When thinking about The Great Gatsby, many people conjure up one of the movies just as quickly as the original novel. After all, the timeless, tragic story of the enigmatic Jay Gatsby makes excellent fodder for the silver screen. Indeed, from the time the book was written, there have been four major film adaptations: 1926, 1949, 1974, and 2013.
While the most recent ones can still be watched today, the first 1926 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby has been lost to the world. "Lost" means that no prints, negatives, or any other materials of the silent film are known to have survived in any archive. Some enthusiasts clung to rumors that a full copy of the film was archived in Moscow, but this was never substantiated.
Frankly, the largest cause of silent film loss was intentional destruction. These films were viewed as having little future value when their theatrical runs ended. Moreover, by the end of the silent era, silent films themselves were perceived as completely worthless. Meanwhile, the studios could actually earn money by recycling the film for their silver content.
With much excitement, in 1997—71 years after the film was released—the original trailer was located on a severely deteriorated reel of nitrate film by a collector in San Francisco. Once it was copied onto safety film by the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, the film completely decomposed, leaving no physical trace of the original film behind.
Why care so much about this nearly 100 year-old trailer? Today the Jazz Age is one of the most parodied and riffed upon eras in our modern day. And unlike the other Great Gatsby adaptations, this was a film document of the Jazz Age that was actually filmed in the Jazz Age. Check out the restored trailer below.
Above all other considerations, Paramount was hoping for a significant box office payday for their film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, and to this end, they played up the party scenes at Gatsby's mansion for all their scandalous potential.
The critical response to the film version was less than positive. Mordaunt Hall—actually the first official film critic for the New York Times—writes, "The screen version of The Great Gatsby is quite good entertainment, but... neither [the director] nor the players have succeeded in fully developing the characters." He also makes a note, which I found comical, of how 'unrealistic' Daisy's alcohol consumption appeared (see below)
The response from F Scott Fitzgerald's wife Zelda was far more severe. In a letter from her to her daughter Scottie, she writes: “We saw The Great Gatsby in the movies. It’s ROTTEN and awful and terrible and we left.” Can you imagine walking out of your own movie? Sheesh.
Notably, Baz Luhrmann's 2013 version seems to echo the bombastic, sybaritic tone of the long lost 1926 film. While the original film was a mere 80 minutes long, the 2013 version appears to take the same approach, but for a duration of nearly two and a half hours. In a thumbs-down review from The Chicago Reader, the critic states: "Luhrmann is exactly the wrong person to adapt such a delicately rendered story, and his 3D feature plays like a ghastly Roaring 20s blowout at a sorority house."
This time of course, F Scott and Zelda are no longer around to pass judgement on the latest adaptation of The Great Gatsby; however, we do have word that Fitzgerald's granddaughter, writer and filmmaker Eleanor Lanahan, loved it!
"I’ve come all the way from Vermont and I wanted to see what [Luhrmann] did to my grandfather’s book. I do feel Scott would have been proud."
Hmph, I can't help but wonder if he would have!
A reminder to any descendants of F Scott Fitzgerald reading this, you can pre-order the Century Press edition of The Great Gatsby here.