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Posts Tagged ‘F.Scott Fitzgerald’

Amazon’s Version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon

Friday, July 28th, 2017

Amazon’s series has little to do with Fitzgerald’s novel, but it’s still compelling television.

I’ve always been a Fitzgerald fan – much more so than Hemingway, and this interesting take on Fitzgerald’s last unfinished novel is several notches above the usual television fare, if only because it tries to do so many things at once – even as it strays almost completely from the original narrative of Fitzgerald’s work.

Monroe Stahr, fashioned after real life MGM boy wonder Irving Thalberg, runs a Hollywood studio in the 1930s with smooth charm and a velvet-gloved fist, while his fellow moguls try to take him down at every opportunity. Kelsey Grammer plays Monroe’s jealous and possessive boss – in real life, Louis B. Mayer at MGM – and is sure that Stahr is going to bolt for a different studio at this first opportunity.

Other than a famous story that Stahr tells a struggling screenwriter about a mysterious woman, a pair of black gloves, and two dimes and a nickel, as well as a house Stahr is building far from the studio as part of a love affair, that’s about all that’s taken from Fitzgerald’s book. It’s also interesting that in the Amazon series, the real Thalberg pops up, working for Louis B. Mayer (a superb Saul Rubinek) as Stahr’s competition, when nothing at all happens like that in the novel.

Add in a raft of new subplots, including the real-life incursion of Nazi censorship in Hollywood in the 1930s in the figure of Georg Gyssling (Michael Siberry), as well as the usual round of studio backstabbing, overnight stardom, insecure directors (the fictional Red Ridingwood [Brian Howe] from the novel, is referenced here, but in the novel he’s a failing hack; here, he’s the equivalent of Michael Curtiz) and refugees from Nazi Germany who find at home at Stahr’s studio.

Kelsey Grammer could have walked through the role of studio boss Pat Brady in his sleep, but instead offers a firm, assured performance – by the end of the series he’s become a real monster – while Matt Bomer as Stahr is definitely less successful, especially in the romantic sequences, and is most effective when he’s wheedling and cajoling his employees through a typical work day.

Real life figures like Fritz Lang (Iddo Goldberg) flit in and out at the edges of the series, while Jennifer Beals offers an exceptionally strong turn as fictional “passing” African-American film star Margo Taft, who is subjected to blackmail by L.B. Mayer when her secret is discovered. Even Marlene Dietrich (Stefanie von Pfetten) stops by for a quick cameo, and the studio itself (the series was shot in Canada) is littered with authentic period equipment.

The show first dropped the pilot in 2016, and offered it as one possible series of many different choices – and the pilot is perhaps the best episode in the entire series, with a great deal of energy and compact exposition – a strong inducement to watch the entire first season. In now-standard fashion, Amazon has dropped the entire first season on Friday July 28th, and by Saturday night, I had watched the complete set of 10 episodes – it’s that effective.

Though it bears little resemblance to Fitzgerald’s work, somehow, in the end, that didn’t really bother me. This is more of a tale of Hollywood intrigue and double dealing in the 1930s, handsomely mounted and efficiently directed by a disparate group of women and men, which more often than not offers real satisfaction and insight – despite Bomer’s stiff performance in the leading role. The show starts off lightly, but that’s just to lure you in.

As the series draws to a close, the show gathers real power – episodes 6-8 are more or less filler – but in the final two hours, The Last Tycoon takes many an unexpected turn, and reveals just how rotten Hollywood really was in the Golden Era, in which people were bought and sold as commodities, blackmail was rampant, and even murders were covered up in the name of “studio business.”

Fitzgerald’s name is tacked on for marquee value, but even though the plot is often far-fetched, the performances at times melodramatic, and the writing uneven, the show offers definite value for money, and the best part of all is that if you are an Amazon Prime member, you can stream the whole series for free. When you add up all the bad and the good, it definitely comes out on the positive side of the ledger.

Check it out – from the pilot to the finish – it’s addictive television.

I’d Die For You: The Lost Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald

Sunday, April 23rd, 2017

Here’s a new collection of Fitzgerald’s short stories, from his Golden Era as a writer.

As the Manuscripts Division of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collection at Princeton University Library notes of this new release, “lovers of the writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), Class of 1917, can celebrate the publication of I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories (Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster). Anne Margaret Daniel,  a literature professor at The New School, prepared this eagerly awaited edition. The book includes sixteen previously unpublished short stories and two ‘uncollected stories.’

