Friday, July 15, 2016

"The Great Gatsby" (1949)

Let's get this out of the way right now:  Alan Ladd IS NOT the only reason I like this movie.  I happen to be such a big F. Scott Fitzgerald fan that I named my book blog after an FSF quotation.  Also, this has Elisha Cook, Jr. in it, and you know I like him so very much.

But yeah, you're right, Alan Ladd is a huge part of why I not only watched this, I bought a copy, watched it twice, and then took 134 screencaps of it (I numbered them, so yes, that's an exact count), and now I'm spending hours -- nay, days! -- writing up a gushy review of it.

I'm going to assume that you know the basic plot of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  If you don't, I recapped it pretty succinctly in my review of the book a couple years ago.  My review of this film version is going to focus mostly on what I liked and disliked about the characterizations and performances, though I'll also touch on some places where the movie deviates from the book in significant ways.  But I'm not marking any spoilage.


I've never seen another movie version of The Great Gatsby, so I won't be comparing this to any of the others.  I would really like to see Baz Luhrmann's version, and even tried to see it in the theater when it was there, but it was sold out that night, and I never made it back before the movie was gone.  I should get it from the library, I really should.

This version opens with middle-aged Nick Carraway (Macdonald Carey) and Jordan Baker (Ruth Hussey) visiting Jay Gatsby's grave.  Right away, they've changed things -- Nick and Jordan don't stay together in the book.  But Hollywood always wants a "happy" ending, and since Gatsby can't have one, they give it to Nick, I guess.  And by the end of this film, I can see that this Nick and this Jordan could possibly be happy together, whereas the Nick and Jordan in the book never could be.


I quite like Macdonald Carey as Nick.  He's patient, humorous, and intelligent.  Nick's got more moral fibre than anyone else in the story, and a kinder heart too.  He's not as naive as the Nick Carraway in the book, though.  He gives me the impression that he's already growing tired of high society and their superficiality before Jay Gatsby steps into his world.  (Also, this is random, but Macdonald Carey was born in Sioux City, Iowa, about two hours from where I was born.  He's a genuine Midwesterner, and I feel like it kinda shows.)


After the graveside scene, we flip to a little retrospective about the 1920s, the era of bootleggers and rumrunners and speakeasies.  In voiceover, Nick says, "And out of the twenties and all they were came Jay Gatsby, who built a dark empire for himself because he carried a dream in his heart, a dream he brought with him that day in the spring of 1928 when he drove out to Long Island with his henchmen to look at a house."


Yup, we get to see Gatsby arrive in West Egg in this version.  He stops at Wilson's garage, and he and his pal Klipspringer (Elisha Cook, Jr.) have a little discussion about a billboard nearby that has eyes that follow you around.  They decide it's creepy and leave.


But before they leave, we get a glimpse of Wilson (Howard da Silva) and his charming (read that word as sarcastically as you can) wife Myrtle (Shelley Winters).  She is obviously two-timing him, and he is too sweet and fumbling to realize it.


Although Alan Ladd is the glowing candle that lights up the misty darkness of this tale (did that make sense to anyone other than me?), Howard da Silva is an absolute revelation as Wilson.  I've seen him before, in stuff like The Blue Dahlia (1946 -- review coming next month) and Reunion in France (1942), but I've never seen him like this.  He's battered, run-down, weary, and befuddled.  I tell you, he brought me to tears toward the end of this film.  As Marilyn Henry and Ron DeSourdis put it in their excellent book The Films of Alan Ladd, "Da Silva, peering through his wire-rimmed glasses with the sadness of the world in his face, seems to echo Gatsby's own dogged devotion to an unworthy illusion (p. 140).  That's precisely how I feel.  Poor, poor Wilson.


Right, so back to Gatsby.  He buys a huge house, he redecorates it, and he throws giant parties.  And then he ignores the parties and spends his evenings down by his dock, staring at the light on the end of the dock across the water.  If you know the story, you know whose dock that is.


Alan Ladd is, in my entirely biased opinion, an ideal Gatsby.  He excels at showing you he's hiding things, like the pain behind the smile.  Those eloquent eyes of his tell you more than reams of dialog ever could.


