Hollywood’s iron man
“IT is unfortunate and tragic that I have to teach this committee the basic principles of American[ism]. " The pounding gavel of J. Parnell Thomas, chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, interrupted John Howard Lawson mid-lesson, mid-apotheosis, on that late October day in 1947. He was still braying his (legally actionable) contempt for the committee as he was dragged from its witness stand, still promising to offer his “beliefs, affiliations and everything else to the American public,” which he never straightforwardly did. He had thoroughly internalized the communist habits of duplicity and misdirection.
The moment was caught by the newsreel cameras, and it has been a feature of every documentary about the Hollywood blacklist ever since -- and, I must say, it is never pleasant watching Lawson lose his cool. What’s worse, his arrogance, his obvious desire to provoke a confrontation with the committee, had immediate and dire consequences for the Hollywood 19 (soon to be the Hollywood Ten) and later for the country at large. A planeload of movie celebrities, headed by the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Danny Kaye, had flown to Washington to support them in their hour of need. Until Lawson’s appearance, the press and the public, according to opinion polls, correctly saw the committee as low-level publicity hounds whose quest for evidence that Communist Party members were slipping Red propaganda into our movies was absurd.
After Lawson’s testimony -- and that of his more politely evasive colleagues -- people outside the hard-core left were less certain about their motives. This was not, I think, so much an ideological shift as it was a change in perception. Scolding and supercilious, Hollywood’s communists lost their air of beleaguered innocence and revealed themselves to be something other than the sweet-souled liberals they pretended to be.
They were, in fact, left-wing totalitarians who were equally complicit with their moronically anti-communist persecutors in creating one of the darkest threats to our liberal democracy’s well-being that it has yet endured. But because Lawson had unquestionably been Stalinism’s harsh and relentless enforcer with party members in Hollywood, I find it difficult to muster much sympathy for his travails during and after that period. Unable to get much anonymous work during the blacklist years -- as several of his peers did -- he didn’t later find anyone interested in his “rehabilitation.” Even Gerald Horne, in political agreement with his subject, finds it impossible to write of him with any warmth. The man is all iron, untouched by irony or, so far as “The Final Victim of the Blacklist” reveals, any other saving grace.
Born in New York, in comfortable, middle-class Jewish circumstances, Lawson was educated at Williams College in Massachusetts and served as an ambulance driver during World War I (where he became a friend of John Dos Passos). His mother died when he was 5, and his father was a remote and chilly man. As a result, Horne implies, Lawson became a radical who was capable of rhetorical solidarity with the distantly downtrodden but was incapable of sympathy for those who were close to him. Horne records no expressions of compassion or even passing kindnesses for family or friends -- not even a joke or two.
Lawson became a playwright in the 1920s and began writing screenplays late in the decade; for a time, he shuttled between Broadway and Hollywood before settling full time into screenwriting and communism in the 1930s. When he was not working on trivia like “Our Blushing Brides” and “They Shall Have Music,” Lawson apparently aimed to create humanistic scripts illuminating the larger ideological issues hovering in the background. Pauline Kael eventually characterized him as a hack, and there is no reason to dispute the description. Once his scripts had been pureed by his producers, the results were, at best, routine genre films decorated -- especially during World War II, when he wrote military adventures -- with a little harmless, if distinctly unrealistic, Popular Front rhetoric.
Here, I am speaking from memory, because Horne almost never quotes from Lawson’s scripts, rarely provides us with adequate plot summaries and entirely skips some of them. It’s as if he’s afraid detailed descriptions of this work will expose Lawson to ridicule. Considering that the Lawson film for which Horne makes the largest claims, “Blockade,” a story about the Spanish Civil War, somehow contrives not to identify either side in the conflict, this discretion is perhaps justified.
But there are other, even more mysterious, elisions in this book. Horne mentions only briefly Lawson’s attempt to prevent screenwriter Budd Schulberg from publishing the novel “What Makes Sammy Run” because he deemed it politically and artistically coarse. He is similarly shy when it comes to the successful Lawson-led effort to make screenwriter Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood Ten, recant a New Masses article in which he argued that the critical evaluation of novels should not be based solely on how closely they followed the party line. Nor does he mention Lawson’s attempt to have producer Adrian Scott and director Edward Dmytryk -- both at the time still communists -- restore cuts made in the script for “Cornered” by John Wexley (yet another party member) because they judged the piece too blatantly propagandistic. Lawson read them both out of the party for their sins (although both eventually stood with the Ten against HUAC). Finally, and most astonishing, Horne offers only one very neutral quotation from Lawson’s HUAC testimony, failing to give us the flavor of that ugly, costly confrontation.
Since all these incidents are discussed in other sources, one suspects the author of a selectivity that is, to borrow a phrase, unfortunate and tragic. This, one is also bound to say, is how history was once written in the Soviet Union -- with all the inconvenient parts left out. But poor as Horne’s performance is, his book has a curious fascination. For Lawson was a not unfamiliar type: a writer whose skills did not match his intellectual ambitions, but who found a different kind of satisfaction in ideological bullying. Such people compel our mystified attention. How do they discipline their human waywardness? What makes them subsume themselves in dubious causes? What, in short, makes them so coldly and mechanically tick?
Lawson’s best days were probably spent as an early organizer (and first president) of the Screen Writers Guild, predecessor to today’s Writers Guild, instilling a certain pride and militancy in its ranks and eventually establishing it as the recognized bargaining agent for Hollywood writers. These activities made him locally famous and influential, and it is possible that this success made him believe that the communists could turn the guild into another of their fronts. In any case, his activities therein were never about slipping Red propaganda into movies -- that was always a fringe benefit. But the party did command a substantial, well-organized minority in the guild, and if they could have tricked its liberal majority into standing with them, they might have had an outside chance of taking it over. Which meant, in turn, a chance to someday bring a major American industry to a standstill by striking. In this they failed. For whatever liberalism they pretended, the Reds were beholden to Marxist dialectic -- or confrontational head-butting. It is not the best way to get your screenplay produced in a form recognizable to you, nor is it a good way to persuade Americans, in or out of a union, to adopt your political views.
The dialectic is really good only at producing heroic martyrdom, perceptible mainly to its victims and their cults. For a failed playwright and an indifferent screenwriter like Lawson, that was apparently enough. In the end, he drifted down history’s page to the bottom margin. In his late years, he wrote theoretical books, visited Moscow and, when the Soviets invaded Hungary in 1956, claimed not to have enough information to comment on it. This was the last possible point when the Stalinists could jump off the “express train of history,” and many did. Lawson’s refusal to do so might have been construed, if he had been a more sympathetic figure, as a sad conclusion to his public life. Instead, it is merely the final mistake in a life devoted to self-righteous wrongheadedness. *