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Missing – Believed Blacklisted: Walter Leslie River

Tony Williams

“Yet even had the facts and details been available, it is doubtful that the writers of history would have treated the Torgut migration at greater length. For to the historian, more often than not, the poetic skill of a Kien Long, or the idiosyncrasies of a Catherine the Great, seem to possess far greater significance than the instinctive motion of a people towards freedom. And the flight and suffering of this pastoral people seem to have little or no direct effect on the course of the great empires between whose exacting borders the migration occurred.”1

The history of cinema is littered with many absences: lost films and many talents who seem to have suffered neglect due to canonical and ideological reasons. In recent years, several works have appeared on the blacklist era and its victims leading in several cases to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences requesting the restoration of credits to those denied them in the dark era of the Cold War. Many of those victimized were major talents such as Ben Barzman, Abraham Polonsky, and Dalton Trumbo. But others were minor figures once credited in films and now lacking any investigation of their work since they have become overshadowed cinematically by figures River would compare to Kien Long and Catherine the Great in his historical note to his 1939 novel The Torguts. Robin Wood sees the major artist as being capable of “standing against the flow of his period” while minor talents succeed “only when the climate is congenial, when the tradition within which it operates is nourished into vigorous growth from sources within the culture.”2 One such example of a minor talent is the now forgotten Californian writer Walter Leslie River (or W.L. River as his novel and screenplay credits usually describe him). According to the Internet Movie Database, River (1903-1981) had only written six screenplays from 1929-1943. His last credit was for a Sidney Salkow film City without Men (1943) based on a story by Martin Berkley (1904-1979) notorious for being the friendliest witness before the House Committee for UnAmerican Activities responsible for damaging the careers of 155 actors, directors, and fellow writers. The actor Robert Vaughn, in his book on the blacklist, based on his graduate thesis, lists River (1902-1981) among those named as Communist during the post-war era.3 At present, information about the forgotten author is difficult to find. All that is known is that he lived well beyond his time as a novelist and screenwriter and, from material that appears in several of his works, he was obviously a victim of the blacklist.

W.L. River was not a great writer and the purpose of this article does not intend to make such claims but rather see him as among the victims of the blacklist era denied any form of creative expression in literature and film that could have resulted in further development of his talents. As Ellen Schrecker has noted, the “anticommunist purges wiped out the means through which it was possible to offer an alternative vision of the world” and several of River’s books and screenplays attempt to do this. She also recognizes the devastating effects on cultural representations during this dark era in American history.

“Doors closed in the cultural arena as well. Again, it is a matter of imponderables and missed opportunities. Nevertheless, it is clear that the anticommunist crusade transformed the mental contours of American life, changing the way that millions of ordinary people thought about themselves and their society. Gone was the Popular Front mind-set with its glorification of the little man and its celebration of labor and cultural diversity. Gone, too, was the class consciousness and the emphasis on collective struggle that had pervaded so much of American culture during the 1930s ad 1940s.”4

River’s absence from film history resulted not just from the blacklist but also from the initial rigid premises of the “auteur theory” as defined by Andrew Sarris which focused exclusively on the director. However, as Jean Mitry notes, the auteur or the “essential creator” need not necessarily be the director, but sometimes it may be the scriptwriter, as ”the one whose personality is strongest, the one capable of imposing most definitely his creative will.”5 Normally, the director is considered to be the central force in the process of filmmaking. However, Mitry qualifies this assumption as follows.

“But if he is merely, a conscientious craftsman, if he has confined his work to the perfect technical execution of a plan imposed on him, then clearly it is the scriptwriter who is the strongest influence. To the perceptive critic this is immediately apparent. Films like Marty or Twelve Angry Men are the work of screenwriters, whereas films such as Rio Bravo, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and Rebel without a Cause owe everything to the director. In these films, the work of the screenwriter is eclipsed by the personality of the director.”6

Neither William Wellman nor Sidney Salkow belong to the upper levels of Andrew Sarris’s pantheon of great directors. Wellman appears in the “less than meets the eye” section and Salkow is never mentioned. For Sarris, Wellman is “a recessive director, one whose images tend to recede from the foreground to the background in the absence of a strong point of view.” It may be argued that the distinguishing features of the River scripted The Great Man’s Lady (1943), that Sarris regards as one of Wellman’s least interesting work, owes much to the “strong point of view” contained in the screenplay. Although River never achieved a consistent rack record as novelist and screenwriter and was never fortunate to find Mitry’s “creative unity” binding such collaborators as Carne-Prevert, Aurenche-Lara, and Feyder-Spaak, he, at least contributed some major screenplays for The Great Man’s Lady, The Adventures of Martin Eden (1942), as well as making some distinctive “Popular Front” contributions to parts of City Without Men (1943).7

River wrote six novels, the first of which had obviously landed him a Hollywood contract for his first two Hollywood experiences. Death of a Young Man was published by Simon and Schuster in 1927. It is a confused, psychoanalytical study of a neurasthenic character and is one of those many forgotten novels of the Jazz Age. River worked on the dialogue for Navy Blues (1929), a comedy with William Haines, and wrote the script and dialogue for one of John Gilbert’s unsuccessful MGM talking pictures Way of a Sailor (1930). Neither film appears to have been successful and this may have hindered the author’s attempt to become a Hollywood screenwriter leading him to return to writing. His following books are much more interesting since they bear the indelible brand of the Great Depression as well as a more mature understanding of the role of historical and political forces affecting individual agency. River’s later novels, Dark Canyon (co-written with Frank Wead in 1935), Transit USA (1940), The Torguts (1939), and his last novel The Malta Story (based on the diary and experiences of Royal Air Force Officer Howard M. Coffin) that appeared in 1943, all show a developing interest in historical issues rather than the solipsistic concerns of his first novel. In fact, River’s foreword to his historical novel, The Torguts that deals with the 1771 Torgut migration into China emphasizes highly relevant contemporary issues that almost certainly came to the attention of those HUAC investigators seeking traces of premature anti-Fascism and radical thought. River stated that the tragic story of the Torguts “is not an isolated fact lost in the legendary borderlands of history. Rather it is an almost modern example of man’s eternal search for peace and freedom. The irony of their being delivered into greater oppression than that from which they fled, is the irony of unfinished history.”8

Forgotten Novels

Similarly, River and his contemporaries would soon face another type of oppression in the post-war era. River may be regarded as a minor talent according to Robin Wood’s definition and he certainly was no great artist. But his work suggests traces of a talent who became radicalized by the Great Depression and who contributed screenplays very much in the spirit of those progressive ideals of World War Two America that soon became anathema in the reactionary post-war era. A world of difference exists between his pre-Wall Street Crash novel, Death of a Young Man, and his later novels and screenplays. River’s first novel is a Jazz Age solipsistic narrative that is the most dated of all his works. Written in first person, it recounts the experiences of David Block who believes he has not long to live. Although it contains a certain amount of realization of how the other half lives, the whole novel is plagued by a high degree of individual self-obsession that is of little interest to most readers. However, certain changes appear in DarkCanyon. As a novel dealing with a drilling crew working in a hostile environment subjected to low wages and lack of safety precautions, it reveals a new world of capitalist exploitation, the need for unionization, and the recognition of the alternative world of Marxism and the challenges presented by the Soviet Union that nearly overcome the transcendental, other-worldly prosaic features that dominate River’s first work. Despite its various flaws and neo-Hemingwayesque overtones, DarkCanyon reveals that River now recognizes the powerful existence of a hostile and material world of institutional oppression seeking to challenge any false sense of optimistic human agency.

