JOHN DOS PASSOS, JOHN HOWARD LAWSON & MOST LIKELY TO SUCCEED
John Dos Passos’ novel, Most Likely to Succeed, was published in 1954 in America and 1955 in Britain. He had, in his younger days, been inclined towards the Left, but by the 1950s was what can only be described as a conservative in his political thinking. The process of moving to the Right had taken place over a number of years, but prominent among the factors shaping his opinions were his experiences in Spain during the period when the Civil War was raging there. They occasioned a notable falling-out with Ernest Hemingway, among other things.
Dos Passos had a friend, a Spanish academic called José Robles, who had been teaching in the USA, but was visiting Spain when the Civil War started and decided to stay and help the Republican authorities. He acted as a translator for a senior Russian agent who was involved with the International Brigades, which were always under communist control, and who was also participating in the communist-dominated reorganisation of the Republican army. At some point the Russian came under suspicion because of his doubts about the purges that were being carried out against non-communist republicans like the anarchists and members of POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unity), who were accused of being Trotskyists. Robles, as his translator, was arrested by the secret police, probably because it was considered he knew too much, accused of being a fascist spy, and shot, seemingly without any kind of trial. There were other reasons given for getting rid of Robles. He had a brother who supported Franco and was said to have helped him in various ways. And he had talked too openly in cafés about Republican military objectives.
Dos Passos was concerned that Robles appeared to have vanished without trace, and became increasingly curious when he received only vague replies to enquiries about his whereabouts. When he raised the matter with Hemingway, who mixed with officials in the Spanish government, he was told that certain things were necessary in wartime and he should stop asking questions. One man’s fate was insignificant in the grand scheme of things. I have given only a brief summary of the mystery surrounding the death of Robles, and a more detailed account can be found in the book by Stephen Koch listed in the Bibliographical Note appended to this essay. It’s worth noting that Dos Passos was also aware of the arrest, torture, and killing of Andrés Nin, head of the POUM, by the communist-dominated security services.
Some years later, Dos Passos wrote an anti-communist novel, Adventures of a Young Man, in which an idealistic young man is radicalised in the 1930s, and joins the Communist Party. He gets involved in strikes and other activities, but begins to realise that the interests of the Party take precedence over those of the people it claims to be supporting. When he expresses his doubts openly he is expelled from the Party. He decides to go to Spain to enlist in the fight against fascism by joining the International Brigades. But, as a non-communist, and in fact someone who was thrown out of the Party, he’s viewed with suspicion. And the suspicion grows when he’s seen talking to an anarcho-syndicalist he knows. He is brought before a disciplinary hearing and accused of being a Trotskyist, a counter-revolutionary, and a fascist spy. He is sent to the front-lines and given what is a task almost certain to result in his death. It’s a way of disposing of him without having to fulfil the formalities of a court-martial or other legal requirements.
When Hemingway and Dos Passos were watching the war in Spain wind it ways towards its disastrous end, in Hollywood John Howard Lawson was writing the screenplay for a film called Blockade which had its basis in the war. Lawson was a member of the Communist Party and a leading light in the Screen Writers’ Guild, the union representing their interests, and often noted for its factional fights and its struggles with management. It would all come to a head in the post-1945 period when the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings focused heavily on the activities of writers who were alleged Party members. Sometimes, it wasn’t even necessary to be a Party member to be thought of as subversive. “Are you a member of the Screen Writers’ Guild?” was a question asked alongside “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”.
Lawson had known Dos Passos in New York in the 1920s when both were involved with the New Playwrights’ Theatre (The Craftsman’s Theatre in Most Likely to Succeed), which was, according to Stephen Koch, “a modernist enterprise organised by John Howard Lawson, and its star author was Lawson’s fellow ambulance-driver John Dos Passos”. The reference to being ambulance drivers brings out the fact that both, like Hemingway, Malcolm Cowley, e.e. cummings and other young Americans, had been volunteers in the Red Cross during the First World War. The theatre they started was devoted to “radical” and “expressionist” plays, and if Koch is to believed, was “unobtrusively supervised” by V.J. Jerome and Alexander Trachtenberg, two of the American Communist Party’s cultural commissars. Koch also asserts that its “true purpose” was to ”help Stalinise the New York vanguard, while assisting its founders, above all John Howard Lawson and Lawson’s political sidekick, Frances Faragoh, make their move to Hollywood”. A couple of Dos Passos’ plays, and several by Lawson, did achieve some critical attention, if not popular success, and by the late-1920s Lawson and Faragoh were in the thriving film capital.