Some are what Fitzgerald labeled ‘false starts.’ Others had been rejected outright by publishers; needed revision, for which he lacked time; or dealt with taboo subjects. Daniel has edited most of these unpublished stories from handwritten and typescript drafts in the F. Scott Fitzgerald Papers. The author’s daughter, Scottie Fitzgerald Lanahan, donated the papers to Princeton in 1950, along with the papers of her mother, Zelda Fitzgerald. Scottie retained a group of unpublished stories in the hope of finding a publisher. Unfortunately, most of these stories were not published. Put aside and forgotten, they were rediscovered by the Fitzgerald family a half century later.

Fitzgerald is celebrated today for The Great Gatsby (1925) and Tender is the Night (1934), though his youthful first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), holds a special place in Tiger hearts. Yet for most of his life, Fitzgerald made a living as a successful writer of light fiction, especially for The Saturday Evening Post. Fitzgerald published more than 150 short stories in popular American magazines, from ‘Babes in the Woods’ (1919) to the posthumous ‘Gods of Darkness’ (1941).

Some stories were published in series, like the Basil Duke Lee stories in The Saturday Evening Post and Pat Hobby Stories in Esquire. A number of the short stories are highly regarded by critics, such as ‘Winter Dreams’ (1922), ‘Absolution’ (1924), ‘The Rich Boy’ (1926), ‘Babylon Revisited’ (1931), and ‘Crazy Sunday’ (1932). Many of Fitzgerald’s short stories were anthologized by Charles Scribner’s Sons in Flappers and Philosophers (1920), Tales of the Jazz Age (1922), All the Sad Young Men (1926) and Taps at Reveille (1935).

All but one of the short stories in I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories date from the 1930s, when the intertwined lives of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were unraveling and Fitzgerald was struggling to make a living as an author and screenwriter. Several stories are clearly autobiographical, including ‘The I.O.U.’ (1920), written early in Fitzgerald’s literary career, about publishing; ‘Nightmare (Fantasy in Black)’ (1932), set in a mental hospital; ‘I’d Die for You (The Legend of Lake Lure)’ (1935/36), drawing on his time in North Carolina ; ‘Travel Together’ (1935/36), about a struggling screenwriter; ‘Offside Play’ (1937), about collegiate football, ostensibly at Yale; and ‘Love is a Pain’ (1939/40), recalling Princeton days.

Providing a context for Fitzgerald’s very readable stories are the editor’s general introduction, head notes and explanatory notes for each story, and a selection of illustrations (mostly from the Fitzgerald Papers).” It’s always a treat when any previously unpublished Fitzgerald work comes to light; ‘The I.O.U.’ was recently printed in The New Yorker as a sort of appetizer for the volume; I’ll come clean and admit that Fitzgerald is my favorite early 20th century writer, and so the chance to read some more of his work is always welcome.

I bought my copy today – how about you?

Happy Birthday to F. Scott Fitzgerald!

Sunday, September 25th, 2016

F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood, 1937 – he was born on September 24th in 1896.

There’s really no question in my mind that F. Scott Fitzgerald is my favorite author, perhaps the best American novelist of the first third of the 20th century, and not just for The Great Gatsby, which is nevertheless a brilliant book. I’ve always had a real affection for Tender is The Night, as well as the unfinished The Last Tycoon, and even Fitzgerald’s late short stories, which were frankly pounded out for much-needed cash.

A while ago, I wrote a book on Fitzgerald’s work in Hollywood in his last years – he died in 1940 – which was mentioned in a piece in The New Yorker by Arthur Krystal, who wrote that Fitzgerald arrived in Hollywood in 1937 “to take a job at the M-G-M studio in Culver City. He occupied a small office on the third floor of the writers’ building, where from ten in the morning until six at night he worked on scripts and drank bottles of Coca-Cola, carefully arranging the empties around the room.

Fitzgerald lasted eighteen months at M-G-M, during which time he worked on five scripts, wrote another one more or less from scratch, and generated a pile of notes and memos. And if his work was altered or rejected, he’d follow up with bitter, self-justifying letters.

There was a spate of such letters. Fitzgerald, to put it mildly, did not impress the studio bosses. The rap against him was that he couldn’t make the shift from words on the page to images on the screen. His plotting was elaborate without purpose; his dialogue arch or sentimental; and his tone too serious—at times, even grim. Billy Wilder, who seemed genuinely fond of Fitzgerald, likened him to ‘a great sculptor who is hired to do a plumbing job’—with no idea how to connect the pipes and make the water flow.

