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THE VOICES are full of money. Ladies in silver shoes and ermine and men in tightly pressed tuxedos yield expectantly before the flowing red carpet. Suddenly the lights blaze brighter; people whisper that she has arrived; the music starts up and, from around the corner, the cheering begins. Is this the return of some long lost queen? But isn't there something too familiar in all those flash bulbs popping? As hundreds of hands push paper and pen toward her our doubts disappear. It is another opening night in Hollywood in the 30s.
Reading Bits of Paradise, the newly collected group of 22 stories by Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, is like breathlessly awaiting, again and again, the arrival of a new star. Often written to fit a magazine's word limits, each of these tightly constructed stories focuses on some young, beautiful person who is convinced of the importance of his destiny. Just as the unassuming Brix Grill in Paris, which Scott describes at the opening of one of the stories, is "one of those places where things happen," the protagonists face life with the calm assurance of starring in their own drama. And with "the sharp, instantaneous transitions of scenes in the movies," the authors shoot them through a whirlwind of parties and wars and fallings in and out of love, before finding some neat way to bring about the happy, hoped-for, expected ending.
But unlike actors forever frozen in images not of their own making, the Fitzgeralds' protagonists want to direct their own fate. Val Rostoff, the dispossessed Russian count in Scott's "Love in the Night," returns to the harbor at Cannes each spring hoping to find the mysterious American woman on her yacht where they made love beneath the moon, one night many Aprils before.
ABOUT HALFWAY through Bits of Paradise, these pictures of bold young people too good for their surroundings fade. In the stories written after 1926, the characters are older, looking less toward their limitless futures than their irretrievable pasts. Gradually, their hopes for perfect marriages or movie star status pass into the distance while everyday acquisitiveness begins to consume them. These later stories are at once less appealing and more challenging.
Only in The Great Gatsby did Scott reconcile the idealism of American culture with its materialism. In these later stories, the fairytales die hard. "Jacob's Ladder," a Pygmalion story and one of the most tender in the book, tells of a rich, rather bored man who makes the sister of a murderess a film star. She offers him her affection but he rejects it until, separated by her success, he wants her; by then, of course, it is too late.
The characters of Zelda's later stories remain gently loosened from reality. Gay, "The Original Follies Girl," masquerading in her jewelry, travels from continent to continent, shocking her admirers and searching for "the recherche." Sadly, she dies,
...too good a companion and too pretty to go dying like that for a romanticism that she was always half afraid would slip away from her.
The raspberries and cream she ate, the elevator you worked yourself to get to her apartment, the purple address book full of numbers for her friends "from Naples to Nantucket," remain more real than Gay.
HOLLYWOOD, where the ideal and the material merge as a magnificent ante bellum set in a deserted parking lot, should have been the real paradise for the Fitzgeralds in the 30s. But by 1937, Zelda had already spent seven years in a North Carolina sanitorium. And Scott, with their daughter about to enter Vassar, his agent unable to sell a single manuscript during the past year and his total earnings from all his books in print for the same time totaling $81.18, was convinced that his life was over.
In such an unliveable situation, writes Tom Dardis in Some Time in the Sun, his account of the Hollywood screenwriting years of five American writers, the job that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer offered Fitzgerald was a godsend. Unfortunately, Dardis, who is anxious to refute Fitzgerald critic Arthur Mizner and others who have portrayed the writer demoralized and deteriorating under the California sun, attempts to equate Fitzgerald's happiness with the $1,250 paychecks he received in 1938 from MGM. Dardis gives a blow-by-blow account of how Fitzgerald secured his contracts, but almost completely omits Fitzgerald's much talked about affair with syndicated columnist Sheilah Graham, along with the rest of his non-working life. By "valuing things rather than caring about them," a habit which Fitzgerald said is typical of Americans, Dardis limits the scope and interest of his book. The numbers loom large and impressive while the figure of Fitzgerald casts practically no shadow at all.
Even assuming Fitzgerald's personal pride came back with the return of his income, his distaste for screenwriting work, combined with a long string of personal failures, must have undercut his sense of success. From his early fight with producer Joe Mankiewicz, who re-wrote his script for The Three Comrades when Fitzgerald screamed that the film would flop, to his embarassing hospitalization after a drinking bout on the Dartmouth set of Winter Carnival, Fitzgerald's years in Hollywood forced him to abandon his dream of America's materialistic ideal. He simply could not write his best and make the most money. In failing to understand Fitzgerald's disillusionment, Dardis' study falls short.
PERHAPS because of the greater screen-writing success of the other writers and the lesser body of critical writings preceding him here, Dardis writes more to the point after closing the Fitzgerald section of his book. His description of Stanley Rose, the "flamboyant, self-styled con man," who ran a book shop frequented by many of the writers and who himself finally went straight, becoming a literary agent, is almost satisfying. And for a further depiction of the Hollywood scene, Dardis is wise enough to rely on Faulkner's observations rather than his own patchy reporting:
I'll be glad when I get back home...Nobody here does anything. There's nobody here with any roots. Even the houses are built out of mud and chicken wire. Nothin' ever happens an' after a while a couple of leaves fall off a tree and then it'll be another year. I don't like the climate, the people, their way of life. Nothing ever happens and then one morning you wake up and find that you are sixty-five...
Both Fitzgerald and Faulkner, along with their less disillusioned colleague, Aldous Huxley, would have been surprised to learn that a few years after Faulkner made these remarks, two writers again turned toward Hollywood in search of the American ideal. Nathaniel West, slaving in a B-grade studio to reduce the images of silver screen gangster sagas to flicks like The Black Coin where a young hero, wearing a white sweater, is attacked regularly by four burly men in black, turned the ideal upside down. In The Day of the Locust America became a Hollywood burlesque.
But James Agee, who left lucrative positions as film critic for Time and The Nation to write screenplays, saw film as "infinite possibility." Like the protagonists in Bits of Paradise, he wanted to be not just writer or actor but director too. At the end of his life, Dardis notes, Agee wrote to a friend about a film he wanted to make with elephants, "those strange, huge, sad beasts that have been so badly treated by men." The concluding section of the film was to show the elephants dancing to the music of Stravinsky. The crowd roars its approval but
...the elephants are deeply shamed. Later that night the wisest of them, extending his trunk, licks up a dying cigar butt, and drops it in fresh straw. All 36 elephants die in the fire. Their huge souls, light as clouds, settle like doves, in the great cemetery back in Africa--...Almost nobody I've described it to likes this idea, except me. It has its weaknesses, but I like it. I hope you do.
Agee really died too young after all.
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