F. Scott Fitzgerald is my all-time favorite author. The Great Gatsby is one of those books I can read time and time again because its lyrical prose speaks to the heart of the human condition. Every little line of dialog says something about the grace or fault of frail humans in society.
I like big parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.
— The Great Gatsby
If there was anything that Fitzgerald pioneered in the seminal writings of his life, it was the conflict of ego and personality – and how we’re all trapped within ourselves. So, for such a renowned author of his time, I never understood why Fitzgerald never could succeed in the golden age of Hollywood.
Was the Hollywood movie structure too formulaic for him, giving him less time to flesh out his themes and metaphors? That simply couldn’t have been the case, could it? After all, movies like Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and Gone with the Wind were being made at the time, changing the landscape of cinematic storytelling forever.
Fitzgerald was a drunk, desperate, broke, and broken man when he was given a screenwriting deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and moved to Hollywood in 1937. Those three years must’ve been hell to the prolific writer, so used to writing in his own style and managing his own time. Now, he had a day job working under the studio system. By that point, his books were out-of-print and he needed to support a wife in a mental institution and a daughter in an expensive boarding school. Where once Fitzgerald turned his nose up at “molding [his] stuff into the conventional movie form with its creaky mid-Victorian sugar”, now he had to make weekly paychecks as a script doctor, retooling any studio project that may come his way, with no guarantee of screen credit.
Holed up at the Garden of Allah, the famed hotel on the Sunset Strip (now the site of a Chase Bank, formerly Lytton Savings), he rewrote scores of screenplays, from Madame Curie and A Yank at Oxford to Gone with the Wind, the latter fueled by all-night amphetamine binges, provided by producer David Selznick (it was a different time then). Such was his sour reputation in Hollywood that when screenwriter Bud Schulberg was asked if he’d be willing to work with Fitzgerald on the film Winter Carnival, Schulberg asked, “Isn’t Scott Fitzgerald dead?” They did collaborate, but both were fired when they went on a destructive drinking binge while doing “research”.
Schulberg later wrote On the Waterfront.
There was no doubt that Fitzgerald’s demons did little to affect his tireless work ethic. He was, after all, a functional alcoholic. He produced countless manuscripts, outlines, rewrites, treatments, and pitches at the MGM writers’ building, most to no avail. It must’ve been a frustrating experience. For Gone with the Wind, he couldn’t use any words or phrases that weren’t in Margaret Mitchell’s novel. If that rule had stuck to the end, we’d have no “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Still, despite Fitzgerald’s diminishing reputation, he had friends on his side. Irving Thalberg and David Selznick both respected and admired his literary prowess, while friend Billy Wilder compared him to “a great sculptor who is hired to do a plumbing job.”
“A lot of beautiful speeches,” said Boxley boldly. “But no situations. After all, you know, it’s not going to be a novel: and it’s too long….”
— The Love of the Last Tycoon
Even in his movie pitches to studio producers, Fitzgerald utilized his ability to weave poetic prose to flourishing delight. “Let us suppose that you were a rich boy brought up in the palaces of Fifth Avenue,” a five-page memo to producer Hunt Stromberg starts, “Let us suppose that – and I was a poor boy in Ellis Island.” His ability to write never left him, but something in the limitations of Hollywood crushed the freedom he so needed to tell his stories. In the end, he only ever got screen credit for one film, Three Comrades, starring Robert Taylor and Margaret Sullavan.
Hollywood succeeded in killing F. Scott Fitzgerald where Princeton, World War I, New York society, and Parisian salons failed. Here was the self-destructive man who managed to survive the Jazz Age in all its bootlegging, quick-stepping, Hemingway-boxing glory, brought down by the forces of the studio system. He tried and failed to conquer that system, realizing quickly that Hollywood stories were subject to the whims of the audience and the profits they reaped. There was a convention and a box placed in front of him – and, however much of a hack Fitzgerald thought he was, he realized that he could never fit in it.
The irony of his situation came through the mild success Fitzgerald achieved when left to vent his dissatisfaction his own way. Much as he did in The Crack-Up, where he revealed the torment of his alcoholism, in the better-received series of Pat Hobby short stories, Fitzgerald follows the life of a washed-up Hollywood “hack” who never gets back on his feet. The stories were mocking and playful, filtered through a wit that never dissolved.
Then, there was The Love of the Last Tycoon, what could’ve been his final masterpiece had he not succumbed to the dissolution of Hollywood failure. As his MGM contract expired and he struggled for freelance screenwriting credits, Fitzgerald worked on this last novel about a boy genius film producer navigating a behemoth studio run by studio boss Pat Brady, based on Louis B. Meyer. Many of the characters were inspired by Fitzgerald’s Hollywood experiences. Brady on Meyer, protagonist Monroe Stahr on Irving Thalberg, producer Jacques La Borwits on Joseph Mankiewicz (“Monkeybitch”, as Fitzgerald secretly called him), etc.
We’ll never know how The Love of the Last Tycoon would’ve turned out. He died and it was left unfinished, with just a few notes detailing reveals of tragedy and senselessness in the business of movie-making.
Maybe the themes and messages that Fitzgerald tried pushing onto Hollywood were too novelistic and unproven for the cinematic form. Maybe Fitzgerald just wasn’t meant to write ninety-page scripts with three-act structures. His incredible volume of work shows a masterful knowledge of storytelling, but perhaps formatting his natural gifts into someone else’s medium may have broken him down. And yet, I don’t think it’s that his themes were necessarily lost in the translation, but that his own inability to compensate for his cinematic shortcomings made them impossible to realize. His stories have been successfully adapted to the screen by others in the past, examples including The Off-Shore Pirate, The Great Gatsby, and Tender is the Night.
The words fell wild and unreal on Pat’s burdened soul. But even though he now knew at first hand what came next, he did not think that he could go on from there.
— Boil Some Water — Lots of It, The Pat Hobby Stories
Many authors are known for their frustrations in dealing with the movie industry. Raymond Chandler, William Faulkner, and Gore Vidal swore away their attempts to break into screenwriting. Despite critical acclaim, Stephen King continues to dislike Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. I had a conversation with author Dean Koontz last summer where he expressed his annoyance in adapting one of his own novels into a screenplay.
Stars have to align for perfect storms of success to emerge. These are very rare moments. Sometimes, some talents are meant only to be novelistic. Fitzgerald was born to write on the page – fitted into the Jazz Age that made him so renowned. It is somewhat befitting his life mirrored those of his characters and the tragic denouements that culminated in their immortality.
These lights, this brightness, these clusters of human hope, of wild desire—I shall take these lights in my fingers. I shall make them bright, and whether they shine or not, it is in these fingers that they shall succeed or fail.
— The Love of the Last Tycoon