Monday, January 19, 2015

HUAC and John Howard Lawson: the Political Contradictions of an Epoch

“I feel like a man who has had truckloads of filth heaped upon him; I am now asked to struggle to my feet and talk while more truckloads pour more filth around my head.” – John Howard Lawson

John Howard Lawson, more than anyone else, was named twenty-eight times by the ‘friendly’ witnesses and informers, and as the title of Gerald Horne’s book on him indicates, Lawson can be seen as ‘The Final Victim of the Blacklist’ and ‘The Dean of the Hollywood Ten’, as he incarnates the conflicting ideologies of his period and its victimization during the Cold War era and onwards. The director’s popularity in the pre-Blacklist years speaks to the radical potential Hollywood had during this period. For example, Lawson was nominated for an Academy Award for his script of Blockade (1938) and he wrote two popular anti-Fascist war films starring Humphrey Bogart (Action in the North Atlantic, Sahara). Lawson is also important for his earlier theater work and his published theories on drama and the film medium, work in and loyalty to social movements and the Communist Party, and for unionizing labor in Hollywood and the creation of the Screen Writers Guild.

It’s 1947. In a congressional hearing room in Capitol Hill, Washington. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the much-publicized “epicenter of the gathering Red Scare storm” according to Horne[1], is interrogating John Howard Lawson regarding his Communist affiliation. Congressman J. Parnell Thomas and his Committee ask Lawson the following questions: “Are you a member of the Communist Party? Or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” Lawson’s rebuttal to the Committee, spoken with rage and conviction, “The question of Communism is in no way related to this inquiry, which is an attempt to get control of the screen and to invade the basic rights of American citizens in all fields.” Their back-and-forth goes on. The Committee, “We’re going to get the answer to that question, even if we have to stay here for a week.” Lawson, “It’s unfortunate and tragic that I have to teach this Committee the basic principals of America… I’m framing my answer in the only way in which any American citizen can frame his answer to your question.”
Lawson has a point. HUAC with its inquiry was breaking the First and Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which is meant to protect the rights of individuals to be able to refrain from speaking, whether on religion or politics, and against unfair treatment in legal processes. Lawson, and others from Hollywood, wanted to protest this injustice. Philip Dunne, William Wyler and John Huston even created the Committee for the First Amendment, which assembled an impressive cast, to go to Capitol Hill to protest this injustice, but which unfortunately was prevented from attending and speaking at the hearings – HUAC disallowed any public statements that were not directly related to their questioning. After the much-publicized negative portrayal of an indignant Lawson at the hearing, who was screaming at the Committee and had to be escorted out by police, he quickly lost many of his supporters and friends. And this would affect him even later on in life as he quickly became, and would remain, a persona non grata in the film industry.
The ideologies of this period are complicated. The American Communist Party (CPUSA) leading up to this era was founded on the principals of justice, decency, fairness, equality, democratic rights, and democratic socialism. It was nearly synonymous with serious political engagement. Its popularity grew out of the depression and wartime efforts. It was Stalinist, and had a strict Communist party line, though without truly knowing of the crimes of Stalinism in Russia, which were not yet fully reported in the United States. Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle on the HUAC precursors,

“Although the year 1947, when HUAC descended on the film industry, is widely regarded as the starting point of the blacklist, the real roots of that scoundrel time – Lillian Hellman’s apt phrase – can probably be found two decades earlier, in the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which ushered in the Depression that paralyzed America.”[2]

The Thirties, in general, was a politicized period due to the Depression, but also with growing social causes like the Spanish Civil War and The Popular Front. But after World War II, America was becoming more and more conservative. The progressive ideas of the Roosevelt administration during World War II, and the populist and pro-Soviet film that it fostered along with the Office of War Information, were now being criticized, and with the Cold War mentally in place, HUAC viciously reacted against them. It was the Cold War and in America, Communism was strongly associated with Russian politics, therefore ‘Un-American’. In this period even the non-Communist liberals that were in support of the same political goals as them were ‘guilty by association’. And the idea of political subversion, especially in Hollywood, which spoke towards a global audience, was a frightening prospect for the American government and population. J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI were investigating the ‘problem’.
Though the HUAC investigation of Hollywood was just one aspect of it. As Lawson mentions, it was a full on assault on the public sphere, and through Senator Joseph McCarthy the Committee would hunt officials in the government, military, church and elsewhere. These hearings would spiral out of control, and create an atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia, which would also lead to a strong backlash. As the 1954 hearing between the Military and McCarthy would attest. There McCarthy, who had been ruthless in his self-glorifying and wrong accusations, would be censured for his conduct that was unbecoming of a senator (this trial has been documented and can be watched in Emile de Antonio’s Point of Order).

