During F Scott Fitzgerald’s lifetime, Hollywood released six films based on his works. Below, Martina Mastandrea, whose PhD thesis focuses on the complex relationship between Fitzgerald and these silent film adaptations produced between 1920 and 1926, explains how she rediscovered the first and only extant silent film entirely based on the author’s work.
From its inception, my research project has had to face a challenge well-known to silent film scholars: all the film prints but one were presumed lost. For the first year and a half of the PhD, therefore, my analysis of these pre-sound films could only be based on reviews, film stills and publicity. But, one year ago, I made a discovery that radically changed the course of my research.
While browsing a 1992 issue of The New Yorker at The British Library, my eyes fell on the list of films that The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) had presented at a New York theatre that year. The title of the film screened on 25 February, The Chorus Girl’s Romance, caught my attention as it was the same as that of the first silent adaptation made from a work by Fitzgerald.
Based on the 1920 short story ‘Head and Shoulders’, The Chorus Girl’s Romance, directed by William C Dowlan, was released by Metro Pictures Corporation (later to become MGM) in August 1920. I checked the MoMA archives and the cast and crew details were matching: the film recently acquired by the Department of Film was the one many researchers had considered lost.
During the screening organised by MoMA in 1992, The Chorus Girl’s Romance passed unnoticed to both Fitzgerald and film scholars arguably for two reasons: the change in title that was made between short story and film and the Portuguese intertitles. The title cards were translated from English to Portuguese in 1923, when the film had been exported to Brazil and released under the title Dà-me um Beijo, Sim? (Would You Give Me a Kiss?).
In 1987, part of the film was screened during the São Paulo International Film Festival but, as it happened five years later in New York, nobody identified it. The Brazilian editor’s decision to cut Fitzgerald’s name from the credits made the print more difficult to locate and the film adaptation remained forgotten, first in the Brazilian archives and then at the MoMA, until last year.
Shortly after I found that information in The New Yorker, a grant awarded by the School of Advanced Study at the University of London, enabled me to travel to New York to verify the overall state of the film. Alone in the dark of the 125-seat Celeste Barthos Theatre that the MoMA Film Study Center made available for a private projection, I waited eagerly and nervously for the cinema operator to start the film.
A sound coming from the projection machine told me that my wait was over. The negative of The Chorus Girl’s Romance had been well preserved and missed only a few non-crucial scenes that I was able to reconstruct thanks to some film stills also preserved at the Film Study Centre at MoMA and other primary material.
In December 2016, The F Scott Fitzgerald Review, edited by Professor Kirk Curnutt, published my article on the rediscovery of the film. I hope that this new finding will generate interest in the relationship between Fitzgerald and 1920s cinema and, in particular, in The Chorus Girl’s Romance, the sole (presumed) existing film record of how Hollywood interpreted Fitzgerald’s fiction during the silent era.
Martina Mastandrea is a third-year PhD candidate at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. Her research interests include 20th-century American literature, silent film history and celebrity culture.