Faragoh doesn’t seem to have ever had any major successes as an actor, but Lawson did build up a reasonably impressive list of films he had worked on. Like anyone functioning in Hollywood, he was often faced with trying to make something worthwhile out of indifferent material. But when he wrote the screenplay for Blockade, he may have thought that he was being given an opportunity to deal with a subject, the Spanish Civil War, that was close to his heart. The reality of the situation soon told him otherwise. Censorship and commercial interests determined that, though an informed viewer might easily guess that the action was taking place in Spain, the film made no reference to that fact. Groups with a special interest, the Catholic Church for example, objected to what they thought was communist propaganda in anything that appeared to be favourable about the Loyalists or unfavourable about the Nationalists. For their part, the studios were wary of promoting anything that might affect distribution of the film in America and Europe.
A couple of films made during the Second World War gave Lawson greater opportunities to openly express his anti-fascist feelings. Sahara starred Humphrey Bogart as an American army sergeant leading a disparate group of characters to safety in North Africa. Lawson managed to work sentiments about racial prejudice into the script in a way that suited the wartime calls for co-operation between all races, colours, and creeds in the struggle to defeat fascism.
The other film was Action in the North Atlantic, and I have to admit to a personal fondness for it. The story of a group of American merchant seamen taking supplies to Soviet Russia very much caught the mood of the moment when Russia was an ally and singing its praises was looked on positively. Did Lawson work propaganda into his screenplay, as would later be alleged? There are a few scenes which probably could arouse the suspicions of red-baiters. In one, a group sits around a table in the National Maritime Union ( a communist-controlled union) hiring hall, and a young sailor expresses his reluctance to go to sea again after the ship he was on had been sunk. An older sailor remonstrates with him and points out how fascism threatens everyone. This man later in the film, when asked what “tovarisch” means, says, “It means comrade, and that’s good”. And there is a scene where crew members apprehensively watch a plane approaching until someone shouts, “It’s one of ours”, and the camera pans upwards to indicate Russian markings on its wings.
None of Lawson’s writing for films appears to show him inserting outright communist propaganda into his scripts, but he was accused of doing just that when summoned to appear before the House Un-American Committee (HUAC) in 1947. A combination of suggestions about his work, and references to his activities in the Screen Writers Guild (SWG, but called the Filmwriters’ Association in Most Likely to Succeed) pinpointed him as a leading communist in Hollywood. When he blustered and argued with the Committee, and refused to co-operate, he was, as one of the famous Hollywood Ten, sentenced to a term in prison. After that, he did little direct work in films, though he wrote and taught about them.
It’s obvious that, as Dos Passos moved to the right, and Lawson further to the left, their previous friendship had broken down. When Dos Passos’s novel, Most Likely to Succeed, appeared in 1954 it would have been clear to informed readers that the central character, Jed Morris, had, in some respects, more than a passing resemblance to John Howard Lawson. Both the fictional and the real-life character had started their careers in off-Broadway left-wing theatre circles in New York, had a limited amount of success as playwrights, and moved to Hollywood. There may be something of Morris’s womanising in Lawson’s activities. He was married but had relationships with other women, including, it has been suggested, a long affair with the novelist, Dawn Powell. We are, of course, dealing with a novel, so it’s not necessarily a reliable guide to the character and actions of an actual person, especially when it comes to sex, where it might not always be obvious what someone thinks and does.
