This blog post was written by Siobhan C. Hagan with contributions by MARMIA Volunteer Matt Davis.
“I love Baltimore more than I thought— it is so rich with memories— it is nice to look up the street and see the statue of my great uncle and to know that Poe is buried here and that many ancestors have walked in the old town by the bay. I belong here, where everything is civilized and gay and rotted and polite. And I wouldn’t mind a bit if in a few years Zelda and I could snuggle up together under a stone in some old graveyard here.”– F. Scott Fitzgerald in a 1936 letter
It’s hard to imagine what Jazz Age Hollywood, a Great American Novelist, and Baltimore City would have in common. It turns out to be a vast connection recorded on a tiny reel of film stored for decades in the WJZ-TV Collection. When the reel was first inventoried by MARMIA Volunteer Matt Davis, a particular word printed on the container caught his eye: “NITRATE”. Nitrate film stock was used from the onset of motion pictures up until the 1950s, when it was replaced by acetate film stock. Acetate film is also known as “safety” film: this to differentiate it from nitrate, which is very flammable, and once on fire, virtually impossible to extinguish–generally considered to be “unsafe”. Nitrate film therefore requires special handling and storage. Since the WJZ-TV Collection is a local television station with films that date from the late 1950s through the 1970s, there was no reason at all to expect nitrate film to be in the collection.
There were two, small reels in the can that Matt found: one was an original 35mm silent nitrate negative, and the other an acetate 35mm copy of the nitrate negative. The nitrate negative had a 1926 edge code, a code put on a film reel by the manufacturer listing what year the film stock was made. The only information on the container, other than the word “NITRATE”, was a handwritten note that said, “Return to Mrs. Lanahan Scott Fitzgerald”. The small can was stored inside of a much larger film can with several 16mm film reels, a smaller film format which was typically used by television stations. All of these 16mm films were original production elements from Marked for Glory, a 1963 television documentary special about literary giant F. Scott Fitzgerald that WJZ-TV made and broadcast. Since the nitrate negative was stored with these 16mm films, we assumed that this nitrate film was used either in the research or the production of WJZ’s Marked for Glory–and based on the label, as stock footage. Based on the can label of “Return to Mrs. Lanahan”, MARMIA surmised that the film was borrowed from the Fitzgerald estate, as Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s daughter Scottie’s married surname was Lanahan during 1963. But it seems the film never made its way back to Scottie, who passed away in 1986. We also found a handwritten list of shots with the production elements, which at the top says “‘Zelda’ original footage taken in 1920s”. This led us to hope for rare footage of Zelda Fitzgerald, a literary giant herself and celebrity who still personifies the term “flapper” in American minds and hearts.
The nitrate film was immediately driven to Colorlab in Rockville, Maryland, where they have proper equipment and storage. We asked them to send us a quick scan of the film so we could get an idea of the content. Upon their request, we gave Colorlab permission to post the video on their Instagram account to see if anyone could help identify people and places. This post garnered attention from journalist Ethan McLeod, whose research was integral in potentially identifying a few people in the film up front: Lois Moran, Carmel Myers, Zelda Fitzgerald, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Louis B. Mayer (you can read Ethan’s article here). Based on this research, the palm trees, and a sign in one of the shots that read “The Ambassador Hotel”, we felt fairly certain that this film is a genuine document of the Fitzgerald’s first trip to Los Angeles in 1927.
Due to this, we decided to write a grant proposal to fund the preservation of this nitrate negative, which we now have titled [The Fitzgeralds in Hollywood]. Thanks to funding from the National Film Preservation Foundation, preservation work by Colorlab has been completed on this film. The original nitrate negative, along with its newly created intermediate negative, are now stored at the Library of Congress’ National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Virginia. A 35mm answer print of the film is available for projection at movie theaters capable of 35mm projection. You can view the digitized film on our Internet Archive page, Mid-Atlantic Media, or below.
The film is extremely short, but holds a wealth of information. In the first scene, a woman walks towards the camera. She is on the grounds of the Ambassador Hotel, in front of the guest bungalows, which is where the Fitzgeralds stayed during their 8-week trip from January to mid March of 1927. After comparing many photos of Zelda from that time period, it is almost definitely Zelda walking towards the camera (as seen by zooming in on the woman’s face in the frames below).
