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The Great Gatsby (1949) - Film Review

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Published August 5th 2013
Is the Forgotten Gatsby the Greatest Gatsby?
Unseen in the cinema for over fifty years

as Jay Gatsby in the 1949 adaptation of The Great Gatsby
Alan Ladd as Jay Gatsby in the 1949 adaptation of The Great Gatsby

Baz Luhrmann's 2013 visual extravaganza, The Great Gatsby, adapted from F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel is reviving interest in the film adaptations of the great American novel. The 1974 Robert Redford film most often used in comparison.

Unseen in the cinema for over fifty years, the forgotten Great Gatsby has recently had one new 35mm print struck by Universal Pictures. The new preservation print of the 1949 adaptation of The Great Gatsby starring Alan Ladd released for the Noir City film festival in 2012 at the request of The Film Noir Foundation. However, there are no plans for a DVD or general commercial release at this time.

The Forgotten Great Gatsby original theatrical poster

Original Theatrical Poster for The Great Gatsby 1949

The second film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby, made in 1949 starring Alan Ladd is almost unknown, if not forgotten. Paramount Pictures removed it from circulation when they produced the 1974 Robert Redford version.

Almost never made, let alone Forgotten

Paramount intended to make The Great Gatsby when the prevailing political and censorship restrictions were more liberal.

In 1949, crime is to be obvious, not glamourised and well and truly punished on screen. Thus, removing much of the novels mystery and ambiguity regarding Gatsby's past.

Therefore, requiring some changes in the story, to satisfy the censors who were against letting the picture being made at all. Nevertheless, this film remains true to the novel's theme of power, greed, betrayal, love, the American dream and social class.

It is debatable whether the relaxed censorship laws in 1974 resulted in a more faithful or better adaptation starring Robert Redford. The late 1940's may not have been the right era for the film but it was Ladd's time.

Truly, a forgotten adaptation and yet according Ladd's son, David (half brother of the Hollywood mogul Alan Ladd Jr.), the character of Jay Gatsby most paralleled his father's life. They were both self-made men who pulled themselves up out of poverty. According to his son David, The Great Gatsby was the film Alan Ladd was most proud of even though his favourite was the 1953 western classic, Shane.

Gatsby is not what Alan Ladd fans expected

The film removed from distribution after an initial theatrical release. Though not a complete failure, was not what Ladd fans were expecting. Paramount did not promote or push its acceptance, treating it as a low budget melodrama and holding back its release for 14 months.

Paramount did not allow copies of the 1949 version; future reproductions or promotions, including DVD, letting it slide into oblivion in 1974, with the release of the 1974 Robert Redford film.

As Redford's big screen adaptation is readily available; he is frequently compared with DiCaprio's portrayal of Gatsby. However, very few people have seen a DVD of Ladd's 1949 film, let alone on the big screen.

Warner Baxter was the first Jay Gatsby in Paramount Picture's 1926 silent version of The Great Gatsby. Only one minute of this film survives, preserved by the Library of Congress (AFI/Jack Tillmany collection) in the USA, and sadly makes it rather difficult to review Baxter's performance. However, the only adaptation made in his lifetime resulted in F. Scott Fitzgerald walking out on the film before it had finished.

Harder to acquire than a missing shirt from the drycleaner

You have to view it to review it. Unfortunately, I could only find two freely available film clips (though I have viewed the complete film on DVD) on YouTube that do not require some form of registering.

It is possible to obtain copies of the 1949 Ladd version on DVD, though mostly from personal collections. Nevertheless, many sites are still unable to obtain and stock copies of the 1949 Great Gatsby.

Though there are uploads of varying quality to view on YouTube, numerous links (from reviews) have been taken down due to copyright restrictions. This is despite many believing it is out of copyright because of the fifty-year exclusion (though extended to seventy years in Australia).

The history of the commercial release of Alan Ladd's 1949 adaptation of The Great Gatsby is as much of a mystery as Jay Gatsby himself.

F. Scott Fitzgerald believed he was Forgotten

First Edition dust jacket of the The Great Gatsby

The first edition of The Great Gatsby published in 1925 by Scribner's, with dust jacket illustrated by Francis Cugat.

When first published in 1925, The Great Gatsby had mixed reviews selling very few copies in the first year and may well have been lost and forgotten.

Fitzgerald died in 1940 believing he was a failure and his work forgotten. One of the many books distributed to American soldiers in World War 2, The Great Gatsby's popularity increased. Eventually becoming part of the curriculum of many high schools and entering American folklore as a great American classic.

No longer just a period piece as Baz Luhrmann's adaptation testifies by his use of contemporary music.

The 1949 Great Gatsby, the Forgotten Film

Made at the insistence of Alan Ladd at the height of his fame, produced unwillingly by Paramount, this 'Noir' film emphasises Gatsby's bootlegging and criminal background, utilising Ladd's tough-guy image.

Ladd's first major success in This Gun For Hire, as Raven, forever changed the gangster film character. The ugly scowling killer became the smiling clean-cut assassin (a cold angel) often invoking empathy (if not likeability). Followed by a series of noir films, Ladd was well suited to portray the mysterious Jay Gatsby.