Is it different with politics? Dos Passos had known Lawson sufficiently well over the years to be able to assess his capabilities for political thinking. The testimonies of others who knew him do indicate that Lawson had the capacity to absorb Marxist theory and use it for the analysis of film techniques and achievements. But it has also been asserted that, when it came to dealing with people, Lawson could be dogmatic and that he had a tendency to accept the Party line and, where necessary, impose it on others. His position during the debate surrounding Albert Maltz’s alleged deviation from Party policy regarding the role of the writer might be interesting to consider.
Maltz, a novelist and fellow-screenwriter, had written an article saying that writers ought not to be expected to follow a Party line when it came to what their subject-matter was and how they wrote about it. They should be free to make their own decisions regarding such matters. He was attacked by several other writers, including Alvah Bessie, Dalton Trumbo, and John Howard Lawson, all of them essentially insisting that art is a weapon to be used in the class war. Gerald Horne says that: “Lawson was not on the side of Maltz. In fact, according to some, he was leading the charge against him, burnishing his reputation as the Party’s ideological enforcer”. There are some relevant observations on Lawson’s grasp of Marxism, and his application of it in relation to works of art, in Nancy Lynn Schwartz’s The Hollywood Writers’ Wars, and the consensus seems to be that he could be very authoritarian when deviations from Party policies came to light.
Jed Morris, the Lawson-like character in Most Likely to Succeed, is dogmatic, but largely because he doesn’t really understand Marxist theory too well and simply parrots the Party line when a problem arises. He’s impressed when he meets Party bureaucrats like V.F. Calvert (based on V.J. Jerome, a communist ideologue who sometimes visited Hollywood to lay down the law regarding what writers there should be doing to further the cause). But he’s similarly impressed by some of the studio executives he meets, in particular by Milt Michelson, a dynamic young producer who dies unexpectedly from a heart attack, and who is probably modelled on Irving Thalberg. Scott Fitzgerald also took him as the inspiration for Monroe Stahr in The Last Tycoon. Jed is as swayed by their seeming enthusiasm for creating film as art as he is by communist enthusiasm for a supposed better society. In both cases their actual aims are much more prosaic. Money and power.
I propose that Dos Passos was doing more than settling old scores when he created Jed Morris and charted his collapse into mediocrity in the money-markets of Hollywood. As well as exposing the influence and machinations of the Communist Party among the Hollywood community, and in particular its writers, I think he was also emphasising a point often made by communists and conservatives alike. Moving to Hollywood was likely to lead to a diminution in one’s talents as a creative writer. Too many other people – directors, producers, actors, writers – could interfere with one’s screenplays. And the basic material was often not likely to make any great demands on one’s creative imagination. There might be an irony in the notion of the Communist Party adopting a lofty position with regard to a writer’s work being almost sacrosanct and not open for interference from outside sources. The Party had more than once attempted to shape the direction of novels written by screenwriters, as witness the arguments surrounding Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? and Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locusts. In Schulberg’s case he resigned from the Party rather than agree to demands that he make certain changes to the text.
The HUAC investigations and subsequent blacklisting of many writers are not part of Most Likely to Succeed. The novel comes to a conclusion when Jed is warned by his Party contacts that Marlowe, the woman he had met on board ship at the start of the novel, and who has turned up in Hollywood years later and become his mistress, is probably an informant for the FBI. So, it’s more than likely that they’ll have details of his involvements besides the more-obvious ones like making speeches and signing petitions. The HUAC hearings brought out the fact that the activities of left-wing writers had all been carefully noted and filed for future use, even during the war years when everyone considered it safe to support Russia. Given the details of Marlowe’s associations with the FBI and right-wing politicians, Jed collapses and asks his friends to call a doctor.
We know that Lawson’s career in Hollywood came to an end in 1947 when he was convicted and imprisoned after his confrontation with HUAC. So Dos Passos’ novel isn’t meant to parallel Lawson’s life, even if there are sufficient signs to point the reader in the direction of understanding where the inspiration for its central character came from. And some of the minor characters can also be linked to actual people who knew Lawson. Eli Soltair, a failed playwright and a man who leaned more towards the free-wheeling American radicalism exemplified by the IWW, was based on the curiously-named Em Jo Basshe. He had been present in the 1920s when Lawson and Dos Passos were active in New York, and had been one of the founder members of the New Playwrights’ Theatre. He had two or three plays produced, but without any great response, and died in 1939. His fictional counterpart at one point turns up in Hollywood, but Jed has moved on from what he represents: “Greenwich Village, artists, what a dead end. He was through with drunks and Bohemians and addle-headed liberals”.
