Richard Maibaum on making "The Great Gatsby"

Great Gatsby Employs Two Generations of Farrows

By Richard Maibaum (Los Angeles Times; July 15, 1973)

“Gene Tierney,” John Farrow insisted quietly. He was a handsome, tow-headed Australian with china blue eyes and a cool, smiling faintly derisive manner that both charmed and infuriated.

“Betty Field,” I responded stubbornly. We were in production head Henry Ginsberg’s office at Paramount sometime in February, 1948. Henry was about to take off for a Hawaiian vacation and wanted the part of Daisy in The Great Gatsby cast before he left. I had produced The Big Clock with John directing and the studio had reteamed us for Gatsby despite a few restrained personality conflicts.

On the set John sometimes held off people who approached him by poking them in the chest with a cane he carried. He poked it once at me. The next time I spoke to him I had provided myself with a baseball bat from the prop room. Thereafter the armed truce between us worked reasonably well.

Our dispute about the choice of an actress to play the enchanting but faithless Daisy Fay had cogency on both sides. We were agreed that the character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel and the screenplay I had written from it with Cyril Hume was a beautiful, glamorous, unstable girl.

Farrow, however, placed more importance on the glamor and beauty than I did. Hollywood was full of beautiful girls. I wanted more, an actress who could handle what has been called “the disharmonic chatter of the 20s,” the authentic sound of the feckless, disillusioned lost generation. Then, too, Daisy’s own voice, as described by Gatsby himself, “has money in it.”

What we needed was a fine actress who could make believable the obsessive love she evoked from him. Poor boy turned mystery man, bootlegger actually. Gatsby’s fabulous campaign to win Daisy back from the polo-playing, multimillionaire socialite for whom she jilted him is merely amusing unless motivated by the idealism which makes it heartbreakingly romantic.

Ginsberg, impatient with our impasse, and for whatever reasons of his own, turned to me. “You’re the producer. Cast it your way. I’m going to Hawaii.” Then he started toward the door.

John beat him to it. “I don’t direct pictures under conditions like that,” he told him calmly. “Find yourself another boy.” He walked out. A moment later he stuck his head back into the office, grinned, said “Aloha, Henry,” and was gone.

I assume John went back to his Beverly Hills home, to his lovely, talented, actress-wife, Maureen O’Sullivan, and their five breathtakingly beautiful small children. One of them was called Mia. I was reminded of all this several months ago when Paramount announced that Mia Farrow was replacing Ali McGraw as Daisy in their current remake of The Great Gatsby. Unhappily John died several years ago, and although Mia seems more like Betty Field than Gene Tierney, I guess, somewhat irrationally, that John has the last word.

Elliot Nugent, who replaced him as the director, was enthusiastic about Betty. He later confessed he had reservations about our other star, Alan Ladd, but said nothing to that effect at the time. Nor did he tell us, as he does in his biography, Events Leading Up to the Comedy, that he was mentally disturbed during his employment. He once actually went up onto the roof of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and almost jumped off. Personally, I never got that close to the brink myself. but Gatsby was a labor of love and frustration from the start.

World War II had ended, the OSS had opened its files, and all the studios in Hollywood wanted to make films about it. After four years in the Army I signed at Paramount as a writer-producer, and OSS with Alan starring beat out everybody to reap substantial profits.

People had warned me about Alan and his wife Sue, saying they were tough to work with, but we got along marvelously. We soon became personal friends and one day when my wife and I were visiting them Alan took me into his bedroom, to show me his wardrobe. He must have had about 60 shirts and seemed pleased when I looked duly impressed. “Not bad for an Okie kid,” he laughed. “Eddie Schmidt makes most of them for me.

Like an echo in my mind I heard Jay Gatsby say, “I’ve got a man in England who buys me clothes. He sends over a selection of things at the beginning of each season, spring and fall.” And I remembered the scene in the book, where he piles a profusion of monogrammed shirts on his bed for Daisy and she begins to sob.

