John Howard Lawson

John Howard Lawson

John Howard Lawson (September 25, 1894 - August 11, 1977) was an American writer, and head of the Hollywood division of the American Communist Party. He was also the cell's cultural commissar, and answered directly to V.J. Jerome, the Party's New York-based cultural comissar.


Lawson was born in New York City, New York. At age seven, he attended Elizabeth and Alexis Ferms' "Children's Playouse" school, an experimental school for children. [Avrich, Paul. "The Modern School Movement", Princeton University Press, 1980, 265.] After studying at Williams College (1910-1914) he became a successful writer with plays such as "Standards" (1916) and "Servant-Master-Lover" (1916).

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, he became an ambulance driver with the American Field Service in Europe. While in France, he became friends with another driver, John Dos Passos.

After the war he edited a newspaper in Rome. Lawson returned to the United States where he began writing and directing plays. Although these often expressed Marxist ideas, some made it to Broadway. Plays performed in New York included "Roger Bloomer" (1923), "Processional" (1925), "Loud Speaker" (1927) and "The International" (1927).

In 1928, Lawson moved to Hollywood where he wrote scripts for films such as "The Ship for Shanghai", "Bachelor Apartment", and "Goodbye Love". In 1933, Lawson joined with Lester Cole and Samuel Ornitz to establish the Screen Writers Guild and was the organization's first president.

Lawson, who joined the American Communist Party in 1934, made several films that were political, including "Blockade" (1938), a film on the Spanish Civil War for which he received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Story. Lawson also wrote "Counter-Attack" (1945), a tribute to the Soviet-USA alliance during the Second World War. He also wrote more innocuous films, such as the critically acclaimed "Algiers" (1938) and the Humphrey Bogart vehicles "Sahara" and "Action in the North Atlantic" in 1943.

After the World War II, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began an investigation into the Hollywood Motion Picture Industry. In September 1947, the HUAC interviewed 41 people who were working in Hollywood. These people attended voluntarily and became known as "friendly witnesses". During their interviews they named several individuals whom they accused of holding left-wing views.

Lawson appeared before the HUAC on October 29, 1947, but like Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, Dalton Trumbo, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Samuel Ornitz and Ring Lardner Jr, he refused to answer any questions. Known as the Hollywood Ten, they claimed that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution gave them the right to do this. The HUAC and U.S. appeals courts, however, disagreed and all were found guilty of contempt of Congress and Lawson was sentenced to twelve months in Ashland Prison and fined $1,000. In his 1951 HUAC testimony, Edward Dmytryk claimed that Lawson had pressured him to put communist propaganda in his films.

Lawson had organized and led the attack on Albert Maltz when Maltz published an article, "What Shall We Ask of Writers," in The New Masses. challenging the didacticism of the American Communist Party's censorship of writers. Surprised by the ferocity of attack from his fellow writers, including Lawson, Howard Fast, Alvah Bessie, Ring Lardner, Jr., Samuel Sillen, and others, Maltz publicly recanted.

Blacklisted by the Hollywood studios, Lawson moved to Mexico where he began writing Marxist interpretation of drama and film-making such as "The Hidden Heritage" (1950), "Film in the Battle of Ideas" (1953) and "Film: The Creative Process" (1964). He also wrote one of the first anti-apartheid movies, "Cry, The Beloved Country" (1951) under a pseudonym. [cite web |url= |title=John Howard Lawson - Biography, IMDb|format= |work= |accessdate=2008-06-25]

In his book "Film in the Battle of Ideas", Lawson asserts that "the rulers of the United States take the film very seriously as an instrument of propaganda, and will do their utmost to prevent its use for any democratic purpose." Lawson also argues that Hollywood promoted degrading images of women in the first half of the 20th century. According to Lawson, "Hollywood treats `glamour' and sex appeal as the sum-total of woman's personality" and "portraits of women in Hollywood films fall into three general categories: the woman as a criminal or the instigator of crime; the woman as man's enemy, fighting and losing--for she must always lose--in the battle of the sexes; the woman as a `primitive' child, fulfilling the male dream of a totally submissive vehicle of physical pleasure." Lawson also argued that in most U.S. movies "when a woman succeeds in the world of competition, Hollywood holds that her success is achieved by trickery, deceit, and the amoral use of sexual appeal."

Lawson also argued that the influence of Hollywood movies is utilized in a classist way that attempts to poison the minds of U.S. working-class people and that inaccurately describes the reality of U.S. working-class life. Lawson asserted that Hollywood "falsifies the life of American workers" and its "unwritten law decrees that only the middle and upper classes provide themes suitable for film presentation, and that workers appear on the screen only in subordinate or comic roles." According to Lawson, "workers and their families see films which urge them to despise the values by which they live, and to emulate the corrupt values of their enemies" and "the consistent presentation on the nation's screens of the views that working-class life is to be despised and that workers who seek to protect their class interests are stupid, malicious, or even treasonable" is what Hollywood engages in.


John Howard Lawson died in San Francisco on August 14, 1977, aged 82.

Cultural references

In the movie "The Majestic" (2001), the town of Lawson is named after John Howard Lawson.


External links



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