The year is 1949. Nine years prior, F. Scott Fitzgerald died at the Garden of Allah Hotel on Sunset Boulevard. Just under four miles away, Paramount Pictures began an adaptation of The Great Gatsby, the first since the 1926 silent film version (now lost).
It was only twenty years since the book’s publication, but even then, the Jazz Age was already being romanticized. You could see it in the opening scenes of the film. Macdonald Carey’s Nick Carraway talks about jazz, Prohibition, gangsters, and the stock market. The world had changed so much since then – there was a depression and a world war back-to-back. The Twenties must’ve seem eons ago by comparison.
If you’re a fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the careful plotting he did with the great character dynamics and reveals of his novel, this may not live up to literary expectations. It’s not that it’s a bad movie – it’s actually very alluring, and the language of the book comes off more naturally for actors around during that era than later adaptations that sometimes try (and fail) to capture the Transatlantic slang of the time. The fashion may have been more conservative and ’40s and the sets standard Hollywood soundstages, but there’s charm enough that makes you want to know how the film will deviate from the novel.
Yet, because of the attitudes of the ’40s, of the Hays Code, and traditional Hollywood storytelling at the time, there’s no room for metaphors or nuances in the reveals that made the original novel such a dreamy mystery. Rather than following Nick Carraway as our protagonist, we learn immediately of Jay Gatsby’s rise through the world of bootlegging, of his intentions to buy a mansion close to the Buchanans, and in one long scene that culminates in the end of the first act, Gatsby (played by Alan Ladd) lays out his entire life story to Nick in the backseat of his speedboat. The prose poetry of Fitzgerald’s writing is sadly suffocated by the bland rhythms of Hollywood screenwriting.
Alan Ladd’s Jay Gatsby has little mystery or charm. He’s presented first and foremost as a gangster, albeit a benevolent one. At one of his parties, a drunk visitor angrily spites him for changing his name, calling him, “Gatz” over and over again. Then Gatsby takes him behind a planter and knocks him unconscious. His love of Daisy (played by Betty Field) is more wistful than desperate, and in all other cases, he remains cool and collected. Carey’s Nick Carraway is not too dissimilar from Carraway of the book, though he is more assertive and outraged at Gatsby’s plotting, and only considers him a friend at the end of the film. In one of her early roles, Shelley Winters (who was then contracted by Universal) was loaned out to Paramount to play the delusional Myrtle Wilson, and portrays her with a haughty, vain air against the meek and nebbish George Wilson (played by Howard Da Silva, who would later play Meyer Wolfsheim in the 1974 adaptation).
Cinematically, there are certain shots that feel atmospheric and dreamy, even if the narrative isn’t presented that way. With its cast shadows, shallow angles, and the occasional kinetic flatness, there’s an element of film noir in the photography, which was shot by John F. Seitz, known for Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard.
At just ninety minutes, this is a short and concise film that deals in the trite romance of long-lost love and the efforts to attain it. In that regard, it’s a decent Hollywood film, and one worthy of a watch. The performances are excellent and the pacing brisk. What it is not is a sober examination of materialism, decadence, and unrealistic idealism. Those kinds of disreputable lifestyles were frowned upon by Joseph Breen, and producer Richard Maibaum fought tooth and nail to keep the disillusionment intact – but ultimately failed.
You won’t find much in the way of the green light, or the meaning behind yellow Roadsters, or pink suits, or but a passing remark about the eyes of T. J. Eckleburg – but if you’re keen on noir-esque romantic melodramas, then this might be worth a one-time viewing.