I glanced at Alan opening closet doors containing shoes and ties and got goose pimples. Here was Jay Gatsby of East Egg, Long Island, born Jimmy Gatz in a small Midwestern town. There was the same carefully cultivated speech and the manly controlled voice, the strong, slim athletic body, the enigmatic smile. And a certain self-consciousness, wonder, perhaps, that Hollywood stardom, like Gatsby’s reputation as a host and a nabob, had descended upon him.

There, too, was an essential goodness, decency, loyalty and a concealed romanticism. One of the problems with Alan during the shooting of a scene was that he refused to remove from his finger the wedding ring Sue had given him. It had to be taped and covered with flesh-colored make-up.

Alan Ladd as the Great Gatsby? Why not? I knew Paramount still owned the novel, having made it originally in 1926 with Warner Baxter. I got Alan and Sue to read the book. They both liked it, particularly because it would be a change of pace for him from the usual action stuff, and an opportunity to prove he was more of an actor than Hollywood thought. We approached the studio with the idea. The studio was unenthusiastic.

This was in late 1946. Scott Fitzgerald had been dead since 1940. So it seemed, except in the hearts of a few devotees, were his out-of-print novels. His reputation was at its lowest ebb. The Jazz Age he celebrated was regarded as an aberration.

But I saw a similarity between what was happening in 1946 to what had happened to the country in 1920 and with Alan and Sue’s help kept badgering the studio until it agreed to let us prepare a script. We did. Then the roof fell in on us. Or perhaps I should say the Breen office.

We were informed the script was totally unacceptable. The overall objection was that like the novel it had “a low moral tone.” Specifically, it violated the code then in effect because it dealt with adultery, unpunished manslaughter, glamorized a gangster, depicted excessive use of liquor, undermined the institutions of marriage and the home, lowered moral standards, presented impure love as attractive and beautiful, etc., etc.

There was more to it than that. F. Scott Fitzgerald was anathema to Breen and the Legion of Decency. They had banned his screenplay, Infidelity, and the subject matter of his novels in general represented everything they opposed as screen entertainment. Furthermore, Fitzgerald had antagonized many producers in Hollywood during the numerous times he visited or worked there by his obvious contempt for it. We found an accumulated resentment toward him and his writings which went far beyond the usual operation of the code.

There then began an exchange of memoranda and a series of meetings, either in my Paramount office or at the code building. I remember conferring with Joe Breen, Geoff Shurlock, and Jack Vizzard, sometimes individually, more often in concert.

Breen himself, perhaps because he wanted to make sure I didn’t think he was personally a prude or a blue nose, habitually used filthy language. Shurlock and Vizzard were more circumspect and I sensed a certain sympathy for my predicament but they were powerless to alter the strict application of censorship.

I argued desperately that The Great Gatsby was actually a morality play depicting the dire results of irresponsibility. Joe Breen had a well-known crafty ploy for that. Where was what he called “the voice of morality”?

I replied the message was self-evident. Gatsby and two other Fitzgerald novels, The Beautiful and Damned and Tender Is the Night, were really versions of the Faust story. A man makes a pact with a devil of some kind to attain either a Woman, a fortune, or even another’s happiness. He achieves what he sought and then discovers he has wrought his own self-destruction.

There’s only slight justification for this interpretation but I was desperate to get the film made and fell into Joe Breen’s trap. “Make that clear to the audience,” he said. “Cut out the explicit code violations, just infer all that jazz, clean up the characters a little, and we’ll see what we can do for you.”

He then suggested a prolog, another of his famous gambits, and I fell for that one, too. I suggested we start the film at Gatsby’s grave, years after his death. On the tombstone would be an appropriate biblical quotation, originally requested by Gatsby’s understanding friend, Nick Carraway. “Great!” said Joe. “What’s the quotation?”

It took me almost a month to find it: Proverbs 14:12. “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man but the end thereof are the ways of death.” It seemed apt enough at the time but I think now it was anti-Fitzgerald, too explicit, too much on the nose. Fitzgerald wasn’t a moralizer. When you [dumb]ed things down like that you lost [his] elusive quality. The beauty of his writing was always somewhere on the periphery of his narrative, never near dead center.

