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 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.
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.