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Monday, May 16, 2011

Fitzgerald in Hollywood

A book came out thirty years ago about F. Scott Fitzgerald's time in Hollywood. We all know Fitzgerald as the novelist of Gatsby and his tragic story, but what is less known is what happened to him in Hollywood and why he went and really how far gone he was as a writer. Fitzgerald died in Hollywood in 1940 at the age of 44 and after reading of his years there it does seem to tie up this last sad act of his life. The novelist would have appreciated this story line.

But the book, Crazy Sundays, contention is that Fitzgerald just didn't go to Hollywood to get money to pay for his institutionalized wife and his daughter in private schools and his mountain of debt. It is Arnold Lathams contention that F. Scott Fitzgerald had lost all faith in his ability as a serious writer of novels and short stories and wanted to turn into nothing short of a David O' Selznick. It is a big contention and one that Latham backs up with Fitzgerald adventures and failures in his Hollywood years.

Many writers went to Hollywood in the thirties. Odgen Nash, Faulkner to name a few. The clear intention of these writers was to get paid. They did not want to become moguls. Not so with Fitzgerald. Latham argues, he really saw movies as all that was left to him. Barely functioning as an on again off again alcoholic, Fitzgerald bounces through Hollywood getting fired, messing up screenplays, writing very good scripts then having them torn apart by producers. While hobnobbing with every star of his time from Gable to Tracy to Crawford, Fitzgerald becomes increasinglypathetic as the washed up writer looking for the crumbs from the great and near greats.

It is hard to read this old book without losing some of the tarnish of the Fitzgerald legend. One even wonders if he didn't accidentally write Gatsby and maybe this man trying to learn how to write basic scenes in Hollywood was the real Fitzgerald. He just seemed so unliterary and yet you understand that he was truly at the end of his rope financially, spiritually, physically. When his old friend Hemingway comes to town Fitzgerald could not even face him. Clearly he had ceded the high ground long ago.

But of course Gatsby is a great novel, maybe one of the greatest and his short stories sparkle like gems. And that is what people remember him for and he is still read of course while the producers and directors who rewrote his scripts, treated him like little more than a hired auto mechanic and eventually fired him, are just dust. So, even if Arnold Latham's thesis is correct, history has a funny way of sifting out the truth. As a writer you go through times of your life you are not proud of where survival is paramount. Fitzgerald, one suspects, knew these were not great years and that what he was doing was certainly beneath him.

So it is fitting, that in the end, even Hollywood could not  outshine a literary legend.

Books by William Hazelgrove