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Getting The Great Gatsby right

In classic novel, Rolls-Royce is a status symbol — and a weapon.

Published January 17, 2013

Coming this May to theatres is another movie version of the first major novel of the automotive age, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s . It’s the story Hollywood has never gotten right.

This time around, Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Jay Gatsby, the stylish, self-made nouveau riche with a shady past, the man of mystery in love with another man’s wife. The novel is set in the early 1920s, the jazz age that saw the car move to the centre of American life.

In , the car is a symbol of freedom, a measure of status — and a murder weapon. There have been at least two uninspired adaptations of the novel — a 1949 version with Alan Ladd and a 1974 version with Robert Redford.

Why should it be hard for Hollywood to nail this story? The script gives the wardrobe and properties people a field day — Gatsby’s clothes and his car are practically co-stars. They are the visible means by which he establishes his wealth and his dominance.

And they’re beautiful. In one scene in the novel, Gatsby shows his beloved Daisy a cabinet full of suits and shirts. “I’ve got a man in England who buys me clothes,” he tells her.

Of course! Everybody knows that there’s no upper crust like the English upper crust. That is why Gatsby tells an outrageous fib that he was “educated at Oxford.” That is why he chooses for his main set of wheels that iconic English vehicle, the Rolls-Royce.

Fitzgerald goes out of his way to focus the reader’s attention on the car. “It was a rich cream color,” he writes, “bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hat-boxes and supper-boxes and tool-boxes, and terraced with a labyrinth of windshields that mirrored a dozen suns.”

Daisy’s husband, no friend to Gatsby, calls it “a circus wagon.” The car’s beauty is lost on him.

The Rolls transcends its category. Words such as “rich” and “monstrous” and “swollen” are opposed to the spirit of Rolls-Royce, which was the quintessence of elegance that marked the height of early car culture.

Rolls-Royce ran no advertising, relying instead on the right sort of people to substantiate its claim to being the best car in the world. Its signature traits — matchless quality, impeccable coachwork, refined, smooth-running engines — spoke for themselves.

There is a story that John Lennon’s Rolls-Royce, with its psychedelic paint job, was attacked by an irate woman with an umbrella in downtown London. “How dare you do this to a Rolls-Royce?” the woman is said to have shouted. If this anecdote is not true, it should be. The woman recognized that Rolls-Royce denoted more than an expensive ride.

The ghost of Lady Eaton, the Canadian doyenne who bought three Rolls-Royce Silver Ghosts in 1912, would nod in approval.

Lady Eaton understood that a Rolls set a standard of living. You can still see the result of her understanding in the Canadian Automotive Museum in Oshawa, where her magnificent Silver Ghost is on display.

The Silver Ghost, in particular, “set out to demonstrate that a quiet car need not be slow, and that a fast and luxurious carriage could set a standard of reliability,” according to , a book written by Anthony Bird, Ian Hallows and Brendan James.

Was Gatsby worthy of his Rolls? Fantastic tales clung to him — mostly self-created — as they did to Rolls-Royce.

“Myth and legend surrounded the name of Rolls-Royce from an early period,” write Bird and his co-authors. They cite some of these legends — that the cars were guaranteed for life, that the mascot was made of solid silver, and many others. No one wanted to think of a Rolls as just another car.

In the novel, Gatsby’s Rolls-Royce, driven by Daisy Buchanan, runs over and kills a woman, becoming, in newspaper parlance, a “death car.”

The automobile becomes not only a symbol of Gatsby’s lost generation but an actor in the drama, a means by which members of Gatsby’s lost generation display their carelessness.

“You’re a rotten driver,” the novel’s narrator says to a woman friend. Her response is that her bad driving is other people’s concern. “They’ll keep out of my way,” she insists. “It takes two to make an accident.”

Cars and their uses become a vital part of the novel — and the filming of that aspect of will be of great interest to Fitzgerald fans and vintage car buffs.

At least it shouldn’t be hard to dress Gatsby better in the new version. Tom Wolfe was incensed by Robert Redford’s white suits in the 1974 version. “They fitted so badly that every time he turned a corner, there was an 80-microsecond lag before they joined him,” he wrote.

But the filmmakers in that version got the “death car” right. It was a 1928 Rolls-Royce Phantom I Ascot Dual Cowl Sport Phaeton, a drop-dead beauty of a car. You could well imagine Gatsby behind the wheel of that chariot.

In the new version, however, Di Caprio’s car is a 1929 Duesenberg. This does not bode well for the remake of Fitzgerald’s iconic novel. A Duesenberg, viewed by some buffs as the first muscle car, is not a Rolls and shouldn’t pretend to be.

But let us take a lesson from the narrator of and reserve our judgment.

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us,” the narrator tells us. “It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further … And, one fine morning…”

Maybe Hollywood will get it right this time.

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