By contrast, Transit U.S.A. is a much more politically aware novel. Employing the structure of the “road” narrative familiar to readers of Jack London’s The Road (1907) and Jack Kerouac’s later On the Road (1957), Transit U.S.A. charts the fortunes of a young, naïve Californian youth who loses his boat to capitalist machinations and believes that a personal appear to a supposedly benevolent capitalist will solve all his problems. The novel charts his progress from California to New York where he encounters a varied assortment of characters who are all victims of the Great Depression in one way or another. River’s hero Curly undergoes what may be described as a political version of a Bildungsroman in an odyssey that not only reveals to him the real nature of his own society but also an alternative vision affecting oppressed people of all races and classes.

Curley encounters various social types such as the friendly hobo Binder, Anacostia who lost his arm in the Bonus March and is now involved in another one designed to appeal to someone who might be a more sympathetic President that his predecessor.

“Then he wandered around and went west, and pretty soon there were all these people; and they wanted him, to help, because he had been to Washington before. They were counting on Anacostia to get them there; and they were all counting on the President too, because they were like the mandate the people had given him, to fix everything up, like he himself said.”9

Curly also encounters anti-Semitism and the Red Scare on his journey, the latter frequently used to attack popular reaction to social injustice in the land of the free. Sentenced unfairly to forced labor in Missouri, a system designed to exploit the unemployed victims of the Great Depression, Curly also encounters a farmer facing dispossession whose activist protests designate him as a Red and liable to attacks by the local chapter of the Ku-Klux Klan made up of prominent business and law enforcement officials. He finally manages to reach New York only to discover that the supposedly benevolent capitalist whom he hoped would restore his fortunes is just as vicious as the rest of the establishment figures he encountered previously. Bindler dies at the end of the road but his encouraging voice reaches out to Curly posthumously by encouraging him to now follow a more collective path in his life.

“So long, Curly Martin. You got a long way, still, but there’s a hundred million people traveling along. They cant’ keep you down any more.”10

River’s last book, Malta Story, is a fictional reconstruction of the lives of four American Eagle flyers who chose to join the Royal Air Force to fight Fascism before America’s entry into World War Two. Three of these Americans sacrifice themselves in a struggle that then depicted the independence and resourcefulness of an outnumbered island and Air Force to resist totalitarianism and constant bombardment by Axis forces. Despite its melodramatic overtones and dependence on material supplied by Howard Coffin, Malta Story represents another contribution to the “Why We Fight” ideology of wartime America. However, following the end of World War Two and the beginning of the Cold War, both author and novel could find themselves open to the charge of “premature anti-Fascism.”

Of his entire work, The Torguts is probably River’s best work. He works more effectively when he has to work with an historical canvas having distinctive relevance for the conditions of his own time. The heroic struggle of the Torgut people to return to their “Promised Land” only to find betrayal and disillusionment at the end of their journey facing a similar type of captivity by China as the one they had escaped from in Catherine the Great’s Russia. Betrayal occurs within the Torgut group itself most notably by established leaders, spiritual and secular as the last descendant of Genghis Khan realizes at the end of he novel.

“Could he have discarded his own rank and become strong enough, somehow to lead his own people? His hands trembled, he sighed deeply. No matter what clothes he wore, he was the captive of his own futile longing for power among the princes, and fame in history. Nothing would have been changed, - he had seen it for a moment last night. Then had been his last chance, when Subutai spoke, to speak for the people himself. Always, he thought bitterly, he had pretended to act for the people – but it had always been basically for himself. In that moment, he knew what Subutai had meant, even better than Subutai…To speak for the people meant, surely top deny the princes and priests – to deny himself.”11

Betrayal in different forms would also occur in River’s screenplays for The Great Man’s Lady, The Adventures of Martin Eden, and City Without Men. However, River ends The Torguts on a note of hope similar to that concluding Transit U.S.A., confirming his belief that victory may be possible despite the presence of overwhelming odds.

“The Torgut people, slowly, tortuously, crawled up the dark rocky pass to their ancient land.

`So that some day’, cried Ubasha desperately, `the bodies of men may climb to those lofty peaks where their spirits have already soared … Where man may come to the free and peaceful end of his long migration, traveled since the beginning of time.”12

The Torguts also include women as well as men in its compass. So, too, will River’s successful screenplays. Both Transit U.S.A and The Torguts spoke to the aspirations of a particular readership during the 1930s and the sales obviously resulted in the author’s return to a Hollywood in which he would write different types of screenplays than the ones he penned following the appearance of his first novel. The Torguts also influenced River’s screenplay for The Great Man’s Lady since it deals with similar issues concerning denial and omission in the records of official history. These last two novels appear to have stimulated further Hollywood interest in his talent. River’s name reappears as a screenwriter for William Wellman’s Reaching for the Sun (1941). Starring Joel McCrea, the film was based on a grim novel about the Detroit automobile industry, F.O. B. Detroit by Wessel Smitter. However, as a Paramount Studio production, little remained of the original novel and the film version turned it into a boisterous and shallow romantic comedy that Bosley Crowther criticized in his May 8, 1941 New York Times Review. “The unfortunate thing about this comedy is that it never rings true to life. It is just as though John Steinbeck’s `Of Mice and Men’ were deliberately played for laughs, with Lennie and George ending up in joyous possession of a rabbit farm.”

Erasure from History

The Great Man’s Lady was based on a short story, “The Human Side”, written by Vina Delmar that appeared in the November 1939 issue of Hearst’s International-Cosmopolitan. Journalist Adela Rogers St. John and former D.W. Griffith actress Seena Owen are credited for the “original story” that formed the screenplay by W.L. River. However, according to the American Film Institute Catalog, “Clements Ripley and Les River” are listed as contributing writers. River is obviously W. L. River and he may be the key person in developing a narrative that appeared in a magazine published by a figure who was by no means radical.13 Delmar’s story provides the main framework for the film. A young female historian visits the aged Alma MacLeod who inhabits a shabby house on a main street “much like the main street of any American town.”14

She discovers that Alma is the legitimate wife of a great American hero who married another woman. This secret marriage was unknown to his family who “had plans for him” and would not have approved of him marrying a girl “who could not further their aims.”15 Despite the official record surrounding the unnamed great man’s claim to fame, the historian discovers that he was really a weak and opportunistic figure. Throughout the years Alma has lived alone in the shadow of a great man who, in reality, had feet of clay. The story ends with both women agreeing to allow the legend to remain in print as Alma decides that she does not want to brand an American hero with an evil name.

“No human side. He was a god. Put that in your book. It wouldn’t be pretty, young woman, to say he was a bigamist or a rascal. You wouldn’t be proud of having torn a hero from his pedestal in the hearts of millions of people. And neither would I.”16

“The Human Side” contains a radical premise that the future screenplay by River will develop. Although the film version also concludes with the secret being kept, the narrative structure implicitly reveals that the idyllic depiction of the American hero and the manifest destiny nature of his society depend on very shaky foundations. The Great Man’s Lady contains a critique of the American hero begun by the American-Jewish writer in her novel Cimarron(1929) and continued in John Ford’s The Man who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). It seems far from coincidental that the final scene of the 1931 film version of Ferber’s novel and the concluding sequence of The Great Man’s Lady both contain an image of the great American hero now safely enshrined in stone and seemingly invulnerable from any contemporary and future questions concerning his status. While Ferber presents her hero as immature and insecure, River’s “great man” is a weak, homicidal rogue whose claims greatness remain questionable, to say the least.