On the face of it, he should have taken Hollywood by storm: he wrote commercially successful stories; he knew how to frame a scene; and his dialogue, at least in his best fiction, was smart, sophisticated, evocative. And of all the American novelists writing in the nineteen-twenties and thirties—Dreiser, Lewis, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Steinbeck—Fitzgerald had the strongest attachment to Hollywood.

As a boy, he was a passionate moviegoer; he directed and acted in plays, and his desk was filled, he later recalled, with ‘dozens of notebooks containing the germs of dozens of musical comedies.’ Moreover, three of his early stories had been made into silent films, as had his novels The Beautiful and Damned and The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald began trying to write for the movies as early as 1922, and yet, for all his efforts, he earned exactly one screen credit: a shared billing on Three Comrades. So what was the problem?”

It’s a fascinating question, which I tackled in my book The Cinematic Vision of F. Scott Fitzgerald; basically, Fitzgerald was way ahead of his time, and also an artist who adapted poorly to the studio system, even though he wrote and rewrote some of his late short stories over and over to please the magazine editors who would eventually publish them. But he always thought that the cinema could be something more than what it was, and now resolutely is – mass entertainment – and this individual vision pushed him beyond his limits, to his death.

But Fitzgerald’s last work in Hollywood, the screenplay for the unproduced film Infidelity (which would never have gotten past the Breen office in that era) is one of his finest pieces of work, and remains unproduced to this day. Four-fifths of the screenplay was published in Esquire years ago; in the early 1980s, when MGM was still at its original headquarters at 10202 West Washington Blvd., I found Fitzgerald’s outline for the ending of Infidelity in studio’s files, and a good screenwriter could finish the script up in a matter of weeks.

And perhaps someday it will happen . . .

Fragment of Lost Novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald Found

Sunday, August 16th, 2015

Another “lost” manuscript by F. Scott Fitzgerald has turned up – a fragment of a proposed novel.

As Ron Charles reports in The Washington Post, Andrew Gulli, editor of the Strand mystery magazine, has discovered what appears to be the beginning of an unfinished novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Princeton University archives. As Charles notes, “now comes tantalizing word of another novel — alas, unfinished — that’s been sitting in a box in the Princeton University library for decades — catalogued but apparently ignored.

Initially, he thought that he’d stumbled upon a lost short story, like the Fitzgerald story he found and published in the Strand a few weeks ago called Temperature. ‘There was a scene that could have stood solely as a short story,’ he says, ‘but then it went on one more paragraph, and then it just ended abruptly. And I realized, “Oh my God . . . it’s a novel.”‘

The fragment — about 2,500 words — seems to be the beginning of Ballet School — Chicago. Gulli says he knows Fitzgerald ‘was thinking about publishing this as a book’ because he also found a ‘whole outline of several chapters. I really liked it. It’s romantic. There’s a ballerina trying to make her way in Chicago. She has an attraction to a wealthy neighbor because he can get her out of this tough existence . . . and she can have a happy life with him. The story goes into the very hard training for ballet dancers. But then something quirky and unsuspected happens that changes her impression of him.’

The story may be informed by Fitzgerald’s experience with his wife, Zelda, who developed a passion for ballet as a child and pursued it throughout much of her life. Even this short fragment demonstrates Fitzgerald’s poetic care with his style. ‘He was like a real lunatic about going over things,’ Gulli says. ‘He would scratch out whole paragraphs, and in his cursive make things more economical in pencil. He was obsessive about trying to find a shorter way. He was always trying to streamline.’

Gulli says the fragment, told in the third person, ‘is just enough to feel that he was really going somewhere with the character, and he had all the other characters outlined, too. The thing that makes this so novel — forgive the pun — is that he wrote so few novels. So he must have really been captured by this idea to the point that he outlined it fully.’

Just to add a little frisson to this, here’s another recently published, previously unknown Fitzgerald story presented in The New Yorker on August 6, 2012, entitled Thank You for The Light, which you can read by clicking on the link right here.

Anything by Fitzgerald is valuable; let’s hope this sees the light of day.

Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

Stewart O’Nan’s novel covering the last years of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life is the real deal.

