Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

August 5, 2013

STUMPTALK: The romance of the 1920s

By Phillip Chesser
Chronicle contributor

CROSSVILLE — I recently saw the latest film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, after which I reread the novel. Of the three movie versions I’ve seen, this one with Leonardo DiCaprio is the best. DiCaprio is a better Jay Gatsby than Robert Redford, and Tobey Maguire a better Nick Caraway than Sam Waterston. The oldest version I’ve seen features Alan Ladd as Gatsby and MacDonald Carey as Caraway. The Alan Ladd film takes liberties with the novel that the other two do not, and because it was made in the late 1940s may seem dated to contemporary viewers. I like the film — I especially like Carey as Nick Caraway — but not the liberties. In any event, no one should rely on Gatsby films to appreciate F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work. Read the book.

Some years ago high school juniors and college undergraduates read The Great Gatsby, probably because it’s short, less than 200 pages, but also because of residual romance surrounding the 1920s. The current film makes the most of 1920s party time, the other two less so. But this film does the best job. Added attractions are 3-D and anachronistic party music, which could bother purists, but to me works very well.

My interest in the 1920s comes in part from reading — I’m a fan of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe — but also from my parents. Both were born in 1908 and came of age in the 1920s. I have pictures of my mother and father dressed in the fashion of the day and of my father in his 1929 Model A Ford Roadster. My father often regaled us with stories of Prohibition, bootleg whiskey, and driving open cars on rutted country roads. “You were a good driver if you could stay out of the mud holes,” he said more than once. Their country home was about seventy miles from Washington, D.C., where my sister, brother, and I were born. It was a drive they often made over not always paved country roads.

The Gatsby story and much of the literature of the period could lead readers to believe that the world of the 1920s revolved around New York and Paris, where American expatriates such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein lived in the years immediately after World War I. Like most Americans, my parents’ experiences were much more prosaic. They still lived in the country, as did most people in those days, in homes without electricity or indoor plumbing. Both of my grandfathers were Chesapeake Bay waterman who did most of their work and travel under sail. Between the ages of eleven and twenty, from 1919 to 1928, my father and grandfather sailed in a schooner rigged pungy to Washington, Baltimore, the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Hampton Roads, and other places around the Chesapeake Bay. They carried oysters in season and other cargoes at other times.

A romantic attachment to the 1920s continues today. In addition to The Great Gatsby, the 2011 Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris tells the story of Hollywood writer and budding novelist Gil Pender who goes to Paris with his fiancée and her nouveau riche parents. Bored with their pretensions, Gil takes evening walks around Paris to help him concentrate on his novel. Pausing on a corner at midnight, he watches a 1920s touring car pass him and then stop. The occupants hail him to come for a ride. He first thinks the car is an antique Peugeot until he is taken to a night club where he meets Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, and the beautiful Adrianna, who is currently Pablo Picasso’s girlfriend.

Pender discovers that he is time traveling back to 1920s Paris. He continues to meet the same car on the same corner every night at midnight. In the process he falls in love with Adrianna (played by the beautiful French actress Marion Cotillard) and meets Gertrude Stein who agrees to read his novel. He has first asked Hemingway for a critical review but Hemingway refuses: “If it’s rotten I’ll hate it; if it’s good I’ll hate it because I’ll be jealous.” Incidentally, the actor who plays Hemingway displays the caricature of him that has come down through the years. He alone makes the film worth watching.

Romantic attachments to the past continue, going back much further than the 1920s. Catholic priest and medieval scholar Father George Rutler says, “I sometimes get nostalgic for the High Middle Ages but never for medieval dentistry.” It’s good to travel back through literature and art, but the past cannot be repeated even if many of us would like to.

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Stumptalk is published weekly in the Crossville Chronicle. The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the Chronicle publisher, editor or staff. To contact Stumptalk, email coordinator Jim Sykes at