Release Date(s)1949 (June 9, 2023)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Imprint/Via Vision)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: A
[Editor’s Note: This is a Region Free Australian Blu-ray import.]
The Great Gatsby is based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald and the play by Owen Davis. Made 24 years after the book’s publication in 1925, the film showcases Paramount’s hottest leading man of the time and dilutes the novel’s more intense scenes.
The time is the 1920s. Jay Gatsby (Alan Ladd) is a mysterious newcomer whose lavish parties at his Long Island Sound estate attract many of that summer resort area’s wealthiest people. Gatsby asks his neighbor Nick Carraway (Macdonald Carey) to arrange a private tea with Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan (Betty Field). Gatsby has been obsessed with Daisy for some time. Their brief romance ended when her family persuaded her to marry rich businessman Tom Buchanan (Barry Sullivan). She now has complete luxury and a young daughter but she’s bored with her life and unhappy that her husband is a womanizer. At the moment, he’s having an affair with Myrtle Wilson (Shelley Winters), the wife of a gas station owner (Howard da Silva).
Daisy’s open to Gatsby’s attention and goes into town with Nick and her friend Jordan Baker (Ruth Hussey) for an afternoon of socializing over drinks with Gatsby. Daisy persuades Nick to let her drive home, and a tragic accident occurs that alters many lives.
Ladd, whose own rags-to-riches background was not unlike Gatsby’s, is an intelligent casting choice. Good looking, charming, with an air of nonchalance, he embodies an elite class in a time of unparalleled hedonism and wealth. Ladd looks great and stands out among the other beautiful, privileged people. Unfortunately, the script deprives Gatsby of his “air of mystery” immediately, through expositional dialogue that reveals his wealth was accumulated through bootlegging and related crimes.
Betty Field, however, never etches a strong impression as Daisy. Daisy is unhappy, restless, and eager for passion. Field conveys none of this, delivering her lines with little emotion. Her Daisy tells us how she feels but doesn’t much show it.
Shelley Winters, as Myrtle, steals every scene she’s in as a deeply troubled woman looking for a bright spot in a bleak life and bound by deception and unhappiness. Da Silva, as her loving, trusting husband, is a peaceable workingman driven to violence by betrayal and tragedy. Da Silva is a wonderfully reactive actor; you can read his thoughts in his face and posture as you watch him hear disturbing news. His low-key husband nicely balances Winters’ brash wife.
Director Elliott Nugent fails to capture the ambience of the Jazz Age. Scenes at Gatsby’s mansion are crowded with guests who just wander, cocktail in hand, or dance robotically, or splash a little in the pool, and look as if they’re working at having fun. There’s little indication of the bootlegged-alcohol-fueled wild times and casual sex of the era’s privileged class. This is a heavily censored Jazz Age.
The Great Gatsby didn’t have the reputation it has today in 1946 when producer Richard Maibaum approached Alan Ladd to play Gatsby. Paramount was cool on the idea. Ladd had been making one successful action or noir film after another for the studio. Why put him in an unproven, uncharacteristic vehicle? Ladd, however, was interested in the story. He persisted and the film was finally made three years later.
The film hasn’t been seen since 1974 when Paramount pulled it because of its upcoming remake. In the past, when a new version of a film was made, the studio would withdraw or even order all existing prints of earlier versions destroyed. There was a 1926 silent version (now lost); the 1974 Jack Clayton picture starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow; a 2000 made-for-TV movie; and a 2013 version, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, and Tobey Maguire. The 1949 version contains an excellent performance by Ladd, who ranked this role as his second favorite (the first being Shane).
The Great Gatsby was shot by director of photography John F. Seitz on 35 mm black-and-white film with spherical lenses and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The Imprint Films edition contains a 4K scan from the original camera negative, and the picture is exquisite. Clean and sharp, the Blu-ray reproduces the noir-like lighting and shadows without losing detail. Camera work is fairly conservative, perhaps the result of director Nugent’s having to adhere to a rigid shooting schedule or possibly to a lack of imagination. The close-ups of Ladd capture an air of mystery and a longing. The “Roaring Twenties” don’t roar much with the film’s restrained production values. Gatsby’s estate is supposed to be sprawling and magnificent, but it’s clearly a studio set and lacks grandeur. Process photography, a standard technique at the time, is used when Daisy is driving.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 mono LPCM. English SDH subtitles are an available option. Dialogue is clear and distinct throughout, and there’s a good deal of exposition. Key sound effects include loud engines of huge 1920s automobiles, dramatic gun shots, and ambient crowd noise at Gatsby’s party. The film could have benefited from additional jazz—the music that dominated the period—on the soundtrack.