Nobody yearns like Alan Ladd.


And Jay Gatsby is all about the yearning.  Living his whole life in pursuit of an empty dream, of someone he can never have simply because the real woman is so different from the fantasy he's woven her into.


Which, naturally, brings us to Daisy Buchanan (Betty Field).  I think that Field makes an okay Daisy.  She's pretty, and has a thrilling, low voice.  But she just isn't as fascinating as I expect Daisy to be.  But maybe that's the whole point.  Daisy is not as wonderful as Jay has convinced himself she is.  He's dreamed her into the perfect woman, and she's not even close to perfect.  She's even a little bland.  But he can't see it.  So, in the end, I think Betty Field works okay as Daisy.



The scene where Gatsby finally sees Daisy again for the first time in years is easily the best in the film, filled with poignant emotions that are played quietly.  No scenery chewing allowed.  It begins with Gatsby showing up at Nick's house to "accept" an "invitation to tea" that Nick never extended.  He's got a veritable entourage with him, all his servants bearing food and flowers.


Nick figures out that it's Jordan Baker who extended the invitation in his name, at Gatsby's behest.  Although he's annoyed, he's also interested in what will happen with Gatsby and Daisy see each other again.  So he lets Gatsby take over his house, and they settle in to wait for Jordan and Daisy to arrive.  Nick is patient and resigned, but Gatsby is nervous.  He flips through a magazine.


He rearranges Nick's knick-knacks.


He perches on armchairs.  (What is it with me and perchers?  Desk-perchers, armchair-perchers....)


And when Jordan and Daisy do arrive, he flees.  He doesn't want it to be known that he's waiting for her, but needs to find the perfect moment to make his presence known.  So he goes outside and waits.


In the rain.  And tries to decide if he should ring the doorbell, or just appear.

(Should I ring the doorbell?)


(No.  I should look suspiciously at that doorbell, as if I suspected it was laughing at me.)


When he finally does enter, his face says everything, doesn't it?  Hopeful, fearful, everything within him focused on what this woman will say when she turns around and sees him.


They barely speak.  They don't need to.  Alan Ladd's eloquent eyes are saying enough for the two of them.  (Yes, I know I called his eyes "eloquent" earlier.  I'm repeating it here for emphasis.  Also, I get to gush a little now and then, right?)


For years, Ladd had been tops at the box office, but received very little critical acclaim.  Critics had lauded him for his big breakout role in This Gun for Hire (1942), but not since.  Reportedly, he was hoping this film would prove he could handle meaty, dramatic roles, not just the tough-guy stuff Paramount kept putting him in.  From what I've read, Ladd was pretty insecure, always worried he wasn't as good an actor as he ought to be.  Which I think is nonsense, but my opinion doesn't count for him, since he died before I was born.  Anyway, according to The Films of Alan Ladd, "The general consensus was that Gatsby was very good, and it marked the first time since This Gun for Hire that Ladd rated rave reviews.  However, this time it was the public that was skeptical.  Gatsby did not lose money, but the box office was disappointing (p. 140).  Ladd never tried a strictly dramatic role again, convinced he'd failed.

My dear, dear Alan -- you did not fail.  You are marvelous as Jay Gatsby,  Charming, ruthless, hesitant, confused, shy, eager, and so achingly hopeful.  You can't be all those things in one role and be a failure.


There, now you're smiling just a little.  Mission accomplished.

Moving right along, let's talk about the hulking elephant in the room.  Barry Sullivan is the one really sour note in the cast.  You need someone for Tom Buchanan who really looks as if they could resent being called "hulking," someone like Aldo Ray.  Sure, Sullivan is considerably taller than Alan Ladd, but he's too urbane, too much like a dancer than a fullback.  I believe him in And Now Tomorrow, but not at all here.


As for Jordan Baker (Ruth Hussey), she's still selfish and sarcastic and scheming, but she's also somehow nicer than the Jordan in the book.  At the end, when she asks Nick if she could go to the Middle West (his phrase) with him and help him become a writer, you feel like she really rather does want to help.  Sure, she trades fake invitations to tea for giant, gleaming motorcars, and unwittingly sets up the story's tragic ending in the process, but this Jordan... I don't want to slap this Jordan.  That pretty well sums up the difference, I guess.