Lawson had a major position in the Hollywood division of the American Communist Party, which made him an important target for HUAC. The Hollywood Party at the time, with its majority of Jewish members and screenplay writers, along with spreading messages supporting working class solidarity and global communism, also espoused strong anti-fascist views and an opposition to anti-Semitism. Lawson had a deep understanding of the Communist Party line, lead meetings, and was infamous for his bullying orthodoxy (Cf. his response to Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run). The interrogation of Lawson at the hearing was a public spectacle, which was to make an example out of him. It was a means to vilify Lawson and to show the country the negative face of American Communism and its subversion. Congressman Thomas was known for making these media events into sensations, which were also a form of self-aggrandizing promotion, and the hearing’s media presence, from all of its journalist and photographers to its television recordings, illustrate its public spectacle quality. Lawson during his hearing refused to answer the Committee’s questions and was charged for speaking in contempt and for being an obstreperous witness.
The footage of Lawson at the event portrays him very negatively. He is escorted out of the hearing room by police to loud audience reactions and boos. In front of more than one hundred reporters, the hearing, a mixture of charade and theater, is chaotic and full of interruptions, yelling and gavel pounding. The committee is there to put on a show. In front of all of these cameras and newspapermen, Congressman Thomas and his Committee, is there to lacerate Hollywood in general, and Lawson in specific, for its past and current ‘Un-American’ behavior. After Lawson is escorted out, the Committee then read a memorandum, detailing Lawson’s Communist affiliation and then cited him for contempt. Lawson would submit a vindictive statement towards the Committee, which was never included as a HUAC public statement, where he defended his work and politics as a writer and American citizen. Lawson, “They don’t want to muzzle me. They want to muzzle public opinion. They want to muzzle the great Voice of democracy.”[3]

Neal Gabler in An Empire of their Own discusses Lawson in relation to his Jewish identity, early work in left-wing theater, relation to politics, move to Hollywood, work in the Party, and eventual blacklisting. Some of Lawson’s key themes according to Gabler includes, “Whether it was Jew versus American, artist versus politico, intellectual versus activist or middle class versus working class, Lawson was very much a man in between searching to be the whole.”[4] On Lawson’s early theater work Gabler describes Processional (1928), which is about a coal miners’ strike, as a “didactic, fire-breathing play,” and sees in Success Story, from the Thirties, as “the classic American-Jewish dilemma” of “a young American Jew who wants to desperately to arrive and assimilate but who realizes, as he fulfills his ambitions, that success comes at the experience of his deeper self and his roots.”[5] Dorothy Healy, the chairperson of the Los Angeles Communist party, in 1934, describes Lawson as “a tragic figure… He was a man of talent and ability, but he was struggling so hard to prove he was not a petty-bourgeois intellectual.”[6] And to prove his credentials, Lawson would travel to Scottsboro, Alabama to show his support for the Scottsboro Boys, the nine black teenagers who were (wrongly) accused of rape and whose legal case was a miscarriage of justice, which included racism and the fabrication of witness testimonies. These experiences deepened Lawson conviction that commitment was essential to the artistic process. Lawson would return to Hollywood in 1937 and Gabler describes this changed man as now “articulate and brilliant, he was now also dogmatic… He had the certitude and fervor of the converted, and his rhetorical skills – among people, after all, who made their living with words – were extraordinary.”[7]
In the Committee’s hearing with Bertolt Brecht the German playwright undermined the interrogation process. Brecht would have been included, and would have made the eventual group the Hollywood Eleven, if he had stakes in the American film industry and had wanted to stay in the United States. But because he would return to Europe right after his hearing, Brecht would treat it more like a mockery than his more serious colleagues who were fighting for their livelihood. Brecht demonstrated the committee inability to directly cite specific examples of scenes from films as illustrating subversive ideas. After this the Committee would be more concerned with inquiring about the individuals specific ties to the American Communist Party.
But were the films of the blacklist victims politically distinctive or artistically distinctive? McGilligan and Buhle argue that, “Yet the screen work that most of the blacklistees were doing was subtly humanist and progressive – a subtlety largely lost on HUAC.” And they go on, “The films of the 1930s and 1940s that the Hollywood leftist were most proud of were not a transcription of the Communist Party platform, but stories suffused with feeling for people and their ordinary concerns.”[8]
The HUAC hearings were more a public ritual of denunciation and self-laceration for its witnesses. The ‘friendly witnesses’ would go up and denounce their past actions and associations, and then list their collaborators and friends who are, or have been, in the Communist Party.  Sterling Hayden, years after he ‘named names’ to use Victor Navasky’s expression, wrote about his experience, and his resentment towards his psychiatrist for encouraging him to speak,

