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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.

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 . . .

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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