But really, this is Gatsby's movie, and Alan Ladd dominates it.  As he should.  It's a tour de force role, taking him from a cute, clean-cut kid in flashbacks...


 ...to a young man in love (again, in flashbacks)...


...to a disappointed veteran of the Great War who's rapidly turning cynical (more flashbacks)...


...to the guy who thinks if he just has enough money, he'll be able to get everything he wants...


...to the disillusioned man surrounded by shattered fragments of his dream.


It's the ending that differs the most from the book.  And yet, the ending is part of why I'm growing to love this film.  You see, Gatsby doesn't die alone in this movie.  Nick is there.


And Gatsby doesn't die sad, feeling like he's a failure.  He has gained enough self-realization and honesty to accept that he has spent his life chasing a mirage.  I'm sad he doesn't get to live long enough to find out how he liked reality, but I also get the feeling that without his consuming dream of Daisy, he would have drifted aimlessly, despite his plans to turn over a new leaf, sacrifice himself for her, and start life fresh when he got out of prison.

But we'll never know.


According to The Films of Alan Ladd, when Paramount decided to remake The Great Gatsby in the 1970s (does anyone other than my mom actually like that Robert Redford version?), they pulled this one out of circulation/syndication (p. 137).  And lost the prints.  DUDE.  Why do movies I want to see by actors I love keep disappearing?  Do you know how many Rudolph Valentino movies don't exist anymore?  This is unfair!!!  Except in this case, someone found a full print in 2012, and it's been restored and released on DVD.  You can also watch it online here, with fairly good picture quality.  NOTE:  that video I linked to will only play for me in Firefox, not Chrome.

Okay, I think I'm done.  I'll leave you with one last shot of Alan Ladd because I couldn't find a good spot to stick it in my review, and it's too nice to leave out.

18 comments:

  1. Actually, my husband likes the Robert Redford version. I love Sam Waterston and I liked his Nick. Really, it has a great cast -- Bruce Dern, Scott Wilson, Karen Black and Mia Farrow, besides RR and Waterston. I hate to admit this, but it's not a book I ever wanted to (or had to) read, so I can't compare the two.

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    1. Janet, I suppose I should give that version a try. I'm not really interested in anyone in it, aside from Bruce Dern, who at least is always amusing. Oh, and it would be interesting to see Howard da Silva in a different role in the same story. My parents own a copy, so maaaaaaybe I'll give it a whirl this weekend.

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  2. This is kind of a more hopeful take on "The Great Gatsby" than we usually see, isn't it? Since Jay is at least sorta-kinda-redeemed by the end?

    Also, I think Alan Ladd is vewy cute in a WWI uniform. Just sayin'.

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    1. Jessica, it's not exactly hopeful, since Jay does still die. But he's at least come to a bit of peace, rather than courting death. (I always feel, in the book, like he was considering suicide with his whole "I'll go swimming in the pool I've never used before" thing.)

      Yeah, he's quite cute in that uniform. Here's a full-length shot of him in it.

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  3. It sounds like Chris Evans and Alan Ladd both suffer/ed from a lack of self-confidence in their acting chops. So sad!

    And yes, I've seen and do like the Redford version, although not for Redford. I'm a huge fan of Sam Waterston so I loved him as Nick Carraway.

    But I must admit, Alan Ladd definitely has the look needed for Gatsby. I've never seen this version and now I'll have to track it down. I doubt my library has it, but maybe inter-library loan would work. I want to see it. Although a part of me is sad they changed the ending, but classic Hollywood was prone to softening what they considered overly tragic endings, and that's okay.

    But you need to watch Luhrmann's version. It's my favorite version so far just because it adds a fresh perspective--no surprise there!

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    1. Carissa, interesting comparison! Yes, it's very sad. Ladd had a really sad childhood and young adult life, which I think had a major effect on his emotional state.

