Virginia’s Education Film Center offers a limited account of the life and career of John Dos Passos, and if there are omissions, and if the writer remains at a distance, at least the program resurrects an American literary lion once compared to Hemingway but now relegated to college curricula.
Dos Passos’ voice: William Hurt.
Dos Passos spent his early boyhood traveling around Europe with his unmarried , American mother while his married, wealthy father footed the bills. “Odyssey” sizes up his life at Choate, days at Harvard, and ambulance driving in France during World War I (with Hemingway and e.e. cummings).
While he penned other novels (including “One Man’s Initiation — 1917,” published in 1919), his first success was “Three Soldiers,” finished in Madrid and published in 1921.
After a sojourn in the Near East, Dos Passos’ postwar work included a stint as a freelance journalist. He returned to the U.S. to write essays and tracts until he burst forth with “Manhattan Transfer.”
Idealist Dos Passos’ political convictions were to the left in those days (he was writing for the New Masses, among other left-wing outlets), though his sympathies were far more complex than pictured here. An early radical, his subsequent shift in the 1930s to arch-conservatism was motivated by more than an argument with a self-righteous Hemingway.
The producers have scrubbed archival film and added sound to create an eerie sense of timelessness as Dos Passos moves through his experimental political days in Greenwich Village.
In Paris and on the Riviera, still the leftist, he was enjoying the good life with affluent Sara and Gerald Murphy — supposedly the bases for characters in Fitzgerald’s “Tender Is the Night”– Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
Not mentioned: Monty Woolley, Donald Ogden Stewart, Cole Porter and Gilbert Seldes were in on the Riviera cavortings with the Murphys, and Valentino, profiled in Dos Passos’ trilogy “USA,” apparently was among the celebrants.
Hemingway and Dos Passos had an uneven friendship since World War I. He worked with Hemingway on docu “The Spanish Soil” during the Spanish Civil War, but walked off, according to “Odyssey,” after disputes with Hemingway over Hemingway’s defense of communism. Actually, the two writers had been at odds for some time; it was just that another log had been tossed on the fire.
Dos Passos, visiting Moscow, was impressed by Eisenstein and other Russian directors, but was disillusioned by the communist system in action.
Hemingway’s wife introduced Dos Passos to his future bride, writer Katy Smith. He and Katy enjoyed life until her death in an auto accident when the car he was driving plowed into a truck on their way home in Provincetown, Mass.
Considering the emphasis on the three books that make up his masterwork, “USA” (which Norman Mailer salutes on camera), there is little analysis of Dos Passos’ innovative techniques. His literary equivalent to newsreel inserts, montage effects, biography segs and “camera’s eye” devices are mentioned as well as his borrowing special effects from D.W. Griffith.
Nothing’s said of his failed attempts at plays or of his brief and unhappy Hollywood visit when he worked on Dietrich’s 1935 “The Devil Is a Woman.”
His marriage to widow Elizabeth Holdridge, his political turnabout, his rheumatism, the birth of a daughter and his less-than-sensationally popular books bent to the extreme political right are summed up followed by his fatal heart attack at 74 in 1970.
Literary critic Alfred Kazin sets Dos Passos on a high plane, and historians and critics hand down brief, laudatory opinions. In today’s world, where writers of such significance seem to have little recognition, Dos Passos still reigns high, even if it’s mostly in English classes.
At least this docu has the grace to recognize and appraise him and his significant works. The looseness of the construction of “USA,” Dos Passos’ dedication to a far right that embraced Joe McCarthy, his ill health are all important to understanding one of the top American writers of the ’20s and ’30s, but little’s said of Dos Passos the man.