They Found it and I saw it!

The public’s response to the recent remake of The Great Gatsby was unexpectedly strong—and for several weeks it led at the box office.  Now this does not mean that it was a huge financial success—but it was a success.  Although it made well over $140,000,000 in the US, it cost $100,000,000 to make—but it was well-attended and the critical reviews were mostly positive.  However, I did some research and found that there are at least three prior theatrical versions—and they all met different levels of success. There was a 1922 version that is considered lost—and no one has seen this film in decades. There also is the famous 1974 Robert Redford and Mia Farrow film that earned four times its cost to make (wow!).  However, there is one other version—one that was thought to be lost up until 2012 and I have had this near the top of my must-see list for years.  In 1949, Alan Ladd made the first talking version of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel—and I had the fortune to see this film over the weekend at the TCM Film Festival.  And, I assume that it will soon be available on DVD or will be shown on TCM (so far, it has not).  So keep an eye out for it.

This 1949 film does have one strike against it from the outset.  The Production Code was still strictly being enforced by the Hays Office. Because of that, some elements of the novel needed to be altered slightly to get it past censors.  However, I was thrilled that for the most part the story does follow the book rather closely.  It’s not perfect in this regard, but is much closer than I’d ever expected.

The story is about a man who suddenly bursts onto the social scene on Long Island during the 1920s.  Who he is exactly is unknown to most of his new ‘friends,’ but they know that he sure throws great parties at his enormous mansion.  But the viewer is left wondering why … why would Gatsby go to so much trouble and expense to buy this old mansion and redecorate it from top to bottom and then use it to throw lavish parties?  Who was he trying to impress and how, exactly, did he come by so much money?  Through the course of the film you learn the answers to all these things.  And, what I appreciated it that although the man is very flawed and in some ways a villain, he is also a tragic character—one you cannot help but like and feel sorry for by the end of the picture.

The direction was quite competent as was the acting.  However, the star was clearly the Fitzgerald novel—and it’s hard imagining ANY version of the story being anything other than excellent.  It really is a nice story and offers a lot of great twists.  Plus, most importantly, it is so unique.  I was also surprised at what a nice job Ladd did in the film—especially since he generally showed limited range in his films.  He tended to be very stoic and non-emotional and generally played the same sort of tough guys in nearly all his films.  Here, however, he shows more range and vulnerability than a typical Ladd film.

So why did Alan Ladd make such a film?  Was he forced to do it by the studio?  Well, the truth is quite different.  According to Ladd’s son, David (who talked about the film before this special screening on Sunday night), it was a project Ladd forced his studio, Paramount, to make.  They LOVED having him play gangsters, cowboys and the like but Ladd himself was impressed by the story and insisted he get a chance to do it.  Sadly, the film did NOT do very well at the box office and was soon lost—and Ladd returned to making the sorts of films he’d been making—enjoyable, yes, but also limited in style.  It makes you wonder what might have happened to his career had the film been a success.

Overall, this film was a real treat.  It’s an intelligent film for folks who are looking for something with great depth of feeling and human frailty.

Review by Lead Entertainment Writer & Film Critic, Martin Hafer

Final Day of TCM Festival
David Ladd talks about The Great Gatsby