Beloved Infidel from Twilight Time
In 1933, British gossip columnist Sheilah Graham arrived in New York to accept a position writing for The New York Mirror and The Evening Journal. After two years establishing herself in the entertainment scene, Graham was offered her very own syndicated column, Hollywood Today, with the North American Newspaper Alliance. Graham moved to Los Angeles so she could insert herself into the Hollywood scene, putting her in with the likes the notorious gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper.
In 1937, Graham was engaged to the Marquess of Donegall. In celebration her friend, actor/humorist Robert Benchley, hosted a dinner party in her honor. In attendance was novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, also a close friend of Benchley’s. The pair were introduced, and Graham later remarked how it was love at first sight for both of them. This meeting would be the start of a three year love affair, cut short by Fitzgerald’s untimely death.
In 1958, Sheilah Graham published a memoir recalling her relationship with Fitzgerald titled Beloved Infidel. It was a huge success, and the next year it was adapted for the screen by Sy Bartlett for Twentieth Century Fox. Released under the same name, Beloved Infidel (1959) stars Gregory Peck as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Deborah Kerr as Sheilah Graham. Instead of casting someone to play their friend and matchmaker Robert Benchley (who passed away in 1945, so couldn’t have portrayed himself even if he wanted to), Bartlett’s adaptation features a fictional character, Robert Carter, played by none other than Eddie Albert…who couldn’t look less like Benchley.
The greatest pick-up line in history?
It is Albert’s character Bob who has the great honor of introducing our lovers Scott and Sheilah. Bob throws a swanky dinner party and after dinner, Scott and Sheilah exchange dreamy glances and before long they are dancing cheek-to-cheek poolside at Bob’s home. They make small talk, but each one has only one thing on their minds. The chemistry between Scott and Sheilah, or rather Gregory and Deborah, is undeniable…and at times damn near intoxicating. Their night coming to an end, Peck’s Fitzgerald utters the smoothest of pick-up lines: “Have dinner with me. I wouldn’t want to lose you.” Well, damn. What woman wouldn’t fall head over heels for a man who utters a line like that? And by the great wordsmith F. Scott Fitzgerald? SOLD!
These were the happy days, the salad days, as they say.
Scott and Sheilah’s romance starts off like most: they fall madly in love, can’t get enough of each other, want to know everything about the other. They go to the swankiest hot spots, theaters, and take off for romantic weekend getaways. The lovebirds even take a day trip to Tijuana, Mexico for some tacky, touristy fun.
At the same time, Scott and Sheilah each have their own secrets they want to keep from each other.While dealing with his personal and professional issues, Scott sees that Sheilah is in desperate need of a guide to educate her in literature and history. He’s the Henry Higgins to her Eliza Dolittle. Before long, she’s reading the classics and even picks up some of Scott’s works. Despite his own professional failures, he gets great satisfaction from this interaction with Sheilah. And Sheilah couldn’t be more grateful. It’s during this romantic period that Scott begins to pry into Sheilah’s background. He suspects that she is not from the educated, well-bred British family that she claims to be. In a intense moment on a sun soaked beach, desperately pulling cues from that other famous beach scene in Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity (1953), Scott demands to know the truth. Sheilah breaks down and admits that she isn’t the refined Sheilah Graham at all, but an orphan named Lily Shuel.
For better, but mostly for worse…until the very end.
Although not a secret, one of the real F. Scott Fitzgerald’s major struggles was with his wife, Zelda. In 1936 Zelda was admitted to a mental institution, the Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. She had a full mental breakdown, most likely caused by schizophrenia. Fitzgerald and Zelda had one child, a daughter named Scottie. Fitzgerald arranged for his teenage daughter to be sent to boarding school at the age of 14 where she was to eventually be raised by another couple. It was after Zelda’s breakdown and admittance that Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood to earn a regular salary writing screenplays. Only one problem: Fitzgerald was a prolific novelist, but a not so prolific screenwriter. He also didn’t work well under the intense pressure of the 1930s studio system. Adding to this, he was a raging alcoholic who frequently went on epic benders.
Of course when Peck’s Scott and Kerr’s Sheilah first meet, he is all but washed up. Luckily he’s on the upswing and working on a script. He is sober. He has a student in Sheilah, which gives him a much needed self-esteem boost. All of that sustains Scott…until he is fired from MGM.
Once he loses his job at MGM Scott goes on a magnificent bender, and Sheilah finally sees the troubled Scott for the first time. However, Sheilah isn’t aware that Scott has lost his job. During an important business trip and meeting where Sheilah has an opportunity to record her own radio show based on her popular column, a belligerent Scott bursts into the studio to give Sheilah gin-soaked advice. Scott’s behavior is a bit reminiscent of that poor faded star Norman Maine when he hijacks his wife’s Oscar acceptance speech. As film historian Julie Kirgo remarks, “it’s like an extended version of the humiliating slap in A Star is Born.”