Containing an outstanding performance by Barbara Stanwyck whose initial appearance as a 107 year-old woman represented the most extensive for any female character to date in screen history, cinematography by director William Wellman’s frequent collaborator William C. Mellor, and a sympathetic supporting role by Brian Donlevy who had appeared in Paramount’s The Great McGinty (1940), The Great Man’s Lady’s very title appears to suggest the celebration of American historical values characteristic of mainstream Hollywood cinema with some exceptions. However, although director and star regarded the film as representing their best collaborative work, they were both disappointed by the poor critical and commercial reception.17 This may not have been entirely due to audiences rejecting the usually glamorous Stanwyck appearing as an old lady for one-third of the film but the subtly subversive nature of River’s screenplay. Unlike the whimsical nature of the original short story where the main character appears to be an individual case, the opening caption of the film (obviously penned by River) makes absolutely clear that his heroine’s position in American history is not unique and that the great man’s “human side” contains recognizable features of corruption caused by the capitalist system.

“Meeting Hannah Hoyt, the great man’s lady, would not be so important if there were only one Hannah Hoyt; but fortunately, the miracle of a Hannah Hoyt happens again and again, from generation to generation, of American womanhood. Not only behind great men, but behind the ordinary guy – you will meet a Hannah Hoyt. In her own small way, she will be helping, pointing the road ahead, encouraging her man to reach his own pinnacle of success.”

Both this caption and the film’s ideology naturally condition the particular nature of female representation delivered in this narrative. It certainly reinforces the secondary position given to women within this era’s gender politics. Hannah remains in the background and deliberately erases herself from history. Yet, at the same time, we must also remember not to ask too much from any past narrative other than what it is prepared to give, for conscious as well as unconscious reasons more often than not determined by contemporary ideological factors of which any author may not be aware of. However, whereas the original short story exclusively focuses upon the individual perspective, River’s screenplay already has a collective sensibility in mind as seen by the opening caption’s recognition of the fact that Hannah is not unique but may be frequently found throughout history encouraging men of all classes. They may include both the “great” and the “ordinary guy”, especially that “little man” of Popular Front politics who would become a political structured absence in the post-war era.18

The film opens in 1941 in Hoyt City before the unveiling of a statue dedicated to its founder who died in 1906. Its opening image is an empty rocking chair on a porch. As the camera cranes out into an overhead shot, a dissolve shows that the house is an anachronistic nineteenth century dwelling dominated by a modern city very much like General Robert E. Lee’s in Richmond, Virginia. A newspaper editor spies on Hannah’s house with binoculars remarking on her unusual absence on the day a statue it to be unveiled to a revered American hero who died in her house long ago. Rumors abound as to whether Hannah Sempler was the legal wife of Ethan Hoyt, a fact that would tarnish his reputation with accusations of bigamy. After the unveiling, attended by reporters from the East and Europe who have little interest in the ceremony, everyone including a girl biographer (Katharine Stevens) rushes to Hannah’s house. Scandal rules their minds. As the editor previously stated, “I bet that old lady’s going to talk.” They gatecrash Hannah’s house and demand information. By contrast, the dignified and frail old lady questions their right to represent the public. “You aren’t the public. The public is made up of millions of people’s houses like mine honoring and respecting the memory of great men like Ethan Hoyt. You seek to destroy that memory.” After dismissing the reporters, she yields to the request of the girl biographer to know the real story behind Ethan Hoyt.

The first flashback reveals Hannah as a young girl living in an affluent family home in Philadelphia during 1848 and witnessing the arrival of twenty year-old Ethan (Joel McCrea) on horseback. Dressed in buckskins like a western frontiersman, the costume first seen during the unveiling of his statue, he attempts to influence Hannah’s father (Thurston Hall) with his vision of expanding the Frontier. The pompous businessman turns down the proposition as a risky business venture and physically chastises his daughter after she has interrupted the meeting. Apparently, capitalism and domesticity are connected as Ethan learns from Hannah’s intended, Cadwallader (Lloyd Corrigan) who has acquired her as property in an arranged marriage deal made without her consent. He approves of Hannah’s punishment. “It helps maintain the home.” However, despite Ethan’s failure to convince Eastern business interest to finance his vision, Hannah takes the initiative in persuading him to take her with him. Their marriage ceremony occurs in the Frontier concluded by an ominously foreboding storm.

As the narrative continues, it becomes clear that this handsome westerner has feet of clay and no substantial character. He admits to Hannah that his idyllic depiction of Hoyt City is based on a lie but she, nevertheless, encourages him to persist in his dream, and rescues him on two occasions from moral failure. The first instance involves her avoiding him sign an exploitative contract with Eastern businessman Frisbee (Frank M. Thomas) which would have resulted in Ethan giving away three-quarters of his property to entice a railroad to Hoyt City. Hannah has also to intervene when her drunken husband has lost both savings and property to gambler Steely Edwards (Brian Donlevy) and wins everything back in a card game. They all leave for California. While Ethan prospects for gold, Hannah runs a boarding house in Sacramento. Romantically attached to her, Steely (“the other man in my life”) remains near her for over eight years despite the fact that Hannah affirms her love for Ethan. Although their relationship is platonic, Ethan becomes jealous of Steely and nearly kills him despite the fact that his rival is unarmed. Before this happens, Steely criticizes Ethan’s character and the way he treats her. “For eight years, he hasn’t had anything to do with anything but himself except when he comes home for a bath and…” Hannah slaps him before he can articulate the fact that she is now little better than a bodily convenience for him, the same type of relationship her father had planned for her with Cadwallader. Steely recognizes that she is clearly in denial and that there is little he can do about it. When Hannah discovers silver deposits on Ethan’s boots, she encourages him to go alone to Silver City but does not tell him that she is now pregnant. Her selfish husband suspects an affair with Steely despite the fact that she again has his best interests at heart and wants him to achieve his dream.

Hannah later loses her two children in a storm when trying to reach Ethan at Silver City. Believing Hannah also dead, Steely travels there to inform Ethan of the tragedy. Entering a saloon, he encounters a changed Ethan, a drunken, capitalist monster, now a homicidal maniac, who shoots an unarmed man. Ethan walks outside. Although he excuses his conduct, “He killed my wife. That’s what he did”, he knows fully well that his new status as a rich man will save him from the law. Unknown to him, Steely recovers. When he returns to Sacramento, he discovers Hannah alive and takes her to the place where she buried her children. Despite his previous background, Steely shows himself to be a more compassionate man and a better father than Ethan when he earlier gave presents to Hannah’s children. He changes for the better while Ethan undergoes a reverse change of character related to new status as a rich capitalist. Believing Hannah dead, he enters into a marriage of convenience similar to the one Sempler envisaged for Hannah.

