Effing Scott Fitzgerald

Nothing says “I love you” more than concocting a rose-colored version of an abusive relationship with a drunken (albeit brilliant) lout. So, if waking up in a puddle of your partner’s feces and vomit translates to “warm and fuzzy,” swoon ethereally to the SAE website and pick up your limited edition Blu-Ray of 1959’s BELOVED INFIDEL, now available through Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.

This lush production of a lush protagonist was adapted by Sy Barlett from bogus British socialite-turned-Hollywood-gossip columnist Sheilah Graham‘s best-selling reminiscence, chronicling her dangerous liaison with famed author F. Scott Fitzgerald. The subject matter couldn’t have been better suited to the talents of “and with” co-writer Gerold Frank, who created a cottage industry for himself by assisting celebrated fragile, self-destructive women in their true-life shame-on-you tales; his other demi-credits include I’ll Cry Tomorrow (Lillian Roth) and Too Much, Too Soon (Diana Barrymore); his solo piece de resistance would literally be the last word on female peril, The Boston Strangler. Frank indeed lived up to his name – although more than half of his scoop-friendly findings were, in reality, scooper-friendly droppings. BELOVED INFIDEL is no exception.

Purporting to be the true story of one of the twentieth century’s greatest romances, BELOVED INFIDEL becomes one of 20th Century-Fox’s greatest fantasies, an unrealistic look at a horrid coupling that became a Hollywood legend simply because one participant was dead and the other made a living out of stretching the truth. The movie is nevertheless extremely entertaining, due to its lavish oversized CinemaScope production values and overpaid popcorn-selling stars. Admittedly, it all works; even as we viewers shake our heads in disbelief, we’re eating up every elegantly wrapped nugget of soap operatic schmaltz. The movie is nothing less than the anti-Christ template for Lifetime and Hallmark TV-feature bios (think the recent Liz and Dick debacle or such notorious Seventies big-screen pulp as Gable and Lombard and W.C. Fields and Me), except wayyy better made. For this, we must thank veteran director Henry King, known essentially for being Mr. Americana (Tol’able David; Ramona; In Old Chicago; Alexander’s Ragtime Band; Jesse James, Little Old New York; Maryland; Chad Hanna; Wilson), but who, on occasion, would lower the bar to collect sizable paychecks for smoothly-churned fertilizer.

In the world according to Graham, BELOVED INFIDEL is not simply pap – it’s a pap smear, managing to make her the valiant victim/heroine and Fitzgerald the unstable Jekyll/Hyde monster. It’s also a Hallowood (that’s the hybrid of Hollywood and Halloween) tour de farce; by that I mean it’s the type of faux biography where everyone, save the principles, has phony names as not to ignite libel lawsuits – a charade that encompasses non-existent studios and fake motion pictures– so much so that we’re amazed that they kept the original Fitzgerald titles (I was really expecting Scott to be cited as the pro-creator of such seminal works as This Side of Parasites and Tender is the Nut). The real-life Graham and Fitzgerald resembled character actors Brenda de Banzie and Roscoe Karns, but, unless you’re playing Lincoln or Hitler, that stuff don’t fly in Lotus Land, so we’re treated to the far more desirable makeovers of Deborah Kerr and Gregory Peck. It’s one of those extravagant recreations of the 1930s where only the automobiles got the memo; clothing, hair and everything else is pure Sputnik era.

This brings us to the rest of the cast. In spite of making the personification of the studio mogul Stan Harris a more appropriate wearer of the moniker “beloved infidel,” the ridiculousness of the articulate father confessor as portrayed by Herbert Rudley (a supposed composite of Louis B. Mayer, Sam Goldwyn and Darryl Zanuck) has the opposite effect. “Far be it for me to tell F. Scott Fitzgerald how to write,” exclaims Rudley to Peck before he “Rudley” bounces him out on his erudite ass. It doesn’t take even the least sophisticated audience member to immediately and correctly surmise, “What a schmuck!” While this sort of did happen, it is relevant to note that the movies Fitzgerald worked on at MGM (Red-Headed Woman; Three Comrades; A Yank at Oxford; The Women) were successful enough to not toss the screenwriter entirely out in the cold; it was the author’s uncontrollable alcoholism that certainly played a significant part in his being pegged as unreliable. Suffice to say, that in this scenario, it is Graham who not only strives to get Scott further gigs, but inspires him to pen The Last Tycoon. “They are us!” she squeals with delight upon reading galleys introducing Monroe Stahr and Kathleen Moore. Oy!

The most prominent supporting player in this piece is third wheel Robert Carter (in reality, humorist Robert Benchley), enacted with aplomb by Eddie Albert. Albert, who ends up being nursemaid to Peck’s Scott made a sidebar career of these parts – doing likewise for Susan Hayward in I’ll Cry Tomorrow and Frank Sinatra in The Joker is Wild. Patience was indeed a virtue for the actor, as his discernible expertise at handling bizarre screwballs handily served him well for future interacting with Lisa, Eb, Hank Kimball, Mr. Haney, Alf and Ralph and Arnold the Pig.

The last cog worth mentioning is Philip Ober as yet another beloved infidel, hotshot New York editor/publisher John Wheeler. That Ober becomes Kerr’s best friend and supporter is a tad frightening, as he was the heartless bastard/husband who turned her into a slut in From Here to Eternity (in real-life he was the heartless bastard/husband who regularly belted wife Vivian Vance into near-unconsciousness). In fact, in the Hollywood of BELOVED INFIDEL, everybody is supportive and everybody loves everyone…Just one big happy non-backstabbing family – and we all know how true that is!

