The Most Important and the Most Difficult Subject for Our Time": Hollywood and Tender Is the Night
Hackman, Paul, Papers on Language & Literature
F. Scott Fitzgerald's time in Hollywood has long interested his readers. This interest, though, seems at first to be out of proportion with the actual influence of Hollywood on Fitzgerald's career. While he spent some brief time there in 1927 and 1931, the bulk of his Hollywood time, 1937-1940, came after the completion of his final novel, Tender is the Night, and resulted in only one screen credit for his years of script-writing (Three Comrades, MGM, 1938). Yet, these Hollywood years and the shorter dalliances that preceded them have become the subject of tremendous contention about how we ultimately read Fitzgerald the novelist, with opinions arriving from opposite ends of the spectrum. Initial assessments by those who knew or worked with Fitzgerald tended to regard the novelist and the medium of film a bad fit, but since at least the 1950s critics have sought to point out the integration of film technique into Fitzgerald's great works of prose. Within this debate exist two distinct objects of study--Fitzgerald's written work such as novels, stories, and screenplays and Fitzgerald's biography as revealed in accounting records, anecdotes, and personal essays. I propose that Tender is the Night allows us a unique combination of these objects in terms of understanding Fitzgerald's complex relationship to Hollywood. Published in 1934, Tender is the Night was written between Fitzgerald's greatest literary success, The Great Gatsby, and his unfinished manuscript about a Hollywood producer, The Last Tycoon. By the time he began writing his final completed novel Fitzgerald had visited Hollywood and made the optioning of his novels and stories an integral part of his yearly income, yet he had not yet taken the final step of becoming a full-time employee of the film industry. Finally, Tender is the Night, the story of a brilliant man slowly falling apart, was written during Fitzgerald's own darkest years as his reputation as a brilliant young novelist began to lose momentum. This novel, then, represents a moment when the author had some insider knowledge of the industry along with an outsider's critique, a vested material interest in film along with a sense of himself as an artist who wrote novels and not screenplays, and a subject that if not outright biographical was at least very close to Fitzgerald's heart. The complexity of this relationship--Fitzgerald's simultaneous interest in Hollywood riches and techniques and rejection of Hollywood superficiality and claims to art--ultimately manifests itself in the troubling theme of incest that pervades Tender is the Night.
In his "A Note on Fitzgerald" John Dos Passos regrets the early death of his friend before he could finish The Last Tycoon, sure to be a "great novel" (339). More striking than the fact that Dos Passos felt The Last Tycoon would turn out to be a well-written novel is his opinion that the true greatness of the novel lies in its subject of Hollywood,
probably the most important and the most difficult subject of our time to deal with. Whether we like it or not it is in that great bargain sale of five and ten cent lusts and dreams that the new bottom level of our culture is being created. The fact that at the end of a life of brilliant worldly successes and crushing disasters Scott Fitzgerald was engaged so ably in a work of such importance proves him to have been the first-rate novelist his friends believed him to be. (343)
Not only is Hollywood an acceptable subject for a literary novel in the opinion of Dos Passos, but its choice by Fitzgerald confirms him as one of America's greatest novelists. This is an opinion, about The Last Tycoon and about Hollywood, completely rejected by Kenneth Eble in his biographical study of Fitzgerald. Eble sees The Last Tycoon as "a departure from Fitzgerald's previous work," a departure that would have ended up truly "second-rate" (148). Eble admits that all we have of the novel is a fragment and so Fitzgerald very well could have drastically improved it before publication, but he then questions "whether a great novel is likely to result from a documentary study, and particularly from one of such a limited and artificial world as Hollywood" (149). …