“If it hadn’t been for you, I wouldn’t have turned into a stoolie for J. Edgar Hoover. I don’t think you have the foggiest notion of the contempt I have had for myself since the day I did that thing. Fuck it! And fuck you to! I’d like to take a two-page spread in the Hollywood Reporter and Variety and let go the goddamnedest blast – let people know who the real subversives are!” [9]

McGilligan and Buhle describe the HUAC congressional hearings as a “dark watershed in America’s cultural history and a stain on the national conscience.”[10] The first ten victims, who are known collectively as the Hollywood Ten, included actors, (seven) screenplay writers, directors and producers. They were Alvah Bessie, Samuel Ornitz, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Adrian Scott, Ring Lardner Jr., Albert Maltz (another screenplay writer, and leading activist in the Party), John Howard Lawson, and Dalton Trumbo (who, might overshadow Lawson, as the most successful blacklisted screenwriter). They all claimed the First Amendment and refused to answer to the Committee. HUAC and the U.S. courts of appeal, however, disagreed and they were all found guilty of contempt of Congress. For example, Lawson was fined $1,000 and was sentenced to twelve months (though he only served ten) in Ashland Federal Reformatory in Kentucky in a cell that was described to be tiny and clammy.[11] This prosecution of members of the Communist Party could be done under the Smith Act, which was for conspiring to advocate or teach the necessity or desirability of forcibly overthrowing the government.
Though this 1947 hearing was only the first HUAC investigations of the show business. It would continue onwards into the early Fifties with major hearings in 1951 and 1952. Because of this it is worth discussing the studio executive’s relation to HUAC. Lawson has spoken about the animosity on the part of the producers against his unionizing of the screenwriters and that of the creation of the Screen Writers Guild, and he partly viewed his severe punishment as a collaboration between HUAC and the studios to punish him for this. As Buhle and Wagner write, “No events of the 1930s and 1940s were as bitter or divisive within the industry as the never-ending union battles.”[12] This government ordained blacklist also legally allowed the studios to not employ certain people, which the studio executives were initially worried could get them into actual legal problems. Anti-Semitisms also haunted HUAC. Six of the Hollywood Ten, those surrounding Lawson, were Jewish. John Rankin, who was the Chairman of the Committee, was known to be a vicious anti-Semite, and he told Eric Johnston, the President of the Motion Picture Association of America, that Hollywood need a “house cleaning.” Gabler hypothesizes that to appease HUAC the moguls made a blacklist of studio talent, which help rid Hollywood, an industry founded by Jewish-Americans, of their Jewish intellectual, therefore surrendering their control of the industry. As well there are anecdotes from studio executives privately acknowledging their general frustration and confusion about the whole matter. [13] The situation was very complex.

There are some key points from Lawson’s biography that are necessary to contextualize his work. He was born on September 25th, 1894. Lawson worked during World War I for the Red Cross where served as a driver in Italy, and afterwards he would travel Europe. Lawson’s wartime experience would profoundly mark his spirit and his subsequent creative output, especially his anti-fascist war films. Lawson wrote plays as early as 1915 and then his first show on Broadway was in 1921 with Roger Bloomer and then Processional. Bernard F. Dick describes these plays as ‘expressive,’ and influenced by European modernism. Dick describes Lawson’s theory of drama, as discussed in Theory and Technique of Playwriting (1936), as being “based on the classical model of an action – or what Lawson preferred to call “a system of actions” – that undergoes various permutations and shifts of balance until, through conflict and crisis, a resolution is reached, restoring the system to a state of equilibrium and the play to a state of organic wholeness.”[14] In this period Lawson also wrote for the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker, which led him to attending the Sacco and Vanzetti trials, and whose reporting got him arrested numerous times.
Lawson was invited to Hollywood by MGM. His early screenplays are note-worthy for their discussion of class. He wrote commissioned dramatic scripts that usually included a romance between two members of the opposite gender where one was wealthy and the other working class. As well Lawson would Hollywoodize foreign films for their American remakes, and this includes his script of Algiers (1938), which was a remake of Pépé le Moko (1937), and Sahara which was a remake of Mikhail Romm’s The Thirteen (1936).
In this period Lawson would work with numerous producers and studios but most note-worthy are his collaboration with the Hungarian-born director Zoltán Korda and the Warner Brothers studio (whose executive Jack Warner was a major Roosevelt supporter), which were more permissive to make social-issue films. Thom Andersen is sympathetic to Lawson in the essay Red Hollywood,