After the weekend from hell, Sheilah enlists the help of their mutual friend Bob. This is when she learns that Scott is washed up and that without a steady income, his wife Zelda will be forced into a state-run sanitarium (read: pure hellhole). Sheilah nurses Scott back to health and convinces him to start writing another novel. Concerned that he can’t make ends meet, she also suggests he write essays and submit to major publications. Before Scott can object, Sheilah informs him that she has already rented a beachfront cottage in Malibu where he can write. Free from distractions, free from the toxicity of Hollywood, and most importantly, free from alcohol. Scott begins work on The Last Tycoon, which would become his final novel (albeit uncompleted). Happiness returns to their relationship once more, but it’s fleeting.
With each setback, Scott turns to alcohol. Unable to control his drinking, he binges and becomes violent, taking his anger out on Sheilah. In one particularly dramatic scene, Scott beats Sheilah and threatens to kill her. Although this scene shows an isolated event and glosses over the drunken violence (as does Graham’s memoir), according to the real Sheilah Graham’s son Robert Westbrook, this pattern of drunken violence was the norm. In their exchange over a gun, Sheilah leaves Scott, vowing to never return to him. Scott falls ill, and his friend Bob comes to his aid. A doctor informs Scott that his heart can’t take another bender, and that he is lucky to be alive. Scott makes several attempts to reconcile with Sheilah over the telephone and through letters, but she doesn’t answer. After a period of sobriety, Scott convinces Sheilah to give him one last chance as he promises to never drink again. Their last days are happy ones, spent in Sheilah’s apartment (the real Graham’s residence, a ground floor apartment, is still in existence on North Hayworth Avenue, near Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood).
A beautiful, hot mess
Director Henry King’s Beloved Infidel is best described as a beautiful, soapy hot mess. Some details in the film are different from those in Graham’s memoir. The film starts with Graham arriving in New York from England in 1936 after she has left her fiancé. This is incorrect. As stated earlier, Graham arrived in 1933 and was engaged at the time of her meeting Fitzgerald in 1937. Also, the film completely glosses over Fitzgerald’s alcoholism and violent rampages toward Graham with the exception of the one scene in the Malibu cottage. Another major issue with the film is the costuming. The hair, makeup, clothing, and accessories are more in line with 1950s fashion than that of the late 1930s. Unfortunately, many studios weren’t focused on historical accuracy, but rather making a pretty spectacle.
Apparently Graham, who had some involvement with the production of the film, suggested Richard Basehart to portray Fitzgerald. Also considered for the role was Mel Ferrer. Both Basehart and Ferrer could have pulled off a closer physical resemblance to Fitzgerald, but when it came to an actor who could handle the tense alcohol-fueled moments, Twentieth Century Fox turned to one of the greats: Gregory Peck. There is no question: Peck looks nothing like F. Scott Fitzgerald. At all. Different build, different face, just two completely different men altogether. Have you ever seen Cary Grant in the Cole Porter biopic Night and Day (1946)? Very reminiscent of that sort of casting. Also, Peck has a tendency to overact just the teensiest bit (alright, maybe a hell of a lot) when he is given an unruly character like the drunk Fitzgerald. All that said, Peck is still enjoyable, and obviously working the best he can with over-the-top material. Deborah Kerr is, well, Deborah Kerr. She’s beautiful, elegant, and at some point she’s crying out “I didn’t want to be drab!” while in a bathing suit. Kerr and Peck do have great on-screen chemistry, but the material never allows them to develop it into something truly special.
In late 2012, the boutique label Twilight Time released a limited edition (3,000 copies) blu-ray of Beloved Infidel. Meaning once they are sold, there will be no more. The video and audio quality are both quite good, though at times the colors appeared to be a bit washed out. Features are sparse, only including an isolated score track and the original theatrical trailer. However for deep cuts like this one, special features are rarely as important. It’s all about just having a copy of the film.
Beloved Infidel isn’t a great movie. Actually, it’s pretty damn bad. When it was released, it was universally panned. But it’s beautiful and colorful. It’s a curiosity. It isn’t about F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sheilah Graham. If you want to really learn about Fitzgerald, pick up one of his amazing novels. Beloved Infidel is about Gregory Peck and Deborah Kerr…looking gorgeous. Her in beautiful dresses and swimsuits, and him in saddle oxfords and cardigans. And for Gregory Peck or Deborah Kerr completists, it’s a must see.
You can order a limited edition Blu-ray of Beloved Infidel by Twilight Time from Screen Archives Entertainment.
- Krebs, Albin. “Sheilah Graham Is Dead at 84; Wrote Hollywood Gossip Column“ The New York Times 19 November 1988.
- Bruccoli, Matthew J. “A Brief Life of Fitzgerald” University of South Carolina: F. Scott Fitzgerald Centenary. 1994.
- Highland Hospital, Asheville, North Carolina via National Parks Service. (http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/asheville/hig.htm)
- Westbrook, Robert. www.robertwestbrook.com
- Kirgo, Julie. Beloved Infidel Blu-ray liner notes
Jill Blake is the owner of the classic film website Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence. She is also a co-founder and editor of the film site The Black Maria and film editor at CC2K. In 2012, she was interviewed on-air by Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz. In 2013, she was a featured guest on the TCM podcast. In her spare time Jill is a stay-at-home mom, wife, fried okra connoisseur, and the neighborhood’s own L.B. Jeffries.