And so I made a pact with my particular devil, Joe Breen, with whom I was now quoting Scripture. Perhaps I shouldn’t have made the film with the limitations he imposed. Ten years later a similar situation occurred when Cubby Broccoli sent me several of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels to read. We decided against them at the time because the code was still operative
and we felt that cutting out the sex and violence would damage 007 irreparably.

Several years later when censorship had relaxed I wrote six of the Bond films for Cubby and we were glad we had waited. In that regard I’m afraid I served Fleming better than I did Fitzgerald. Incidentally, I only met Fitzgerald once and Fleming several times. I respected them as authors but didn’t care for them much as people. I thought they were both snobs.

With the green light from Breen I revised the “Gatsby” script. There were more meetings, more memoranda. Sometimes I felt that the studio people were in cahoots with Breen to delay production because they had doubts about it. They weren’t sure how Ladd’s audience would like him in an uncharacteristic role.

Even when Breen finally approved a draft of the screenplay, “subject to viewing the completed film,” the studio held back. They used the script as a carrot to make Alan do several other films, each time promising that his next would be “Gatsby.” Finally after two long years of this he rebelled and threatened to take a suspension. That did it.

Elliot Nugent asked for a few more good revisions and we put together the rest of an excellent cast. Macdonald Carey as Nick Carraway, Barry Sullivan as Tom Buchanan, Ruth Hussey as Jordan, Howard da Sylva as Wilson, and a young, slender bombshell, Shelley Winters, as Myrtle.

Somehow we got started shooting and things went surprisingly well. Although Elliot seemed a bit indecisive the cast was so professional that scenes played well and even the laundered Fitgerald characters began to emerge with reasonable effectiveness, Our only troublesome incident came from, of all people, Alan Ladd himself.

One day, deep into the schedule, Elliot called me and asked me to come down to the set. His voice sounded particularly agitated, hysterical almost. I hurried over and found things at a standstill.

Elliot looked at me with stricken eyes. “He won’t kiss her!” he told me. “He absolutely, positively refused.”

I looked around for Alan. He was nowhere in sight. “Where is he?”

“Locked in his dressing room.”

I left Elliot jittering and knocked on the dressing room door. Alan growled that he didn’t want to be disturbed. This was very unusual behavior because he was always most cooperative. I finally got him to let me in. “What’s the matter?” I asked him. “Has Betty offended you in some way?” He shook his head. “She’s lovely,” I went on. “I can’t believe she’s physically repulsive to you. So why won't you kiss her? The scene has no topper without it.”

“I’ll level with you, Dick,” Alan finally replied. “I get thousands of letters a week from my fans. Lots of them are kids. And I don’t kiss married women in my pictures.” I stared at him incredulously, and eventually found my voice. “But, Alan,” I pleaded, “you and I have dreamed about making this picture. For two years we’ve battled like hell for Gatsby. And you know as well as I do it’s a story about a man who tries to take a woman away from her husband.”

“I just know it’s wrong for me,” he said. “As an actor, I mean.” I argued with him for an hour but he never kissed her. Of such are the Kingdom of Heaven, And so was our Gatsby.

Despite studio fears, our version of “Gatsby” did well financially although the reviews were mixed. Critics differed much as John Farrow and myself had about Betty Field’s Daisy. Some thought she was perfect, others that she was subtly wrong. Alan, for the most part, received surprisingly good personal notices.

My own satisfaction stemmed from what Charles Brackett of sainted memory to all screen writers said to me: “You’ve personally started a Scott Fitzgerald revival.”

There’s an even greater one at the moment. Besides Paramount’s new remake of Gatsby with Mia Farrow and Robert Redford, MGM has just announced Fitzgerald's unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon. The fashion magazines are increasingly featuring the Gatsby Look. The new Fitzgerald groundswell is unmistakable.

Note: Because of imperfections in the source material, I had to guess at the content of two words (they're in brackets).

While searching for this article I discovered that Richard Maibaum has recently published a book, despite having been dead for 29 years.

