When the Authors Went to Hollywood [THE CARPETBAGGERS & THE LAST TYCOON]

“Do I have any writers around here who understand the way people talk?”

Out of all the literary pairings that could be made, one of the most unconventional would have to be that of Harold Robbins and F. Scott Fitzgerald. No, the two famed authors never collaborated on any lost masterpiece (that we know of, at least), but each in their own way greatly changed the field of literature in their respective eras. Fitzgerald quickly became the quintessential chronicler of 1920s America, the era of society so steeped in decadence, that it resulted in him coining the term “the jazz age.” Robbins, meanwhile, succeeded in pushing boundaries and taboos when it came to the kind of content that was considered acceptable by the publishing world. The levels of sex, scandal, and melodrama in his work had never been seen before and quickly made Robbins part of the social and sexual revolution of the 1960s.

If these two authors could claim spots on vastly different ends of the literary spectrum, the one world that managed to link them together was Hollywood. Both Fitzgerald and Robbins found themselves heading out West to try their hand at screenwriting at different stages in their careers. For Robbins, the move was made to capitalize on his success as one of the most scandalous authors of his generation, while Fitzgerald’s move was made out of financial desperation following The Great Depression. As varied as their reasons for going to Hollywood were, so too was the reception they received there. Robbins found enough success to start his own production company, while Fitzgerald could never get a career going for himself in Tinseltown. 

The one common element the two did share with regard to their experience in Hollywood was an outsider’s view of it. Both writers found Hollywood to be something of a beast of a place to exist with a host of characters that operated in a slanted reality that was alien to both writers. The experiences of the two men led them to each pen their own take on Hollywood with Robbins’ novel The Carpetbaggers and Fitzgerald’s final work, The Last Tycoon becoming some of the most provocative stories about Hollywood ever written.

Recently, Kino Lorber has re-released the film versions of both novels on Blu-ray, capturing all the wit and commentary that flowed throughout each writer’s work. 

The Carpetbaggers

Directed by Edward Dmytryk, The Carpetbaggers tells the story of Jonas Cord Jr. (George Peppard), a playboy who inherits the family business following the death of his father (Leif Erickson). Over the years, Jonas turns into a conglomerate in his own right, eventually becoming the head of a movie studio and ruthlessly tearing down anyone he feels stands in his way in this adaptation of Robbins’ massive novel about greed and passion.

The Carpetbaggers remains the kind of lavish, all-star affair that took it right to the top in terms of production design and high drama. There’s a delightfully high degree of shamelessness with the way the filmmakers brazenly embrace its scandalous elements, such as casually discussing a pregnant girl who tries to kill herself because of the main character. Salacious and audacious in virtually every scene, there’s a heightened camp factor that you’d almost forget exists due to the daring steps it takes with its plot turns, such as the revelation of a long-lost twin brother). The Carpetbaggers is ultimately the epitome of a soap opera put to film with the overly dramatic twists it forces onto its characters and its total disregard for both nuance and censorship.

As soapy as The Carpetbaggers is, it manages some groundedness when it comes to its portrayal of Hollywood. There’s a pragmatic element to the Hollywood scenes that show a moviemaking town run by gamblers and businessmen who were all guided by guts and instinct. The Carpetbaggers shows that there wasn’t a lot of room for sentiment in the industry as stars and studio heads were replaced in the blink of an eye, proving anyone is disposable if they need to be. The way Jonas makes his way into town and ends up running his own studio accentuates the old-school way films and deals were made with a roll-of-the-dice mentality mixed with a viciousness, and a lack of loyalty that in some ways was necessary to exist.

The Last Tycoon

In The Last Tycoon, Harold Pinter adapts F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel about a famous, respected movie producer named Monroe Stahr (Robert De Niro) and his struggle to hold everything together, from the daily operations of the movie studio he runs to his own life, which includes a budding romance with a woman named Kathleen (Ingrid Boulting), who is new to the world of Hollywood.

Distilled through Elia Kazan (in what would be his final directing effort) Fitzgerald’s view of Hollywood in The Last Tycoon is both as jaded and as poetic as one might expect given the author’s storytelling sensibilities. The movie is at its most pointed when it focuses on the business side of moviemaking and the way those in charge viewed the industry. An unforgettable moment sees a key studio figure played by Robert Mitchum saying writers will never be unionized. “They hate each other’s guts,” he says “They’ll sell each other out for a nickel.” Scenes like these are balanced with more human ones, such as the sub-plot showing Rodriguez (Tony Curtis), a once-famous leading man facing insecurity and vulnerability because of his age.

But The Last Tycoon eventually slows the industry commentary down and chooses to focus on the love story at hand. Much of the movie’s latter half sees Monroe not only pursuing the romance with Kathleen but also desperately looking for something real after living in the movies for so long. Watching Monroe try to escape his Hollywood existence while he is starring in the movie that is his life gives The Last Tycoon a slight postmodern slant as well as a tragic sensibility that is unexpected. All of this culminates in an ending that sees Monroe making a movie pitch about the real-life ending he wishes he could have. It’s a poetic final note to end this story about a man who has been molded by Hollywood.  

Even though their writing styles were different, both Robbins and Fitzgerald couldn’t help but be true observers of the cultures of their time. It’s no wonder that their name-making approaches to storytelling should have found them in Hollywood at one time or another. They both got there through different means and for different reasons, but still managed to turn their experiences there into some of the most honest and telling documents concerning Tinseltown. Despite their vastly opposing views on Hollywood, neither man’s take (according to these works, at least) seems overly critical or heavily romanticized. In many respects, both films offer up a sort of fly-on-the-wall account of what the picture business was like during the golden age. Even though The Last Tycoon was a prestige hopeful that never was, and The Carpetbaggers was one of the top moneymakers of the year, neither was particularly considered well-respected in its day. But both movies, just like Hollywood itself, continue to live on. 

The Carpetbaggers and The Last Tycoon are both available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

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