The Aero Theater in Santa Monica is showing a brand new print of the 1949 version of The Great Gatsby on Wednesday, August 29th, to honor the 100th anniversary of the birth of actor Barry Sullivan (August 29, 1912 – June 6, 1994). The tall, stately Sullivan plays Tom Buchanan, the husband of Daisy, the impossible object of Alan' Ladd's Jeff Gatz/Jay Gatsby. (Gatsby's birth name in the novel was James, but this is Hollywood. The straight arrow Ladd is more a Jeff than a James, Jim or Jimmy, names that can carry a hint of perversity vice the All-American name Jeff.)
According to his younger daughter Patsy Webb-Sullivan, her father was an excellent tennis player, possessed as an adult of the athleticism of his youth. He had been a football quarterback and running back when he was young, which served him well in playing Tom Buchanan, whose college football career represents the best -- and lost days of his life.
Of course, Buchanan's wife Daisy, played in the 1949 version by Betty Field, represents the best -- and lost days of Gatz/Gatsby's life, even if they were never as fully realized as Tom's dreams had been on the Yale gridiron.
Barry Sullivan's family will be in attendance at the showing, and his daughter Jenny Sullivan will participate in a question and answer session with with writer Alan K. Rode. Jenny, one of two children that Sullivan had with his first wife, the actress Marie Brown, wrote the 2001 play J for J (Journals for John) based on unsent letters her father had written but never sent to her brother, Johnny, who was mentally impaired.
Patsy Webb-Sullivan, his daughter with his second wife Gita Hall, says that her father was the first Hollywood celebrity who publicly acknowledged having a retarded child. In that era, handicapped children of the famous typically were shipped off to schools or nursing homes far away from Hollywood to avoid potential public embarrassment.
A Democratic Party stalwart, Sullivan worked tirelessly for the rights of disabled people, which brought him close to John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby. The Kennedy's sister Rosemary was mentally incapacitated, which led to the Kennedy family's long-time commitment to disabled children, including the Special Olympics. Barry Sullivan, like the Kennedys, was a pioneer in working to ensure the disabled were treated with dignity and their fundamental rights were respected.
1949 v. 1974
The 1949 Gatsby is an interesting film. In many ways, it is superior to the 1974 version that starred Robert Redford as Gatsby, Mia Farrow as Daisy, and Bruce Dern as Tom. Marlon Brando, who was red hot at the time, was Paramount chief Bob Evans' first pick to play Fitzgerald's cypher, but the almost 50-year-old Brando'd been bamboozled out of his Godfather points by Evans and wanted to recoup so demanded $4 million, an unprecedented salary that he'd finally get for Superman.
Evans, refused, of course, and that also kept Brando from a cameo in The Godfather: Part II. Steve McQueen, a more age-appropriate choice to play Gatsby (he was six years younger than Brando), offered his services for free to co-star in Gatsby with Evans ex-wife Ali McGraw (McQueen's future missus). Evans had prepared the movie as a vehicle for his erstwhile better half, but she'd left him for McQueen on the set of Sam Peckinpah's The Get Away and he vetoed their participation, even when McQueen offered to play the role for free.
Redford signed on just as he was becoming a megastar, but the movie proved to be a stinker bombed at the box office, despite a script by Francis Ford Coppola. It was best known in its time for its vapidity and for the pictorial spreads it spawned in fashion mags. The '49 version, which was also owned by Paramount, went into the never-never land of orphaned films, so it couldn't compete with the new product.
It has still not been released on DVD, but a new print has been made for the American Cinematheque, which owns and operates the Aero and the even more venerable Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.
The 1949 Gatsby, in spirit, is less Scott Fitzgerald's Great American Novel and more Owen Davis's melodramatic stage adaptation that ran on Broadway in 1926 for 112 performances (a hit in those days). I don't want to spoil it for you, but Jay Gatz's past is fleshed out in flash backs.
It is those flashbacks that makes it a Ladd noir. The movie actually works on screen as a movie, not a sub-Citizen Kane attempt at art. It was never intended as that, as Fitzgerald's book -- then out of print -- had not yet obtained iconic status.
This is The Great Gatsby as melodrama, an hour-and-a-half-long meller, and it works because melodrama works on screen because it provides action, something lacking in the '74 version.
If you're looking for Fitzgerald's -- what would you call, it? Je ne sais quoi -- you won't find it here. It's the elusiveness that makes The Great Gatsby the novel great (as does the elusiveness of Don Draper's past in AMC's Madmen, a modern take on Gatsby). There is no elusiveness here, but it is definitely a treat for Ladd and noir fans. And no, Vernoica Lake, who wound up as a hash-house blue-plate special slinger in Vermont when I was a kid, is not Daisy.
There will also be a showing of the 1947 noir The Gangster, an Allied Artists production (the post-World War II name of Poverty Row studio Monogram), in which Sullivan stars as a mobster in a turf war. Dalton Trumbo, who was caught up in the machinations of the House Un-American Committee's anti-red jihad that year and would be one of the first to be blacklisted, contributed dialogue to the script.
Tickets for the twin bill are available at the Web site Fandango.
The Aero Theatre is located at 1328 Montana Ave, Santa Monica, California.