I’ve always wanted to take part in the Tuesday’s Overlooked Films blog event hosted by Todd Mason, but I also want to keep the Book Dirt focus on books and writing. It occurred to me that, as I’m currently writing a book on lost films, the subject isn’t too far off the mark. To stay even more on topic, I’m going to limit my film posts not just to lost films, but specifically to lost films adapted from books.
The Great Gatsby has been filmed a total of five times -- more, if you count less-faithful adaptations, such as the unfortunate hip-hop-themed G. Only one version was actually filmed in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lifetime. The 1926 silent film version of The Great Gatsby was released a mere year and a half after the book’s publication, and Scott and Zelda themselves got to see it.
|Lobby card for the 1926 silent film version of The Great Gatsby.|
Even though the Fitzgeralds didn’t care much for it (more on that later), they’re luckier than we are, because we can’t see it at all. The reels are gone (either decayed beyond restoration or intentionally destroyed by Paramount to recover the silver nitrate), with only a few seconds of scenes viewable in the form of an existing trailer.
Herbert Brenon, the director, was probably capable enough. He would go on to secure a Best Director nomination at the very first Academy Awards for Laugh, Clown, Laugh with Lon Chaney, Sr. The casting, however, seems off. Lois Wilson was cast as Daisy, and though she was known for playing romantic leads, they were more often the girl-next-door type. Warner Baxter seems too rugged a choice for Gatsby -- a year later he won an Oscar for playing western desperado The Cisco Kid.
A better choice for Gatsby might have been the actor who played George Wilson: none other than William Powell. Powell’s slick charm would have made for a nifty title character, no doubt. Beauty queen Georgia Hale (from Chaplin’s The Gold Rush) and Neil Hamilton (later Commissioner Gordon on TV’s Batman) rounded out the cast as Myrtle Wilson and Nick Carraway.
|The gorgeous Georgia Hale: Gatsby's Myrtle Wilson.|
He describes some scenes that would make me downright giddy to see, in particular during the wild party scenes. Hall reports that Gatsby flings away gold pieces into the pool as women scramble to retrieve them, and writes of “girls in a swimming pool snatching at cocktails, while they are swimming.” He’s unimpressed with a lot of the acting, though, especially noting Lois Wilson, as Daisy, drinking enough absinthe “to render the average person unconscious,” yet she appears “only mildly intoxicated, and soon recovers.” Overall, he found the whole film without subtlety and the characters largely undeveloped.
|A production still from the 1926 Gatsby.|
The worst review of all, though, came from Zelda Fitzgerald. She and Scott were in France when The Great Gatsby premiered, but after they returned, they saw the movie in Hollywood and reportedly walked out. Zelda wrote to a friend: “We saw ‘The Great Gatsby’ in the movies. It’s ROTTEN and awful and terrible and we left.” On the plus side for the couple, Scott was paid $45,000 for the film rights. That's plenty more than the $2,000 he earned for the novel, which is barely pool-flinging money.
Awful or not, a film version of Gatsby made in the actual Jazz Age would be amazing to see. What we can see of the party scenes in the trailer suggests something really fun. Unlike the modern adaptations, these aren’t people playing dress-up. Those men and women charging up the stairs in bathing suits and riding piggyback around the swimming pool? They’re Hollywood extras in 1926, which means that they aren’t just portraying flappers and decadents: that’s who many of them are. I’d wager that the party spilled over to the nearest speakeasy after filming was done for the day.
Chances of a full print being discovered are slim, though lost films are recovered from time to time in places as unlikely as janitor’s closets and underneath hockey rinks. With more than 90% of silent films completely gone, though, we should count ourselves lucky that we’ve got the trailer.
GREAT GATSBY 1926 TRAILER, ONLY SURVIVING FOOTAGE