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Tender Is the Night

Tender Is the Night(1962)

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teaser Tender Is the Night (1962)

Soon after F. Scott Fitzgerald published Tender is the Night in 1934, he tried to drum up interest from Hollywood. He found none, possibly because of the novel's sexual explicitness and narrative element of incest. Set in 1920s Europe, it's the story of a psychiatrist who marries his patient and how their marriage slowly disintegrates. Heavily influenced by Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald's own marriage, the author considered it his best work.

But Fitzgerald died in 1940 with the novel still untouched by the movies. A few years later, producer David O. Selznick acquired the rights so he could develop it as a vehicle for his wife, actress Jennifer Jones. Selznick tried to launch a film adaptation in 1951 with filmmaker Henry King, who had directed Jones to an Oscar-winning performance in The Song of Bernadette (1943), but King was offended by the salacious story elements and passed. (It was "the worst subject matter," he later recalled.) Selznick also nearly got a film going at RKO with George Cukor directing Jones and Cary Grant, but Grant withdrew and the project collapsed again.

Several more years went by, and finally Selznick made a deal to sell the project to 20th Century-Fox, with Jones attached to star and Selznick contractually able to provide creative input including on the script and cast, though he would not be credited as producer. As it turned out, Selznick would continually give his input, and Fox would continually ignore it. This started in the casting process, with Selznick suggesting Henry Fonda, Richard Burton or Peter O'Toole for the lead character of Dick Diver; Fox dismissed Burton as "poison" and O'Toole as an unknown, and cast their own contract player Jason Robards, Jr. (O'Toole did Lawrence of Arabia [1962] instead and became a major star.) Selznick also wanted Jane Fonda to play Rosemary Hoyt, but the studio went with Jill St. John.

Selznick did, however, finally lure Henry King to the project. King had just directed Beloved Infidel (1959), in which Gregory Peck had played F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Selznick again approached the director, who was now 75, to direct Tender is the Night. King looked at the script and was satisfied that the story elements he had found so objectionable were now "masked" and "cleaned up" by screenwriter Ivan Moffat.

Production of Tender is the Night finally started in May 1961 in France and Switzerland before finishing on a Fox soundstage. Joan Fontaine, who played the role of Baby Warren, later wrote that King "was a very distant man. He was of the 'know your lines and say them clearly' school, and that was about all the direction we got." She also recalled that Jennifer Jones's acting coach, Paula Strasberg, was a continual presence on the set, and Fontaine found Jones to be "the most insecure actress I ever worked with... I felt that acting was a torture to her."

Fontaine developed a close friendship with Lauren Bacall, who visited the set frequently to see Robards, with whom she was romantically involved. After filming wrapped, Bacall and Robards were married.

The score was by Bernard Hermann, who composed it concurrently with Cape Fear (1962), but the title tune drew more attention. Fox wanted a hit song for the credits, and the result by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster, "Tender is the Night," was nominated for an Oscar. (It lost to "Days of Wine and Roses" by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer.)

The picture opened in January 1962 to negative reviews and a poor box office. "An array of gorgeous settings...becomes the eventual fascination in a film that slowly lets slip its dramatic momentum and credibility in interminable...talk," declared The New York Times. "The deflation is all the more distressing because the picture gets under way with a good deal of intellectual tension and emotional expansiveness."

Selznick was very discouraged by the final result. He had fought in vain against what he saw as haphazard script cuts, he had pleaded for recutting, and he had declared the main title sequence "a disgrace." But no one listened to him. Henry King admitted he was one of the people who ignored Selznick's memos, but King too, had attempted in vain to trim and tighten the picture some more before release. As he recounted: "There were just little things wrong, that put the emphasis on the wrong place, on the wrong person... We had a new man out here, Robert Goldstein from New York, running the studio, and he didn't want to be annoyed... I couldn't go over his head... It was a mediocre picture that could have been an excellent picture. If they had allowed me to eliminate those scenes that shouldn't have been in there, Jennifer Jones [would have won] the Academy Award... She gave a terrific performance. Of course, Robert Goldstein did not last long at the studio."

Tender is the Night would be the final film for David O. Selznick as well as for Henry King.

By Jeremy Arnold

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