THE GREAT GATSBY—-the one that got away, “old sport“, the spoiled vintage version from 1949. Fessing aforehand, I’m just a schmuck from the suburbs, yet can sniff snob-stink from an avenue away, and the waft of pretense patina left by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘classic’ 1925 tragedy has always left me, like its unknowable ‘Jay’, staring impatiently at twinkles, looking in vain for truth.*
Aside from mussing up the novel’s incident and rhythm, the film is miscast, limp— and to top it off— chintzy-looking: it’s about Rich People, for Paramount’s sake! Directed by the functional but uninspired Elliott Nugent, this mangles Fitzgerald’s story, draining most of its ersatz rot-scraping potential away into bland and cheesy melodrama. It’s stagy (the too-obvious sets won’t fool you), weak in period feeling—beyond a few cars, little sense of Fitzgerald’s 1920s excess comes across. Screenwriter Richard Maibaum’s stilted dialog clinks tinny and hollow for 91 minutes. Whatever the book had—it’s not here.
I always feel compelled to champion Alan Ladd against the endless, tiresome slights to his stature and range. Give the sensitive, typecast, frustrated star his due for reaching out through the scripts clunkiness to emulate the elusive Gatsby: with that velvet voice and sad put-on toughness he’s the easily the best attribute of the film. Betty Field flounders in what should have been a career-enhancing shot as ‘Daisy’, she’s sans appeal in that crucial role, squeaky and plain instead of enchanting and winsome; Macdonald Carey makes a nothing cipher out of ‘Nick’; Barry Sullivan is a flat blank as ‘Tom’. Lesser roles are likewise shorn of effect, cranked out in hollow duty by Ruth Hussey, Shelley Winters (slim for once, but still grating), Elisha Cook, Howard da Silva (bad) and Henry Hull (cackling a few good lines).
With Ed Begley, Jack Lambert and Ray Teal. Moneywise, it came in 45th of the years releases. The tepid response was a blow to Ladd’s hope to escape nine years of mostly standard tough-guy fodder and show he was capable of more than batting wisecracks and fielding a .45. He gives the pasted-together adaptation a determined shot, but the force-fed archaic lines, static direction, and all-round cardboard look hamstring a game try. Alan’s Jay wasn’t alone on the rickety success ladder in 1949s movie crop of social climbers and respectability hijackers that included The Heiress, Champion, Alias Nick Beal, The Fountainhead and All The King’s Men. Not a happy crowd.
*The first, a silent 1926 go, literally crumbled away into celluloid shards, which Gatsby geeks may find somehow fitting, per the ethereal nature of Fitzgerald’s creation. Already confessed as guilty of not fully grasping The Deep Meaning of loss-via-gain filtered through the haze of F.Scott’s slim novella, let’s be a ‘swell sport’ and leave last words to the source: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms further . . . And one fine morning— So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”