Lost Film Files #5: The Great Gatsby (1926)

Status: Missing and presumed lost except for the fragments found in the film’s trailer.

This is the very first film adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, filmed a mere four years after it was written. No need to make this a costume picture. The twenties were roaring away as the cameras cranked.

1926 was a banner year for silent film and The Great Gatsby, while praised, seems to have been a bit lost in the shuffle of Beau Geste, Old Ironside, What Price Glory, Night of Love, Flesh and the Devil… 

Here are some vintage reviews:

Photoplay particularly praised Lois Wilson as Daisy Buchanan.

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F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel of the great war’s aftermath presented unusual film difficulties. Herbert Brenon, the director, has managed to retain much of the feeling of the story. Gatsby comes out of the war to achieve a fortune unscrupulously. He falls, of course, in the end, finding that happiness can’t be won that way. Lois Wilson runs away with the film as the jazzy Daisy Buchanan who flashes cocktails and silken you-know-she-wears-’ems.

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The distributor magazine Motion Picture News had this to say:

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Every good job has been done by this picture — an adaptation of the novel and play. It offered material which necessitated the intelligent handling of characterization so as to keep its spirit intact. In other winds, it depended upon the director emphasizing the central figure as he was emphasized in the novel and play to approach a “nearly perfect gentleman.” This Herbert Brenon has done and so well has Warner Baxter responded that his performance is quite the best of his career and one of the best of the season.

A tragic figure is Gatsby, a product of the gutter who comes up in the world and tries to assume the culture which only goes with long-established generations of ancestry. The manner in which Brenon works is in showing the mute pride and helplessness of the man in attempting to “belong.” Of course, Baxter has his work cut out for him, too.

It’s a sophisticated story, told with first-rate lights and shadows. The spirit of the original is there with plenty to spare. It has its dramatic moments, its romantic scenes, its contrasts and conflicts. And it is splendidly acted by every member of the cast, including Lois Wilson, Neil Hamilton, William Powell, Hale Hamilton, and Georgia Hale.

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You read that cast right. William Powell, Lois Wilson, Georgia Hale…

The New York Times felt that something was missing from the final product:

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. Although Mr. Brenon has included the tragic note at the end, he has succumbed to a number of ordinary movie flashes without inculcating much in the way of subtlety. Neither he nor the players have succeeded in fully developing the characters.

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Zelda Fitzgerald was even less happy with the film (she and her husband walked out):

“We saw ‘The Great Gatsby’ in the movies. It’s ROTTEN and awful and terrible and we left.”

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Unfortunately, we will never be able to judge for ourselves. The Great Gatsby is one of the more sought-after lost films of the silent era. It is a shame that it is gone since it would have provided a unique perspective on the novel, as played by the men and women who made up that Lost Generation.

Movies Silently Quarterly Report

Here is what happened in the first quarter of 2013:

Top Reviews: You love Valentino and Veidt!

  1. The Sheik
  2. The Indian Tomb
  3. The Love Flower
  4. The Cheat
  5. Judex

Top Articles: You like to read about silent movie myths!

  1. Silent Movie Myth #3: The Firsts
  2. Silent Movie Myth #1: Silent stars had funny voices
  3. Silent Movie Myth #4: Tied to the Railroad Tracks
  4. Silent Movie Myth #2: Silent Movies are just Sound Movies with a few intertitles
  5. Silent Movie Time Capsule: Who were the top movie stars of 1913?

Reviews that need a little love:

The bottom 5 reviews. Three out of five are nautical tales. Are you trying to tell me something?

The Sea Lion (1921) A Silent Film Review

It has Bessie Love and Hobart Bosworth! That can’t be bad!

Captain January (1924) A Silent Film Review

Baby Peggy stars with the afore-mentioned Mr. Bosworth. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll say “awwwww!”

Miss Lulu Bett (1921) A Silent Film Review

Lois Wilson and the always-splendid Milton Sills star in this one. It is one of the sweetest romances in silent film.

Eve’s Leaves (1926) A Silent Movie Review

Leatrice Joy and William Boyd star in this ship-bound gender bender. Wacky fun!

Little Annie Rooney (1925) A Silent Film Review

Mary Pickford and William Haines lead this tenement-based romantic dramedy.

Top Geographic Locations:

There are the countries that visited this site the most. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy seeing the huge variety of nation icons in my website stats.

  1. United States
  2. United Kingdom
  3. Canada
  4. France
  5. Sweden

And the runners-up are Spain, Germany and Italy.

At present, I have not posted enough biographies to start counting the most popular ones. I will be including that statistic in next quarter’s report.

Thanks for coming along on the guilt trip, hee heeeee. And a huge “thank you” to everyone who has visited, tweeted and sent messages.

The Prisoner of Zenda (1922) A Silent Film Review

Rudolf (Lewis Stone) is an Englishman on holiday in the unstable European kingdom of Ruritania. It turns out that he is a dead ringer for the soon-to-be-crowned king (also Lewis Stone). This comes in handy when the king is kidnapped by his evil brother and Rudolf must take his place to save the kingdom. A young Ramon Novarro has a star-making turn as the theatrical (and homicidal) Rupert of Hentzau.

