News Column

The Guys Who Would Be Gatsby

May 13, 2013

YellowBrix

May 13--Leonardo DiCaprio is one of a handful of actors who have portrayed F. Scott Fitzgerald's tragic protagonist Jay Gatsby in film and TV over the last 87 years.

Warner Baxter, who won the best actor Oscar as the Cisco Kid in the 1929 western "In Old Arizona," played the role of Jay Gatsby in the lavish 1926 adaptation directed by Herbert Brenon. The advertising tag line for the film declared: "The Picture is the Dramatic Thunderbolt of the Season."

The film was released shortly after a theatrical adaptation opened on Broadway, with James Rennie as Gatsby. The movie featured Lois Wilson as Daisy, and, as Nick, Neil Hamilton, who would go on to portray Commissioner Gordon 40 years later on the ABC series "Batman."

Mordaunt Hall gave the film a mixed review in the New York Times: "The screen version of 'The Great Gatsby' is quite a good entertainment, but at the same time it is obvious that it would have benefited by more imaginative direction."

No known prints of the film exist, though a one-minute trailer preserved by the Library of Congress was included on the 2004 DVD set, "More Treasures from American Film Archives, 1894-1931."

Alan Ladd, who was best known in the 1940s for his film noir roles in "This Gun for Hire" (1942) and "The Blue Dahlia" (1946), brought a tough-guy sheen to his performance as Gatsby in the 1949 version. Betty Field played Daisy and Macdonald Carey was Nick.

That adaptation featured several changes from the book, including a prologue set at Gatsby's grave site in the 1940s and a romance between Nick and Jordan (Ruth Hussey).

The Hollywood Reporter thought there was "too much moralizing in the dialogue-heavy script," while the New Yorker's reviewer felt "the players bear little resemblance to the characters created by Fitzgerald."

This version isn't available on DVD.

Robert Redford dyed his hair a dark brown to play Gatsby in the lavish, highly-publicized 1974 version of the novel, which didn't exactly excite critics or audiences.

Roger Ebert wrote: "'The Great Gatsby' is a superficially beautiful hunk of a movie with nothing much in common with the spirit of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel. I wonder what Fitzgerald, whose prose was so graceful, so elegantly controlled, would have made of it: of the willingness to spend so much time and energy on exterior effect while never penetrating to the souls of the characters."

Mia Farrow, who was pregnant during the production, played Daisy and Sam Waterston starred as Nick. Howard Da Silva, who played Wilson in the 1949 version, portrays gangster Meyer Wolfsheim in this outing.

Original scriptwriter Truman Capote was fired from the production and Francis Ford Coppola was brought in to write the script. Jack Clayton directed the film, which is available on DVD.

"The Great Gatsby" ventured into the small screen in the 1950s. Robert Montgomery ("Night Must Fall," "Here Comes Mr. Jordan") played Gatsby on the May 9, 1955, installment of his anthology series "Robert Montgomery Presents."

Phyllis Kirk, who starred in the TV series version of "The Thin Man," played Daisy, with Lee Bowman as Nick. A young Gena Rowlands played the ill-fated Myrtle.

Three years later, Robert Ryan of "Crossfire" and "The Set-Up" starred in a "Playhouse 90" adaptation. Franklin J. Schaffner, who won the Academy Award for directing 1970's "Patton," helmed this production, which starred Jeanne Crain ("Pinky") as Daisy and Rod Taylor of "The Birds" as Nick.

"He risked it all to give first love a second chance," declared the tagline of a 2000 TV production that starred Maggie Smith's son, Toby Stephens, as Gatsby, Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino as Daisy and a pre-Judd Apatow Paul Rudd as Nick. This version is also available on DVD

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