Several years later, Ethan and Hannah meet again in Hoyt City. Listening to an election speech, she finds his character identical to that of Frisbee as Ethan bullies the people into signing away three-quarters of their property to entice a railroad there. By contrast, his opponent Hank Allen (Theodor von Eltz) articulates many of Ethan’s original aspirations. At one point, the screenplay compares them both suggesting that progressive visions are not the solitary property of just one individual similar to the message contained in the film’s opening caption that Hannah is not unique. Allen’s speech contains the revealing line, “We, the little people”, a term that would soon become taboo in the McCarthy era. When Ethan later confesses to Hannah that he has corrupted judges and legislators on behalf of the Railroad Company, his role as a corrupt businessman and politician in the film would later confirm the suspicions of Ayn Rand and others as to the dangerous role of this subversive image. However, Ethan promises to reform and he dies as a progressive historical figure following Hannah’s advice. “Speak for the people, build something fine and free that all out children will be proud to inherit and live in.”

Learning the true story, the biographer states what would be in the mind of most audiences. “I think the wrong person is on that horse in that square. It ought to be you.” But she will maintain silence leaving Hannah alone, a small figure dominated by the great man’s statue as she tears up the marriage certificate that would tarnish him as a bigamist, the least of his many faults as a human being! “For ever, Ethan. No one can change it. For ever.” The film concludes on that sad note as Hannah leaves the square to face her imminent demise and ultimate erasure from history.

The Great Man’s Lady is a contradictory film containing features that neither director nor stars may have been consciously aware of. William Wellman, Barbara Stanwyck, and Joel McCrea were certainly not progressive talents and the last two were keen supporters of right-wing causes. As his autobiography reveals, Wellman’s character revealed few redeeming features and he was known for his macho posturing both on and off set. As a Paramount studio production, the film was a product of its time containing suggestive features that River could not develop explicitly to their fullest potential. But echoes certainly remain making this film an incoherent, but suggestively progressive, production that appear to owe much to a screenwriter dissatisfied with his first collaboration with McCrea and Wellman. Ethan’s change from villain to hero appears unconvincing and this may have been River’s actual intention. He is a character adversely affected by the negative historical and political forces operating within his own society that he is powerless as an individual to change. According to the ideological currents affecting this film, the love of a good woman changes him for the better. But this is a particular “structure of feeling” that appears unconvincing within the parameters of the main narrative. The western frontier hero has feet of clay and liable to be corrupted by the very forces of the Eastern business establishment he initially opposes. Unlike Edna Ferber’s Yancey Cravat of Cimarron, no a-political immature features govern his personality leading him to flee from civilization leaving his wife Sabra to take over his place as newspaper editor and politician to finally become overshadowed by the unveiling of a statue designating him as a western hero of manifest destiny. Instead, Ethan Hoyt is also an unstable figure but one dominated by the negative political forces of a society he is unable to fight on his own. Hannah acts as his inspiration for achieving a better society but the film ironically presents his legacy as an inhumane modern city dominated by intrusive journalist eager to seek scandal rather than engage in any positive consideration of what the legacy of the hero involves. Despite Hannah changing him for the better, a change that appears more unconvincing than Ethan’s moral deterioration, the film can not entirely eliminate the suspicion that the change is more than superficial. Ethan ends the film as a statue subjected to the gaze of a female who has been instrumental in changing him for the better. But it is a change that the hero himself has not effected. The Great Man’s Lady’s dark representation of the American historical era and its depiction of a heroine erased by the very forces of a society she has been effective in creating may explain its lack of critical and commercial success. But this may be due to the work of a screenwriter wishing to produce a film entirely different from the “American grain” of contemporary cinematic representations.

Revising Jack London

When writing Jack London: The Movies (1992), I confronted the inevitable problem any researcher of silent and sound films usually faces, namely the lack of available films.19 As historians well know, a vast proportion of American silent films are now lost and not every sound film of the classical Hollywood period is readily available. While Hobart Bosworth’s 1913 adaptations of The Sea Wolf, John Barleycorn, The Valley of the Moon, and Burning Daylight appear lost for good and others (Martin Eden, An Odyssey of the North) exist only in incomplete versions or fragments, many sound films are in danger of nitrate decomposition unless they too are lost. One would love to see the early sound 1930 Fox adaptation of The Sea Wolf starring Milton Sills as Wolf Larsen, an actor who had also appeared in a 1927 adaptation of Burning Daylight that fortunately survives. However, the film may have decayed beyond restoration or remains buried in the vaults since Sills does not have the contemporary DVD market value of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton that would stimulate corporate executives to reissue it. So, in many instances, I had to rely on secondary review material to describe these missing films.

The 1942 Columbia Studios production of The Adventures of Martin Eden was not available to me at the time. Rarely screened on television and unavailable via 16mm and VHS formats, the film remained a mystery and appeared to be another of those unsatisfactory productions having little, if any, relationship, to the actual source novel that might make it another misconceived adaptation. However, sometimes adaptations succeed in certain ways by radically departing from their original texts and The Adventures of Martin Eden is one such example. Purists will object to the fact that, apart from a few names surviving from the novel, the film is set in the present day and contains a major plot not found in London’s novel. At the time, it received negative reviews but Charmian London recorded in her diary entry of March 11, 1942, “Young Claire Trevor is lady of Martin Eden”, a very perceptive observation now confirmed by access to this film.

In his 1988 study The Cinema of the Sea: A Critical Survey and Filmography 1925-1968, film historian Tony Thomas recognizes the differences existing between the film and source novel but states that it “at least gives some idea of what Jack London was all about.” (201). Here he refers to the fact that most film adaptations ignore the writer’s activist and socialist beliefs. But by representing a young seaman’s fight for social justice, The Adventures of Martin Eden at least indirectly attempts to suggest what London’s major beliefs involved thus contrasting with the usual designation of the author as a children’s writer of dog stories still predominant today for those who do not know his entire work. The film also reflects a dilemma the author constantly faced during his lifetime, namely the difference between writing radical political novels such as The Iron Heel (1908) that would not appeal to genteel readers and continuing to produce popular works for the marketplace that would support his family, dependents, and various ventures such as the projected worldwide voyage of the Snark and the agricultural experiments on his Ranch.

Dealing with Martin’s attempt to remedy an injustice involving the imprisonment of one of his friends for mutiny against the harsh conditions existing within the Merchant Maritime service, the film is also an indirect plea for collective action and unionization. Such features were not unknown in other contemporary films. John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940) also contained parallels in the figures of Henry Fonda’s Tom Joad and John Carradine’s ex-preacher, now organizer, Casey. The director’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) also touched on aspects of unionization and collective solidarity against oppressive mine conditions despite the reservations of Darryl F. Zanuck of Twentieth Century Fox. However, the most important feature of The Adventures of Martin Eden is the struggle between altruistic ideals and the dangerous lures of the capitalist market economy which destroy the activist ideals of young writers. In Martin Eden (1909), the poet Carl Brissenden tries to steer the young Martin towards socialism. But he commits suicide and thus undermines his argument as well as traumatically affecting Martin by this action. When Martin achieves his goals of literary fame and success, he finds them hollow, sails to the South Seas, and commits suicide on the voyage. Jack London constantly emphasized that Martin’s failure to embrace socialism resulted in his suicide. The novel is a study of the dangers of individuality and literary egocentricity that all writers face. They often reject earlier ideals of making the world a better place. This occurs today as in the recent conversion of David Mamet to right-wing ideology, a path also followed by Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens. In The Adventures of Martin Eden, this hero does not commit suicide but returns to the courtroom seeing his fist appearance in the film to accomplish what he originally set out to do. Although the film differs greatly from the novel, this difference does manage to reveal to viewers what Jack London actually represented. He was an activist and social writer and not the born-again Jungian promoted by recent neo-conservative Jack London scholarship.