I don’t think that anyone could claim major status as a novel for Most Likely to Succeed. But it is of interest as an admittedly satirical account of left-wing writers supposedly plotting revolution while making good money in the Hollywood dream factory. It’s easy to see why they were sometimes referred to as the “swimming pool Soviet”. I don’t want to detract from John Howard Lawson’s principled stand against HUAC, even if it was a blunder in its application. He went to prison, and lost his position in the film industry by defying the Committee. Dos Passos possibly portrayed him unfairly in some ways by making his fictional counterpart less-intelligent, and more-opportunistic than Lawson probably was. But he was writing a novel and not a factual account, so was at liberty to shape people and places to suit his overall intentions. And by the early-1950s he was firmly of the opinion that those writers who had surrendered their individuality to either the notion of a communist utopia or the lure of Hollywood fantasy were lacking in both intelligence and integrity.
It does occur to me to wonder if Dos Passos wasn’t also influenced when writing Most Likely to Succeed by the stories of other playwrights who had moved from New York to Hollywood. George Sklar had a success in both New York and London with Stevedore which starred Paul Robeson. He went to Hollywood, but was never in great demand as a screenwriter. He was involved with now-forgotten films like City Without Men and Next Comes Courage, and contributed additional dialogue to the screenplay of The Bandit of Sherwood Forest, though without receiving screen credit for it. He was blacklisted in 1951 after being named by Martin Berkeley who with Budd Schulberg had also worked on City Without Men. Both co-operated wIth HUAC when summoned to testify.
And there is the case of Clifford Odets, probably the most-acclaimed left-wing playwright in New York in the 1930s. Like Lawson and Sklar he took his talents to Hollywood, but when HUAC arrived in the early-1950s he co-operated and survived to carry on working in films. It has sometimes been the case to dismiss Odets’ work in films, but his screenplays for None But the Lonely Heart and Deadline at Dawn are worth paying attention to, and the later Sweet Smell of Success is excellent.
Something else that Dos Passos brings out in his novel is that the Party was regularly looking for funds to support its various activities. It has been suggested that it was, in fact, the prime source of its interest in the screenwriters. As comparatively well-paid writers, they could afford to give generously to any cause the Party propagated. If they were actual Party members they were expected to contribute a regular portion of their earnings to the Party.
Most Likely to Succeed by John Dos Passos. Robert Hale, London, 1955.
Adventures of a Young Man by John Dos Passos. Constable, London, 1939.
The Best Times: An Informal Memoir by John Dos Passos. Deutsch, London, 1968.
The Fourteenth Chronicle: Letters and Diaries of John Dos Passos edited by Townsend Ludington. Deutsch, London, 1974.
The Life of John Dos Passos: Twentieth Century Odyssey by Townsend Ludington. Dutton, New York, 1980.
Dos Passos: The Critical Heritage edited by Barry Maine. Routledge, London, 1988.
The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Murder of José Robles by Stephen Koch. Counterpoint, New York, 2005.
Double Lives: Stalin, Willi Munzenberg, and the Seduction of the Intellectuals by Stephen Koch. HarperCollins, London, 1995.
Hotel Florida: Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civil War by Amanda Vail. Bloomsbury, London, 2014.
The Final Victim of the Blacklist: John Howard Lawson, Dean of the Hollywood Ten by Gerald Horne. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2006.
The Hollywood Writers Wars by Nancy Lynn Schwartz. Knopf, New York, 1982.
Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist by Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle. St Martin’s Press, New York, 1997.
Communism in Hollywood: The Moral Paradoxes of Testimony, Silence, and Betrayal by Alan Casty. Scarecrow Press, Lanham, 2009.
Red Star Over Hollywood: The Film Colony’s Long Romance with the Left by Ronald Radosh and Allis Radosh. Encounter Books, San Francisco, 2005.