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Three Film Versions of The Great Gatsby: A Vision Deferred, The

Although Fitzgerald himself worked as a screenwriter, and his novels would seem to lend themselves to cinematic adaptations, Fitzgerald has fared badly in the matter of screen versions of his various works. Tender is the Night (made into a film in 1962 by director Henry King, as well as a 1985 miniseries directed by Robert Knights), The Last Tycoon (adapted to film in 1976 by Elia Kazan) and The Great Gatsby have been filmed several times, in the case of Gatsby no less than three times. But to date, not one of Fitzgerald's novels has been brought to the screen with a true sense of fidelity to the original source material. This is a shame, inasmuch as the story structure of Gatsby, in particular, is both suspenseful and highly visual, and given the novel's status as a contemporary classic, one would think that the definitive version would have been produced long ago. But, as this brief survey will document, in all three adaptations of The Great Gatsby, the various screenwriters and directors who translated Fitzgerald's novel to the screen have taken excessive liberties with the work, which all but eliminate the intensity and power of the novel. Sadly, however, one of the filmic versions of the novel has been lost to us forever; and in many respects, it seems that this first version, made in 1926, might have been the most authentic adaptation the novel received.

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In 1926, following The Great Gatsby's adaptation into a successful Broadway play, Fitzgerald received $45,000 for the film rights to Gatsby, which a combination of Famous Players/Lasky and Paramount produced as a silent film. This first, silent version of The Great Gatsby was based on Owen Davis's play of Fitzgerald's novel; the play opened at the Ambassador Theatre in New York City on 2 February 1926. The play, but sadly not the film, had the distinction of being directed by George Cukor, whose numerous film credits in the decades to come would include such classic productions as A Star Is Born (1954), Pat and Mike (1952), Adam's Rib (1949), The Philadelphia Story (1940), The Women (1939; ironically, Fitzgerald worked on the screenplay for this film, though he received no screen credit for his work), David Copperfield (1935), and Dinner at Eight (1933). One can only wonder what Cukor might have made of the play if given a chance, but at the time, Cukor was firmly established solely as a stage director, and had yet to make the jump to Hollywood (Schultz 105). So when Paramount decided to film The Great Gatsby in the summer of 1926, they assigned a rather pedestrian contract director, Herbert Brenon, to the project, thus robbing the film of much of its potential for visual vitality.

At a running time of eighty minutes, or 7,296 feet, the film was designed as lightweight entertainment, based on Fitzgerald's then-popular novel, and Owen Davis's stage adaptation, which was both a commercial and critical success. Paramount was clearly hoping for a significant box office return above all other considerations, and as might be expected, played up the party scenes at Gatsby's mansion for all their scandalous potential. It is important, in this light, to remember that this first version of Gatsby was created as a popular film, nothing more. Nevertheless, the film itself has an excellent cast, including Warner Baxter (Gatsby), Lois Wilson (Daisy Buchanan), Neil Hamilton (Nick Carraway), Georgia Hale (Myrtle Wilson), William Powell (George Wilson), Hale Hamilton (Tom Buchanan), and Carmelita Geraghty (Jordan Baker). The screenplay was adapted from Davis's play by Becky Gardiner and Elizabeth Meehan; Leo Tover photographed the film.

The casting of the 1926 version of The Great Gatsby is rather interesting, in view of the later work done by some of the performers in the film. Warner Baxter would go on to star in a number of influential films in the 1930s, such as Lloyd Bacon and Busby Berkeley's 42nd Street (1933), without ever becoming a major star. William Powell would achieve international fame during the early sound era as Nick Charles, the debonair detective in the long-running Thin Man series for MGM. Neil Hamilton, in turn, would toil for decades in obscure "B" films and serials, before achieving some measure of pop celebrity in the last years of his life as Commissioner Gordon on the TV series Batman. All of the leading actors in the film were, in the 1920s, young and vibrant. With Prohibition very much an ongoing concern at the time of the film's production, it is not surprising that this film captured, from all reports, much of the flavor of the period.

However, all commentary on this film must rely upon contemporary reviews of the production, for, sadly, there are no prints of the 1926 version of The Great Gatsby available for viewing, and the negative and all other preprint materials seem lost as well. There is, supposedly, one copy of the 1926 version of The Great Gatsby surviving in an archive in Moscow, but most film scholars dismiss this as merely a fanciful rumor. After a diligent search, I was unable to locate any screening prints in either Los Angeles, New York, the archives of Paramount Pictures, the American Film Institute, the British Film Institute, George Eastman House, or even the National Archives in Washington, DC, where the film was registered for copyright. According to Charles Silver of the Film Study Center at the Museum of Modern Art, the film is officially listed as "lost," and no prints, negatives, or any other materials on the film are known to have survived in any archive, which is a great loss. Paramount Pictures, the film's producer, has no print or negative of the film in its archive, according to Leonard Maltin, who functions as the studio's unofficial archivist in his capacity as film critic for the television program Entertainment Tonight. All that survives are a few stills in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art Film Archives-stills that are no longer available to the public, although I obtained copies of them when the archive was still in operation.


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