As a Samuel Bronston production, the film cast Glenn Ford and Claire Trevor in leading roles. The producer originally wanted John Garfield for the role of Martin. He had played Leach in the 1941 Warner Brothers version of The Sea Wolf deliberately taking a supporting role since London was one of his favorite authors and he wanted to appear in this film version. However, since he was under suspension by the studio this prevented him from working elsewhere, Ford gained the part for this Columbia Studio production. Prior to the film’s release, the young actor visited Glen Ellen for publicity photos and several show him with a still vivacious-looking Charmian and Irving Shepard. Before his career was interrupted by wartime service, Glenn Ford was a rising star and had previously appeared in a supporting role as a European Jewish refugee in John Cromwell’s So Ends our Night (1941) alongside Frederic March and Margaret Sullavan. Playing a different and more developed version of the novel’s Lizzie Connolly, Claire Trevor co-starred as “a girl from the wrong side of the tracks” in a role emphasizing more class overtones rather than the taboo nature of sexuality seen in her performance as Dallas in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939). “Scarlett 0’Hara’s Younger Sister” (the title of her 1977 autobiography) Evelyn Keyes played rich socialite Ruth Morton, a variant of Ruth Morse from the original novel. Stu Erwin portrayed Martin’s shipmate Joe Dawson. Based on a fellow laundryman in the original novel, Erwin’s character leads a mutiny against brutal conditions at sea. Finally, every film needs a good villain, as Larry Cohen once remarked to me, and Ian MacDonald aptly fulfills this function by representing a significantly developed version of Cheese Face, Martin’s life-long antagonist from the original novel. Bearing a nickname associated with a particular American President responsible for dismantling many of the New Deal era protections enabling poor people to avoid horrendous conditions and starvation, this character’s slightly different spelled surname evokes prophetic irony on the part of contemporary viewers.

The film opens with newspaper headlines introducing the main credits, perhaps an indirect reference to Jack London’s own contribution to his style of journalism? It lists the main actors before the credit “A Samuel Bronston Production” The name of B.P. Schulberg (the executive who had discovered Clara Bow) also appears. Director Sidney Salkow (1909-2000) was generally known for routine entertainment films and The Adventures of Martin Eden was his most ambitious and rewarding film. He also directed the best version of Richard Matheson’s I am Legend in 1964 under the title The Last Man on Earth. Starring Vincent Price and shot in Italy, this black and white film employed noirish photography to emphasize the paranoia of a survivor whose dilemma undoubtedly reflected the fears of those in a blacklist era that both River and Salkow knew only too well. Despite the fact, that The Adventures of Martin Eden did not succeed critically, it does appear that Bronston envisaged it as a key production giving cinematic prestige to Jack London in the same way that the Warner Brothers Sea Wolf did and the bio-pic Jack London (1943) attempted to do. Although Salkow directed a pro-Soviet movie in the same year, The Boy from Stalingrad (1943), this did not seem to affect his later career since he continued making routine films and television since his retirement in 1966. But River’s career came to an abrupt end after 1943 and one wonders whether his screenplay for The Adventures of Martin Eden had something to do with this unexplained fact. Much of the fascination surrounding this rarely seen film emerges more from the screenplay rather than the visual style of its director. Here auteur aspects emerge from a script influenced by prevailing cultural and historical factors that would be called into question some five years later resulting from a different contemporary climate and the HUAC investigation into Hollywood.

A newspaper seller appears announcing a trial for mutiny before a ship. The next scene is a long shot of the interior of a court room. Seaman Joe Dawson faces sentencing for instigating a mutiny on the merchant ship Lorelei. Martin passionately attempts to speak on his behalf one last time but the District Attorney dismisses his testimony as “hearsay.” Accusing Lorelei Captain Butch Ragan of brutality towards the sailors on a “stinking death ship”, Martin affirms his desire for social justice by stressing the diary he had written about what actually happened on board. At the same time Joe’s sister Connie (Claire Trevor) expresses skepticism recognizing that emotion alone will not achieve the desired results. “It takes more than a diary to keep a man out of jail.” After Joe receives a ten-year prison sentence, Martin throws away his diary outside. The loyal Connie retrieves it. Modeled on Lizzie Connolly from the original novel, Connie exhibits the same type of loyalty as her literary predecessor, qualities that Martin does not really recognize.

He takes the diary to the mansion of shipping magnate Amos Morley (Pierre Watkin) who owns the Lorelei. Inside the house, the film’s version of Ruth Morse plays the piano at a high society gathering. Present among the group is a figure Martin recognizes, Carl Brissenden (Frank Conroy). Radically changed from his literary original, this figure is a novelist who has sold out to the establishment after writing a novel that inspired Martin.

M. You wrote The Giants?

B. I think I did?

Brissenden asks to read it to the delight of Martin. “I want someone to learn the facts.” Brissenden invites Martin back to his apartment and Ruth joins them. As Martin begins reading his diary of a voyage involving an “iron-coffin, a death wagon bound for the hot latitudes”, a flashback begins. It opens with Martin boarding The Lorelei. Ragan sees The Giants in Martin’s hand and throws it overboard. “I don’t have no books on my ship. I don’t have no thinking either”. Like the oppressive capitalists he represents, Ragan fears both the power of the word and the possibility of self-education amongst the working classes that may be used to overthrow the dominant order of society. As a lowly cog in an oppressive system, Ragan rules by violence. The film will show that his master utilizes more subtle methods of control.

Martin befriends cabin-boy Johnny (Dickie Moore) who has retrieved his book and is running away from an orphanage. The self-assured seaman instills into the young boy the virtues of individual toughness that have no relationship to the more effective forms of collective action that the film will eventually endorse. He advises him not to show his feelings despite the beatings he will receive from the brutal Captain. As the voyage continues Johnny becomes ill from several days of physical maltreatment by Ragan. In a scene echoing “The Men and Maggots” sequence from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), Joe complains about the poor food served on board. Instead of joining the man, Martin decides to remain aloof from the struggle and also refuses to help Johnny. “The kid’s got to learn his lesson same as anyone else.” Although Martin attempts to take food from the Captain’s table to the lazarette prison holding Johnny, his efforts are in vain. Ragan intervenes. The men fight and a fierce storm sweeps Johnny overboard.

In many ways, this particular sequence evokes Jack London’s conclusion of his novel where Martin commits suicide by going over the side. As the author always insisted, Martin’s desires for individuality eventually prove destructive to him. In The Adventures of Martin Eden, Martin’s reluctance to join the seamen in an act of collective action indirectly results in the death of Johnny. Johnny becomes a symbolic surrogate victim for Martin’s selfish attitude. He is also the same age as Jack London was when he went to sea. Had Martin originally joined the seamen, Johnny might have survived. Glenn Ford’s Martin exhibits the same false sense of individuality that Jack London condemned in his original hero who followed the false idol of Nietzsche individualism,. This meaning becomes reinforced in the next scene where Ragan attempts to steal Martin’s diary. However, the intervention of Joe and the other seamen prevent the loss of this factual record of the oppressive conditions on this ship. “No man is an island.” But it will take Martin a long time to understand this. The men take over the ship and Joe relies on Martin’s diary to prove the facts. The flashback concludes with Martin’s idealistic challenge to Ragan concerning the “gospel truth” of what he will reveal.

