“Babylon Revisited” is counted among the best, if not the best, of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories. The Saturday Evening Post paid $3,600 to publish the piece in its February 21, 1931 issue and “Babylon Revisited” was included in Fitzgerald’s 1935 short story collection “Taps at Reveille.” What began hopefully as a screenplay adaptation by the author himself developed into a bastardized 1954 MGM picture.
The original story was intensely personal with Fitzgerald drawing upon his own experience and quilts. “Babylon Revisited” concerns a self pitying man seeking redemption from the excesses of the 1920s and touches on Fitzgerald’s alcoholism, troubled marriage to mentally disturbed wife Zelda and relationship with young daughter Scottie.
Wealthy American businessman Charlie Wales (based on Fitzgerald) relocated to Paris with wife Helen (Zelda) and daughter Honoria (Scottie) during the height of the ex-pat 1920s craze of living a cheap high life in France. His out of control alcoholism led to Helen’s death from heart disease and surrendering custody of Honoria to spiteful sister-in-law Marion (based on Zelda’s sister Rosalind who disliked Fitzgerald). The story follows a now sober Charlie seeking to regain custody of Honoria and expressing his culpability in what happened to his life and family.
Fitzgerald was courted by Lester Cowan who was an independent film producer fresh from making the W.C. Fields’ movies “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man” and “My Little Chickadee.” A deal was struck in March 1940. Cowan purchased the screen rights to “Babylon Revisited” for $1,000 and offered the author $500 a week to write a screenplay. The money was a godsend to Fitzgerald. He earned $5,000 for the script.
An enthused Fitzgerald worked six hours a day on an adaptation of “Babylon Revisited” that he re-titled “Cosmopolitan.” He felt it was his best movie work and those that read it agreed. Fitzgerald altered his original story beginning by changing Honoria to Victoria in acknowledging the baby daughter of friend Budd Schulberg. The setting was shifted from 1930 to 1929 and Charlie and family crossing the Atlantic for a European vacation prior to the Wall Street crash. His wife commits suicide by jumping overboard and emphasis was placed on 11-year-old Victoria.
Cowan envisioned Shirley Temple as Victoria and he and Fitzgerald actually visited Temple’s home to pitch the project to her parents. Nothing came of it. “Cosmopolitan” was shelved and Fitzgerald died late in 1940. Schulberg was approached to rewrite “Cosmopolitan” and refused on the basis it was not necessary. Cowan tried reviving the project in 1949 to no avail.
However, Cowan turned a tidy profit when selling the “Babylon Revisted” screen rights and “Cosmopolitan” to MGM for a reputed $100,000 or $40,000 depending upon the biographical source. MGM had also purchased a book by Elliot Paul titled “The Last Time I Saw Paris” about expatriate life in Paris. The studio assigned the project to writer-director Richard Brooks and Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein (the brothers who wrote “Casablanca”).
MGM employed the title “The Last Time I Saw Paris” perhaps because it was a better title for the movie’s song by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. Fitzgerald’s basic concept and theme are somewhat intact though the framework was radically altered. The story is related in flashback mode.
Charlie Wales is now Charles Wills (Van Johnson) who is a Stars & Stripes journalist during World War II. He meets and married Helen (Elizabeth Taylor) and they reside in the post-war Parisian social set. His failure as a writer brings him to the bottle. Helen dies of pneumonia and young Vicki is left in the custody of Marion (Donna Reed). Charles retreats to America where he succeeds as a novelist and his Paris return is to reclaim Vicki.
The film turned out mediocre and even Taylor called it not very good. From “Babylon Revisited” to “Cosmopolitan” to “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” the end result was an empty glossy MGM vehicle for Elizabeth Taylor.