The From Here to Eternity connection isn’t merely a merry accident. Possibly the decade’s most famous lusty image was of Kerr and Burt Lancaster foaming up the surf on the beaches of Hawaii. This visual did not elude the filmmakers of BELOVED INFIDEL. Happily, much of the action takes place on the sandy shores of California, and the producers were savvy enough to make the key poster art another ocean connubial rendering, comprising beach bunny Kerr and Peck (Kerr must have had a beach clause in her contract; two years earlier, she also ended up wet ‘n’ wild with Robert Mitchum in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison – this time in her other trademark garb, the Black Narcissus nun’s habit). Kerr’s eyebrow-raising emoting subsequently redefines “beach wear,” significantly when a hysterical, incoherent Graham zigzags amidst the tide like Baby Jane Hudson.

Peck generally plays Scott at his most reserved best. One can logically perceive that it’s a combination of various events which trigger his kwazy downward spiral into Pauley Shore territory…His termination as a screenwriter, his cloying pre-Facebook-like adulation by a groupie aboard an airplane…all good candidates…But, for me, the most probable culprit responsible for his doom is none other than Graham herself, or, more precisely her condescending treatment of this obviously tortured individual (it appears that the only bona fide euphoric happenstance in their relationship was a wild weekend in Tijuana, duly recreated, burro and all, and historically evidenced by vintage photographs). Now here readers are probably thinking, “Damn, it’s getting deep-dish serious…No more fun.” Au contraire! It’s exactly at this juncture that BELOVED INFIDEL ratchets up the fun-in-dysfunctional factor, where the movie underlines the la-la in La La Land in bold, delirious moronic strokes.

At first, for example, we’re ready to throw projectiles at the screen every time Scott refers to Graham as “She-lo,” a pet nickname that was their mating call. Once or twice – okay – but 90,000 utterances…HELP. This unintentionally becomes one of the movie’s strong points – specifically when She-lo realizes she’s dating LiLo. “Oh, Scott, what AM I going to do with you?” scolds a patronizing Kerr to a stumbling, drunken, word-slurring Peck after he demolishes Graham’s important business meeting. It’s as if she discovered that he just pooped on the rug like an untrained puppy (which, in all fairness, the real Scott may have actually done). Yet this is only the preamble to the picture’s severely hyped beach-bitch-slapping sequence, precipitated when She-lo demands to know why her lover has invited what appear to be two members of the Manson family to move in with them at their seaside hideaway. Once Peck starts looking like an ad for Spellbound, the picture takes off like a drone missile.

What causes Scott’s fatal demise is perhaps the most shocking portion of the movie. Apparently it was due to attending a sneak preview of That Night in Rio; the sight of Don Ameche – let alone two split-screen Don Ameches (or is it Amechi?) – instantly sends The Great Gatsby author into a screaming, agonizing semi-coma. It is the pic’s most believable moment.

BELOVED INFIDEL wasn’t quite the blockbuster smash everyone thought it would be. That said, it did well enough (due mostly to the popularity of the two stars) to garner a mild following throughout the fifty-plus years since its release. The confusing dual promotion may have had something to do with its lackluster performance in 1959; simultaneous advertising displayed a Ralph Waldo Emerson “To die for Beauty, than live for bread” lovers-on-the-beach-one-sheet in sharp contrast with the Ralph Waldo Kramden “BANG-ZOOM! You’re goin’ to the moon!” woman-thrashing-half-sheet.  Moreover, a year heralding more grownup-oriented fare like Anatomy of a Murder and Room at the Top undoubtedly helped put the lid on the coffin. The movie did a bit better overseas – where in some markets it was entitled Adorable Infidel, implying a wacky romantic comedy…which, depending how one chooses to look at it, isn’t really that far off base.

So what about the Blu-Ray? Not surprisingly, it looks darn good. The beauteous CinemaScope cinematography of Leon Shamroy likely is more impressive in this slightly muted transfer than in its original DeLuxe colored presentation (on the downside, there is a faint occasional bit of visual shaking whenever a character moves across the rectangular frame, as if the disc was mocking its d.t.-fueled male lead). Another genuinely commendable virtue of the B-D is the audio, particularly a sumptuous Franz Waxman score recorded in 4.0 stereo-surround (and, like all TT platters, accessible as an IST isolated score track).  A sappy accompanying song, with lyrics by the prolific Paul Francis Webster, plays like a Mel Brooks parody, and, thus, is in tune with the proceedings.

The bottom line is that if you’re seeking an accurate account of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last days, you are sternly advised to look elsewhere. After all, conjugal history aside, relying on Sheilah Graham to present a proper a depiction of the author’s life is not dissimilar to Anna Nicole Smith publishing A Geo-Political Guide to America’s Involvement in Viet Nam. If, on the other hand, its fast food Hollywood confection you crave, BELOVED INFIDEL makes for one fine slurpy.

BELOVED INFIDEL. Color. Letterboxed [2.35:1]; 1080p High Definition; 4.0 stereo-surround; DTS-HD MA.

Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  Limited Edition of 3000. Available exclusively at Screen Archives Entertainment [www.screenarchives.com]. SRP: $29.95


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