Tuesday, February 26, 2013

THE GREAT GATSBY (1949)


The problem with adapting certain novels to the screen is that their greatness comes not just from the stories themselves but how they're told. J.D. Salinger knew that a movie version of Catcher in the Rye would never work because the book's driving force -- Holden Caulfield's narration -- was unfilmable.

The Great Gatsby is another case of mistaking a great story for movie fodder. It's the genius of F. Scott Fitzgerald that he manages to make you care about a bunch of people you otherwise wouldn't waste your spit on. I decided to run a few minutes of the 1949 movie version starring Alan Ladd -- which I'd never seen -- for my daughter. She had just finished reading the book a couple of hours earlier; with it still fresh in her mind, she'd be able to fill me in on what the movie got wrong even in the first scene.

The movie opens in the present day (i.e., 1949) with Nick Carraway and Jordan Baker, apparently happily married, placing flowers on the grave of Jay Gatsby. "Wait, what is this?" my daughter objected. "This isn't in the book!" This is followed by a brief history lesson, narrated by Nick, about the jazz age, climaxing with Jay Gatsby making like Machine Gun Kelley by mowing down a car full of fellow bootleggers. "Gatsby isn't like this!" wailed my daughter. (Look at the poster above. Paramount was clearly trying to sell Gatsby as another Alan Ladd gangster picture like This Gun for Hire.)

It was all downhill from the first scene. My daughter was so taken by the movie's inadequacies that we wound up watching the whole thing. Some of her objections spoken throughout:
"What's going on? This never happened!"
"Wait, Nick knew Gatsby in the war. They're not strangers!" 
"That scene happens in at the end, not the beginning!"  
"Gatsby doesn't have henchmen!"

"Hi, folks! We really screwed up
a great book. Hope you like it!"
"What's going on? This never happened!"
 "You don't know Daisy has a daughter until near the end!"
"This scene lasts two chapters in the book!"
"Tom Buchanan is supposed to be huge. Who is this guy?"
"What's going on? This never happened!"
"OK, that drunk is in the book... but he's discovered by Nick, not Gatsby!"
"Tom's affair with Myrtle goes all the way through the book! You hardly see it here!"
"What's going on? This never happened!"
"Daisy doesn't turn herself in for killing Myrtle. And Tom doesn't try to warn Gatsby that Wilson's going to shoot him; he wants to see Gatsby dead!"
"No! Only the drunk guy goes to Gatsby's funeral!"
"What?! Nick and Jordan don't become a couple!"
"What's going on? This never happened!"

My kid got a 14-karat lesson in the way Hollywood can completely screw up a work of art. She found the 1949 Gatsby no less than appalling. Having little memory of the books' details, I could only go by what I saw. And what I saw was a potentially-interesting story trying to break loose from its mediocre surroundings. 

How stupid do you think Alan Ladd felt posing for this publicity shot?


"Let's watch television. Oh wait, this is 1928!"
My first beef was with the clothes. It takes place in 1928, but everyone's dressed in their finest 1949 gear. The closest anybody gets to looking authentic is when Alan Ladd wears two-toned shoes, and those didn't appear until the '30s. Speaking of Ladd, did someone slip him a Nembutal before the cameras rolled? His is the sleepiest performance this side of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. When he's not gunning down rival gangsters, that is. Which, as my daughter will remind you, isn't in the book. On the other hand, 36 year-old Ladd provides some welcome, if unintended, laughs in a flashback when playing Gatsby at age 14. (Technically, since Nick is telling the story, it's one of the movie's three flashbacks within flashbacks, like a particularly bad acid trip.)

Ladd's primary co-stars -- Betty Field (Daisy Buchanan), Barry Sullivan (Tom), Macdonald Carey (Nick) and Ruth Hussey (Jordan) -- are equally adrift. As noted before, without Fitzgerald telling the story, the Gatsby characters are about as sympathetic as the Shining Path. Betty Field, in fact, has the same problem as Mia Farrow did 25 years later. Her Daisy Buchanan isn't just ditsy, she's a Long Island Blanche DuBois -- irritating, whiny, nuts. If I were Gatsby, I'd thank my lucky stars I'd broken up with her.

And why does the movie take place in 1928 when the book places it six years earlier? Did the year 1922 sound too ancient for the studio? The script certainly goes out of its way to refresh the audience's memory right from the get-go. As Nick puts flowers on Gatsby's
grave, Jordan sighs, "He seems like someone we knew in another time, another life, another world. Jazz, prohibition, flaming youth." Everyone involved seemed to have forgotten the maxim Show, don't tell. Or at least tell with good dialogue.

"Get out of my light, old sport."
Ironically, a problem comes when the movie is too faithful to the source material, viz, Gatsby's nicknaming everyone "old sport." In the book, it's an affectation that provides insight to his character. Here, as in the 1974 version, it just sounds awkward and unrealistic. Dialogue that reads well on paper doesn't always sound good when spoken.

"Better catch me now
before I pack on another
200 pounds."
It's up to the supporting characters to goose things up. I had hopes when seeing Elisha Cook, Jr.'s name in the credits. But rather than his usual intense persona that enlivened many a movie, he, along with Ed Begley, portrays one of Gatsby's henchmen with the power of cottage cheese. Howard Da Silva is fine, however, as the weak, sickly Wilson. I actually felt bad for the guy, especially since he has no idea that his wife, Myrtle, is fooling around with Tom Buchanan. Myrtle is played by Shelley Winters with her usual gusto (i.e., loud and trashy). It's a shock to see Winters when she was young -- in this case, age 29 -- and kind of attractive before she morphed into the dumpy great-aunt you tried to avoid at family reunions.

Criminal acts in movies couldn't go unpunished in 1949. So in Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan insists on turning herself in for running down Myrtle. Her husband Tom, who hates hates hates Gatsby in the novel, actually tries to prevent his murder. He even promises Daisy that he'll be a better husband. To drive home the point that Gatsby got what was coming, Nick quotes the Bible in the very first scene: "There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death." Its source, Proverbs 14:12, is carved on Gatsby's grave -- the grave that isn't in the book. The carving was arranged by Nick, who, in the film, knew Gatsby about a day and a half. What a freaking movie.

"It's the feel-good movie of the year!"
Ultimately, The Great Gatsby, rather than being an epic movie based on a classic novel, is just another studio melodrama about star-crossed lovers who act against God's wishes. You could probably change the names of the characters and not even know what you were watching. If F. Scott Fitzgerald hadn't drunk himself to death nine years earlier, this movie would have definitely finished him off.

Moviemakers just don't learn. Later this year, yet another version of The Great Gatsby -- this time in 3-D! -- starring Leo DiCaprio hits the screens. The director, Baz Luhrmann, made the excerable Moulin Rouge!, so you know what to expect. And as in 1949, Hollywood is still nervous about releasing a movie set in the '20s. To calm people's fears, the score will be provided by Jay-Z and the Bullits. If that doesn't put you in the jazz age mood, maybe this Tweet from lead Bullit Jaymes Samuel will: Jay-Z and myself have been working tirelessly on the score for the forthcoming #CLASSIC The Great Gatsby! It is too DOPE for words. Other music will be provided by Prince and Lady GaGa. Dope, indeed.

The 1949 Great Gatsby has never been released on video. Considering the movie is based on the novel and the 1926 Broadway play by Owen Davis, I figure Paramount couldn't be bothered clearing the rights. Interested parties can view it on YouTube in a decent, if not pristine, print for free. However, you still might want your money back, old sport.
                                                              
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