April 22, 2004
No Hollywood Ending for Fitzgerald, Papers Show
n the summer of 1937, broke, in debt and trying desperately to dry out, F. Scott Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood, where he joined the legions of jerks with Underwoods, to paraphrase the studio chief Jack Warner's famous put-down of screenwriters.
Fitzgerald was part of what amounted to a literary exodus. Among the writers already there or soon to join him were Donald Ogden Stewart, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, S. J. Perelman, Nathanael West and the British novelists Anthony Powell and Aldous Huxley, all in search of easy money.
Fitzgerald stayed in Hollywood for two and a half years, longer than most literary writers stuck it out in those days, and he worked harder than many, toiling away on now-forgotten movies like "A Yank at Oxford" and "Madame Curie." He produced what now appears to have been a mountain of manuscripts ó treatments, sketches, drafts, polishes, rewrites ó much of it in soft-penciled longhand.
Some 2,000 pages of this material, the largest cache of Fitzgerald manuscripts ever offered for sale, have just been acquired by the University of South Carolina, which on Tuesday announced that this new archive, called the Warner Brothers Collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald Screenplays, will become part of the Matthew J. and Arlyn Bruccoli Collection at the university's Thomas Cooper Library in Columbia.
Mr. Bruccoli, a University of South Carolina scholar, is also a famous archivist and collector who has written or edited dozens of books about Fitzgerald, Hemingway and their generation. He bought the archive from a dealer, who obtained it from a former studio employee who does not want to be identified.
The importance of the archive, Mr. Bruccoli said in an interview, is that "it corrects this distorted view of Fitzgerald's Hollywood years, the idea that he was just staggering around drunk all the time and not earning his salary." Unlike many screenwriters, Fitzgerald "didn't just take the money and run," Mr. Bruccoli added.
"He took screenwriting very seriously," he continued, "and it's heartbreaking to see how much effort he put into it." The new archive reveals, among other things, that Fitzgerald approached every screenplay as if it were a novel and often wrote long back stories for each of the characters before setting down a word of dialogue.
Fitzgerald had actually tried screenwriting twice before, during brief stints in 1927 and 1931, when he worked for Irving Thalberg (on whom he later modeled the character Monroe Stahr in "The Last Tycoon"). But he did not accomplish much, and living large, he wound up spending more than he made. In 1937 he signed a six-month contract with MGM for $1,000 a week, which was later renewed for $1,250, a very nice paycheck in the Depression.
Fitzgerald lived modestly this time, renting an apartment in the Garden of Allah bungalow complex on Sunset Boulevard and turning up faithfully at his cubicle on the MGM lot, where he drank Coca-Cola by the case in a not entirely successful effort to stay off the hard stuff.
Sadly, most of his work was to no avail. Billy Wilder, Fitzgerald's friend and admirer in his Hollywood days, always thought the notion of turning him into a screenwriter was a little misguided. He once compared Fitzgerald to "a great sculptor who is hired to do a plumbing job."
"He did not know how to connect the pipes so the water could flow," he said.
As Wilder foresaw, Fitzgerald in the end had even worse luck in Hollywood than writers like William Faulkner and Raymond Chandler, who actually saw a movie or two of theirs be made and in something like the form in which they had written it. In his entire Hollywood career Fitzgerald picked up only a single screenwriting credit, for the 1938 film "Three Comrades" (starring Robert Taylor and Margaret Sullavan and based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque), and even that script was heavily rewritten by the producer, Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
Fitzgerald worked briefly and unsuccessfully as a rewrite man on a few other projects (including, for a disastrous week or so, "Gone With the Wind," for which he was forbidden to use any words that did not appear in Margaret Mitchell's text). But after "Three Comrades," his main MGM projects ended in failure. One, a movie called "Infidelity," which was intended for Joan Crawford, was canceled because the Breen Office, which controlled standards for the movie industry, took a dim view of pictures about adultery.
Material in the new archive shows that Fitzgerald took this rejection hard. He first wrote a memo asking to be allowed to rewrite the plot "in terms of thievery instead of adultery, and see if it doesn't offer itself to drama and also to a theme." A month and a half later he tried again, saying that he had "arrived at some clear thinking" about the movie and explaining that to clear his mind he had changed his "mental picture of the casting." He said as soon as he imagined Myrna Loy as the lead, with Clark Gable as the husband and Robert Taylor the sweetheart, "immediately the whole thing brightened for me."
Fitzgerald wrote this second memo while stealing time from what became his other big flop for MGM, a screen adaptation of the Clare Boothe Luce play "The Women." The studio deemed Fitzgerald's dialogue insufficiently catty, and dropped him in favor of Anita Loos, author of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."
Like so many would-be screenwriters, Fitzgerald thought he could beat the studio system. He wrote to his daughter, Scottie, that he intended "to find out the key man among the bosses and the most malleable among the collaborators ó then fight the rest tooth and nail until, in fact or in effect, I'm alone on the picture." But in the end the studio won, as it most always did, partly because Fitzgerald was an often grudging and reluctant collaborator and partly, perhaps, because his gifts never suited the medium in the first place.
On April 13 Mr. Bruccoli, the senior pack rat of American letters, was in New York for a literary auction at Sotheby's. (He passed on one of Fitzgerald's whiskey flasks, which went for $42,000, but picked up an important signed copy of "This Side of Paradise" for $19,200.) He described the unusual provenance of the new material at the University of South Carolina, saying, "No one even knew this stuff existed."
He had not spoken to the seller, Mr. Bruccoli said, but his understanding from the dealer was that when the former MGM studio in Culver City consolidated its assets in the early 1970's a lot of manuscript material was destroyed, and various employees, including the seller of the Fitzgerald archive, also took home souvenirs. "This fellow had the intelligence to help himself to F. Scott Fitzgerald's screenplays," Mr. Bruccoli said.
"He didn't steal the material," Mr. Bruccoli added. "But strictly speaking, he didn't own it, either ó he didn't own the copyright." Lawyers later determined that the rights to the Fitzgerald manuscripts, which had been produced as work for hire, belonged not to the Fitzgerald estate but to MGM, whose film library is now owned by Warner Brothers.
After some negotiation Warner Brothers authorized the University of South Carolina to buy the archive for scholarly use. The money, $475,000, was lent to the library by two university foundations, one for education and one for research, which expect to be paid back in seven years.
In New York Mr. Bruccoli had with him a telling part of the new archive: a five-page memo Fitzgerald wrote to the producer Hunt Stromberg, pitching what he predicted would be a "radical departure in pictures."
"Let us suppose that you were a rich boy brought up in the palaces of Fifth Avenue," it begins. "Let us suppose that ó and I was a poor boy in Ellis Island."
It goes on in the same vein, spooling out in lovely Fitzgeraldian sentences a little fantasy of switched identities that suggests that some of Fitzgerald's romantic preoccupations changed very little over the years, and that the screen for which he couldn't help writing was always the printed page.