John Howard Lawson: scriptwriter

by Peter Bates

from Jump Cut, no. 33, Feb. 1988, pp. 114-115
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1988, 2006

The Left Side of Paradise: The Screenwriting of John Howard Lawson by Gary Carr. Ann Arbor. UMI Research Press. $34.95.

In his unpublished autobiography, Hollywood Ten screenwriter John Howard Lawson said: "MGM's world was really Kafka's America [sic], as mad as that." He couldn't have come up with a better metaphor of Thalberg and Mayer's wild fairyland filled with more demons than sprites, the only place where "miracles" could still happen. For only in Hollywood could a young writer be assigned the talking sequence for Garbo and Gilbert in FLESH AND THE DEVIL, not because of his feel for plot, but because he could weave snappy dialogue into any script. In those early years with MGM and RKO, Lawson rarely wrote with any conviction, but like his colleagues he saw himself as a craftsman hacking out a commodity — sometimes maudlin, sometimes tough and colorful, whatever the honchos wanted.

A romantic radical, Lawson always tried to sneak social comment into what he called his "corny melodramas." In Cecil B. DeMille's DYNAMITE, Derk the coal miner tells upper class Cynthia "Those diamonds you have on your wrist were coal … They'll be bringing it up long after you're gone." Speculates Carr: "[That] is as far as he [DeMille] will go in exploiting the topical theme of labor unrest." Most of the time Lawson felt so creatively shackled he began working on plays for Harold Clurman's left-wing Group Theater, often while he was writing under contract to a studio, a questionable but necessary activity. He treated Hollywood like an obsessive lover, resenting it, but refusing to stay away. In one of his best plays, Success Story, Sol, the young Jew who abandons his youthful idealism for mammon, kills himself when he cannot reconcile his capitalist life with his Jewish, revolutionary past. Carr skillfully contrasts the play with its later film version SUCCESS AT ANY PRICE. Not only does the movie "goy up" the play, it magnifies the role of a gangster who appears only peripherally. Worst of all, it reverses the ending, making it "happy": Joe (Sol) gets saved by the love of a good woman.

When Lawson did get credit, the press was rarely kind to him, calling his writing "surprisingly dull," claiming he failed to breathe life into the play Success Story. Even the left reproached him. The playwright's career was soundly thrashed by New Masses critic Mike Gold for "futilitarianism" and general ideological muddiness. Gold's "A Bourgeois Hamlet of Our Times," a masterpiece of stolid party hack writing, accused Lawson of refusing "to surrender his [liberal] sickness, because it is a comfortable shelter against responsible action." While Lawson replied a week later, defending himself a bit more energetically than Carr lets on, the left-wing guilt sunk in and he earnestly strove to ideologically purify himself. He met with Earl Browder and joined the CPUSA. He covered the Scotsboro Boys trial for The Daily Worker and composed the agitprop play Marching Song. And he wrote BLOCKADE, a film that never mentions its Spanish Civil War setting, and managed to draw fire from everyone but the left.

Despite the film's oblique stance toward politics, the Spanish and Italian governments found that BLOCKADE contained so much "objectional material" that liberal producer Walter Wanger ran and got the scissors (he didn't cut much). Ironically, while most reviewers of magazines like The New Republic and Variety criticized this "spy melodrama" for "pulling its punches," The Daily Worker and People's World Magazine loved it, reading far beyond its anti-Franco message. Carr's interview with Lawson reveals the screenwriter's regret at not dealing more openly with contemporary politics, but shows he was pleased the anti-isolationist message came across so well.

Carr's work is often intriguing, but he misses chances to probe the ironies of Lawson's career. He notices that Columbia's Harry Cohn isn't even ruffled by Lawson's political commitment in the mid-thirties, then fails to contrast Cohn's sloppy attitude with the Hollywood Ten furor twelve years later, when Lawson was jailed for his CP and Screen Writer's Guild affiliations. Carr could have researched Cohn's reactions to the 1947 hearings. And why does he devote only two pages to post-1947, Lawson's prison and ghostwriting years? Couldn't he get Lawson to talk about them?

Carr briefly mentions Lawson's theoretical books like Film in the Battle of Ideas and Theory and Technique of Screenwriting [both republished in 1985 by Garland], but never analyzes or quotes them. Too bad. In these books Marxist critic Lawson gets tough, like Mike Gold. His attitude toward reformist films (but not his own) like HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY ("sentimental and unrealistic") and THE GRAPES OF WRATH ("negative and defeatist") is cursory, sometimes even picky.

Annoyingly, The Left Side of Paradise sometimes engages in graduate student exercises, like unraveling trends or recurring themes in the man's lifework. Carr names one the "Lawsonian archi-scene," which stands for the situating of two characters in a closed space where they experience self-realization, radicalization, and "regeneration through catastrophe." Carr traces this technique 20 years, up to SAHARA, where the Senegalese soldier and the Texan compare cultures while gathering water. This scene "forces the best qualities out of them." True, the scene is powerful. But does knowing the "archi-scene" device goes all the way back to Lawson's play Roger Bloomer (1923) help us understand how Lawson's work was formed, hindered, and ultimately halted?

The Left Side of Paradise is most moving when Carr talks of Lawson's confusion at juggling social issues with "melodrama," or when he shows the dynamics behind Lawson's conflicts with directors and U.S. left-wing cultural commissars. I commend Carr for dealing with the forgotten career of this screenwriter. Perhaps The Left Side of Paradise will draw publishers' attention to that lengthy, and neglected, Lawson autobiography.

Lastly, I would have liked to have seen a filmography in this book. I'm sorry, but this is a major oversight. Owners of this book should be eligible to send for an update page, a large "errata" sheet with summaries of Lawson's plays and films.