June 2, 1939: Nathanael West writes to F. Scott Fitzgerald to give him the latest report on The Day of the Locust, published six weeks earlier:
The box score stands: Good reviews—fifteen per cent, bad reviews—twenty five per cent, brutal personal attacks—sixty percent. Sales: practically none. I’ll try another one anyway, I guess.
Fitzgerald’s interest in these numbers would have been more than casual, given that he was just then beginning his own novel on the movie business, The Last Tycoon, with which he hoped to resurrect his career. Still in Hollywood doing his pen-for-hire screenwriting, Fitzgerald had recently finished some work on Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, published on this day in 1936. He told his friend and editor Max Perkins that it was like working on The Gospel According to Margaret:
Do you know in that Gone With the Wind job I was absolutely forbidden to use any words except those of Margaret Mitchell, that is, when new phrases had to be invented one had to thumb through as if it were Scripture and check out phrases of hers which would cover the situation!
*** Lionel Bart’s Oliver! premiered in London on this day in 1960, getting twenty-three curtain calls, after which Bart told the audience, “May the good Dickens forgive us.” The critics sounded a similar note: one wondered if he would soon be called upon to review “The Pickwick Capers” or “Miss Havisham Misses a Wedding,” and Kenneth Tynan imagined all the Dickens classics up in floodlights — “Bleak!,” “David!” and “Great!”
Being a man of the theater, Dickens might have sanctioned such productions. He made the most of his public readings, as his directions to himself regarding how to present the grisly murder of Nancy by Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist make clear: “Beckon down … Point … Shudder … Look Round with Terror … Murder coming … Mystery … Terror to the End.” A memoir by Charlie Dickens, the son, describes how he heard a violent quarrel outside the Gad’s Hill house one summer afternoon and stepped outside to find his father, a year before his death, in rehearsal in the meadow, “…striding up and down, gesticulating wildly, and, in the character of Mr. Sikes, murdering Nancy, with every circumstance of aggravated brutality.” Many advised Dickens not to perform the scene, and there are reports of people fainting after witnessing it.