The Great Gatsby, 1926

“They were careless people, they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

It speaks volumes that this one paragraph in a novel nearly 100 years old can be so prophetic when we think of the times we live in today. Indeed when you think of so many facets of our modern age, celebrity culture, the ascendance of the 1%, social media, it’s amazing how prescient the themes introduced in The Great Gatsby were. Allied to that, the ability of F Scott Fitzgerald to expand on these themes to include loss, grief and unrequited love in such spare language, with not a syllable out of place.

The Great Gatsby for me is the Great American Novel, and deserves its place in the pantheon of anglophone literature. As someone in the UK the book provides that critique of the American condition that we Brits can feel smug about, but without being excoriating. Instead the critique seems to come from a place of affectionate observation, the work of an individual who can coolly review his circumstances like a true insider. Fitzgerald’s use of language is spare and sparse throughout all his novels and short stories. This provides an easy experience for the reader whilst simultaneously provoking an emotional punch that is searing in its honesty.

Against this backdrop you can see how a book such as this has proved to be one of cinema’s greatest challenges. One that, arguably, Hollywood is yet to master.

You may have seen my previous post featuring the trailer for the movie. Unfortunately this trailer is the only known footage left from the film. The picture in its entirety is lost. Therefore we can only surmise what it contained from what we see in that trailer and from newspaper and fan magazine reviews.

Certainly, from what we see in the trailer there was quite a focus on jazzy parties and this is verified in reviews. This seems to be a regular and fundamental error in the many film adaptations over the years and perhaps why there hasn’t been a definitive portrayal of the novel. The excitement of the Jazz Age is the backdrop to The Great Gatsby but the real action lies in is America’s version of the class system, where the lowly Jimmy Gatz has to reinvent himself by nefarious means. The sadness lies in his futile attempt to win back the love of a superficial and deeply unhappy individual. The parties are one aspect to Gatsby’s desperate aim to join with a monied class who neither care for him or about him.

Plus there is the issue of casting. Tom Buchanan has been a more successful venture, surprisingly as he’s both stuck up and a thug, but it’s his cartoonish element that provides a useful hook for casting directors. However the pivotal roles of Jay and Daisy have proved more challenging, as it’s so difficult to transfer their charisma to the screen. For me Leonardo di Caprio is the definitive Gatsby. In an otherwise flawed attempt to capture the essence of the book, di Caprio has the looks, the charm but also the mass of insecurities and vulnerabilities, as well as Gatsby’s searing anger. Viewing the 1926 trailer and publicity materials, I’m not convinced that Warner Baxter brought this level of understanding to this role.

Speaking of casting, what of William Powell at this time? Well 1926 was proving to be a pivotal year for Powell at Paramount Pictures. The Great Gatsby was one of several solid roles that were building his profile, as well as the generally positive notices he received for his craft in newspapers and fan magazines. The part of George Wilson was certainly one such role and we know that Powell would have prepared carefully for the part.

Now it may seem incongruous to those familiar with Powell’s later work in talking pictures to equate the sassy, snappy conveyer of one liners in films like The Thin Man with the character of George Wilson. Tom Buchanan’s smugly dismisses the cuckold George as a man “so dumb he doesn’t know he’s alive”. However for William Powell it was another opportunity to showcase the variety of his range.

Fitzgerald’s Hollywood Dream and Disillusionment

Fitzgerald unfortunately detested the screen version. Zelda wrote to her daughter, Scottie, “We saw The Great Gatsby at the movies… It’s ROTTEN and awful and terrible and we left.”

This was to be a portent of things to come. Fitzgerald admired the modernity of Hollywood and wanted to be a participant in it but it was to no avail. Indeed at the time of his and Zelda’s visit to see The Great Gatsby, he was at work on a screenplay for a movie featuring Constance Talmadge. However this was to come to nothing. The screenplay was considered weak and as Fitzgerald wrote later,

“I… was confident to the point of conceit… I honestly believed that with no effort on my part I was a sort of magician with words – an odd delusion on my part when I had worked so desperately hard to develop a hard, colourful prose style.”

