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Scots stars get Hollywood makeovers for Glasgow Film Festival

In 1939, as the dogs of war were starting to howl, F Scott Fitzgerald was nearing the end of his short unhappy life.

He was 43 but his glory days were embalmed in another era, that which he had called the Jazz Age, in the midst of which he wrote The Great Gatsby, one of the few truly great American novels.

Fitzgerald, however, still believed he had another great book in him. He gave it the working title of Stahr, which took its name from its principal character, Monroe Stahr, who was modelled on Irving Thalberg. Aged just 20, Thalberg - the "boy wonder of the movie business" - was studio manager of Universal Pictures; at 25, he was put in charge of production at MGM.

Sadly, Fitzgerald died of a heart attack in December 1940 with his novel unfinished. We know it as The Last Tycoon and, despite its fragmentary nature, it remains one of the most acute and faithful portraits of Hollywood, a place Fitzgerald described as "a jungle full of prowling beasts".

Like countless successful and feted writers, Fitzgerald was seduced by the movies and the money he could earn by writing for them. Amongst the many projects he worked on was Gone With the Wind. He was one of 16 writers charged with translating Margaret Mitchell's bestselling epic of the Civil War in the Deep South from page to screen.

It was intense and challenging work. Fitzgerald had been "loaned" by MGM, to whom he was contracted, to David O Selznick, owner of his eponymous company, and another possible prototype for Stahr. Fitzgerald's job was to lick the oft-revised screenplay into shape, using only dialogue from Mitchell's novel. Eventually, he was fired after failing to make one of the characters sufficiently quaint.

Gone With the Wind was one of the numerous classic movies released in the year in which Hitler made a Second World War a reality. In what has justifiably been called Hollywood's annus mirabilis, the studios, and the moguls who ruled them, presented cinema-goers with a slew of unforgettable movies, among them The Wizard Of Oz, Stagecoach, Goodbye, Mr Chips, Wuthering Heights and Of Mice And Men.

Seventy-five years hence, the Glasgow Film Festival is showing the 10 films that were shortlisted for Best Movie category in the Oscars. Gone With The Wind received 10 awards from the 13 categories in which it had nominations, including Best Director for William Fleming and Best Screenplay, which was given posthumously to Sidney Howard. The award of Best Actress went to Vivien Leigh, who had won the coveted part of Scarlett O'Hara after a worldwide search in the course of which 1400 actresses were interviewed. The single glaring and still controversial omission was that of Best Actor, Clark Gable - the personification of Rhett Butler - losing out to Robert Donat, star of Goodbye, Mr Chips.

Any explain what made 1939 such a special year for the movies is bound ultimately to founder. Certainly by then, Hollywood, the epicentre of the industry, had come of age. The heyday of silent film, which began in the dying decades of the 19th century, fizzled out in the 1920s, at the height of the Great Depression when Wall Street crashed and people in their tens of thousands lost their savings, livelihoods and homes.

For many the only option was to take to the road in search of work. The economic climate was mirrored by that which is the preserve of meteorologists. "Gigantic billowing clouds of dust up to 10,000 feet high swept across the parched western Plains throughout the thirties," wrote Harold Evans in The American Century.

"Sometimes they came with lightning and booming thunder but often they were eerily silent, blackening everything in their path. Planes were grounded, buses and trains stalled. The clouds could move at speeds of more than 100 miles an hour: the infamous storm of Black Sunday, April 14, 1935, outraced fleeing cars and shorted their ignitions with static electricity." Such apocalyptic scenes fed the imagination of writers such as John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes Of Wrath and Of Mice And Men. The land he wrote about was parched and devastated, dust-swept and insect-ridden. Roads were filled with people, families like Steinbeck's Joads, carrying their few possessions on their backs and struggling to maintain their dignity, the American Dream reduced to tatters.

The irony is that for the Joads' California was seen as the Promised Land that would provide the answers to their prayers. It was there the movies - and fortunes - were made, where the sun always shone and there was plenty for everyone. But, as ever when the economy nosedives, the entertainment industry was not spared its share of the pain. Attendance at theatres plummeted, and many were forced to close, and a number of studios went bust. Somehow, though, Hollywood rode out the storm, steered by the likes Louis B Mayer, Sam Goldwyn and Darryl F Zanuck, all of whom had an unprecedented ability to give the public what they wanted.

This was what has become known as "the golden age" of cinema, during which period America emerged as a superpower. In 1939, when he was 14, Gore Vidal recalled seeing each of the now-classic movies as it came out. "During this time, did I ever see a good movie?" he once asked. "The answer is, yes, I probably did, but how would I have known? For us, any movie was better than no movie. For us, the concept of a movie being aesthetically good or bad was as irrelevant as saying that bit of history was good or bad. Obviously, one enjoys some moments of history, screened, written, or experienced, more than others but how is relative value to be determined of something which, like history, simply is?"

Already, Germany had invaded Poland, and Britain and France had declared war on Germany. "There was now only one issue," wrote Vidal in The Golden Age, "should the United States cease to be neutral and help finance England and France in the war against Germany?" America was divided on the issue. Though the movies were in general controlled by Jewish people they were wary of using the medium to send an interventionist message or as propaganda. For them, the best movies were those that appealed to the most people. It was up to the politicians to decide if the US should go to war.

The President, Franklin D Roosevelt, was in favour but he, too, realised he must carry the public with him. On the other side of the fence sat some formidable opponents, among whom were Joseph Kennedy, JFK's father, Charles E Coughlin, a barnstorming Catholic priest, Henry Ford, and the aviator Charles Lindbergh, a national hero who had been duped by the Nazis into believing they were a good thing because they were a bulwark against Soviet communism. Pearl Harbour brought the argument to a halt, guaranteeing America's immediate involvement in a war in which other nations had already been engaged for more than two years. In beleaguered, blitzed Britain, movies were still screened but opportunities to watch them were increasingly rare. When you have a mad man battering at your door and threatening your annihilation even Hollywood struggles to grab your attention. There was a war to be won; the movies could wait.

Glasgow Film Festival runs from February 20 toMarch 2, glasgowfilm.org/festival.

See page 26 for more film fashion

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