John Howard Lawson

Member, Hollywood 10

Screenwriter was the Communist Party's chief cultural commissar in Hollywood


This Knol written by Jon Hopwood
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As part of the Jon Hopwood Recovery Project

John Howard Lawson is not the most famous member of the Hollywood 10, those film-makers who defied the House Un-American Activities Committee's inquiry into communist subversion in the Hollywood movie industry in 1947, but he was the colossus as the group, the heart, mind and soul of the communist community in Hollywood. One of the founders of and first Presidents of the Writers Guild of America (now called the
Writers' Guild of America), the first and most aggressive of the Hollywood guilds, he was the Commnuist Party USA's de facto cultural commissar in Hollywood, particularly as it affected writers. (Indeed, in the Hollywood hierarchy, Lawson arguably was second only to Gerhart Eisler in authority. Eisler was the "boss" of the CPUSA in his role as an agent of the Moscow-controlled Comintern, and thus outranked Lawson, who was not a member of any secret quasi-military organization. When the Party wanted a member to come to heel, Lawson enforced the ukase. Eisler's brother, the film composer Hanns Eisler, was deported from the US
after his own 1947 HUAC testimony.) Like the other 10, Lawson would be blacklisted by Hollywood during the late 1940s and through the 1950s.

John Howard Lawson was born in New York City on September 25, 1894. He took his bachelor of arts degree at Williams College, Class of 1914 (the director Elia Kazan, whom Lawson would deride as a "stool pigeon" for cooperating with HUAC, was also an alumnus of that small, prestigious private college located in Massachusetts Berkshire Mountains). After graduation, he moved to New York and established himself as a playwright, writing two plays in 1916, Standards and Servant-Master-Lover, neither of which made it
to Broadway. He became involved with the avant garde dramatists and actors of Greenwich Village's Playwrights' Theater, who would produce future Nobel Literature Laureate Eugene O'Neil's first play, "Bound East for Cardiff", that same year. Lawson was a major influence on O'Neil's development as a dramatist.

After the U.S. entry into World War I, Lawson volunteered to be an ambulance driver with the American Field Service in France, where he befriended another driver, John Dos Passos, who would establish himself as a proletarian writer before veering sharply rightward later in his career. After the War, Lawson moved to Rome, where he edited a newspaper. When he repatriated himself to the States, he once again took up the career of the Broadway dramatist.

As a playwright, Lawson was committed to the avant-garde, and he began using us non-realistic playwriting techniques. His plays were subtle though unfocused attacks on the bourgeoisie. He was deeply affected by
the protests surrounding the case of the anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (who served as the basis for Maxwell Anderson's Pultizer-Prize winning play Winterset, which stimulated the development of his left-wing politics and radicalism.

Tutored in Marxism by the great critic Edmund Wilson, Lawson imbued his plays with Marxist ideas, including his Broadway debut, 1923's Roger Bloomer. In all, there were 10 productions of Lawson plays on Broadway
from 1923 to 1937, none originals and a revival of his second Broadway play, 1925's Processional. Though his plays have not been revived since 1937, he did exert an influence on Eugene O'Neil, whose play Dynamo is greatly indebted to Lawson. Lawson had also experimented with using asides to the audience by his characters in his 1915 play Souls, which precedes the same use of the device by O'Neil in his 1926 play Strange Interlude (for which O'Neil got the credit for "reviving" the device, which had been used in venerable dramas; however, at the time of Souls, O'Neil was studying dramatic writing at Harvard).

With the dawn of the talking picture, there was a demand for dramatists, and in 1928, Lawson moved to Hollywood where he established himself as a screenwriter. He helped to establish the Writers' Guild of
America in 1933 with fellow future Hollywood 10 members Lester Cole and Samuel Ornitz, and served as the SWG's first president from 1933-34.

It was in 1934 that Lawson joined the Communist Party-USA (CPUSA). It would come to dominate his life as he became an important member of the CPUSA community in Hollywood, then eventually its cultural czar. It is
ironic that Lawson would become an enforcer of Party ukases, in that with the writing of his last plays produced on Broadway in the late '30s, he had undertone a struggle between his own aesthetic choices and
his commitment to CPUSA ideology. But in the 1940s, it was Lawson who enforced party discipline among screenwriters who were CPUSA members, making sure that they toed the party line that their work must adhere to the CPUSA's ideology, no matter how impractical that was in the Hollywood studio system, which was based on a collaborative factory paradigm in which individual contributors' voices were seldom heard,
other than those of the actors.

As a screenwriter, Lawson was able to inject politics into several films, including his most important film, Blockade (1938), a story about the Spanish Civil War. For his screenplay, Lawson was nominated for a Best Story Oscar. Seven years later, the Lawson-scribed movie Counter-Attack (1945), paid tribute to the US-USSR anti-fascist alliance of World War Two. However, as befits a Hollywood screenwriter who is but one writer of many assigned to a film, his credited work typically Rand to more innocuous fare, such as the hit Algiers (1938).

For his defiance of HUAC, he was cited for contempt of Congress, for which he was sentenced to one year in prison and fined was officially blacklisted in Hollywood. Lawson NWT into self-imposed exile in Mexico,
where he began writing books on drama and filmmaking. During his exile, Lawson wrote a screenplay for the early anti-apartheid film Cry The Beloved Country (1951) under a pseudonym. His last screenplay, of
course under a pseudonym, was The Careless Years (1957), in which a high school couple in love takes it on the lam for Mexico. He also became a lecturer in American universities where he taught drama and

John Howard Lawson died in San Francisco on August 14, 1977, aged 82.