He returned to Hollywood in 1937 but in poor physical and emotional health. The pull back to Hollywood was financial not artistic and there was a cynicism to his transactions there. Fitzgerald described a Hollywood gathering thus,

“The dinner party in fact looked just like a Metro movie—except for the lines. Since the writers could not balance the actors on their knees like ventriloquists and give them dialogue, everything was a bit flat—[William] Powell was facetious without wit—Norma [Shearer] heavy without emotion. Selznick snoring.”

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

This piece was written for the Silent Movie Day Blogathon, hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Silentology, where there are other fantastic silent movie pieces for you to enjoy!

References/Recommended Reading:

Crazy Sundays: F Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood – Aaron Latham

Slow Fade: F Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood – Arthur Krystal, The New Yorker

F Scott Fitzgerald’s Tense, Unhappy Relationship with Hollywood – Deirdre Clemente, The Atlantic

William Powell: The Life & Films – Roger Bryant


Sea Horses (1926)

It’s ironic that for the purposes of the What a Character Blogathon we are heading back into villainy as Powell’s previous outing White Mice was his actual first starring role, and I will come back to that picture at a later date.

Lorenzo Salvia, as portrayed by Powell, is a drunken Italian who abandons his wife, (Florence Vidor) and makes off for the island of Panda.

Inevitably Salvia’s dissipated lifestyle leads to his destruction before his wife can save him.

However despite all this drama Photoplay Magazine describes the pace of this lost picture as ‘snail-like’.

It is worth mentioning that around the time of filming Powell had been signed to a long term contract at Paramount – at this stage in his career Powell’s ability to play effective villains and secondary roles had enabled him to achieve some consolidation, even if this meant treading water in movies like Sea Horses which were little more than programmers. Despite such dull fare 1926 was to prove to be an exciting year for William Powell, with some exciting roles to come!

This piece forms part of the What a Character! Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club. Enjoy!


William Powell: The Life and Pictures – Roger Bryant

Photoplay Magazine, May 1926, p.52

Faint Perfume (1925)

There doesn’t appear to be much to say about today’s lost picture. Clearly a filler, this melodrama didn’t exactly create any buzz or excitement. Therefore, I am going to leave today’s post in the capable hands of the Photoplay Magazine reviewer:

“A good strong dose of the smelling salts will be needed to revive you after this. Taken from the popular novel by Zona Gale this hasn’t a thing to offer. Everything in the picture compares with the perfume. It’s faint entertainment. William Powell, who was so very grand in ‘Romola’ is the only person in the cast worth mentioning, and even he – oh, well, what’s the use.”

Which is why Photoplay Magazine still stands the test of time for sharp, contemporary writing even after 90 years!

References/Recommended Reading:

Photoplay Magazine, September 1925, p.104

Stella Dallas (1925)

Stella Dallas marked the third in a tremendous run of pictures for Henry King, another melodrama, but this time set in America not Italy and including some harsh commentary on social stratification and the power of class to stifle and repress.

What a treat to be able to view this excellent melodrama, one of Ronald Colman’s few remaining silent dramas. It’s an odd experience watching Colman in a silent picture because with the benefit of hindsight you can actually hear his velvet tones speaking through the title cards.

It is interesting to note that Colman takes the top billing for the movie, because as you can see from the poster above this is very much Belle Bennett’s picture – she has the most screen time and pretty much steals every scene playing the overblown, dirt common Stella. Don’t be fooled though that Bennett over emotes in this role though. Bennett brings real pathos to a woman who for me was not remotely sympathetic and that I often felt frustrated with.

In ‘The Parade’s Gone By’ Henry King notes that the author and screenwriter of Stella Dallas, Frances Marion was insistent that Belle Bennett was perfect for the role. “This woman has just what it takes… She is a mother, she has two children and she has had everything on earth happen to her. Both on stage and off, she is Stella Dallas.”