It's called Speaking of Writing. The Amazon listing lets you view of the table of contents, which shows at least three articles on Bond. I plan on buying a copy.


  • DarthDimiDarthDimi Behind you!Moderator
    Posts: 22,004
    Interesting post about one of Bond's best screenwriters!
  • Posts: 2,680
    Thanks! Interesting that Maibaum thought Fleming and Fitzgerald were snobs. Perhaps the were snooty around Hollywood types because they were afraid of what Hollywood would do to their work. There has yet to be a good movie made from a Fitzgerald novel.
  • DarthDimiDarthDimi Behind you!Moderator
    Posts: 22,004
    Unfortunately, I'm not really familiar with Fitzgerald.
  • Posts: 2,680
    If you haven't read The Great Gatsby, it's a relatively short novel and Fitzgerald's most essential book. It's also a contender for "the Great American Novel" accolade. But no one has succeeded in making a great movie out of it.
  • Posts: 533
    Is that why Donovan Grant kept using the phrase "old man" so much in "From Russia With Love"?

    But no one has succeeded in making a great movie out of it.

    I thought Baz Lurhman came close. It was the first time I truly understood Fitzgerald's story on the screen without falling asleep.
  • MakeshiftPythonMakeshiftPython “Baja?!”
    Posts: 6,846
    DRush76 wrote: »
    Is that why Donovan Grant kept using the phrase "old man" so much in "From Russia With Love"?
    That was in the book. In fact, Bond actually snaps back at Grant for calling him that once the charade is dropped.
    'For God's sake stop calling me "old man".' When there was so much to know, so much to think about, this was Bond's first reaction to utter catastrophe. It was the reaction of someone in a burning house who picks up the most trivial object to save from the flames.
  • edited August 2020 Posts: 2,680
    Bond's dislike of expressions like "old man" calls to mind the memo Fleming sent to Cubby Broccoli:

    “Atmosphere: To my mind, the greatest danger in this series is too much stage Englishness. There should, I think, be no monocles, moustaches, bowler hats or bobbies, or other 'Limey' gimmicks. There should be no blatant English slang, a minimum of public school ties and accents, and subsidiary characters should, generally speaking, speak with a Scots or Irish accent. The Secret Service should be presented as a tough, modern organisation in which men may dress more casually than they do in the FBI. Above all they should not slap each other on the back or call each other 'old boy'."

    Fleming wanted the films to avoid the stereotypical tropes of Englishness and move toward a more hard-boiled, Americanized conception of Bond's world. Hiring a cultured American screenwriter like Maibaum, who had given Gatbsy hardboiled overtones, therefore seems very appropriate move. So was casting Sean Connery, who didn't have a trace of "stage Englishness."
  • MakeshiftPythonMakeshiftPython “Baja?!”
    Posts: 6,846
    That’s part of what I like about the Bond series. American depictions usually accentuate Britishisms. In Bond it’s toned down to a degree that I can’t recall phrases like “chap” being used all that much.

    As for adaptations of Fitzgerald, the only one I’ve liked is rather loose adaptation of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Of course it is its own thing, but I got more out of that than some of the Gatsby adaptations which too much felt like high school plays, which is damning coming from the talent behind those films (I love Redford, but he just doesn’t feel right for Gatsby).

    I never bothered with the 2013 version. It seems to have the right idea of depicting the excess of the 1920s but it looks way way overdone.
  • echoecho 007 in New York
    Posts: 5,205
    Not sure what this means:

    "...subsidiary characters should, generally speaking, speak with a Scots or Irish accent"
  • Posts: 2,680
    Minor characters should speak with a Scots or Irish accent, rather than the fruity stereotypical English accent that Americans tended to associate with the British.
  • MakeshiftPythonMakeshiftPython “Baja?!”
    edited August 2020 Posts: 6,846
    An example you can get of the stereotypical portrayal of the British is here:

    Just imagine that being an M briefing, it would be absurd.

    Of course, this film is basically a fairy tale, but it plays up those British quirks right down to Fassbender nailing the fake accent that was prevalent in films of the 1940s.
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