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February 16, 2013

Movie Review: Beloved Infidel (1959, Blu-ray)

Movie Review by Greg Goodsell

Directed by Henry King

Seemingly overnight, flappers and wild parties gave way to bread lines and soup kitchens. Formerly charming European vistas became populated with sinister figures intent in pulling the rest of the world into war and chaos. Jazz age novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald (Gregory Peck) found himself suddenly irrelevant in 1930s America. Needing quick cash to pay for his wife Zelda’s sanitarium bills and his daughter’s private education, Fitzgerald turned to Hollywood to begin his disastrous career as a screenwriter. While in Tinseltown, Fitzgerald would fall in love with second-string gossip columnist Sheilah Graham (Deborah Kerr), who, Jay Gatsby-like had invented an upper class British background to conceal her childhood poverty. Their affair would be tempestuous, but unable to conceal the fact that literary great Fitzgerald was in irreversible decline …

Beloved Infidel, based on Graham’s memoir, is best appreciated for what it is than what it is not. The adaptation is brave in addressing some highly adult subject matter for its time, such as adultery, alcoholism and failure. Above all else, Beloved Infidel is yet another big-budget weepie like those being churned out by director Douglas Sirk at Universal Studios, strictly intended for 1950s moms escaping household drudgery at a matinee.

To its credit, the film is unflinching in depicting Fitzgerald’s fall from popular favor. One poignant scene has Peck and Kerr, learning of one of the author’s early plays being produced at a nearby playhouse. Donning evening wear and hiring a chauffeur-driven limousine, the couple arrives at an empty auditorium, the play being produced by college students. Another ball-breaking scene has Peck and Kerr anonymously visiting a bookstore to ask for Fitzgerald’s novels. The clerk informs them that public interest in the author’s work is currently nil, and therefore there are no books currently in stock.

Beloved Infidel also addresses Fitzgerald’s alcoholism but in a far less harrowing manner than in The Lost Weekend (1948). After he is fired from MGM for producing only a single film from one of his scripts in a period lasting several years, Peck becomes a “comic drunk,” disrupting Kerr’s trip to Chicago where she tries to break into radio. His alcoholism takes a darker turn towards the end, when ensconced at their Malibu bungalow his final novel “The Last Tycoon” is soundly rejected by publishers. Inviting derelicts in for drinks, Peck becomes violent and shoots a gun in Kerr’s direction. It was probably decided that Peck, the chief matinee idol of his day (and your humble author’s namesake, by the way) would alienate his female contingent if he came off as too belligerent onscreen. (Peck would later win serious acclaim along with an Academy Award for his work in the 1962 adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird.)

More importantly, the motion picture industry’s part in marginalizing Fitzgerald is glossed over. Deeming his dialogue as “too literary,” the major studios treated him as little more than a touch of class to bring to their commercial projects. This is understandable – who rightfully would want to make a film that paints the motion picture industry as the chief villain?

Beloved Infidel is best appreciated as a gorgeous Technicolor entertainment and not as an incisive exploration of an artist in decline. TRIVIA: My favorite anecdote about Fitzgerald’s days in Hollywood, NOT included in this film, is when he went to the MGM commissary while nursing a hangover. Todd Browning’s Freaks (1932) just so happened to be in production at the time, and Siamese Twins Violet and Daisy Hilton sat next to Fitzgerald whereupon Violet turned to Daisy and asked, “And what will you have for lunch …?” Fitzgerald then fled the scene in order to vomit! It’s probably not true, but it’s a good story, kind of like Beloved Infidel. 

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