Alan Ladd the Forgotten Star

One of the greatest movie stars of the 1940's and 1950's, Alan Ladd came from a very poor, dysfunctional and disjointed background. Ladd, (like Gatsby) did not come to grips with fame, fortune and keeping up appearances.

An old friend approached Alan Ladd at one of the many parties at Ladd's home after seeing him alone on the porch. He asked him why he was outside by himself. Ladd replied, "I don't know anyone". Famous, yet uncomfortable in his new found society, unable to shake his past.

Yet, Ladd, like Gatsby was driven to succeed quoted as saying, "I'm going to make it. Nothing is going to stop me. Nothing. I want it too much ".

Despite rarely receiving critical acclaim, Ladd became one of the most popular movie stars of all time, on the Top 10 box-office attractions list in 1947, 1953, and 1954. Ladd's most acclaimed film, Shane, endures as arguably one of, if not the best Hollywood Westerns. Nevertheless, Alan Ladd is largely forgotten even though his films are still occasionally shown on afternoon or late night TV.

Born for the part of Gatsby?

The 'shirt scene' perhaps sums up the desire of Jay Gatsby to impress (Chapter 5 in the book), the sign (status) of his successful rise from poverty. Something Alan Ladd well identified with.

According to Joan McGettigan, "of the actors playing Gatsby, (her) students reacted most positively to Alan Ladd in the 1949 film. In fact, Paramount producer/writer Richard Maibaum claimed years later that he had been inspired to adapt the novel by an incident with Ladd himself, who was showing Maibaum around his new home. Ladd had opened a closet containing "hundreds of suits, sport jackets, slacks, and shoes. He looked at me (Maibaum) and said, 'Not bad for an Okie kid, eh?' I got goose pimples, because I remembered when Gatsby took Daisy to show her his mansion, he also showed her his wardrobe . . . I said to myself, 'My God, The Great Gatsby!'" (McGilligan, Backstory 280).

The shirt scene from 1949 adaptation of The Great Gatsby
The shirt scene from 1949 adaptation of The Great Gatsby

Levi Asher in his review noted, "perhaps the movie's most memorable scene, and the one truest to the emotion contained in the book, is the one in which Gatsby shows off his collection of monogrammed shirts to a swooning Daisy. Here, both actors reach a giddy height of excitement that may even live up to the corresponding moment in Fitzgerald's novel".

Perhaps not totally Forgotten

Strangely, as with The Great Gatsby, Shane also became required reading by High School students in the USA and Australia. Both novels portray characters with a mysterious past trying to make a new life, without success.

Alan Ladd, F. Scott Fitzgerald, the 1949 film, and the novel appear indelibly tied together. F. Scott Fitzgerald dies believing he is a failure and a forgotten man, likewise Alan Ladd. The 1949 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby is forgotten and unseen in the cinema for over fifty years. The novel destined to oblivion until World War 2.

Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby went on to become the great American novel. In 1964, three thousand people filed past Alan Ladd's coffin, though he had not been a star for many years. For the first time since the original 1949 premiere, The Great Gatsby has a new 35m print struck by Universal pictures for the Noir film festival in 2012. F. Scott Fitzgerald has taken his place as the iconic American author.

How to obtain a copy of 1949 The Great Gatsby film

This is a mystery worthy of Gatsby himself. Various websites (including YouTube) still have the complete movie available to view online, even though there appears to be no official DVD or Video release by either Paramount Pictures or Universal. However, if opting for a free download, read the instructions carefully as not all sites are to be trusted.

Nevertheless, a DVD can still be purchased from some of the Video and DVD stands in shopping centers, markets and online (limited) at this time.

These prints are of varying quality (some very good) and many appear to come from private collections. I have not seen any copies in the major department or video stores.

Up for a bit of homework?

Perhaps start by reading the novel (it's not too long) and then view the films. Put aside the visual and production aspects, perceived failings of the various adaptations and concentrate on the central character.

Decide who best brings to life, F. Scott Fitzgerald's complex self made character Jay Gatsby. Alan Ladd, Robert Redford or Leonard DiCaprio?

The Redford version is readily available, the Ladd obtainable and DiCaprio's imminent release on Blu-ray and DVD, mean you can now play literary and film critic in the comfort of your own home.

 Alan Ladd as Gatsby with Betty Field as Daisy
Alan Ladd as Gatsby with Betty Field as Daisy

 Robert Redford as Gatsby with Mia Farrow as Daisy
Robert Redford as Gatsby with Mia Farrow as Daisy

 Leonard DiCaprio as Gatsby with Carey Mulligan as Daisy
Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby with Carey Mulligan as Daisy

The four big screen adaptations of The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby (1926 Film, only 1 minute remains)
The Great Gatsby (1949 Film, unseen in the Cinema for over fifty years)
The Great Gatsby (1974 Film, available on DVD)
The Great Gatsby (2013 Film, available on Blu-ray/DVD from August 27th 2013)
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