CineSavant Column

Tuesday June 20, 2023



Since numerous inquiries about the Imprint The Great Gatsby ’49 disc have come in, I’m following up with some additional input from correspondent “B”, who revealed himself as a lifelong admirer of the original book. “B” was soon offering up images and links:

Glenn: Your old associate Robert Birchard looked over the various versions of The Great Gatsby for the AFI around the time of the release of the Luhrmann thing; the article is still available: The Great Gatsby: Now (And Then) A Major Motion Picture.

“B” then sent a tall stack of graphics, showing how Paramount attempted to sell The Great Gatsby (Note, all of these images enlarge). Initial ads of the New York premiere featured Alan Ladd in a trench coat, with an ad line suitable for a gangster picture. Either way, seeing ‘added bonus’ Peggy Lee and Jimmy Dorsey must have been fantastic:


Only 55 cents for this show!  Soon into the run, the campaign changed to various images of a bare-chested Ladd, with copy that continues to downplay the book source:


“B” also found images of various hardcover and paperback editions. As noted in the review, The Great Gatsby was chosen as one of the novels included in the Armed Services Edition paperback program. At the time, it was likely unavailable in print elsewhere:


In 1945, New Directions reprinted the book in hardcover.  (left   )   Bantam Books, then a new mass market paperback reprint house, published Gatsby as one of its earliest titles — ‘Bantam Book #8.’ here’s that first ’45 edition.  (right   )


In 1949, Bantam published a movie tie-in edition, with (a shirtless) Ladd on the cover. The lurid artwork would look right at home on a sales rack next to a Mickey Spillane novel.


Bantam published various mass market paperback editions of Gatsby in the late ‘forties and into the ‘fifties, until Scribner (the novel’s original hardcover publisher) ended Bantam’s mass market license in order to publish a higher-priced trade paperback edition of the book; Scribner likely sold millions of copies with this truly awful cover. This is when the novel finally became generally recognized as a literary classic, and was widely taught.   (Note: I’m sure I still have this eyesore somewhere.)


In 1974, Bantam again licensed mass market rights from Scribner for a tie-in edition for the Redford movie.


Slipping back to 1949, Paramount used the New Directions ’45 edition in its publicity photos, presumably when the film was to be promoted in connection with the F. Scott Fitzgerald book. Most of the original posters downplayed the show’s literary source.


“B” ends with accolades for the original Scribner cover:

The famous cover, a watercolor by Francis Cugat now commonly referred to as ‘Celestial Eyes,’ was commissioned by the publisher while Fitzgerald was still writing the novel.  

Author Fitzgerald was struck by the artist’s roughs for the cover. He later wrote his editor Maxwell Perkins, “For Christ’s sake, don’t give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me. I’ve written it into the book.” There is some speculation that Fitzgerald was influenced by what he saw in Cugat’s work. The painting’s haunting, disembodied eyes may have had some bearing on the author’s depictions of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg’s billboard, and perhaps also on Nick’s observation in chapter four: “Unlike Gatsby and Tom Buchanan, I had no girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs.”

In the late ‘seventies, Charles Scribner III had the inspiration to re-use the book’s original hardcover jacket design on Scribner’s trade edition. As he put it, “In 1979 I discovered the original artwork (hanging on loan to the Princeton Club), took it back to my office at Scribner, and had it put on the classic it has adorned ever since. The art department complied less because I was the resident art historian, more because my dad was running the publishing house!”


Thanks again, “B.”  I think I’m going to have to read it again — it’s only been 55 years.

Thanks for reading! — Glenn Erickson