BOOTLEG FILES 477: “The Great Gatsby” (1949 film starring Alan Ladd).
LAST SEEN: The film is on YouTube in an unauthorized posting.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Problems with clearing the rights to the original source material.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It is possible.
“And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past…”
Yes, if you were paying attention in your college literature classes, you’ll recognize that line from the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic “The Great Gatsby.” And if you are paying attention to what’s playing at the local theaters, you’ll notice there is a new film version of that memorable book.
However, “The Great Gatsby” was previously made into a film on four separate occasions. Two of the better known versions are the opulent 1974 production starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, and a 2000 television production starring Toby Stephens and Mira Sorvino.
As for the other two versions, one was made by Paramount Pictures in 1926. Unfortunately, all that remains of that production is a one-minute trailer – to date, no extant print has been located. And then there is a 1949 version – and while it is not a lost film, it has been an elusive title for too many years. But at the risk of being cruel, I can say that its long absence was not a great tragedy.
After Fitzgerald’s death in 1940, there was a resurgence of interest in his work. Paramount still owned the film rights to “The Great Gatsby,” and the studio felt that a new version would be a commercial hit. However, this production was plagued with problems from its inceptions.
For starters, Paramount had to clear its screenplay with the Production Code Administration, Hollywood’s self-censoring entity that was commonly known as the Breen Office. Paramount submitted a screenplay that was rejected in by the PCA for offering “illicit sex and adultery, without sufficient compensating moral values.” PCA Director Joseph I. Breen personally recommended that Paramount “dismiss from further consideration” the notion that a screenplay based on the Fitzgerald novel. The studio was adamant in pushing ahead, and for the next year the screenplay was rewritten.
Paramount’s leading male actor, Alan Ladd, was extremely interested in the lead role. But the Paramount brass believed that Tyrone Power was better suited for the part. Power was under contract at 20th Century Fox, and that studio was not comfortable about loaning their top star to a rival production house. Complicating matters was Power’s insistence that actress Gene Tierney join him in the production as Daisy. The Paramount brass did not want Tierney in the film, but excluding her forced them cut Power out of the picture. Thus, Ladd was given the role of Jay Gatsby by default. John Farrow was originally announced as the director, but he became involved in a studio conflict over the production and was replaced by Elliott Nugent. (Farrow’s daughter, Mia, would play Daisy in the 1974 film version.)
And here is where “The Great Gatsby” derails. Nugent was a minor director who found a niche at the helm of light, frothy comedies starring Bob Hope and Danny Kaye. Putting him in charge of a prestige drama was very peculiar – how he came to snag that opportunity is not clear. Equally miscast was Ladd, a handsome but stolid actor who filled a niche as the unsmiling tough guy in hardboiled crime dramas like “This Gun for Hire” and “The Glass Key.” Indeed, Ladd’s tough guy persona was played up in the marketing of “The Great Gatsby.” The film’s theatrical poster attempted to cash in on this persona by showing the actor in his trademark trench coat and fedora, a far cry from the 1920s-style tuxedo-clad elegance associated with the Fitzgerald character.
For that matter, much of “The Great Gatsby” appears to keep its distance from its Jazz Age roots. While the film’s automobiles and some of the women’s clothing recall that wild era, too much of the production design, costuming and hairstyles were rooted in the 1940s – even the music score did not suggest the decade’s jazzy rhythms. This anachronistic environment is especially jolting in a flashback sequence involving the youthful Gatsby’s years with the adventurer Dan Cody – this part of the story would have occurred in the early 1900s, but in the film it looks as if it was taking place in the 1940s.
But even if one were to overlook all of these problems, there is still the issue of creating a screenplay to satisfy the PCA. What emerged was a mess. The film opens with a prologue that does not exist in Fitzgerald book, in which Nick and Jordan (played by MacDonald Carey and Ruth Hussey, with grey tinged to their hair) visit the grave of Jay Gatsby. This leads to a flashback sequence that details Gatsby’s bootlegging rise to financial power. In this version, Ladd’s Gatsby happily explains to Carey’s Nick about his roots as James Gatz – a mystery that Fitzgerald does not reveal until much later in the book.
As for the role of Daisy, Paramount opted for Betty Field, a pretty but bland actress who never truly made an impact in Hollywood, despite turning up in a number of memorable flicks including “Of Mice and Men,” “King’s Row” and “The Southerner.” Field’s Daisy has no personality whatsoever – and considering Ladd’s wind-up performance (hearing him say “Old sport” can make you wince), their pairing is among the least charismatic ever put on screen.
Fortunately, being a Paramount production, there were distractions from scenery chewing supporting cast members: Barry Sullivan (as Tom Buchanan), Elijah Cook Jr. (who plays the piano while serving as Gatsby’s henchman!), Ed Begley (as Myron Lupus, a politically correct replacement for Fitzgerald’s Jewish villain Meyer Wolfsheim), Howard Da Silva (as George Wilson – he played Meyer in the 1974 film) and a young and sexy Shelley Winters as Myrtle.
“The Great Gatsby” was a flop at the box office, and critics complained of the liberties and rewrites taken to the Fitzgerald source material. Although the film would turn up on television over the years, it was never released in any commercial home entertainment format. According to New York Post writer Lou Lumenick, Universal Pictures currently owns the rights to the film but has not been able to come to terms in clearing the literary rights with the Fitzgerald estate, hence the problem in releasing it on DVD or Blu-ray. However, Universal has been able to show the film in retrospective screenings, and last year a new 35mm print was presented at several theaters across the country.
You can find “The Great Gatsby” on YouTube in a decent print, but why bother? If you must relive the rise and fall of the mysterious Mr. G., then check out the new Leonardo DiCaprio flick or dig up a copy of the Robert Redford-Mia Farrow version. Let this old flick float away, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!