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F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of the legendary personalities of the early 20th century, the author that coined the phrase "The Jazz Age" and wrote its most enduring classic The Great Gatsby. He put a lot of himself and his experiences into his relatively few novels, but attempts to capture the essence of Fitzgerald on screen have not been overly successful. Woody Allen's 2011 Midnight in Paris briefly caught some of the fire of the 'lost generation' of American expatriates in Paris, with Tom Hiddleston doing a great impersonation of Fitzgerald at his happiest with his wife Zelda (Alison Pill).
But Zelda's mental illness and the necessity of earning a living to support both her and his beloved daughter's education grounded Fitzgerald in a less glamorous 1930s. Like William Faulkner and members of New York's Algonquin Round Table, the lure of screenwriting money brought the author to Hollywood. Studio chiefs like MGM's Louis B. Mayer liked the prestige of having literary names on the payroll. By all accounts F. Scott Fitzgerald had an infectious sense of humor, tied to a wicked self-awareness of his own status as a Hollywood hack revising screenplays that had been rewritten before him, and would be rewritten afterwards. His acclaimed Pat Hobby Stories for Esquire magazine are about an over-aged, alcoholic screenwriter trying to secure a studio assignment, usually through underhanded means. The stories are comical looks at the cynical workings of Hollywood, and also Fitzgerald's exaggerated view of his own situation, as a once world-shaking writer now reduced to an expendable studio employee.
In the second half of the 1930s Fitzgerald became romantically involved with Sheila Graham, a Hollywood gossip columnist who stuck by him even as his drinking increased and his morale collapsed. She later wrote a book about their relationship, Beloved Infidel, which producer Jerry Wald brought to screen almost twenty years after Fitzgerald's early death. If the film disappoints fans and followers of the great author's work, it is only because Fitzgerald was such a complex man. Written by Sy Bartlett and directed by Henry King, Beloved Infidel turns the Sheila-Scott story into a glamorized romance along the lines of Fox's big hit Love is a Many-Splendored Thing.
English writer Sheila Graham (Deborah Kerr) impresses New York newspaper manager John Wheeler (Philip Ober) with her celebrity connections and her engagement to a British Lord. She is soon drawing a high salary as a columnist specializing in provocative, gossipy headlines. Winning a coveted Hollywood assignment, she makes waves by saying what she thinks about the stars. Then she meets the famous and handsome author F. Scott Fitzgerald (Gregory Peck) at a party and they become lovers. All goes well, even though Scott cannot marry; his wife Zelda is institutionalized, making divorce impossible. But the lovers get along until studio head Stan Harris (Herbert Rudley) drops Fitzgerald from the writing pool. Harris has decided that the great author is unproductive, and that his lofty talents are unsuited to movie writing. Scott becomes depressed, drinks heavily and eventually becomes abusive to Sheila. She installs him in a beach house to write a new novel but bad news from a publisher pushes him over the edge again. At one point Scott threatens her with a gun. They separate for a time, until Fitzgerald promises to reform.
Beloved Infidel is one of Jerry Wald's soapier '50s concoctions, not that much different than his Peyton Place or The Best of Everything. It most resembles Wald's 1956 hit The Eddy Duchin Story, another ill-fated tale of a handsome celebrity and the woman who loves him. The real Fitzgerald and Graham were a very interesting pairing. She was an ambitious climber with a winning personality, who successfully parlayed her way into swank jobs by falsifying her background. Although on a slightly lower roost than the reigning gossip mavens Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, Sheila Graham was a definite player in the Hollywood social scene, where only the strongly motivated survive. In the late 1930s F. Scott Fitzgerald was still a handsome fellow no longer in control of his destiny. His wild and free times on the continent were behind him, but not the dependence on liquor that had followed him from college. A great man of letters, Fitzgerald never came to terms with the 'indignity' of working in Hollywood. In the beginning there was plenty of money for relatively little work. After the death of MGM production chief Irving Thalberg, Fitzgerald was treated with less respect, and when his employers abandoned him he fell apart. Sheila Graham may have been attracted as much by Fitzgerald's celebrity as his good looks, but her devotion to him was never in question. However it happened, Fitzgerald began writing seriously again in her company. He almost finished his final book, The Loves of The Last Tycoon before his untimely death; its main character Munroe Stahr seems an idealized melding of Irving Thalberg and Fitzgerald himself.
Disappointingly, the movie limits itself to broad romantic strokes, centering on Sheila's story and simplifying the Fitzgerald character. Graham's book of course sees everything from her point of view, and the columnist (still very active in 1959) appears to have had script approval. Neither is the superficial view of Hollywood very rewarding. Sheila faces down an actress that she has claimed in print "cannot act", and has a couple of arguments with her publisher. But we never see her behaving in the demanding role of a Hollywood columnist. She never prowls the studios for news, holds court at a restaurant or mans the phone to extract material for her column, "Hollywood Today". Instead of spending her days with secretaries, Graham lives a life of luxury in the Hollywood Hills in Scott's company.
