplay for “Babylon Revisited.”  Fitzgerald invented a new plot for his adaptation, which he titled “Cosmopolitan”; although he produced a competent screenplay, he also sacrificed the complexity of his brilliant short story and replaced it with simple melodramawhich he believed was the standard of excellence for Hollywood movies. “Cosmopolitan” was not produced.

     Though Fitzgerald never achieved success in the movie studios, the industry treated him well. During his last years in Hollywood, MGM kept him on the payroll for eighteen months, enabling him to pay off most of his debts and to provide for himself and his family.  After he was let go by MGM, he continued to be assigned to quality projects by other major studios.  Most important, Hollywood rewarded Fitzgerald in another, more enduring way.  He used his experiences in the studios as material for The Love of the Last Tycoon, which was about  sixty percent written when Fitzgerald died. Even in its incomplete, work-in-progressstate, it is regarded as the best of the many Hollywood novels.

Movie-Writing Assignments

This list does not include scenarios and synopses Fitzgerald wrote on speculation. For this material, see Mary Jo Tate, F. Scott Fitzgerald A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work (New York: Facts on File, 1998): the entry on Hollywood, and the “Movie Projects” section of the primary bibliography.

Grit. Film Guild, 1924. Original story by Fitzgerald, who provided the “source” but did not write the scenario.

“Lipstick.”  United Artists, 1927. Unproduced. Published in Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual (1978), pp. 5-33.

Red-Headed Woman. MGM, 1931. Fitzgerald’s screenplay was rejected.

A Yank at Oxford. MGM, 1937. Fitzgerald polished the screenplay but did not receive screen credit.

Three Comrades. MGM, 1937-1938. Fitzgerald shared screen credit with E. E. Paramore. Fitzgerald’s original versionwithout Paramore’s and Manckiewicz’s revisionshas been published, Carbondale & Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978.

“Infidelity.” MGM, 1938. Unproduced. Published in Esquire, 80 (December 1973), 193-200, 290-304.

Marie Antoinette. MGM, 1938. Fitzgerald’s screenplay was rejected.

The Women. MGM, 1938. The screenplay by Fitzgerald and Donald Ogden Stewart was rejected.

Madame Curie. MGM, 1938-1939. Fitzgerald’s screenplay was rejected.

Gone With the Wind. Selznick International, 1939. Fitzgerald polished the screenplay but did not receive screen credit.

Winter Carnival. United Artists (Walter Wanger), 1939. Fitzgerald worked on the screenplay with Budd Schulberg but was fired.

“Air Raid,” Paramount, 1939. Fitzgerald worked on the screenplay with Donald Ogden Stewart. Unproduced.

“Open That Door.” Universal, 1939. Fitzgerald worked on the screenplay for one week. Unproduced.

Raffles. Goldwyn, 1939. Fitzgerald worked on the screenplay for one week but did not received screen credit.

“Cosmopolitan” (“Babylon Revisited”). Columbia (Lester Cowan), 1940. Unproduced. Published as Babylon Revisited: The Screenplay, intro. by Budd Schulberg, afterword by Matthew J. Bruccoli. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1993. 

Life Begins at Eight-Thirty. Twentieth Century-Fox, 1940. Fitzgerald’s screenplay was rejected.

 

Adaptations of Fitzgerald’s Work

The motion-picture adaptations of Fitzgerald’s novels have been disappointing, although the 1962 Tender Is the Night and the 1974 Great Gatsby were big-budget productions.  Fitzgerald was a story teller with an intensely personal manner. The camera cannot reproduce his style: his point of view, tone, warmth, and wit.

Movies
The Chorus Girl’s Romance
(based on “Head and Shoulders”), Metro, 1920.  Scenario by Percy Heath; directed by William P. Dowlan. 

The Husband Hunter (based on “Myra Meets His Family”), Fox, 1920.  Scenario by Joseph F. Poland; directed by Howard M. Mitchell.

The Offshore Pirate, Metro, 1921.  Directed by Dallas M. Fitzgerald.

The Beautiful and Damned, Warner Brothers, 1922.  Adapted by Olga Printzlau; directed by William Seiter.

Conductor 1492 (based on “The Camel’s Back”), Warner Brothers, 1924.  Story by Johnny Hines; directed by Charles and Frank Hines.

The Great Gatsby (from the Owen Davis play), Famous Players, 1926.  Script by Becky Gardiner; adaptation by Elizabeth Meehan; directed by Herbert Brenon.       