This was recommended to me by the writer Timothy Schaffert, who, knowing of my own work on Fitzgerald many years ago, thought I would find it interesting. And he’s absolutely right. Most Hollywood fictionalized bios ring rather false, given the fact that the era of classic Hollywood is now so long ago and far away, and the tendency to sentimentalize, or over sensationalize Fitzgerald’s last truly harrowing years, from 1937 to 1940, when he batted around Hollywood in a number of jobs, starting at MGM but eventually sliding down the ladder to near oblivion before his premature death from a heart attack in 1940, seems almost irresistible to most writers.

But here, O’Nan brings the story of Fitzgerald’s last days to life, when he struggled to stay sober in the face of crippling alcoholism – not always with success -and managed to alienate almost everyone around him when he fell off the wagon. Agents deserted him, his powers were declining, and he never really understood the way the Hollywood game was played. O’Nan captures all of it, in a book of such page turning intensity that I sat down and read it straight through in a matter of hours. As the end of the narrative nears, the velocity picks up with truly cataclysmic intensity, and one feels that one gets a new, and appropriately sympathetic vision of Fitzgerald, an artist who waged war against his own self-destructive impulses and lost the battle.

There may be one too many star cameos here and there, and Humphrey Bogart looms larger in the book than he did in Fitzgerald’s real life, but others, such as Hunt Stromberg, Robert Benchley, Alan Campbell, Dorothy Parker, and of course, Sheilah Graham, the great love of his later life, a gossip columnist who seemed to understand Fitzgerald better than anyone else during his tenure in Tinseltown, and in whose apartment he died on December 21, 1940, are real and tangible presences. Not for the faint of heart, this is a novel about irrecoverable loss and isolation – the promise of youth and the collapse of overnight fame – and most importantly, about the Hollywood studio system, which never understood artists – then or now. O’Nan’s book is a stunning achievement, in which Fitzgerald appears as a fully rounded person, with all of his flaws and charm intact.

All in all, an amazing accomplishment.

The Last Tycoon

Sunday, August 14th, 2011

This morning at the supermarket, picking up The Sunday New York Times, which everyone should read — every day — I saw a copy of the DVD of Elia Kazan’s 1976 film The Last Tycoon, based on the unfinished Hollywood novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. There it was in the checkout aisle, priced at just $5 for a widescreen version (as opposed to a pan and scan copy) of the film. I didn’t even have to think twice about it; I snapped it up.

Robert De Niro, still young and magnetic, toplines as Monroe Stahr, an obvious stand in for Irving Thalberg, the boy genius who started at Universal at the age of 19, and then moved to MGM to run the studio under Louis B. Mayer.

Set in the late 1930s, the peak of the studio era, with a literate script by Harold Pinter, and excellent supporting performances from Tony Curtis (as a star on his way down), Dana Andrews (as a director who has lost his touch, and is summarily canned during the making of a film), Jeanne Moreau (as a fading and difficult leading lady), Ray Milland and Robert Mitchum (as corrupt studio money men from the East), and Donald Pleasance (as a novelist hired to write a screenplay, but has no idea how to deal with the medium of film), The Last Tycoon eventually collapses under the sheer weight of its numerous plot strands, but for the first half hour, at least, as Stahr goes through a typical workday at the studio, the film is absolutely right on target.

Kazan is always remembered for On The Waterfront (1954) and his other great films of the 50s, and The Last Tycoon has nowhere near the same degree of control and concision of these earlier works, but when the film succeeds, I can’t think of another film that more accurately depicts the Hollywood studio system during the Classic Age.

The Last Tycoon is also one of the best adaptations of Fitzgerald to make it to the screen, and it’s oddly appropriate that the film should trail off, just as Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel does, but not before giving us an indelible picture of studio life in the days of the unquestioned moguls.

Right now, I’m finishing up a new book, The End of Empire: The Collapse of the Studio System, forthcoming from Rutgers University Press. Immersed as I am in the details of studio history right now, this film resonated, and should be more widely seen and appreciated.

Yes, in the end Kazan’s The Last Tycoon collapses, but that’s partly because it tries to accomplish something more than providing mere genre entertainment — it’s not a comic book movie, in short. It was not only Fitzgerald’s last novel; it was also the last movie Kazan directed, about an industry he had worked in since the 1940s, starting as an actor.

I doubt if it could be made today. I would like to be proved wrong. There’s an excellent Fitzgerald script lying around entitled Infidelity; it’s 4/5ths complete, and in the mid 1980s, I uncovered Fitzgerald’s rough draft of the ending for the project. Fitzgerald wrote it for MGM, before censorship concerns derailed the project; I don’t know who owns the property now, but it would be an excellent idea to bring it to the screen.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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