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Future 'Hollywood Ten' blacklistee John Howard Lawson began as a celebrated New York playwright, and was actually dubbed "the hope of the theater" by producer Harold Clurman. RKO hired Lawson to adapt for the screen his play about a ruthlessly ambitious advertising man, Success Story. Ad writer Joe Martin (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) possesses talent but expends most of his energy on interoffice scheming. He ditches his faithful girlfriend Sarah (former silent comedienne Colleen Moore) for another man's mistress, Agnes (Genevieve Tobin). When the stock market crash hits, Joe exploits inside information to amass a fortune, cheat his boss and eventually take over the agency. He gets everything he wants, only to find that grasping for money and power doesn't bring happiness. Lawson's critique of big business treachery now bears comparison to TV's Mad Men. Although the film version eliminates Joe's Jewish identity and imposes a happy ending, it is still one of the most caustic of the Depression-era anti-business stories. For such an unlikeable character, Lawson had originally wanted the charismatic Paul Muni. Critics praised young Douglas Fairbanks Jr.'s performance but audiences found Joe Martin cold and unsympathetic. The film was released three months before the enforcement of the Production Code, which in addition to policing on-screen morals, banned content directly critical of the American business system.
By Glenn Erickson