      I am almost convinced to give the Redford version a try. I'm not a fan of Mia Farrow, but I could always start it and just not finish it if I really disliked it, huh?

      I doubt your library has this either. It's hard to find -- Amazon has a couple versions, though they're out of the one I bought, which has the cover pictured at the beginning of my post and seems to be the legit version -- the other one they have looks awfully greymarket. but you could always watch it online, via the link I posted. I should have mentioned that it's on Vimeo, not YouTube, and will only play for me in Firefox. I think I'll add that to the post.

      I REALLY do want to see Luhrmann's! I know several other people too who like it a lot. And my library does have it, so I will get it eventually.

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  4. Yep, I want to see this version now. Great review Hamlette!! :D

    I've seen the 70's one and Luhmann's one already, and both of them left me pretty disappointed. But, I think at this point, no version is going to completely satisfy me. The reason I love the book so dearly is because it can be seen very personally. I read into things and see things that others might breeze over, and vice versa. Like, I hardly care two beans for the Gatsby/Daisy romance and was surprised to discover that that was some people's favorite aspect. So since movies are a director's personal adaptation and not how I see it, they're always lacking in some way in my eyes. It's weird. But I like seeing adaptations anyway, because whenever something is done "right" I really love it, and it seems like this version may have a Gatsby that I'll really enjoy! Redford and DiCaprio seemed to be missing something, and I think it might be the longing that you mentioned. It sounds like Alan Ladd makes a really good Gatsby.

    Still, I'll probably not like the smaller changes you mentioned are there. Like, how does Nick being there when Gatsby is killed even work? He's there when he's shot? I bet I'll like that this Daisy has dark hair, though I did like Carey Mulligan's take. And I've yet to really like a Nick. He's a hard one to get right for some reason.

    I'd really love to see your thoughts on Luhrmann's version. It did so much right in my view, and yet so much wrong... :P But I bet you'd approve of Joel Edgerton's Tom. I thought he was perfect, and is currently my absolute favorite thing about that version. :D

    Well! I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for this one!

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    1. Thanks, Sarah! If I get someone to watch the movie I've reviewed, I figure I've done my job ;-) I would suggest watching it at the link I provided, as it's a little tough to find on DVD.

      No movie version completely satisfies me either. I do feel like this one was excellent, but it lacks the verbal charm of the book. I love Fitzgerald's facility with language, and the movie suffers from not having all those lovely thoughts that Nick as narrator can express in the book.

      In the book, I don't actually like Gatsby much. I feel sorry for him, but that's not the same. The only character I really, truly like in the book is Nick, and while Macdonald Carey was quite good as him, he still wasn't as good as Book Nick, if that makes sense.

      Do you want me to tell you how Nick being there when Gatsby dies works? Or do you want to watch it for yourself. It works just fine, for me.

      At such time as I watch the other two versions, I will try to post thoughts -- maybe about both of them together, if I see them back-to-back. We'll see!

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    2. Oh my gosh, somehow I missed that link! I will go and watch it there then! Perfect. :D So no, don't tell me how that scene works! ;)

      Oh yeah, the Luhrmann version tries so hard to capture that, the verbal charm. Too hard. It was one of my least favorite things about that version. No one has found the proper balance yet, and probably never will. It's just not the kind of book that is conducive to being a movie.

      Me too. And even Nick I don't like as much as I like characters that I REALLY like. I don't care that they're not likable -- I'm there to understand them, not like them. :D

      Alright then! I'm going to go watch the movie now (or very soon anyway) and then I'll be back!

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    3. You're welcome, Sarah :-) I hope you enjoy it!

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    4. Just finished it! Well, the cast was all-around good I thought, but the screenplay was pretty bad... that kinda ruined it for me. Just too many things missing, and too many unnecessary things added. It was interesting that the story wasn't from Nick's perspective, but then that made his character kinda pointless!

      I liked the cast though. Nick was good, he worked well. Gatsby was good, I see what you mean about him. He has a memorable screen presence, and leaves a great impression. But the script wasn't so good for him. He wasn't insecure enough -- except in the tea scene! That was good. :D And I liked Daisy too, and the way she'd just talk and talk about pointless things. Didn't like how everything was left loose between her and Tom. And I missed that Nick never hangs out with Tom and Myrtle.

