Book Review: Final Victim of the Blacklist, by Gerald Horne

Final Victim of the Blacklist: John Howard Lawson, Dean of the Hollywood Ten

By Gerald Horne

Berkeley, University of California Press, 2006.

In 1935 Clifford Odets’ first plays electrified the American theater, taking it out of the straight-jacket of the 'well made play' and shining a light on the lives of the voiceless and dispossessed. But before Odets, there was Lawson, who Group Theater founder Harold Clurman considered the great hope of the American stage and, who, through his plays as well as his theories on drama, served to inspire Odets and other playwrights on the Left.

In Final Victim of the Blacklist, Gerald Horne has provided us with an invaluable addition to blacklist literature, but the first in depth look at a complex man who, for years, was regarded as the 'Cultural Commissar' of the Hollywood Party and the most inflexible hard-liner of them all.

The book explores Lawson’s formative years as an artist, his service as ambulance driver (along with his friends John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway) in World War I and the crucial year spent after the Armistice soaking up the themes and techniques of the Expressionists and Surrealists along with the avant-garde techniques of Brecht and Piscator, evident in such early Lawson plays as Roger Bloomer and Processional. His pilgrimage from a generalized radicalism to Marxism and the Communist Party was a long, gradual one, including such milestones as his work with the New Playwrights (Lawson, Dos Passos, Mike Gold and Em Jo Basshe), the movement to save Sacco and Vanzetti, and his first trip to Hollywood as a highly paid screenwriter. By 1934 his plays were being staged by the Group Theater. Unfortunately, they were excoriated by Left and Right. In his continued attempt to create a drama that would serve the revolution, Lawson finally made his life-long commitment to Communism, penning his seminal work, The Theory and Technique of Playwrighting. He had also become the driving force behind the organization of the Screenwriter’s Guild in its’ years long battle for recognition by the NLRB. This would put Lawson at the top of the list during the HUAC hearings in 1947.

It was during this period that Lawson acquired a somewhat exaggerated reputation as the Commissar and settler of all questions among the Hollywood Left. He was prominent in the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League in the era of 'premature anti-fascism,' and it was also during the late 1930’s and the war years that he created an admirable body of film work.

With the end of the Second World War, Lawson and the rest of the soon-to-be labeled 'Hollywood 10' became vocal supporters in a violent labor dispute between the gangland infested IATSE and the non-Communist but left-wing Congress of Studio Unions. Lawson’s involvement was one more mark against him when the anti-labor, anti-Semitic Un-American Committee turned the spotlight on Hollywood in 1947. Lawson and the other members of the 10 chose to stand on the First Amendment, citing the Committee had no business inquiring into their private lives and beliefs rather than taking the 5th. Following three years of appeals they all went to jail.

During his incarceration, Lawson finished a major work on cultural history, The Hidden Heritage followed a few years later by of Film in the Battle of Ideas, a work that examined the decline in progressive films which, he felt, mirrored the nation’s tilt toward fascism.

Despite the blacklist, Lawson continued writing for film using a variety of 'fronts.' The most successful and prestigious of these films being the screenplay for Zoltan Korda’s Cry the Beloved Country, which was one of the first films to star Sidney Poitier and the sad swan song for Canada Lee whose life was cut short by the Blacklist.

Suffering from ill health, Lawson and his wife spent a number of years in the Soviet Union, availing themselves of socialized medicine and basking in a recognition denied him in the States. A number of his plays were mounted during his stay there and Lawson found himself energized by the new wave of cinema which began to sweep the world in the early 1960’s. On his return to the United States he continued to work on plays and, despite his refusal to sign a loyalty oath, enjoyed teaching courses in theater and film. I recall an actor friend’s enthusiasm regarding one of Lawson’s courses in a Southern California State college. Some of Lawson’s ideas ultimately found their way into the plays produced by The Company Theater. Lawson also completed a scholarly work, Film the Creative Process which he dedicated to the Association of Film Makers of the USSR.

Lawson died in 1977. Obituaries perpetuated the notion of him as the 'Commissar of Red Hollywood.' His ultimate achievements are far greater than that. His plays helped open up what had become a stagnant American Theater. His labor union work provided the SWG with considerable clout in their dealings with the studios (this, regrettably, is no longer the case), and he left us a cinematic legacy of films which were far from examples of sly subversion, but rather making points that grew organically out of the story. Films like Blockade (the first to alert us of the menace of fascism), Action in the North Atlantic (a tribute to unionism), Sahara and Cry the Beloved Country (films that addressed the evils of racism) and Smashup (a pre-feminist film which addressing the crippling of women’s potential by a patriarchal society. John Howard Lawson was a man who continued to grow and change while never losing sight of the goals of socialism.