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Hollywood's iron man

The Final Victim of the Blacklist John Howard Lawson, Dean of the Hollywood Ten Gerald Horne University of California Press: 360 pp., $24.95 paper

December 03, 2006|Richard Schickel | Richard Schickel is the author of many books, including most recently "Elia Kazan: A Biography," now available in paperback, and "The Essential Chaplin."

"IT is unfortunate and tragic that I have to teach this committee the basic principles of American[ism]. " The pounding gavel of J. Parnell Thomas, chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, interrupted John Howard Lawson mid-lesson, mid-apotheosis, on that late October day in 1947. He was still braying his (legally actionable) contempt for the committee as he was dragged from its witness stand, still promising to offer his "beliefs, affiliations and everything else to the American public," which he never straightforwardly did. He had thoroughly internalized the communist habits of duplicity and misdirection.

The moment was caught by the newsreel cameras, and it has been a feature of every documentary about the Hollywood blacklist ever since -- and, I must say, it is never pleasant watching Lawson lose his cool. What's worse, his arrogance, his obvious desire to provoke a confrontation with the committee, had immediate and dire consequences for the Hollywood 19 (soon to be the Hollywood Ten) and later for the country at large. A planeload of movie celebrities, headed by the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Danny Kaye, had flown to Washington to support them in their hour of need. Until Lawson's appearance, the press and the public, according to opinion polls, correctly saw the committee as low-level publicity hounds whose quest for evidence that Communist Party members were slipping Red propaganda into our movies was absurd.

After Lawson's testimony -- and that of his more politely evasive colleagues -- people outside the hard-core left were less certain about their motives. This was not, I think, so much an ideological shift as it was a change in perception. Scolding and supercilious, Hollywood's communists lost their air of beleaguered innocence and revealed themselves to be something other than the sweet-souled liberals they pretended to be.

They were, in fact, left-wing totalitarians who were equally complicit with their moronically anti-communist persecutors in creating one of the darkest threats to our liberal democracy's well-being that it has yet endured. But because Lawson had unquestionably been Stalinism's harsh and relentless enforcer with party members in Hollywood, I find it difficult to muster much sympathy for his travails during and after that period. Unable to get much anonymous work during the blacklist years -- as several of his peers did -- he didn't later find anyone interested in his "rehabilitation." Even Gerald Horne, in political agreement with his subject, finds it impossible to write of him with any warmth. The man is all iron, untouched by irony or, so far as "The Final Victim of the Blacklist" reveals, any other saving grace.

Born in New York, in comfortable, middle-class Jewish circumstances, Lawson was educated at Williams College in Massachusetts and served as an ambulance driver during World War I (where he became a friend of John Dos Passos). His mother died when he was 5, and his father was a remote and chilly man. As a result, Horne implies, Lawson became a radical who was capable of rhetorical solidarity with the distantly downtrodden but was incapable of sympathy for those who were close to him. Horne records no expressions of compassion or even passing kindnesses for family or friends -- not even a joke or two.

Lawson became a playwright in the 1920s and began writing screenplays late in the decade; for a time, he shuttled between Broadway and Hollywood before settling full time into screenwriting and communism in the 1930s. When he was not working on trivia like "Our Blushing Brides" and "They Shall Have Music," Lawson apparently aimed to create humanistic scripts illuminating the larger ideological issues hovering in the background. Pauline Kael eventually characterized him as a hack, and there is no reason to dispute the description. Once his scripts had been pureed by his producers, the results were, at best, routine genre films decorated -- especially during World War II, when he wrote military adventures -- with a little harmless, if distinctly unrealistic, Popular Front rhetoric.

Here, I am speaking from memory, because Horne almost never quotes from Lawson's scripts, rarely provides us with adequate plot summaries and entirely skips some of them. It's as if he's afraid detailed descriptions of this work will expose Lawson to ridicule. Considering that the Lawson film for which Horne makes the largest claims, "Blockade," a story about the Spanish Civil War, somehow contrives not to identify either side in the conflict, this discretion is perhaps justified.

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