      The style was interesting. I could tell it was influenced by the 40's, but at least the 40's still has the natural old-fashioned feel now. In the modern ones it seems like they're trying really hard to talk like they're in the 20's and it gets distracting. :P

      But yeah, it was too happy. Oh Hollywood. ;) And they made the characters too good. I like how depraved they all are! Having Gatsby realize the error of his ways was great for what they wanted to do, but honestly I prefer the tragedy.

      I'm definitely glad I watched it, but it's also nowhere near being "my" version. Oh well. :P Thanks for sharing this Hamlette! :D I'll look forward to eventually reading your thoughts on other adaptations! :)

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    5. Sarah, so cool that you watched it! You know, perhaps the main difference between us is that I actually don't like the story or most of the characters in Fitzgerald's book -- I like his writing, but not what and who he writes about, similar to my feelings on Hemingway. Whereas here, I actually like most of them.

      I thought having Gatsby see things more clearly right before he died actually made it more tragic, because this meant he could have gone on to have a fulfilling life, but doesn't get the chance. Whereas in the book, he's got nothing left to live for, so who cares that he dies?

      I'm glad you gave it a whirl, even if it turned out to not fulfill your needs for the story!

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    6. That's right, I think. I do love his writing, but it's what he writes about that moves me. With the characters it's a little complicated though. I don't like them in the way that I'd want to hang out with them in real life or anything, but they're written so well and feel so real, and I love understanding them through Fitzgerald's eyes. He sees the depravity of human nature, and doesn't sugarcoat it. And adaptations just can't seem to be that honest! :P

      Okay yeah, objectively I'd agree. It's just that throughout the story all I want for Gatsby is him to be able to see reality and move on, so his dying without getting there is what actually makes me sad.

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    7. That's a good point. Fitzgerald was trying to point out the futility of Gatsby's life, and that doesn't quite come across the same way in this version.

      And that does make sense -- Gatsby dying without getting any redemption arc is quite sad in its way too.

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  5. Terrific review!
    The screen shots are so encouraging as to the quality of the print here. I admit to watching a grey market version a while ago but I need to get this one now!

    Perceptive idea about Betty Field's casting -- I didn't think of that, but perhaps you're right about us believing that Jay was somewhat deluded in his perception of her. I have read a lot of criticism about her in the role that I must admit I agreed with, but I will look at it again with your comments in mind.

    I also think that Alan does so much acting with his face that if you blink you miss it. With that, I appreciated your exposing some of his more subtle and powerful moments here. Again, I need to watch again!

    I also have the 'Films of Alan Ladd' book and it is such a good read!

    I'm looking forward to your review of THE BLUE DAHLIA. Also, Howard da Silva! ;-)

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    1. Thanks, Jocelyn! Yes, this is a really nice, clean, clear edition.

      I can't do other things when watching Alan's movies because he's so quiet and nuanced that I just have to watch him every second to get what he's doing with a role.

      Isn't that the best book? I've read all the biography stuff, but I'm forcing myself not to read the synopses of movies I haven't seen yet because they're so detailed and rich. I'm trying really hard to watch each of his movies without much previous bias or knowing too much about them so I can figure out how I feel about them myself without thinking, "Oh, so-and-so said this was a good one," or "People didn't think much of this one." Not a luxury I have for most movies, and it's kind of extra-specially fun!

      I thought of you when I wrote up the bit about Howard da Silva here :-)

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  6. I've never warmed to this as a story. The recent adaptation is beautiful to look at and the actors are good, but the depressing story and I just don't mesh.

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    1. Rissi, the first time I read the book, I was very disappointed by it. The second time, I appreciated it much more, but it's still not a favorite of mine. This movie version is somehow less bleak (and yet also kind of even more tragic). But with Fitzgerald, as with Hemingway, I love and admire the way they write, not what they write.

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Agree or disagree? That is the question...

(Rudeness and vulgar language will not be tolerated.)