‘Please let me say from the start’ ( which Irving Berlin song is this the first line of?) that I haven’t read F.Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby novel , nor have I seen any other film or TV version of the story. So the Alan Ladd 1949 version is a stand-alone for me.
It’s one of these films which could have been so much better – a different adaptor of the novel, a different director and different stars.
Paramount bought the rights to the novel in 1946 but had so many problems with the script and its acceptability by the Production Code office, that I reckon they lost interest in making it a major release .
But their biggest star, Alan Ladd didn’t lose interest and finally it was made in 1949.
For Alan, I guess, it meant a role different from his usual thriller or western , a chance to be a character far removed from the Ladd screen persona, and based on a famous literary novel.
Paramount assigned director Elliott Nugent who had one film left on his contract. Nugent was better known for comedies such as Cat and the Canary and My Favorite Brunette.
Richard Maibaum produced and co-adapted Gatsby. (He became the long time screen writer of the James Bond films from Dr.No onwards.)
He was also the writer of three other Ladd films, O.S.S., The Red Beret and Hell Below Zero.
Co-writer of the film was Cyril Hume who was Benita Hume’s brother .Before Gatsby, he had only written three scripts in the 1940s. Earlier in his career, Hume wrote several Tarzan films, and in the 50s, he did Forbidden Planet.
The second principal role in The Great Gatsby is that of ‘Daisy’, the object of Gatsby’s obsession. Paramount cast Betty Field who was under contract to them, but hadn’t made a film for four years.
John Farrow, one of Paramount’s A list directors considered doing the film but pulled out. There is also a suggestion that Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney were possible casting.
Maybe Paramount was wary that Ladd’s fans wouldn’t react well to seeing him in a film which opens with a scene indicating his character, Gatsby, is already dead.
This was considered a lost film – mainly because Paramount withdrew it from circulation when they remade it in 1974.
In 2012, Universal ( who have the rights to many Paramount titles) struck a new 35mm print and it was screened at the Noir City 2012 festival, with an intro by Eddie Muller who tried valiantly to justify calling it a noir.
The film does have noir elements, and as Eddie said, any film with Elisha Cook Jr. has to be noir!
In 2013, Sky Chrome Media released the film on DVD, and in 2015, an Australian company,Vision Entertainment, brought it out.
So finally we can all see it .
The Great Gatsby is a story of obsession – Jay Gatsby, born Jimmy Gatz, meets rich girl Daisy and is immediately in love with her. But he is about to go overseas ( the First World War) and suggest they wait till his return before marrying.
The film is made up of several flashbacks, showing various periods in Gatsby’s life, narrated by Nick (MacDonald Carey) who is related to Daisy.
After the war, Jay finds Daisy hasn’t waited for him – she has married Tom Buchanan (Barry Sullivan.) But Jay isn’t put off – he becomes a bootlegger in the 1920s and makes a fortune.
It is 11 years since they last met. Jay buys a mansion on Long Island,opposite the Buchanan home. He invents a new background for himself and starts throwing huge parties and finally meets Daisy again.
The script lets them down here. Within one short scene, Jay convinces Daisy that she doesn’t love her husband and must tell him.
Nick, the voice of reason, tells Jay he is living in a dream and Daisy won’t go through with it.
Daisy’s husband, Tom, meanwhile has been having an affair with Myrtle, the wife of the local garage owner,Wilson ( Shelley Winters and Howard da Sylva).
.In the hands of George Cukor, George Stevens or William Wyler, this could have been an excellent drama. But I’d also add that the part of Daisy needed to be a dazzling beauty – Gene Tierney would have been perfect.
Alan Ladd never conveyed the passion the role demands. Tyrone Power would have been far better.
It’s understandable that the film wasn’t a big hit – it wasn’t what Ladd fans expected. The film’s trailer is also on the 2015 DVD and is a blatant attempt to mislead the public into thinking it is a typical Ladd crime picture.
Elisha Cook has a small part with the wonderful name of ‘Klipspringer’ who works for Gatsby and has been with him for many years.
It’s great to see Cook in a role far removed from his usual gangsters – his character understands Gatsby ( as much as anyone can) and is a good friend. He also plays piano in Gatsby’s mansion!
The cast also has Ruth Hussey who plays a friend of Daisy’s, but the role could easily be eliminated .
One of the flashbacks to Gatsby’s past involves Henry Hull who tries to help the young Gatsby .
The screenplay is based on a 1926 play adaptation of the novel, starring Warner Baxter and Lois Wilson, with William Powell in the role of the garage owner. The play was directed by George Cukor.
In 1958, Robert Ryan and Jeanne Crain played Gatsby and Daisy for a CBS Playhouse 90 production.
The film’s beginning and end are reminiscent of Sunset Boulevard – Gatsby is dead at the start of the film and his death at the end, is in a swimming pool.
In 2012, the Aero Theater in Santa Monica showed The Great Gatsby to honour the 100th anniversary of the birth of Barry Sullivan (1912-1994). Barry’s children attended the screening which was double-billed with The Gangster.
Hollywood’s need to make Alan Ladd appear taller than he was is very evident in the film. In one of the photos above, Betty Field appears to be much shorter than Ladd. She was in fact about only one and a half inches shorter.
In another shot, Alan is eye to eye with MacDonald Carey who is 6 feet.
Such a waste of effort. Alan commanded the screen in roles which suited him . I wonder how it affected him.
I think there is only one biography of Ladd, by Beverley Linet (1979). I hope someone will do another biography. He deserves it.
I’d welcome comments on the film and any comparisons, either with the book or other film versions.
Any idea of the roaring 20s ( the film is set in 1928) is entirely missing from the above advertising – and mostly from the film.