Film/Literary Commentary: Judy Barton and James Gatz, the Reinvented Americans

in film •  2 months ago  (edited)


In both Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, you can find the strongly held American belief in reinvention.

Vertigo (1958) -- Hitchcock’s most highly regarded film, is at its heart, the story of a small-town, lower-class woman who dreams of glamour, romance, and wealth in the big city, then dies tragically after being betrayed by the rich elite she wanted to live amongst. Yet we never really know that much about Judy Barton (aka Madeleine Elster), because her story is told through the point-of-view of the man who thinks he loves her, John Scott “Scottie” Ferguson.

The Great Gatsby (1925) — America’s most beloved literary novel — is the story of James Gatz, a poor boy from rural North Dakota, who moves to the big city in search of glamour, romance, and wealth. Like Judy Barton, James Gatz also dies tragically after being betrayed by the wealthy elite he wanted to live amongst. Significantly, we never really know James Gatz/Jay Gatsby, because his story is told from the point-of-view of his friend and admirer, Nick Carraway.

At first glance, few people would consider comparing the similarities between these two famous and revered works of American fiction. Vertigo is a thriller/murder mystery, based on a French mystery novel. Gatsby is a literary novel. Yet both works trod surprisingly similar themes; themes that are quintessentially American, chief among them the possibility of “reinventing” one’s whole self with the "new" and the "better": new names, new clothes, new backgrounds, new families, new social statuses, and new personalities.

Side note: the comparisons below are between Vertigo, the Alfred Hitchcock film, and The Great Gatsby, the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald (not any of the filmed versions of the novel). I’ve never read the French thriller novel, D’entre les morts ("From the Dead"), that Vertigo is based upon. I suspect that Hitchcock added/subtracted a lot from the novel to make the film version congruent with his own personal vision and artistic statement.

For those who’ve not seen/read the works in question, plot synopses can be found here and here. Without further adieu, here are the startling similarities between these two celebrated works of fiction:

-- Both stories feature a character from an impoverished, small town background who seeks to “remake” themselves into someone who can “fit in” with the glamorous, wealthy elite. In the case of James Gatz/Jay Gatsby, he plays the part of the handsome, wealthy war hero to first enrich himself in his bootlegging business, and then to appeal to his grasping romantic obsession, Daisy Buchanan. In the case of Judy Barton/Madeleine Elster, she allows herself to be remade from a low-class shopgirl to an elegant society woman, not once but twice — first to appeal to her rich, married lover, Gavin Elster, and secondly, for the man she truly loves, Scottie Ferguson.

-- Each story tells about a man’s obsessive love for a rich, beautiful woman. Gatz/Gatsby and Scottie go to great lengths to pursue their respective dream girls. And in each case, the objects of their respective obsessions only live in their imaginations. Gatz/Gatsby fell in love with the conquettish, eighteen-year-old Daisy and did not realize that five years later, she was no longer the same person he knew in Louisville. Scottie never really loved Judy Barton; he only loved the woman whom she impersonated.

-- Both Gatz/Gatsby and Judy/Madeleine end up dying violently and young — fates that would not have happened if they had not aspired to move up “above their station” and live among the rich and elite.

-- Gatz/Gatsby and Judy/Madeleine are both the victims of rich, powerful men who use their money and influence without conscience to get what they want. Tom Buchanan cheats on his wife, Daisy, with Myrtle Wilson and physically abuses both women. After Myrtle dies, he manipulates her grief-stricken husband, George Wilson, into killing Gatsby. Gavin Elster uses Judy Barton to carry out his scheme of murdering his rich wife, then tosses Judy out on the street when the deed is done. He also uses the disability of his “old friend”, Scottie, in a very cruel way, to ensure that his deception passes muster with the authorities.