However this is the genius of the adaptation – Bennett’s portrayal alongside Henry King’s direction allows the viewer to have complex emotions about Stella. Stella has the total lack of confidence and self-esteem that often comes with being working class and therefore subjected to society’s judgement. This leads Stella to displays of conspicuous consumption in a futile attempt at fitting in with her new peers, futile as the symbols of belonging are often very subtle in order to maintain privilege and to exclude. As a result of this rejection, and without realising it, Stella undermines the new life she has built for herself as she doesn’t understand her lack of belonging in an echelon which will never accept her.

What the viewer begins to understand is that despite Stella’s almost self destructive course, she is clearly a fantastic mother to her daughter and it is evident throughout the picture that Laurel has tremendous love, respect and above all loyalty to her mother.

This connection with the audience led to great success for the picture, critically and at the box office. To quote Henry King, “And the money that rolled in was quite fantastic.”

References/Recommended Reading:

Stella Dallas (1925): a melodrama that quickens the pulse

Photoplay Magazine, December 1925, p.46

The Parade’s Gone By – Kevin Brownlow

The Beautiful City (1925)

A new picture starring Richard Barthelmess and Dorothy Gish should have been an easy sell to the cinema going public, but by all accounts The Beautiful City was a lacklustre affair, a melodrama that in the words of the Photoplay Magazine Review was in dire need of some ‘PEP‘.

As it is the synopsis reads like a fairly typical potboiler melodrama with Richard Barthelmess playing a poor Italian flower vendor in New York City who becomes embroiled in a gang run by Nick da Silva, played by Powell. Reading from the reviews I can imagine that in this lost film, Barthelmess would play his usual cornpone innocent, Dorothy Gish the cutesy love interest with William Powell reprising his Italian villain trope and perhaps this is where the picture starts to lose interest. Once the players revert to familiar types, you get the impression that the ensemble were almost ‘phoning it in’.

However, William Powell’s consistency as a performer continued to be noted, with Mordaunt Hall remarking that he ‘… makes the villainy as impressive as possible.’

References/Recommended Reading:

William Powell: The Life and Films – Roger Bryant

Review by Mordaunt Hall, New York Times, 23 November 1925

Photoplay Magazine, January 1926, p.48

Beau Geste (1926)

“I knew all about that man – where he was born, who his parents were, why he joined the Foreign Legion. I knew he was a degenerate and what the circumstances were which led to that state of affairs. Characters like that lift this business of acting out of the commonplace, mechanical rut and portraying them becomes a real joy.”

Thus William Powell explained how he made his characterisation of Boldini in Beau Geste so realistic and believable, but also provided us with a very thoughtful and humane consideration of how a character can become a flesh and blood human being. As opposed to presenting a mere shadow on the screen, Powell brought to life individuals with a chronology and back story to explain their actions.

For the What A Character blogathon I’m jumping ahead a year to 1926, and to a picture that was designed to showcase Ronald Colman as the ultimate hero, but as was becoming common practice, ended up being another opportunity for William Powell to steal the show with an in-depth study of humankind’s failings.

In Beau Geste, Powell played Boldini, a lickspittle coward, blackguard and cheat who’s only agenda is to preserve his own neck even if it is at the expense of others. I have to confess I watched this film a number of months back and was sorely disappointed. The picture had received pretty much universal acclamation in the contemporary reviews I had read and you can see for yourself in Mordaunt Hall’s piece for the New York Times below, as well as others linked. In addition Beau Geste won the prestigious Photoplay Magazine Medal of Honour for 1926. Swayed by this I was expecting a fast paced movie full of action, but actually found parts of it quite plodding.