“No one would question Lawson’s talent, only how much of it was still intact in 1947. The blacklist may have freed him, as it did Biberman and Lardner. He had written three good off-beat war films during World War II, Count-Attack (1945), Action in the North Atlantic (1943), and Sahara (1943), all of them notable for pro-Soviet sympathies, and Hollywood’s single pro-Loyalist film, Blockade (1938). Counter-Attack, the most radical film of the war, is the only American movie with a Russian Communist as hero, and Saraha (1943) is one of a handful adapted from a Soviet film.”[15]

These films are international in their scope and argue for solidarity and anti-fascism. On the reputation of Lawson and some of these films: Horne writes about Blockade, “He was one of the few screenwriters capable of penning one of the few movies that addressed what may have been the chief real-life moral drama of his era: the Spanish civil war.” James Agee praised Sahara, “Indeed, Lawson was probably the premier cinematic critic of white supremacy.”[16]
Lawson’s scripts reflect an equalitarian spirit when it comes to class and race, as well as pro-Soviet messages, which is one reason some commenters have reduce them solely to Communist propaganda. For example in Action in the North Atlantic there are episodes, which are non-narrative conversational scenes, on the ship of the multi-ethnic American marines discussing blatantly social issues from a ‘Leftist’ persuasion. And as the film reminds the viewer, especially after opening with a Roosevelt quote which defines the American character, these social causes are also a defining aspect of it. Though one can probably understand the Committee’s ire with something like the ending of the Action in the North Atlantic ending when the American ship arrives to Soviet Russia, and is being embraced and embracing the country, and then Humphrey Bogart quips about having not wanting to return, and go on that long and dangerous journey, back home.
Sahara is a desert WWII film set in North Africa. It focuses on a small group as an allegory of war. In a typical Lawson fashion they are multi-ethnic, working class, and collectivist. In it there are associations between racism and fascism, as it shows the international group of soldiers (American, British, Italian) in solidarity in their opposition to it as incarnated by the German soldier. Everyone internationally is against fascism. There is even one of Hollywood’s first dignified, even heroic, portrayals of a black character (Rex Ingram) as the Sergeant of the Sudanese Battalion. In the film there’s Lawson’s reoccurring interest, through discussion, of the Spanish Civil War, and there is a running joke of the Americans arriving late to the war.

The Hollywood blacklist would stay a working reality for the many victims for a long time. Many of them could no longer work in the film industry as their livelihood was taken from right under them. Other victims ended up having to work under fronts, some made non-studio films (like Biberman did with The Salt of the Earth), or move to Europe to work in the new field of television. It wasn’t until over thirteen years later with the outright breaking of the list with Dalton Trumbo getting screen credit for his scripts of Exodus (1960) and Spartacus (1960) that these lines were starting to change. Andersen argues, “the indictment drawn up against them [the Hollywood Communist] by the right in the late forties was maliciously wrong. They were not subversives, spies, or conspirators, nor “did they ever try formally to propagandize Hollywood movies in the literal sense of ‘subversion,’ i.e., to undermine the principles of, or corrupt.”[17]

After Lawson’s blacklisting he would move to Mexico. In this period he would begin to write Marxist interpretations 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 under a pseudonym for Zoltán Korda, Cry, the Beloved Country (1951). On his book The Hidden Heritage, though, which was never published, Dick, writes about it, “It is the least known of Lawson’s works, yet it has a humanistic range and a panoramic breadth that would surprise even those familiar with the range of his critical work.”[18] It is this loyalty to the ideas of the Communist cause, and knowledge of its many battles throughout history, and the idea of a better, more equalitarian future society that enriched Lawson’s dramas and motivated him to fight where he saw injustices.

[1] Horne, Gerald. The Final Victim of the Blacklist: John Howard Lawson, Dead of the Hollywood Ten. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006.
[2] McGilligan, Patrick, and Paul Buhle. Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
[3] Horne. Ibid.
[4] Gabler, Neal. An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood. United States of America: Anchor Books, 1989.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] McGilligan and Paul Buhle. Ibid.
[9] Bentley, Eric. Are You Now or Have You Ever Been: The Investigation of Show Business by the Un-American Activities Committee. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1972.
[10] McGilligan and Paul Buhle. Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Gabler. Ibid.
[14] Dick, Bernard F. Radical Innocence: A Critical Study of the Hollywood Ten. University of Kentucky Press, 1989.
[15] Krutnick, Frank, Steve Neale, Brian Neve, and Peter Stanfield, eds. “Un-American” Hollywood: Politics and Film in the Blacklist Era. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2007.
[16] Horne. Ibid.
[17] Krutnick, Frank, Steve Neale, Brian Neve, and Peter Stanfield, eds.
[18] Dick. Ibid.

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