John Howard Lawson’s Smash-up: A Lesson on Cold War Culture


The mention of screenwriter John Howard Lawson conjures up images of a dauntless, spirited genius, Dean of the Hollywood Ten, a leader among artists determined to defend himself and his colleagues in the face of one of the worst, most repressive campaigns against free speech in American history. An admirer of Lawson’s work for many years, I recently decided to view an all-time favorite film of mine: Smash-up (1947), for which Lawson wrote the screenplay. I bought the DVD and, as many consumers do these days, logged onto to brush up on the film’s details, and to see what my contemporaries have to say about Lawson’s classic work. I was not surprised to see that many viewers missed Lawson’s powerful message about Cold War class society. However, I was shocked to read that, amid a few flaccid but complimentary (mostly of Susan Hayward) reviews, many said the film was overly melodramatic, tired and even totally unbelievable.

Those comments prompted me to write this essay. To be sure, viewers who cut their teeth on the Hollywood fare of the 1970s, 80s and 90s do not remember the repressive atmosphere of the 1950s. Today, the loud rantings of hatemongering evangelicals such as the Reverend Fred Phelps are the exception, not the rule, and it is no doubt difficult to imagine a culture of repression, steeped in religious rhetoric and infused, top down, throughout American society.

Lawson’s Smash-up challenged Cold War culture in two ways. At a time when alcoholism was largely thought to be a sin, a personal failing, Lawson used the then-new scientific argument that alcoholism was a disease. More than that, he connected the use of alcoholism to the plight of bourgeois women. Anticipating Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, he argued that women’s lives stripped of meaning and responsibility rendered them vulnerable to this and other sicknesses.

According to Lawson’s biographer, Gerald Horne, Smash-up 'explores romance and class conflict … (Lawson’s) root idea, his mannequin on which he draped an extensive wardrobe of themes.” The story is about Angela Evans (Susan Hayward), a cabaret singer, who abandons her career to raise her daughter. Meanwhile, her musician husband, Ken Conway (Lee Bowman), gets a series of career breaks, propelling him to fame and prosperity. Angela grew despondent and dissatisfied with her new life of leisure, prompting her to drink excessively.

Lawson’s class analysis is very clear. Both Angela and Ken have solid working-class values in the beginning. Angela loves her work, and she budgets her resources. She plans her life carefully, balancing her love for Ken with her career. Ken, meanwhile, looks for a way to support his wife and their expected child. Ken’s rise in status and Angela’s simultaneous withdrawal from fulfilling and economically rewarding work drives her to despair, causing Ken to abandon her and deprive her of contact with their daughter. Carl Esmond’s character, Dr. Lorenz, speaks to Tim with words straight from Lawson: “Men like you make their wives idle, useless. You give them servants to clean the houses, nurses to take care of the children, then you say to them, now you have everything you want. Sit there and enjoy it.” Tim retorts that he gave his wife everything she wanted. “Certainly, ” said Dr. Lorenz. “But in doing so you have taken all responsibility away from her – left her life with no value.” This is why, in Dr. Lorenz’s assessment, Angela turned to alcohol. He goes on to say that alcoholism is a disease, and that Angela must stop drinking. He pins the blame, however, squarely on Tim – and by association, bourgeois culture.

Another widespread myth that Lawson debunks is the notion that alcoholism is a sin, not a sickness. In the late 1940s, fundamentalist Edward John Carnell launched a campaign to educate Americans about the sinful nature of alcohol consumption. Alcoholism was a sin, plain and simple. He attacked the scientific notion that alcoholism was a sickness, insisting that “the crux of the problem is whether man is made in the image of God, and thus is a responsible moral being, or whether he is just a product of naturalistic forces and responsible to none.”

In other words, Lawson’s film presents a comprehensive worldview different from mainstream American culture and thinking. I recommend the film highly, and advise viewers to place it in its historical context. Rent the DVD. Imagine that you are a white middle class high school student in late 1940s America. Your mother is a depressed housewife, and your father is absent most of the time. She drinks, or takes pills. You were told at school today that drunkenness is a grave sin, and that imbibers are morally weak and unworthy of their families. This was the state of many young people in 1947, and to them, Smash-up was an astounding breath of fresh air.

The film is also surprisingly current. Most American schools acknowledge, if not teach, the “doctrine” of creationism. Fanatics like Fred Phelps blame the “sin” of homosexuality for all the nation’s ills. Think about these things, and consider carefully Lawson’s worldview – a vision of a healthy society that values the contributions of all its members. It will leave you smiling, I promise.