Baz Luhrmann's Great Gatsby is not the first movie to insult F. Scott Fitzgerald | Bleader

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Baz Luhrmann's Great Gatsby is not the first movie to insult F. Scott Fitzgerald

Posted By on 05.22.13 at 01:24 PM

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Robert Taylor, Frachot Tone, and Robert Young play the title characters.
  • Robert Taylor, Frachot Tone, and Robert Young play the title characters.
If nothing else, the recent release of Baz Luhrmann's Great Gatsby adaptation provides a good excuse to revisit the sole film on which F. Scott Fitzgerald received screenwriting credit, the 1938 melodrama Three Comrades. The movies are similar insofar that neither one really respects Fitzgerald's writing—the author was reportedly unhappy with Comrades because relatively little of his work made it into the completed film. Since it takes place in Germany, an executive at MGM submitted the script (cowritten by Fitzgerald and Edward E. Paramore Jr. from Erich Maria Remarque's novel) to the German ambassador for approval—the studio wanted to make sure that nothing in it would offend the tastes of the Nazi Party, who had been threatening to ban American films if they contained anything perceived as anti-German. (At this point the United States were still officially neutral in regards to Germany; furthermore most Hollywood studios were financially unstable throughout the Great Depression and were afraid to lose German ticket sales.) The ambassador proposed numerous changes to the screenplay, all of which were put into effect.

It's hard to say how Fitzgerald-esque Three Comrades would have been if this act of appeasement hadn't taken place, given the other dominant personalities involved: director Frank Borzage, producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and MGM itself, which had the most recognizable house style of the major studios. (Dave Kehr, in his Reader capsule review, was not receptive to the MGM touch.) Yet one can hear Fitzgerald's voice in some of the dialogue, particularly in the movie's effervescent first half. The story takes place shortly after World War I, centering on three inseparable war buddies who open a garage together. Their friendship, we quickly realize, gives them a go-getting spirit and makes them unafraid of starting a business during an economic depression. "We're going to be very rich," says the most cynical of the friends, in a short speech that Fitzgerald must have written. "Germany's going to need expert mechanics in the years to come. There'll be all sorts of things to repair: souls, consciences, broken hearts by the thousands . . ."

Fitzgerald's eloquent prose fits rather nicely with Borzage's graceful visuals. What might have sounded self-consciously florid in the hands of another director feels musical under his direction. Consider the first date between moony comrade Erich (Robert Taylor) and Patricia (Margaret Sullavan), the "fallen aristocrat" he eventually marries. Their repartee conveys the author's distinct mix of wistfulness and cynicism, as well as his obsession with diagnosing the zeitgeist.

Patricia: I was thinking how nice it would be if we could pick a time to be born. I'd pick an age of reason and quiet—if there ever was one.

Erich: I don't know. This minute's good enough for me.

Patricia: That's a lovely compliment—or is it just something you thought of to say?

Margaret Sullavan and Robert Taylor
  • Margaret Sullavan and Robert Taylor
Borzage had a gift for making actors seem sincerely enamored with each other. In this scene and numerous others, a wave of uncynical emotion overwhelms the sophisticated dialogue. One feels carried along through the film, the tonal complexity registering only later. It's possible Three Comrades feels more uniform than it really is because (as in many Borzage films) romantic feeling isn't restricted to the romantic leads—all four main characters regard each other with great affection. In one of the film's most romantic moments, Erich's two friends prepare him for a fancy ball Patricia wants him to attend; since he doesn't have a tuxedo, they enthusiastically give him parts of their own and show him how to wear the secondhand clothes with first-class style. His love has become theirs—it livens everyone. (There's a similarly moving scene between Warren William and George Brent in Borzage's Living on Velvet.)

This episode is too sunny to suggest much of a Fitzgerald influence; ditto the conventionally melodramatic final act. Is it coincidental that no one talks about alcohol during either of these parts? When Three Comrades is at its most literary, there are references to booze every few minutes—it's as though the movie's playing a drinking game with itself. Fitzgerald's alcoholism is well-known, but he knew as well as anyone how to depict the momentary confidence that booze can provide. When Patricia's patron warns her not to marry Erich, he says, "Germany's a pretty rough sea right now—and you're drifting." She replies, in a perfect fusion of Borzage's optimism and Fitzgerald's cocktail party wit:

But I'm not alone anymore! There's so many drifters—and we might all drift together. And some day, we might find pleasant seas. May I drink to that?

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