This month the momentous novel The Great Gatsby went into public domain, so there is no better time to bring up a film that sheds new light on this classic. Directed by Robert Steven Williams in his first full-length documentary, Gatsby in Connecticut: The Untold Story, presented by Vision Films and Against the Grain Productions in 2020, began as a 2013 project to document the Fitzgeralds’ time in Westport, Connecticut. He worked with the author Richard Webb Jr., whose companion book to the film, Boats Against the Current, stipulates the extensive study done on this eminent subject. Their subsequent research and creative output was inspired by an article published in The New Yorker by “the woman who really started us on this journey,” the late Barbara Probst Solomon. Her work was left mostly dormant for years.
A TOWN THAT’S FIT FOR A GATSBY
Williams, however, seized the chance to create “a love letter to this town” as well as an investigation into Westport heritage, hoping to come up with a way for those who have lost touch with the deep historical significance of this charming area to acquire a greater appreciation for its roots.
Westport has always hosted more than its fair share of influential people. The documentary showcases Westport’s pop cultural legacy, from actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward falling in love with it in their real lives to Lucy Ricardo doing the same in the classic sitcom I Love Lucy. As deep as this love runs, most people did not want to take Solomon’s findings seriously, choosing instead to stand behind the popular belief that Great Neck, Long Island, provided the entire basis for The Great Gatsby‘s setting. To build his case, “literary detective” Robert Steven Williams journeys into Fitzgerald’s, and our nation’s, past.
LITERARY DETECTIVES HAVE THEIR WORK CUT OUT FOR THEM
Little Fitzgerald footage exists, but many important clues remain preserved. Commendable detective work is achieved in the making of Gatsby in Connecticut, an “engaging rabbit-hole documentary” lauded as One of the Best Movies of 2020 by The New Yorker. Diaries, letters, and Fitzgerald’s writings themselves all provide plenty of information; Fitzgerald’s ledger, for example, offers invaluable insights, and one particular figure, F.E. Lewis, was a key piece of the puzzle. The trailer gives a glimpse of what the viewer is in for, but there are far more intricate details revealed within the film than anyone could have guessed.
Here we get a fascinating opportunity to see a collection of historically relevant artifacts analyzed by intellectual authorities; lovers of history will gain almost as much joy from a viewing as lovers of literature. There are also many clips from various film adaptations of The Great Gatsby across the years, yet another nod to the immense magnitude of the subject at hand.
STAR POWER AND STARS IN THEIR EYES
The film features Sam Waterston, star of The Great Gatsby (1974), Law & Order and Grace and Frankie, and is narrated by Keir Dullea, star of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Good Shepherd.
They investigate Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s relationship and discover the tremendous impact his wife had on the Gatsby author’s life and literature. She was indubitably his muse, though she self-admittedly had little confidence in his skill as a writer before he achieved popular success. When his first novel, This Side of Paradise, launched him into the limelight, the pair became “America’s first pop stars.” He went on to write The Great Gatsby, what is arguably one of the greatest novels of all time, as well as additional novels and many short stories. His impact on literature simply cannot be overstated, as a recent article in The New York Times acknowledges.
BOATS AGAINST THE CURRENT
The creators were up against intense incredulousness as they set about building their argument. Profoundly intriguing evidence always existed, but it took curious and devoted individuals to piece everything together. Not insignificantly, the preeminent Fitzgerald scholar Matt Bruccoli’s life work would be found less than airtight should Williams’s theory prevail. In the end, however, as Great Neck Historical Society President Alice Kasten laughingly declares, “Long Island concedes to Gatsby.”
Beautifully assembled and meticulously crafted, Gatsby in Connecticut features a bevy of interviews and gems of intellectual import. Scott and Zelda’s granddaughter, Bobbie Lanahan, doesn’t just appear but plays a significant role, lending her sincere voice and personal experience to the documentary. Many lauded professors and scholars also contribute their efforts. Jazz saturates the film, giving the experience a fun soundtrack while also placing the audience into a moment in history — the high-wattage 1920s of lore. Lovely shots of Connecticut manors and countryside knolls pepper the film and give it additional authenticity and warmth. The documentary draws to a close gracefully, with the talented Mr. Waterston reading the indelible closing lines of The Great Gatsby aloud. Meanwhile, a captivating discussion has just been opened with the release of Gatsby in Connecticut: The Untold Story.
The film is now available for rental on YouTube Movies. Learn more about Williams on his BookTrib author profile page.
Learn about the film’s accompanying book, Boats Against the Current, by Gatsby in Connecticut co-creator and co-producer Richard Webb
Author Interview: Richard Webb Jr. and What Really Inspired Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”