The Pusher-in-the-Face, Paramount-Famous Players-Lasky, 1928.

The Great Gatsby, Paramount, 1949.  Screenplay by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum; directed by Elliott Nugent.

The Last Time I Saw Paris (based on “Babylon Revisited”), MGM, 1954.  Screenplay by Philip G. Epstein, Julius J. Epstein, and Richard Brooks; directed by Richard Brooks.

Tender Is the Night, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1962.  Screenplay by Ivan Moffat; directed by Henry King.

The Great Gatsby, Paramount, 1974.  Screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola; directed by Jack Clayton.

The Last Tycoon, Paramount, 1976.  Screenplay by Harold Pinter; directed by Elia Kazan.

 

Plays
The Great Gatsby
by Owen Davis (1926). An unpublished typescript is at the Library of Congress.

The Young and Beautiful by Sally Benson (based on the Josephine Perry stories).  New York: Samuel French, 1956.

Three Hours Between Planes by Elihu Winer.  New York: Samuel French, 1958.

Bernice Bobs Her Hair by D. D. Brooke.  Chicago: The Dramatic Publishing Company, 1982.

 

Television Productions
The Great Gatsby,
NBC Robert Montgomery Presents, 9 May 1955.  Written by Albert Sapinsley.

The Great Gatsby, CBS Playhouse 90, 6 June 1958.  Written by David Shaw.

The Last of the Belles, A Herbert Brodkin production, 1974.  Written by James Costigan. 

Bernice Bobs Her Hair, Learning in Focus, 1977.  Written and directed by Joan Micklin Silver.

Tender Is the Night, Showtime/BBC, 1985.  Written by Dennis Potter; directed by Robert Knights.

Under the Biltmore Clock (based on “Myra Meets His Family”), American Playhouse, Rubicon Film Productions, 1985.  Written by Ilene Cooper and Neal Miller; directed by Neal Miller.

Tales from the Hollywood Hills: Pat Hobby Teamed with Genius (based on several Pat Hobby stories), Zenith Productions/PBS, 1987.  Written and directed by Robert C. Thompson.

“The Sensible Thing,” Empathy Films/KTEH, San Jose Public Television, 1996. Produced by Elise Robertson and T. Reid Norton; written and directed by Elise Robertson.

The Great Gatsby, A&E, 2001.  Written by John McLaughlin IV; directed by Robert Markowitz.

 

Ballet
The Great Gatsby,
The Pittsburgh Ballet, premiered 25 April 1996.  Scenario and choreography
            by Bruce Wells; original music by Michael Moricz; scenery and costume design by Peter Farmer.

 

Opera

The Great Gatsby, The Metropolitan Opera, premiered 20 December 1999.  Words and music by John Harbison; song lyrics by Murray Horwitz. The libretto has been published, New York: G. Schirmer, Inc., 1999.

 


Reprinted by permission of The Gale Group from Literary Masters: F. Scott Fitzgerald, by Judith S. Baughman with Matthew J. Bruccoli.  Detroit: Manly/The Gale Group, 2000. 


Notes

     

  1. For a detailed discussion of Fitzgerald and the movies, see Alan Margolies, “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Work in the Film Studios,” Princeton University Library Chronicle, 32 (Winter 1971), 81-110. Return to text
  2. The Crack-Up, ed. Edmund Wilson (New York: New Directions, 1945), p. 78. Return to text 
  3. As Ever, Scott Fitz: Letters Between F. Scott Fitzgerald and His Literary Agent Harold Ober 1919-1940, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli and Jennifer M. Atkinson (Philadelphia and New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1972), p. 330. Return to text 
  4. 20 May 1940; F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters, ed. Bruccoli with the assistance of Judith S. Baughman (New York: Scribners, 1994), p. 445. Return to text  
  5. F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters, p. 384. Return to text 
  6. July 1937; F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters, p. 330. Return to text 
  7. Introduction, The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western, ed. Bruccoli (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. xviii. Return to text 
  8. F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters, p. 330. Return to text
  9. The American Mercury, 27 (October 1932), 209-220. Return to text
  10. F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters, pp. 330-331. Return to text
  11. Princeton University Library; The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western, p. 176  Return to text

 


Fitzgerald Centenary Comments

 

This page updated December 5, 2003.
Copyright 2003, the Board of Trustees of the University of South Carolina.
URL http://www.sc.edu/fitzgerald/movies.html