Lessons of John Howard Lawson

Many years ago I lucked into a treasure trove.

One of my first jobs when I moved to New York was painting apartments for a real estate management company between tenants. Most of the properties were on the Upper West Side. And in this one place, the tenant had skipped on his back rent, leaving no forwarding address. Among the abandoned belongings were several boxes of stuff…which would be of interest to perhaps one person in a thousand. I just happened to be that opportunist. If you sold the contents at a yard sale you might get $40, but to me it wound up being priceless, I drew on it for years. I wish I’d taken an inventory at the time, but I’m pretty sure this haul consisted of a strobe light (which I’m still using 35 years later), some scoop lights and gels, some barn doors (flaps for pointing and shaping the beams of theatrical lights), and many, many books. Some of these were on lighting and set design, which were less interesting to me. But there were also a couple of biographies of Adah Isaacs Menken which I based this play on, copies of Sergei Eisenstein’s books, one by Pudovkin I think, some books of theatre criticism by John Lahr and others, some published avant-garde plays, and…the book you see pictured above.

It took me years to get around to thumbing through it. It had the look of a college text book, a 30 year old one at that, so I was in no hurry to investigate it. When I finally did, I was startled to discover that it wasn’t just one of those terrible how-to books about how to make movies, it was….Marxist. It was full of pretty devastating criticisms of Hollywood and the commercial movie industry. At the time I was either in film school or fresh out of it, but I was also pretty deeply into libertarianism. (That knee jerk scorn and distaste I detect coming through my computer is misplaced. Not only do I no longer hold the same views I did in the 1990s, but most people don’t know what they’re talking about when they condemn the philosophy. I’d be happy to tell you what you’re wrong about, but why bother? Like I said, this is my FORMER worldview.) My point here is that, at the time, I found the tone of the book somewhat paranoid, digressive, and a little unhinged. These days it makes a good deal more sense to me, at least in part.

Do you know the name John Howard Lawson (John Howard Levy, 1894-1977)? You should, although not because of that book. In retrospect, I realized I’d come across the name several different places over the years, and as happens sometimes, it took me awhile to put the different pieces together and assign them to one person.

As I wrote here, I researched the Group Theatre many years ago, and while doing so I certainly came across Lawson’s name among the playwrights that company produced in the early ’30s. They put on two of his plays, Success Story (1932), which was later adapted into the 1934 movie Success at Any Price starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr; and Gentlewoman (1934). I had erroneously assumed that those plays had given Lawson his start, but Lawson was 40 years old by that point, and had been writing plays for 20 years, ten of those years on Broadway. His first Broadway credit was Roger Bloomer (1923) which had starred Henry Hull and Louis Calhern.

Lawson’s early plays used a lot of Expressionistic technique in the manner of O’Neill. It is also important and illuminating to note that he was making overtly left wing drama several years before the Group Theatre had been founded. He was a close friend of John Dos Passos, with whom he had served as an ambulance driver in World War One. He lived in Paris and Rome for a time after the war, where he was exposed to modernist art of all kinds. With Dos Passos and Michael Gold, founder of The New Masses, he founded short-lived arts organizations with names like the Workers Drama League and the Proletarian Artists and Writers League in the ’20s, the latter of which actually received some funding from the USSR. At the same time, he was also involved with the New Playwrights Theatre, which was largely underwritten by the distinctly capitalist Otto Kahn. Later the Federal Theatre Project revived his play Processional in 1937, which like Success Story, played a couple of months, as opposed to most of his other plays which ran only a few days. Other stage works included Nirvana (1926), The International (1928), The Pure in Heart (1934) and Marching Song (1937), which was produced by the left-wing Theatre Union. Lawson officially joined the Communist Party in 1934, and penned numerous articles for the Daily Worker.

Lawson had also been writing for the screen for many years before he worked with the Group Theatre, his earliest credit being the 1928 picture Dream of Love, which starred Joan Crawford and Nils Asther. Some of the pictures he worked on included Treasure Island (1934), Algiers (1938), Blockade (1938), Sahara (1943), Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman (1947), and Cry, the Beloved Country (1951, under a pseudonym). He was one of the founders of the Screen Writers Guild, and the first President of its western division. He actually took orders from the CP about the content of his own scripts, and ordered other members (such as Budd Schulberg) to make changes based on party policy. There is no ambiguity about his deep and open involvement with an organization that was led by Joseph Stalin, one of the bloodiest dictators of the 20th century.

It should not be controversial to talk it about in those terms, but due to the overreach of the U.S. Congress and the cooperative leaders of the Hollywood film industry, we’ve lived with a narrative that has made martyrs out of Lawson and nine of his colleagues: The Hollywood Ten. Some have become better known than Lawson, such as Dalton Trumbo, Edward Dmytryk, and Ring Lardner Jr., who are probably more recognized names to most educated people. I’ve given a good deal of thought to these events, and my position is nuanced. I think lawmakers (HUAC) absolutely never had any business holding show trials, forcing people to confess their beliefs or testify about their associates. All of that business was contrary to both the letter and spirit of the Constitution. This is to say nothing of the mania of McCarthyism, which snowballed to such a degree with terrifying Orwellian proportions characteristic of the very way of life we were supposed to be opposing. I am also sickened by the idea of a literal blacklist, the publishing of names in Red Channels, using public intimidation to control an industry.

All of that aside, I also don’t like the intimidation the Communists used on its own members, a pretty fair sign that the success of their ideology portended more of the same, wouldn’t you say? You can believe what you want to believe in America, but you cannot necessarily DO what you want to DO, or frankly work where you want to work. If I own a fruit stand, and I employ you there, do I have to keep you as a clerk if you stand on the sidewalk and shout, “This fruit sucks! Fruit gives you cancer!” So, in the grand hierarchy of causes to shed tears over, I find that I am not particularly exercised over the idea of a small group of artists whose central creed is that money is the root of all evil being denied the opportunity to rake in Hollywood bucks. Most of them seem to have gotten around it, anyway, through subterfuges. Were they artists? You can make art without money. Were they denied the ability to “make a nice living”, then forced to move out of their mansions, and pull their kids out of private school? Isn’t that what they wanted done to the capitalists? Isn’t that what was done (and much worse) on a huge scale across Eastern Europe, China, Cuba? So I find I’m not particularly sad about some screenwriter who doesn’t get to make Hollywood movies. Sorry, just not. And people who act at the will of other nations, while citizens of this nation? That’s known as treason.

Naturally, I believe treason needs to be punished, whether you’re a Trump or a Trumbo. The inability of America to deliver justice to those who can buy their way out of it is a SERIOUS, perhaps fatal flaw. That book I mentioned, the one pictured above? It was acquired as the result of an EVICTION, one of the horrible features of our way of life. The book points out many other crummy aspects of our film industry. To this day Hollywood seldom tells stories about the working class. It continues to treat woman as objects and to perpetuate stereotypes. A million reforms are needed. But to quote that colonialist Winston Churchill, “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.” And there can be no democracy in a one-party system, be it of the left or the right. Nor are there any workers’ rights in a system with no human rights. If you believe you have fewer rights in capitalist America than you might have had in Soviet Russia, you’re letting your hyperbole get the better of you,