Thursday, December 29, 2011


For my money, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is the Great American Novel, at least of the 20th century. The 1974 film version with Robert Redford looked good but was long and draggy and hollow, and teaches us that actors who might look right for their roles (Redford and Mia Farrow) are sometimes not right at all. The 1949 version was my own little Holy Grail; long unavailable for viewing, it was supposed to be released on DVD a few years back but was withdrawn before it ever saw the light of day. I was finally able to see it on YouTube, not exactly the best way to view a movie, but until Universal (which owns the older Paramount film library) decides to issue it legally, it's the only to go, and it's definitely worth seeing. In the 1920s, young Nick Carraway becomes friends with Jay Gatsby, an impossibly rich and handsome man who gives elaborate Jazz Age parties but whom no one really knows. Nick finds out that Gatsby has amassed his wealth in order to win back his old flame Daisy Buchanan, who is now unhappily married to a cheating brute, and Nick becomes an accomplice in Gatsby's plots to get Daisy to run off with him, with tragic results.

In the book, the source of Gatsby's wealth is ambiguous; here it's blatantly presented that he has built a "dark empire" as a rum runner, but generally as far as plot, this film is fairly faithful to the book. Alan Ladd was never an actor of great depth, but being that Gatsby is mostly a man of surfaces, he's almost exactly right for the part, and certainly embodies the character more satisfyingly than Redford did. Macdonald Carey as Nick comes off as a moralistic prig, the exact opposite of the hero-worshiping Nick of the novel. Betty Field is serviceable as Daisy, nothing more. Same for Ruth Hussey as Jordan, the cheating golfer who flirts with Nick—in this film, they wind up married (!); the entire film is Nick's flashback as he and Jordan visit Gatsby's grave many years later. Barry Sullivan is OK as Daisy's husband. Elisha Cook Jr. is an itinerant pianist who lives in Gatsby’s house and who served with him during WWI. Henry Hull plays Gatsby's mentor in a plotline that has been considerably fleshed out from what's in the book. The best acting comes from Howard Da Silva and Shelley Winters as the Wilsons, a sad couple who are the catalyst for the tragic ending. Though the first big party at Gatsby's is well staged, the movie does not have a strong 20s feel to it. But this version's biggest minus is the lack of poetry and ambiguity that make the novel such a wonderful reading experience; gone is any sense of "boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." There is one line I enjoyed that I suspect is not Fitzgerald’s: Nick: “I’d like to take you over my knee”; Jordan: “Any time, any place!” For all its faults, this is the best film version of the book yet produced. [YouTube]

1 comment:

yarmando said...

Don't forget: it "improves" on "boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past" with "I've got some writing to do" and "Can I come along? Can I help?"