“You’ve been afraid of books all your life. But I’ve got more than a book. It’s a weapon, thunder to make people listen… No more death wagons in the world.” However, although Ragan admits that they both speak the same language he also implies that interpretation of facts will differ. He has the courtroom in mind but his innuendoes also encompass a wider world with its ideological agenda that Martin will soon encounter.

Ragan dismissively remarks, “Courts don’t listen to books” and the opening scene of the film will prove him correct. Also any type of literature attempting to reveal the harsh conditions of human existence similar to Jack London’s social and political writings is also doomed to failure in a literary marketplace dominated by capitalist values.

The flashback ends. Looking to his idol for confirmation, Martin experiences his first bitter disappointment from high society. Brissenden describes the book as “too brutal, too crude” and speaks lines very reminiscent of contemporary postmodernist attitudes towards literature, to say nothing of “market values.”

“Truth is just a matter of a pair of spectacles, a matter of one’s own stigmatism. A man sees what he wants to see. People who buy books want romantic escapism. They don’t want 50,000 words of sordid brutality.”

He now regards his book as an artifact of self-flattery attracting only two readers: Martin and Ruth and utters his final warning. “Don’t judge a book by its truth, judge it by how many people want to buy it.” At this stage, Martin does not care for the market. “I don’t want them to buy it. I just want them to listen.” However, Brissenden advises him to forget the unjustly imprisoned Joe Dawson, develop market values, and “get a reputation” combining solipsism with literary fabrication.

“Forget him. Live your own life. Don’t get mixed up in other people’s troubles. Write about life but give life a twist. Don’t get too twisted by it.”

Ironically, it is Brissenden who has become “too twisted” by the life style he has decided to follow. He sees Martin as a younger version of himself before he “reformed” but also recognizes that the young author is “too honest.” He appeals to Ruth to “take him in hand” and teach him “how to behave in a drawing room as well as a focsle.” Language will become a weapon in their goal of reforming Martin. Joe and Connie immediately recognize Martin’s new use of sophisticated language during a prison visit. She attempts to return Martin to his original goal. “You aren’t a serious writer but a fighter. You don’t belong with them.” By contrast, Ruth regards Martin’s latest story as “like all your other writing, crude and brutal, and not very nice.” Ironically, her privileged position in society relies on conditions for sailors that are “not very nice.” This is a world she has no knowledge of nor wants to learn about. Martin now has to consider his readers. “You can’t bring that world of yours into our drawing rooms.”

When Connie reads the story she is quick to separate fact from fiction since it involves a “twist” where Martin beats Ragan in a fight and uses words he never uttered on that last occasion, especially when he was the loser in the contest. Martin’s reply to her shows how he is now becoming contaminated by bourgeois ideology. “I’m writing fiction. You’ve got to give truth a twist.” Connie, however, affirms the value of the “Death Wagon” narrative contained in Martin’s diary that is exclusively based on fact.

Martin now begins to attempt writing a love story but it is one not completely subservient to the demands of the market. It is set in the South Seas and resembles Jack London’s later fiction that critically examined the contradictions existing between the ideological image of the Hawaiian Paradise and the class and racial issues affecting inhabitants. As Martin reveals his new project to Connie in a restaurant a drunken Brissenden arrives with the smart set and expresses interest in the story. Martin takes him back to his sparse room while Brissenden reads the still unfinished manuscript and advises against an “unhappy ending.” However, Martin affirms that this actually occurred in real life and involved a ship mate’s Hawaiian girlfriend discovering leprosy on her finger. She sent her lover away while she faced eventual deportation to the Molokai leper colony.

Ruth also engages in educating Martin to appreciate the bourgeois values surrounding classical music but refuses his passionate embrace. Like Ruth Morse in the original novel, she is both sexually repressed and also wishes Martin to embrace the values of conformist society by getting a job, in this case starting off as an employee in her father’s company and, by implication, joining the oppressive class responsible for the appalling conditions on the Lorelei and Joe’s unjust imprisonment. Brissenden has already made his deal with the capitalism and uses alcohol to control his deep disgust over this fact. Like his literary original, he is Martin’s alter ego. But, unlike the character in the novel who urges Martin to choose socialism, Frank Conroy’s character has few redeeming features. He has sold out to the establishment and eventually plagiarizes the work of the one person who sincerely admires what he had once achieved in the past. Brissenden represents another version of the fate awaiting Martin should he sell out to the establishment to begin a humiliating existence as the token literary artist in an upper class salon giving artistic credibility to capitalist parasites who exist on the exploitation of others. He inwardly recognizes this and seeks alcohol to quench whatever remains of his conscience. Ruth offers both her body and entry into capitalist affluence to Martin. However, Martin manages to persuade her to allow him a 12 month extension before he submits to her wishes. “Afterwards, I’ll do anything you want.”

However, Connie recognizes how the seeds of corruption being planted in Martin may eventually bear deadly fruit. “Maybe, you started out to help Joe but now you want to be rich and famous like Brissenden.” Martin soon discovers the personal price of such contamination when his South Seas story appears serialized in two literary journals, one bearing his name and the other Brissenden’s. Ruth condemns Martin not only for plagiarizing but also of making up the original Death Wagon narrative that threatens her family’s affluent existence. Martin and Connie then confront Brissenden in his high-class apartment. Unlike the skeptical Connie, Martin refuses to believe that his hero has stolen his work. “I happen to believe in you…I carried your book around like a Bible.” Confronted by somebody he once described as “too honest” and now conscious of his guilt, Brissenden shamefully confesses to Martin. “This bottle has given me many an `out’ but I can’t take that one now… Truth is a hard master, Martin. But it is the only one that pays off in the end. I should have remembered what I wrote years ago. You reminded me of what I wrote when I was your age: ‘the only free man is the man strong enough to live by the truth and die by the truth.’ He also admits plagiarizing Martin’s work but still does not admit the full burden of his guilty by taking recourse to the plea of “inadvertent plagiarism.” He then commits suicide.

Martin is devastated. “I didn’t want to hurt him. Ever since I was a kid I looked up to him as if he were some kind of god.” Now understanding that his god had “feet of clay”, Martin decides to return to sea. But his action has none of the solipsistic suicidal tendencies contained within Jack London’s original character. This Martin Eden is going to fight for justice and write a narrative combining social conscience with literature. As he ironically tells Connie, “From now on the twist is on Butch Ragan.” Martin meets his nemesis and challenges him to a fight. This time he wins and fiction now becomes fact. However, Martin utters the words contained in the original story that Connie recognized as being untrue – “Enough Mister? Enough?” He still has a long way to go since he embellishes the fact of his victory with the same type of literary fabrication that appeared in his earlier story that gave a “twist” to the facts of his earlier fights with Ragan where he certainly never ended up as the winner. The very moment that Ragan is about to sign a confession, the Lorelei leaves port. Martin is once again trapped by the power of his antagonist who tears up the confession and announces his intention of imprisoning Martin in the lazarette for the same amount of time that Joe will be in prison. Here the screenplay ironically parallels the rough justice of a Fascist maritime regime and the supposedly civilized and unbiased agency of a legal apparatus that has unjustly sentenced Joe.

