The 1-sheet poster for Paramount’s 1949 THE GREAT GATSBY tells the tale: Alan Ladd’s Gatsby is pictured not in a dinner jacket, nor in one of those famous shirts that he tosses on the bed for Daisy to giggle at, but in a rumpled trench coat. Yes, this is the film noir Gatsby, that emphasizes the murder angle with occasional low-key mysterioso lighting. Noir icon Elisha Cook Jr. even appears playing a piano, further cluing us into the somewhat re-directed emphasis given F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel.
This B&W GATSBY has been wrongfully slighted for a number of reasons. Literal-minded viewers saw the thriller elements and rolled their eyes at the lack of culture in Hollywood. When Paramount remade the book in 1974 with Robert Redford, this Alan Ladd version was shelved and almost entirely forgotten. Only in the last couple of years has it come to light again courtesy of new prints struck for use in the Film Noir Foundation’s City Noir touring retrospective screenings. Yes, the ’49 GREAT GATSBY pulls the gangland past of Jay Gatsby front and center, making what was a dreamy, somewhat apocryphal mystery into the story of a crook who almost stayed clear of his past. To reveal Gatsby’s backstory, the script uses a Citizen Kane- style flashback structure. Thus we get a full-on Roaring 20s montage plus a gangland shootout between speeding cars. In 1949 it was already necessary to ‘explain’ the context of the Jazz Age just two decades removed.
As Nick Carroway (Macdonald Carey) is no longer the narrative conduit to Gatsby, the story does play as a more conventional thriller. Barry Sullivan is the rich but boorish Tom Buchanan, and Betty Field very interesting as Buchanan’s wife and Gatsby’s lost love, Daisy. Ms. Field of course cannot fully flesh out the book’s Daisy; that would require being both a real person and the phantom of desire that inhabits Gatsby’s obsessions. On film, a green light across the bay has difficulty being more significant than a green light, unless one buries it in voice-over narration. Doing so did the ’74 Redford version no favors.
The return of the ‘noir’ GREAT GATSBY makes it clear that Alan Ladd is almost perfect casting for Fitzgerald’s title character. Ladd is beautiful, with fine features, and he has the relaxed demeanor of someone who has trained himself to be casually self-confident in public. Yet we can all sense that Ladd is also no pushover; it’s credible that he could have been a charismatic tough-guy engaged in criminal activity. As has been pointed out by more than one biographer, Alan Ladd and Jay Gatsby share in common humble origins and a less-than-privileged early life. Ladd didn’t always have a proper home. He was always cognizant of his success and generous to his fans. He was also noted for not adopting common movie star behaviors. Filming was always serious business and he did his best to be prepared and get along with his colleagues. In contrast, Robert Redford grew up in a fairly well-to-do environment. When we look at his Gatsby, there doesn’t seem to be any depth to his feelings; the character has a past only because the Carroway character keeps saying so. Alan Ladd is the real deal.
Also in the cast is Shelley Winters as Myrtle Wilson, the unfaithful wife of a cuckolded garage mechanic (Howard Da Silva). Ruth Hussey is Daisy’s friend and Nick Carroway’s social companion. Respected writers Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum did the screenplay adaptation. When writers have sought to assign blame for the commercial failure of the show, they frequently turn to Ellliott Nugent, who is almost exclusively known for comedies, some of them starring Bob Hope: The Cat and the Canary, Up in Arms, My Favorite Brunette. In all fairness, director Nugent did a fine job… the original proposed director John Farrow might not have done better.
This afternoon THE GREAT GATSBY was introduced by Robert Osborne, who has been trying to get the film for TCM use for years — it and SHANE are his favorite Ladd pictures, and were Ladd’s own personal favorites of his own work. Alan Ladd sometimes brought his well-behaved children to the set, and they watched quietly while he worked. Osborne’s guest today was actor and producer David Ladd, Alan’s son. He was only one year old during the filming but told us about later 16mm screenings in the family’s projection room. David is equally happy to see this newly -accessible GATSBY back before the public once again.
One curious detail is the movie’s broken flashback structure. It begins in 1949, when the older Nick Carroway and Jordan Baker, now married revisit Jay Gatsby’s grave. We never actually return to to 1949 to ‘release’ the first flashback — the film instead finishes at a funeral in 1928. Very strange, indeed.