The second scene centers around a different woman (please see frame grabs below), who appears much more experienced at being in front of a camera. This woman coquettishly picks up a ukulele and begins to perfom. Although there have been some suggestions (Lillian Gish? Clara Bow?), we have not been able to identify this woman at this time (please email email@example.com if you have any suggestions). It makes sense that she would have been an actress most likely associated with MGM Studios at the time.
This scene with this unidentified woman also seems to showcase the spacious grounds of the historic Ambassador hotel in the background (since demolished), as is evidenced by this postcard of the complex from 1925.
Next, two men, one in a dark suit and potentially F. Scott Fitzgerald, walk by the exterior of the Ambassador bungalows. The other man is unknown. There are many photographs to be found of F. Scott holding his cigarette in this same particular manner. But it just isn’t definitive enough to say.
Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you can identify the man in the lighter suit, or corroborate that the man on the left is F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Two women, believed to be actresses Lois Moran and Carmel Myers, playfully commandeer a parked taxicab as the driver looks on. The women hop in the cab, honk the horn and hop out again as cars whiz by on busy Wilshire Boulevard in downtown Los Angeles (the historic Ambassador Hotel is seen behind them across the street).
Lois Moran interacts with two men, one who bears a striking resemblance to Louis B. Mayer. This man could also be the man holding the cigarette earlier–their suit and hat seems to be the same colors as far as you can tell in black and white (but was that other man wearing glasses? It was just too far away to tell).
Lastly, there is a brief shot of two women, one wearing a striped dress who is almost certainly Zelda Fitzgerald, standing together on a sidewalk at the Ambassador, arms linked. Zelda sticks her tongue out at the camera while a young boy walks by in the background. The other woman appears to be Lois Moran.
Alaina Doten, curator of the Fitzgerald Museum, found photos taken on the same 1927 trip to Los Angeles with Zelda in the outfit from the end of the film (see below). F. Scott is on the far left, and seems to be wearing a lighter suit, so that may not have been him in the earlier scene. Their neighbors at the Ambassador at the time were John Barrymore, Carmel Myers, and Carl Van Vechten and they have been recorded as socializing with Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess, so perhaps some of these folks are indeed the people photographed in the film.
Another mystery remains: who shot this film and why? It was taken during a time when casually taking home movies, even amongst the Hollywood elite, was not a regular practice. How did the Fitzgeralds’ daughter obtain the nitrate negative? Lois Moran had mentioned a screen test that she arranged for F. Scott, which she described later saying “we laughed about it”. This screen test has never been proven to have happened, but perhaps [The Fitzgeralds in Hollywood] is part of this screen test idea? Maybe it was all just a bit of fun and frivolity, which fits in with the Fitzgerald lifestyle at that time.
[The Fitzgeralds in Hollywood] can be seen as a kind of high water mark in the lives and careers of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Unfortunately, their optimism and playfulness would quickly be shattered when F. Scott’s script was rejected and his alleged affair with Lois Moran, the actress in the taxicab scene and arm-in-arm with Zelda at the end of the film, would soon be an area of major contention with Zelda.
Much like Edgar Allan Poe, Baltimore claims F. Scott Fitzgerald as one of our own despite his short stay with us. We have some legitimacy to this claim: Fitzgerald is related to and named after Francis Scott Key, from a Maryland family who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” here in Baltimore. The Sage of Baltimore, H.L. Mencken, was Fitzgerald’s first editor, publishing his “Babes in the Woods,” in 1919. The Fitzgerald family lived in Baltimore from 1932-1936. It was the longest time the family lived in one place together. They came here for Zelda to get better, but they both got worse: her with her schizophrenia, he with his alcoholism.
F. Scott left Maryland to go back to Los Angeles in 1937, dying there in 1940. Zelda died in North Carolina in 1948. They are both buried together an hour away from Baltimore in Rockville, Maryland. And the film record of their first trip to Hollywood rests not far away.
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