Bonus materials on the Region-Free Blu-ray release include the following:
- Audio Commentary by Jason A. Ney
- Alan Ladd: The True Quiet Man (56:39)
- Professor Sarah Churchill on “The Great Gatsby” (22:09)
- Film Critic/Writer Christina Newland on “The Great Gatsby” (13:47)
- On-Stage Interview with Alan Ladd’s Son, David Ladd, Conducted by Alan K. Rode (25:03)
Commentary – Professor Jason A. Ney considers The Great Gatsby to be the great American novel. The 1949 film adaptation is the most intriguing representation of the source material. The Production Code censors wanted Paramount to scrap the film entirely because of its “low moral tone.” By presenting adultery, unpunished manslaughter, glamorization of the gangster lifestyle, and excessive use of liquor, it undermined the institution of marriage and lowered moral standards. Prof. Ney offers examples of where the film differs markedly from the book, reads passages from the novel that describe characters and their states of mind, and analyzes the function of a billboard with huge eyes. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in the heyday of literary modernism. He and his contemporary authors emphasized a fragmented, chaotic existence and were skeptical of established authority structures like the church and government. They experimented with style, rejecting literary conventions. Nick is an unreliable narrator because he’s limited in what he knows. He represents uncertainty of who Gatsby really is. John Farrow was originally assigned to direct, but was replaced by Elliott Nugent. Producer Richard Maibaum felt it was important to make Gatsby more relatable to audiences. There was a resurgence of interest in the novel shortly after Fitzgerald’s death and paperback editions and collections of Fitzgerald’s works were reprinted. Shelley Winters is the perfect choice to play Myrtle Wilson. Winters, at the time, was in the early years of getting featured roles. A few on-set, behind-the-scenes anecdotes about filming are related. The novel, close to 100 years old, attracts new readers and fans each year.
Alan Ladd: The True Quiet Man – In this documentary, Ladd is described as the “biggest star on the lot” during the period when he made The Great Gatsby. He was attractive to women, admired by men. He had a strength on the screen. Among the celebrities interviewed for this documentary are actors Lizabeth Scott, Mona Freeman, and Anthony Caruso, director Edward Dmytryk, and David Ladd, Alan Ladd’s son. Alan Ladd was born in Arkansas and later moved to Oklahoma before heading to California. As a young man, he held various part-time jobs. In high school, he bloomed, excelling in swimming and diving. In Hollywood, he started as a grip, and was under contract to Universal for a short time. He got small parts and became discouraged when casting agents complained that he wasn’t tall enough. He turned to radio, where he did well and even made a soundie—a recording accompanied by a film—as a singer. A key career milestone was his casting in This Gun for Hire. An unknown when he made the picture, he emerged a star. His height still bothered him and he always wanted to be sure his leading lady was shorter than himself. Paramount tailor-made stories for Ladd. He went through scripts page by page, noting lines he wouldn’t say. He left Paramount, his home studio, when the lure of more money drew him to Warner Bros.
Professor Sarah Churchill on “The Great Gatsby” – This is an analysis of the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. She describes the book as a novel about illusion, desire, and fantasy. Often, lovers of the novel find film adaptations disappointing because they focus more on plot and character than themes but, “what makes it great is probably unfilmable.” A stage play adaptation by Owen Davis was written in 1926, a year after the novel’s publication. After Fitzgerald’s death, his works were reassessed and reappraised by critics. The novel was reprinted and resonated with post-World War II readers because it reinterpreted the American dream.
Film Critic/Writer Christina Newland on “The Great Gatsby” – At the time of Fitzgerald’s death in 1940, The Great Gatsby was not regarded as a classic. The book is ultimately about the disillusionment of the Jazz Age. The 1949 film was marketed as a thriller, not a literary adaptation. The book’s plot was consolidated. Paramount owned the rights but never considered it a huge priority. It was producer Richard Maibaum’s passion for the project and his championing of Ladd as Gatsby that finally got the project green-lighted. Paramount dangled “Gatsby” as a carrot if Ladd would make other, more potentially profitable films first. There was an “attractive enigma” about Alan Ladd that would translate to his interpretation of Jay Gatsby. Because of the story’s “problematic” issues, a Biblical quote opens the film to appease the censors. “It was a very laborious process” to get the film made. The spirit of decadence in the book isn’t felt in the film.
Interview with David Ladd – Conducted by Alan K. Rode in 2012, this interview with Alan Ladd’s son discusses the film’s liberal adaptation of the book and play. Elliott Nugent, who had directed the Hope and Crosby Road pictures, was an odd choice for director but, as a contract director, he was assigned to the film. The 1949 version of The Great Gatsby was never shown on TV, re-released theatrically, or released on home video. Seeing how popular the book was becoming, Paramount knew it had a hot property. David Ladd notes that his dad’s Gatsby is very much the father and family man he knew. His father was in his comfort zone at Paramount, where he knew the crews and was popular among casts and crews. He left the studio for more money, but “it broke his heart” to leave a familiar workplace. David Ladd acted in his youth and talks about the transition from child actor to adulthood. He remained in the business but in a new role as producer.
There’s a noir-ish quality to The Great Gatsby. The screenplay treats Fitzgerald’s story as a thriller although it leaves many of the stronger elements by the wayside. Though an “A” film, it has the look of a B picture with its moody black-and-white photography, flawed characters, and dark motivations simmering beneath surface elegance. What it lacks in production value, it makes up for with a brisk pace and sharp dialogue. It’s a fine showcase for Alan Ladd, though aficionados of the novel may be disappointed at the omissions.
- Dennis Seuling