Scott and Sheila seem forever to be walking on conveniently deserted Los Angeles beaches, carrying on passionate or heated dramatic scenes while Franz Waxman's sweeping music score (a definite plus) swells in the background. Graham is careful to retain the idea that Fitzgerald 'broadened her mind' by introducing her to great writing -- the bookshelves in her hillside apartment gradually fill up. I don't imagine that feminists appreciate the oft-repeated theme of wise men of letters 'educating' empty-headed women by buying them books ... hey, Woody Allen does exactly that in several of his pictures. 1 In Graham's case the literary appreciation lessons must not have taken: she chose to co-write her highly personal, 'this is my life' autobio Beloved Infidel with another writer, a male.
The accomplished Deborah Kerr always put something special into her film work, even in the late '60s when the only roles offered seemed to be witless sex farces. The shame is that she was not the shy type at all, and prudish '50s movies couldn't take advantage of her adventurousness. Even Kerr's nuns are sexy, in unexpectedly honest ways. She gives the Sheila Graham role everything she has and is limited only by the script's failure to develop the characters. We really have no reason to suspect that Sheila has any insecurity about background until she suddenly breaks down on the beach, confessing to being a complete phony, an orphan who wangled her way from a chorus line into print, and never let up in her effort to surround herself with a wall of respectability. As one doesn't expect a Hollywood columnist to be Goldilocks, there should be plenty to admire in this self-made character. Sheila instead wails of her shame of being Jewish -- her name is an invention as well. As is typical of Beloved Infidel, those issues vanish with the scene, returning only briefly in one of Scott's drunken tirades.
Gregory Peck's acting talent has been derided almost from his first films, when American females considered him perhaps the most handsome man alive. Peck's problems come when he gravitates toward 'big' emotional roles unsuited to him. (I don't count his Ahab among his weak roles, as Peck's rigid glare makes for a fine, guardedly restrained Ahab.) Peck is good when playing straight-arrow, quiet guys that think rather than mouth off, that answer trouble with natural integrity: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, The Big Country. The script for Beloved Infidel does not do Peck any favors. F. Scott Fitzgerald also shows little if any sign of insecurity or alcohol dependence in the early stages of the romance. Scott doesn't even express any misgivings about the nature of his work in Hollywood. Then he's fired from his writing job and undergoes a complete personality change. When Scott ruins Sheila's radio auditions (remember, this is all about her), Peck's attempt to play out-of-control drunk is simply terrible, as if he were doing a tent revival of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The drama pretty much goes out the window at that point; we never feel that the movie even cares to explore Fitzgerald's very interesting life. At the very least, you'd think that the author of The Great Gatsby would have had some more original crazy things to say when he was flying on the booze.
Beloved Infidel has some pretty scenes on the beach and quite a few passages played out against uninspiring studio sets; anachronistic clothing and hairstyles make us unsure of exactly when events are happening, until the next newspaper headline or bit of expository dialogue. Henry King plants the CinemaScope camera and contributes little. Not only is the poolside courtyard of the Garden of Allah Hotel replicated by an unconvincing diorama, King's idea of enlivening things is to have a man chase a girl around the pool. Even they don't seem very excited. The screenplay begs for a more naturalistic treatment of the final scene up at Sheila's place, when the police and the ambulance arrive. Fortunately, Ms. Kerr's committed performance manages to keep the screen alive. Romance fans will probably give the show reasonable marks.
Philip Ober played Deborah Kerr's army officer husband in her hit movie From Here to Eternity. Eddie Albert receives third billing for a couple of forgettable scenes. In one he supports Scott and in the other he urges Sheila to ditch the alcoholic writer.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Beloved Infidel is a handsome encoding of this Fox release from 1959, that has mainly seen screenings only in old pan-scanned TV prints. The beach scenes capture the lustrous quality of new Deluxe Color prints.
The original theatrical trailer stresses the romance and Fitzgerald's violent outbursts. Franz Waxman fans will appreciate Twilight Time's Isolated Music Score track, with its delightfully syrupy main theme -- Waxman could be depended to rise to every challenge, from Berlin jazz to '50s bathos. Julie Kirgo's insert pamphlet essay examines the film's relationship to the biographical truth, along the way comparing Henry King's movie to that other Hollywood tragedy, A Star is Born. Beloved Infidel foreshadows its climax when Scott and Sheila discuss the gun he keeps, but any movie that leaves a depressed Hollywood alcoholic alone on a beach is going to invite associations with the sad tale of Norman Maine.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Beloved Infidel Blu-ray rates:
1. In older movies, I always took this turn of events to be a placeholder for the woman's sex education under the 'guidance' of the more mature, experienced male. If so, those old screenwriters were certainly fooling themselves about the nature of relationships.
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T'was Ever Thus.