Martin’s eventual victory is due to Connie and the film affirms one of the key motifs in London’s original novel, namely that Martin could have been saved had he recognized the value of his working-class girlfriend Lizzie who he constantly rejects for the illusionary character of Ruth Morse until he recognizes the extent of her corruption by the values of bourgeois society. By contrast, Connie is a much more activist and resilient figure believing in Martin’s cause and representing those values he has recently rejected. Her literary counterpart is more passive but does recognize that Martin’s failings are intellectual rather than physical.

“And Martin knew that Lizzie’s diagnosis had been correct. Physically, he was all right. It was his `think-machine that had gone wrong...” (Library of America edition, 925)

As Charmian intuitively recognized, Claire Trevor’s character is the real lady of this film. She is instrumental in finding the conclusion of Martin’s South Sea story that proves definitively that he, and not Brissenden, is the real author. Also, in an ironic aside paralleling what happened to Jack London’s unpopular manuscripts constantly rejected by publishers until his literary success, an editor asks for the rejected Death Ship narrative that he will publish as a serial. “The wind has changed and editors sail with the wind.” This is a line the former Sailor on Horseback would have approved of.

At the same time the Morton family decide to change with the wind in the same manner that the family Joe Lampton seeks to belong to in John Braine’s Room at the Top eventually do by adjusting themselves to changed circumstances. Now that Ruth “has made” Martin into “a famous author”, her mother encourages her to bring an author into the family, undoubtedly one who would give them more cultural capital than the alcoholic, middle-aged, and now posthumously disgraced Brissenden. However, they are also conspiring to use their daughter as sexual bait for Martin in order to escape their culpability for the appalling conditions on the death wagons that contribute to their wealth.

When the Lorelei reaches Tahiti, Ragan is fired as captain, an action motivated by Amos Morton’s desire for a convenient scapegoat. Ragan releases Martin from the lazarette and challenges him to fight for a confession that will contain no “literary embellishments.” Martin also wins the fight again but this time he does not use his previous literary embellishment of “Mister” within this particular type of narrative. Unlike the Mortons, Ragan belongs to the same class as Martin but he chooses to align himself with the ruling class. However, he fights Martin as an equal by using his fists and never hypocritically uses sophisticated weapons of class control such as ornate language and devious manipulation. This explains the nature of the final scene between both men. When the battered Ragan finally signs the confession, he bids farewell to Martin using the words, “So Long, Mister” affirming Martin’s superiority over him via deed and not word. By contrast, Martin calls his old enemy his first nickname for the first and only time in the film. “Good sailing, Butch.” Despite Ragan’s criminal activities, he has never resorted to upper-class devious machinations. Everybody knew where they stood with him. Also, he and Martin belong to the same social class. The manner of their parting thus suggests a tentative reconciliation as well as suggesting the possibility of future working class solidarity against a common enemy.

The Adventures of Martin Eden now moves towards its logical climax. When the famed author disembarks in New York, two women wait for him. While Ruth is in the privileged waiting area, Connie is amidst the crowd on the jetty. Like a rejected Stella Dallas figure, the woman from the wrong side of the tracks sees Martin kissing Ruth recognizing the class barriers that now separate them. Their romance appears over but rather than mourning this outcome Connie devotes herself to a Committee formed to release Joe from prison. Martin, however, becomes feted like a literary lion in the Morton Salon. Affluent guests fawn over his narration of a new story in a manner appearing hypocritical to all but the author himself. Martin appears ready to take over Brissenden’s role but in a more strategic manner. Any future son-in-law would be expected to join the closed ranks against those questioning the way in which its wealth has been achieved. A lawyer suggests Morley use Ruth to prevent Martin using Ragan’s confession in court. Ruth then tells Martin that her family is willing to get Joe a pardon after a year has passed. Martin is appalled at this suggestion. “Joe wants to be cleared.” Ruth then spells out the message. “Compromises are necessary throughout the life of a man who seeks to get on” and affirmatively answers Martin’s question as to whether this is what she really wants.

Outside Connie challenges Martin’s acquiescence in the pardon scheme accusing him of “complicity in a set-up to get Morley off.” Significantly, Connie never uses her romantic frustrations against him. Had she done so, she would be little better than Ruth. Instead, she sweeps aside any emotional feelings and condemns Martin on the social justice angle. She is now part of a Committee, obviously part of a union (that the film never mentions due to Hollywood attitudes towards unions) and condemns him on the grounds of betrayal of solidarity with a victim he should attempt to save by any means possible.
The film now moves towards its climactic scene in the courthouse that opened the film. A judge continually disallows the objections raised by Joe’s defense council in a manner anticipating the very judicial methods that would be used against victims of HUAC some five years later. In a brilliant use of mise-en-scene a logo ironically appears on the wall before the witness stand and screen right of the judge: EQUALITY BEFORE THE LAW. Both the judge’s action and the testimony of “friendly witnesses” such as Ruth reveal the hypocrisy of this axiom within the ruling establishment. Ruth speaks of Brissenden’s influence on Martin’s Death Wagon Diary that he earlier attempted to use as testimony to save Joe using terms such as “Exaggerate the truth” and “Shock Value.” Joe, pertinently, recognizes the nature of this testimony that is certainly not designed even give him a pardon, “Lies! What did I tell you? They’ve rigged me good.”

Martin now enters the courtroom with his Death Wagon manuscript. Ruth looks at him expectantly in the manner of an owner expecting a trained animal to perform the requisite party trick. One of Joe’s Committee members voices his suspicion that Martin will become a “fink”, another unconscious reference to what would happen a decade later when figures such as Martin Berkeley, Edward Dmytryk, and Elia Kazan performed that very same function. The District Attorney asks the question: “Is this book a work of fact or fiction?” Martin answers conclusively. “It is true, very word. It is not fiction.” He then produces Ragan’s confession. The courtroom gallery becomes overjoyed. Ruth and her father leave. Martin and Connie reunite. The Adventures of Martin Eden concludes.

Although having little relationship to the original novel, this film version does contain the spirit of Jack London as Tony Thomas recognized. It is one of the most accomplished adaptations of the author’s work departing radically from the text but containing the real significance of Jack London’s contributions to literature as an activist author. Unlike Martin Eden, the film does not conclude pessimistically but this change should not be dismissed as the usual type of Hollywood happy ending. Here Martin survives because he has followed the advice of the novel’s version of Brissenden by engaging in collective solidarity with the oppressed. He does not commit suicide like the original character of the novel nor the film’s version of a more developed compromised character who recognizes the personal cost of his Faustian bargain with the forces of capitalism. Finally, recognizing the real nature of Ruth, Martin now returns to a woman of his own class who is critical of him but also has his best interests at heart. The theme of both novel and film is that of struggle. But, The Adventures of Martin Eden sees its hero winning because he recognizes the dangers of individualism, literary selfishness and the positive oppositional values of collective solidarity against a vicious establishment. It is a message very relevant today as it was in 1942. This film version sincerely presents to audiences the real significance value of Jack London’s life and work no matter how much it differs from the original novel. River’s experiences as a novelist attempting to write a different type of narrative during the 1930s must have influenced this particular screenplay.

