Baz Luhrmann's Great Gatsby is not the first movie to insult F. Scott Fitzgerald
Revisiting Frank Borzage's Three Comrades, the only film on which F. Scott Fitzgerald received screenwriting credit
If nothing else, the recent release of Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby adaptation provides a good excuse to revisit the sole film on which F. Scott Fitzgerald received screenwriting credit, the 1938 melodrama Three Comrades. The movies are similar insofar that neither one really respects Fitzgerald’s writing—the author was reportedly unhappy with Comrades because relatively little of his work made it into the completed film. Since it takes place in Germany, an executive at MGM submitted the script (cowritten by Fitzgerald and Edward E. Paramore Jr. from Erich Maria Remarque’s novel) to the German ambassador for approval—the studio wanted to make sure that nothing in it would offend the tastes of the Nazi Party, who had been threatening to ban American films if they contained anything perceived as anti-German. (At this point the United States were still officially neutral in regards to Germany; furthermore most Hollywood studios were financially unstable throughout the Great Depression and were afraid to lose German ticket sales.) The ambassador proposed numerous changes to the screenplay, all of which were put into effect.
It’s hard to say how Fitzgerald-esque Three Comrades would have been if this act of appeasement hadn’t taken place, given the other dominant personalities involved: director Frank Borzage, producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and MGM itself, which had the most recognizable house style of the major studios. (Dave Kehr, in his Reader capsule review, was not receptive to the MGM touch.) Yet one can hear Fitzgerald’s voice in some of the dialogue, particularly in the movie’s effervescent first half. The story takes place shortly after World War I, centering on three inseparable war buddies who open a garage together. Their friendship, we quickly realize, gives them a go-getting spirit and makes them unafraid of starting a business during an economic depression. “We’re going to be very rich,” says the most cynical of the friends, in a short speech that Fitzgerald must have written. “Germany’s going to need expert mechanics in the years to come. There’ll be all sorts of things to repair: souls, consciences, broken hearts by the thousands …”
Fitzgerald’s eloquent prose fits rather nicely with Borzage’s graceful visuals. What might have sounded self-consciously florid in the hands of another director feels musical under his direction.