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Silent Movie Bookshelf: The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

Up until now I have focused on books about silent films themselves and the men and women who made them. For a change, I am going to cover some books that inspired silent films. Let’s start with the quintessential swashbuckler, The Prisoner of Zenda.

My copy of the book is a Penguin Classics edition. However, since the novel was written in 1894, it is in the public domain and may be downloaded for free. The edition I found has illustrations by Charles Dana Gibson. And there is a splendid free public domain audiobook courtesy of LibriVox. (Seriously, I’ve bought audiobooks that aren’t half as good.)

What is it?: A tale that has been told before and has been retold again but has never been told better: An Englishman named Rudolf visits a European kingdom and discovers (through an indiscretion on the part of his great great great great grandmother) that he is a dead ringer for the king. This comes in handy when the king is kidnapped by his evil brother and Rudolf must keep the conspirators at bay by occupying the throne.

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My favorite part: The rakish villain, Rupert of Hentzau. While he is not the main bad guy (that would be Duke Michael, the afore mentioned evil brother), he is by far the most memorable. The book describes him like this:

Once again he turned to wave his hand, and then the gloom of the thickets swallowed him and he was lost from our sight. Thus he vanished reckless and wary, graceful and graceless, handsome, debonair, vile, and unconquered.

Rupert proved to be so popular that Anthony Hope’s sequel was named for him.

My least favorite part: The books has a bit of snobbish tone that gets trying very quickly. Also, Hope has the habit of introducing too many characters. Michael has six henchmen when only one or two would to the job just as well. Rudolf’s English friends and family are carefully introduced at the beginning only to disappear and never be heard from again in the book.

Influence: The book proved to be so popular that an entire sub-genre is named for it. Ruritanian adventure, named for the fictional nation, is defined as “of, relating to, or having the characteristics of an imaginary place of high romance.”

To readers of Victorian literature, it wonderful to read actual names. What do I mean? Well, Victorian novels that purported to be about actual people and places would often do this:

“He was the Count d’A—— from the estate of G—— in the county R——– which is just to the north of S—-.”

“Really, Mr. T——–, must you speak in dashes? You sound like that common M—— from E——–.”

I know they were trying to defend themselves from a libel suit but give me a break! Either make up something entirely, as Hope did, or pick out an older name and use that, as Thomas Hardy did with his fictional Wessex county. We, the readers, promise to forgive you. What bugs me most, though, is when the writer makes up a name or city and then uses the dashes anyway! I think they were trying to give the illusion of breathless gossip. They merely succeed in making my eyes roll.

Yes, I realize I am upbraiding authors who have been dead for a century. I am sorry. One tires of dashes.

I take comfort in the fact that Thackery had a rather funny dash bit when he went off on a tangent in Vanity Fair.

Silent movie connection:

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The Prisoner of Zenda was a popular best-seller and was adapted three times for the silent screen. The 1913 version survives in archives. The survival status of the 1915 version is unknown. However, it is the 1922 version that is the most famous. Starring Lewis Stone and Alice Terry and directed by Rex Ingram, it is a lush adventure. The film also contained a star-making performance with a very, very young Ramon Novarro walking off with the picture as the theatrical villain Rupert of Hentzau.

It should be noted, though, that the definitive film version of this book is the 1937 Selznick production starring Ronald Colman as Rudolf/The King and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Rupert.

And the worst version? That would have to be the 1979 Peter Sellers version, which attempts to turn the story into a knockabout comedy. In the end, the critics took glee in giving this film a knockabout in their reviews. Well, it is pretty vile.

How about another remake? Real, honest-to-goodness fencing has been missing from motion pictures for far too long. Enough of the CG-enhanced acrobatics! They look cheesy and there is no suspense. I want sabers and banter and shadows and the thwacking of candles and ropes! The Prisoner of Zenda has all this and more.

In the meantime, enjoy the novel.

Silent Movie Bookshelf: Amateur Movie Making by Herbert McKay

Today I am going to review yet another volume from the New York Institute of Photography’s silent movie how-to series. This book is a little different from the other works reviewed. While the previous books in the series focused on a specific skill (acting, writing, directing, photography), this book teaches the reader how to make an entire silent movie for their own amusement.

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The Idol Dancer (1920) A Silent Film Review

White Almond Flower (Clarine Seymour) is a flapper-ish island girl who just can’t choose between a sickly missionary (Creighton Hale) and an atheist beach bum (Richard Barthelmess). Will WAF be “civilized” or will she be free to continue her moonlight idolatry? D.W. Griffith directs this tale of religion, the nature of civilization and shimmy-shimmy shakes.
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The Oyster Princess (1919) A Silent Film Review

Ossi’s father is the Oyster King of America and she has decided that she deserves nothing less than a  European prince. Nucki is the penniless prince in question but a few cases of mistaken identity later, all plans are in shambles. Hidden amongst the the wacky hijinks is some pointed social commentary courtesy of director Ernst Lubitsch.

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Silent Movie Myth: Tied to the Railroad Tracks

Note: This article covers the origins of the trope, how it erroneously became associated with silent films and why the myth persists. For more details on the actors involved, the Snidely Whiplash connection and examples of this trope subverted, check out my follow up article. You can also check out real footage and vintage images in my video response.

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