His Final Bow

Like The Adventures of Martin Eden, City without Men involved the collaboration of familiar talents. Distributed by Columbia Studios, the film was a Samuel Bronston Production directed by Sidney Salkow and produced by B.P. Schulberg. But, despite the presence of Linda Darnell and Sara Allgood borrowed from Twentieth Century Fox, the film resembles a low-budget version of a 1930s Warner Brothers social consciousness movie adapted to the circumstances of a post-Pearl Harbor situation. The film is based on an original story written by Albert Bein and Aben Kandel purchased by Samuel Goldwyn Productions in 1939. Kandel was well-known for Warner Brothers screenplays such as They Won’t Forget (1937) and writing the original novel City for Conquest (filmed in 1940) as well as scripting the independent production The Fighter (1950) based on Jack London’s short story “The Mexican”. After being blacklisted, he wrote other screenplays such as I was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) under pseudonyms before regaining his own name after the McCarthy era. By contrast, Albert Bein (1902-1990) worked on only four films as writer, the last emerging in 1942. He may also have been blacklisted. Despite his limited screen credits, Bein was active in Broadway productions between 1933 and 1943. He wrote the 1933 play Little 0’l Boy, directed by Joseph Losey, that also featured Lionel Stander in one of the supporting roles. Another play that he was involved in during 1935, Let Freedom Ring, would certainly attract the unwelcome attention of the Martin Dies Committee.

In June 1942, Columbia acquired the rights for $43,000 with Claire Trevor initially cast as Billie La Rue, the role played by Glenda Farrell. (19) City without Men thus underwent several changes from an original MGM big budget production starring Jon Hall and Jean Arthur to its present incarnation. In addition to Glenda Farrell, one could envisage the film featuring 1930s stars such as Ginger Rogers, Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, and Alice McMahon paralleling Warner Brothers contemporary social issue dramas. It is possible that River inherited a project already fully conceived that he could do very little with except add some distinctive touches.

The film opens with the prologue, “July 1941 – five months before Pearl Harbor, but already the coming events were casting their shadows before.” Ship’s pilot Tom Adams (Michael Duane) has enlisted in the Navy but sees two suspicious Japanese disembarking from a British ship Hanseatic. Arresting both men, Tom is pursued by the Coast Guard who refuse to believe his story as does a courtroom resembling the one in the opening scene of The Adventures of Martin Eden. Railroaded by false testimony by the Japanese spies and confronted by the fact that the Hanseatic sank some time ago, Tom receives a five year prison sentence. His fiancé Nancy (Linda Darnell) moves near Blackport prison and enlists the services of dubious attorney Michael Malloy (Edgar Buchanan) on his behalf. As the brother of Senator Malloy the head of the patrol board, Nancy believes he can effect Tom’s release but unknown to her, he is now an alcoholic who has seen better days and lies to her about his powers. When the Japanese bomb Peal Harbor, Tom unsuccessfully petitions the Senator to permit the release of he and fellow prisoners to fight for “the free world” only to receive the answer that it is “a privilege for free men only.” This is the first indication of the two Americas River’s screenplay hints at. When Nancy can not get a position in her former role of schoolteacher because she is “the fiancé of a prisoner” in a convict town she is forced to seek employment in a laundry earning less than the other wives of the convicts she shares the same boarding house with. Finally, discovering a newspaper headline affirming Tom’s alibi, she persuades Malloy to seek his release from prison. Like Hannah in The Great Man’s Lady, Nancy appeals to the better side of a retrogressive male who had once fought against social injustice before falling into alcoholic solace similar to Ethan Hoyt. Malloy remembers his former self. “I fought for the underdog in my time.” He breaks into his brother’s home and begins a speech affirming the practice of true American values of justice and patriotism rather than standing up once a year and singing the Star Spangled Banner. Malloy does not only make a “Why we Fight” speech but also emphasizes the necessity for American justice at home as well as abroad. Furthermore, he delivers relevant historical lessons for the smug politicians in his brother’s house, lessons that would certainly fall into the category of “premature anti-Fascism” in the post-war era by condemning American failure to intervene when Hirohito marched into Manchuria and Hitler occupied the Rhineland. Malloy also articulates the collective concept of Americanism that appears in his earlier screenplays. “Tom Adams is an American. He’s a part of this country, a part of you. If he dies, you die.” His appeal succeeds. Tom gains his release from prison and we finally see him in the last scene of the film reunited with Nancy in his ensign’s uniform.

City without Men is the least successful of Rivers’s screenplays. It may be due to the fact that the story had undergone several revisions and versions leaving him little to do at the end. It was his last work in Hollywood and he seems to have fallen into oblivion like Hannah Hoyt in the final scene of The Great Man’s Lady until his death in 1981.Whether he wrote other novels and screenplays is uncertain. He joined the ranks of those “forgotten men” similar to those predecessors Joan Blondell sang about in the poignant conclusion to Gold Diggers of 1933. But, despite the relative paucity of his achievements as novelist and screenwriter, River does not deserve to be forgotten. Neither do those many unsung heroes cast into oblivion during America’s post-war Dark Age that we have yet to discover.

1. W. L. River, The Torguts. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1939, 352. (return)
2. Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. New York: Columbia University Press, 1886, 95. (return)
3. Robert Vaughn, Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting. New York: Putnam’s 1972. River’s name is 135 out of a list of 314. See also According to Vaughn, 277, 285, and 290, River was named by writers Martin Berekely, David A. Lang, and Sol Schur during 1951 and 1953. by which time his career has a screenwriter was certainly over. (return)
4. Ellen Schrecker, Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1998, 373, 395. (return)
5. Jean Mitry, The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema. Translated by Christopher King, Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1990, 6. (return)
6. Mitry, 7. (return)
7. Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968. New York: E.P. Dutton and Co, Inc, 1968, 165: Mitry, 7. (return)
8. River, ix. (return)
9. W.L. River, Transit U.S.A. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1940, 142. (return)
10. River, 334. (return)
11. River, The Torguts, 343-344. (return)
12. Op. cit. 345. (return)
13. The American Film Institute Catalog: Feature Films, 1941-1950 Film Entries,A –L. Ed Patricia King Hanson, Berkeley University of California Press, 1999, 936. (return)
14. Vina Delmar, “The Human Side,” Hearst’s International-Cosmopolitan, November 1939, 32. (return)
15. Delmar, 35. (return)
16. Delmar, 104. (return)
17. American Film Institute Catalog, 937. (return)
18. As Schrecker notes, the postwar era and the anti-communist crusade “transformed the mental contours of American life, changing the way that millions of ordinary people thought about themselves and their society. Gone was the Popular Front mind-set with its glorification of the little man and its celebration of labor and cultural diversity. Gone, too, was the class consciousness and the emphasis on collective struggle that had pervaded so much of American culture during the 1930s and 1940s.” (395) (return)
19. This section has previously appeared in The Jack London Foundation, Inc. Quarterly Newsletter 20.3 (2008): 1-9. Writing about a film I believed to be lost inspired me to undertake further investigation into the work of W.L. River which this present article embodies. (return)
20. American Film Institute Catalog, 439. (return)