However, in preparation for this blogathon I thought I must give the film a second chance and this time round I enjoyed it more fully. I suspect that’s because I’m more acclimatised to silent pictures and have come to realise the importance of place and atmosphere – enjoyment of silent film needs to be an immersive experience, and watching a poor print on YouTube on my morning train commute would inevitably dull my viewing pleasure. Imagine Mordaunt Hall as he describes Beau Geste for the first time – in a New York Picture palace, no doubt all the invited guests in evening dress, with full orchestra to keep the pace of the picture. With these types of elements present Beau Geste must have created a stupendous evening of adventure for the picture goer.

Bearing all this in mind, I sat down for a second viewing and was much more satisfied. Ronald Colman always brings a laconic charm to his roles, with a slight hint of irony, which ensures that his movies don’t become sappy and this is especially the case with Beau Geste. This tale of love, honour and betrayal could be very plodding and worthy, but Colman’s playing style offers a hint of emotional distance that I suspect would be very natural to the Englishman.

However we’re here to discuss William Powell’s contribution to Beau Geste as a character actor and as the Photoplay Magazine reviewer said about Powell and Noah Beery, “…watch these two boys cop the picture.” Powell’s biographer, Roger Bryant is firmly of the view that his characterisations are as authentic as any portrayal from the supposedly ‘naturalistic’ method style of the 1950s and includes Powell’s rendering of Boldini in his conclusion. Thanks to his careful preparation and the seriousness which he brought to his craft, Powell presents Boldini as a man who is perpetually desperate and who’s lack of honour does for him in the end. The ultimate theme of Beau Geste is honour, and Boldini is the antithesis of honour as opposed to Beau Geste, and that cannot be presented two-dimensionally.

This is my entry in this year’s What A Character! Blogathon – do have a look at my compadres’ entries, there’s some wonderful reads about some wonderful actors!

References/Recommended Reading:

William Powell: The Life & Films – Roger Bryant

Mordaunt Hall Review in the New York Times, 26 August 1926

Photoplay Magazine, October 1926, p.52

Motion Picture Magazine, November 1926, p.60

My Lady’s Lips (1925)

In 1925 Clara Bow was on her way up to becoming one of Hollywood fastest growing stars. Clara had an unusual ability to switch her emotional response almost immediately upon direction, crying real tears on tap, displaying genuine happiness and all without the type of overwrought over emoting often seen from actresses at the time. This gave a realism to her performances that audiences could empathise with and were starting to respond to in a big way.

B P Schulberg, the proprietor of Preferred Pictures, whom Clara had been contracted since her arrival in Hollywood in 1922, also responded to this increased interest in his up and coming starlet by loaning her out to other studios for big profits. In 1925 Clara would be paid $750 a week by Preferred Pictures but Ben Schulberg arranged the loan outs for $3,000 a week – a tidy profit. Thus Clara became almost a machine on the shop floor, like all those factory girls who followed her so ardently.

William Powell made two pictures with Clara Bow during this loan out phase in her career. Powell himself had been offered a contract by Paramount in 1925. His talent as a character actor and consummate villain had been recognised and remunerated accordingly (which I’ll talk more about in my piece for the What a Character! Blogathon on 15 December), but My Lady’s Lips enabled him to play an honest joe – as you can see from the poster below:

The star of the vehicle was Alyce Mills, pictured above, who played Dora, leader of a gambling gang who reporter Scott Seddon, played by William Powell tries to infiltrate but falls in love with. Clara Bow is Lola, a spoiled rich kid, who becomes embroiled in the gang but also falls in love with Scott. The Photoplay Magazine reviewer, while enjoying the pace of the drama, found the plot rather preposterous and proceeded the damn the picture with the faintest of praise, saying it would be enjoyed by the ‘older folks if they like em crooked’. I think the film sounds like fun and as this is another picture that has been preserved, let’s hope it is released soon.

References/Recommended Reading:

Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild – David Stenn

William Powell: The Life and Films – Roger Bryant

Photoplay Magazine, October 1925, p.92