-- Both Tom Buchanan and Gavin Elster get away with grave transgressions that kill/harm other people. Tom wins Daisy back and never suffers any consequences for his part in causing the deaths of Myrtle, George Wilson, and Gatz/Gatsby. Gavin Elster literally gets away scott free — or maybe we should say Scottie free — with the murder of his wife, and with also setting in motion the events that cost Judy Barton her life. (There was an alternative ending filmed that references the arrest of Elster, which was added for European versions of Vertigo, but in the most familiar cut of the film, Elster gets away with murder, with the only witness who can nail him — Judy Barton — conveniently dead.)

-- There are strongly evocative passages in both works that reference a longing for the raw, unsettled America that existed before the 20th Century. In Vertigo, Gavin Elster enthuses to Scottie about the “power and freedom” of anything-goes, Gold Rush-era California. At the end of Gatsby, Nick Carraway looks out to Long Island Sound, and imagines the wonderment that “those Old Dutch sailors” felt when they first sailed up it and encountered the beauty and vast abundance of the unspoiled Manhattan.

-- A small but interesting connection: Hitchcock set Vertigo in San Francisco, because he wanted to use the city’s steep, hilly streets to emphasize Scottie’s fear of heights. The Great Gatsby also has a San Francisco connection: although the novel is set in New York, when Gatsby is telling Nick his fabricated origin story, he says his family were wealthy people from San Francisco.

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Today you have won my heart. What a great publication with topics that interest me a lot: cinema and literature. Both films are masterpieces of American cinema and in the case of The Great Gatsby a well-known literary novel.

Your comments are very well argued, and in effect you manage to establish several connections between both films. Vertigo I remember it clearly because I have seen it several times; however, I would have to see The Great Gatsby again to see several details that you comment.

My vote and resteem for this great work. A big hello @janenightshade

Thank you! None of the Gatsby movies really capture the essence of the novel, but the most faithful movie to the book is the 1974 version starring Robert Redford as Gatsby.

Thanks for that great tip

Hi janenightshade,

This post has been upvoted by the Curie community curation project and associated vote trail as exceptional content (human curated and reviewed). Have a great day :)

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Hello Hello!

How great it is to read a good article like this, I congratulate you with great sincerity :)

Thank you!

  ·  2 months ago Reveal Comment

I had to read The Great Gatsby in high school (as no doubt many other American high school kids did), and absolutely hated it, because in the end, nothing mattered and virtually the entire exercise seemed for naught.

I really need to go back and read it again as an adult, not as a 15 year old, and see if my opinion has changed. I will say, I thought the Gatsby movie with DiCaprio was a ton of fun and held my interest far longer than I assumed it would. But then again, I've enjoyed almost every film of Baz Luhrman's I've seen, so I shouldn't have been surprised. They're definitely more about the spectacle as opposed to the content, but I think that works in the case of something like Gatsby, because that world was all about the spectacle and less about the content. :)

Lovely compare/contrast, @janenightshade. Vertigo, naturally, is a classic and better viewers and would-be critics than I have said far better things about it than I ever could, so I won't bother. :)

Yeah, I first read it when I was a teen also, just after the Redford/Jack Clayton version was released. I loved the novel, but then it's the kind of book that would appeal to a young romantic woman and not a teen-aged boy. Most young girls/women would naturally love a story about a rich, handsome mystery man who's totally devoted to one woman and is willing to pine after her for years. As an adult fiction writer, I'm fascinated with the mechanics of this short novel. It's around 40,000 words, yet there are tons of characters and scenes packed into it, which is an amazing achievement.

The Luhrman version had some fun stuff in it, but ultimately, I felt it failed to capture the book as all the other filmed versions have. He left out too very important pieces of information: Gatsby's father at his funeral and the fact that Tom confesses to Nick that he lied about Gatsby to George Wilson, which motivated Wilson to kill Gatsby. I did like Carey Mulligan as Daisy a lot better than Mia Farrow, who played her in 1974, but you know me, with my Mia-phobia, I'm prejudiced. :) A combination of the Luhrman version and the 1974 Jack Clayton version may have been just about perfect.

PS are you still interested in our fiction writing group? I didn't hear back from you about that.

The analysis you make of both films and the exposition of their similarities are interesting.
We will have to see them from this point of view.
Congratulations on a Curie vote.