Watch the Trailer for the Long-Lost First Film Adaptation of The Great Gatsby (1926)

Despite being a peren­ni­al con­tender for the title of the Great Amer­i­can Nov­el, F. Scott Fitzger­ald’s The Great Gats­by has elud­ed a whol­ly sat­is­fy­ing cin­e­mat­ic adap­ta­tion. The most recent such attempt, now a decade old, was pri­mar­i­ly a Baz Lurhmann kitsch extrav­a­gan­za show­cas­ing Leonar­do DiCaprio; nor did its pre­de­ces­sors, which put in the title role such clas­sic lead­ing men as Robert Red­ford and Alan Ladd, ever dis­tin­guish them­selves in an endur­ing way. But these pic­tures all met with hap­pi­er fates than the very first Gats­by film, which came out in 1926 — just a year and a half after the nov­el itself — and seems not to have been seen since.

The first actor to por­tray Jay Gats­by on the sil­ver screen was Warn­er Bax­ter, who would become the high­est-paid star in Hol­ly­wood a decade lat­er (and a fix­ture of West­erns, crime seri­als, and oth­er B‑movie gen­res half a decade after that). In the role of Daisy Buchanan was Lois Wil­son, an Alaba­ma beau­ty queen turned all-Amer­i­can silent-era star­let (who would lat­er turn direc­tor); in that of Nick Car­raway, Neil Hamil­ton, whom tele­vi­sion audi­ences of the nine­teen-six­ties would come to know as Bat­man’s Com­mis­sion­er Gor­don. But none of The Great Gats­by’s cast­ing choic­es will please the old-Hol­ly­wood con­nois­seur as much as that of a young, pre-Thin Man William Pow­ell as George Wil­son.

“The reck­less dri­ving that results in the death of Myr­tle Wil­son serves to bring out a ster­ling trait in Gats­by’s char­ac­ter,” New York Times crit­ic Mour­daunt Hall wrote (in 1926) of a mem­o­rable scene in the nov­el that seems to have become a mem­o­rable scene in the film. “Pow­ell, while not quite in his ele­ment, gives an unerr­ing por­tray­al of the chauf­feur.” Though Hall pro­nounced The Great Gats­by “quite a good enter­tain­ment” on the whole, he also point­ed out that “it would have ben­e­fit­ed by more imag­i­na­tive direc­tion” from Her­bert Brenon, who “has suc­cumbed to a num­ber of ordi­nary movie flash­es with­out incul­cat­ing much in the way of sub­tle­ty.”

For Brenon, a pro­lif­ic auteur who direct­ed no few­er than five pic­tures that year, this crit­i­cism could only have stung so much. But as lat­er came to light, F. Scott and Zel­da Fitzger­ald judged this first adap­ta­tion of the nov­el much more harsh­ly. “We saw The Great Gats­by in the movies,” Zel­da wrote to their daugh­ter Scot­tie. “It’s ROTTEN and awful and ter­ri­ble and we left.” Only its trail­er sur­vives today, and the glimpses it offers give lit­tle indi­ca­tion of what, exact­ly, would have spurred them to walk out. But now that the orig­i­nal Great Gats­by has entered the pub­lic domain, any of us could try our hand at mak­ing an adap­ta­tion with­out hav­ing to shell out for the rights. Maybe our inter­pre­ta­tions would­n’t please the Fitzger­alds either, but then, what ever did?

Relat­ed con­tent:

Free: The Great Gats­by & Oth­er Major Works by F. Scott Fitzger­ald

Gertrude Stein Sends a “Review” of The Great Gats­by to F. Scott Fitzger­ald (1925)

83 Years of Great Gats­by Book Cov­er Designs: A Pho­to Gallery

The Great Gats­by Is Now in the Pub­lic Domain and There’s a New Graph­ic Nov­el

Haru­ki Muraka­mi Trans­lates The Great Gats­by, the Nov­el That Influ­enced Him Most

Revealed: The Visu­al Effects Behind The Great Gats­by

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.