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In June 1950, John Howard Lawson (right) and Dalton Trumbo leave a federal court, handcuffed together, in Washington, D.C., to begin serving one-year contempt of court sentences for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Our Founding Father
John Howard Lawson, the Writers Guild’s first president, is making a comeback.

First Writers Guild president. Playwright. Screenwriter. Oscar nominee. Organizer. Teacher. “Premature antiracist.” Blacklistee. “Dean of the Hollywood Ten.” Jailbird. “Tinseltown's cultural commissar.” Film theorist. “Grand Pooh-Bah of the Communist movement.” Author. “Gauleiter of the Hollywood Communist Party.”

Who was this “man of outstanding courage and integrity,” as Charlie Chaplin stated, standing “resolute against those . . . attempt[ing] to control thought and desecrate the true American spirit”? As the 60th anniversary of the Hollywood Ten and blacklist approaches, a new biography rescues John Howard Lawson from a cultural exile decreed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Hollywood historian Gerald Horne's The Final Victim of the Blacklist: John Howard Lawson, Dean of the Hollywood Ten (University of California Press) brings back into focus a life “[that] illustrates the necessity for political engagement and organizing.”

What attracted Horne, who also wrote 2001's Class Struggle in Hollywood 1930-1950: Moguls, Mobsters, Stars, Reds, & Trade Unionists, to Lawson? “My father was a truck driver, my mother a maid. Both from Mississippi, they experienced vicious segregation… Lawson is the premier cinematic critic of white supremacy.”

A Privileged Beginning

Lawson was born in 1894 in New York into a family of prosperous Jews who'd migrated from Poland in the 1840s to escape pogroms. He attended private schools and began playwriting by age 13. In 1913, Lawson predicted “the time will come when the nickelodeon will have its classics.” He encountered anti-Semitism at Williams College and was involved with campus politics, from the Bull Moose Party to the Socialist Club. After graduating, Lawson embarked on a playwriting career. Although the budding dramatist was, as Horne writes, “consorting with the brightest lights of Broadway,” World War I disrupted his ascendancy. Like Ernest Hemingway, e.e. cummings, and John Dos Passos, Lawson drove Red Cross ambulances in Europe and afterward joined the “Lost Generation,” which he described in Film: The Creative Process as  “rebellious and confused … shaped by … [WWI's] horror and futility.”

A technical revolution changed his life forever. As talkies replaced silent pictures, a Hollywood desperate for dialogue writers beckoned to Broadway playwrights. Lured by MGM's cinematic siren song, Lawson was among the first writers to go west-and among the first to recognize the necessity for a labor union of writers.

The Screen Writers Guild (now the Writers Guild of America) was established April 6, 1933 (see following excerpt from The Final Victim of the Blacklist). Lawson gave the main address to 200 screenwriters and became the first of 75 to sign a contract protecting writers' rights. Unanimously elected SWG president, in his acceptance speech, Lawson declared, “The writer is the creator of motion pictures.”

As the Guild's first president, Lawson (contending he and other union activists were “definitely blacklisted” in 1936) was fired by MGM. He decamped to Washington, lobbying for Guild recognition under the National Industrial Recovery Act, enacted during the initial 100 days of President Roosevelt's New Deal. NIRA's Section 7A guaranteed employees “the right to organize and bargain collectively…” On the union front, Lawson sought AFL assistance and spent time in New York “trying to get the Dramatists Guild and Authors League of America included in the NRA,” the National Recovery Administration, which administered NIRA.

But unionization's road was rocky. In Film: The Creative Process, Lawson wrote, “producers were also in Washington, arguing that writers were not 'workers' and … did not come under the laws affecting the rights of labor.” In May 1935, NIRA was declared unconstitutional. Around 1936, while Lawson was in New York seeking support from novelists and playwrights for a screenwriters' strike, a faction in Hollywood split off from SWG, forming a company union. For a time, Guild membership fluctuated from 100 to 1,000; activists had to meet clandestinely.

However, according to the Hollywood Reporter: “Hollywood's unionization push then was given a major boost by the historic 1937 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld the constitutionality of the National Labor Relations Act and established the right of workers to join trade unions and bargain collectively. The ruling essentially forced the studios to recognize the … guilds, albeit begrudgingly.”

In 1942, SWG finally negotiated an agreement with producers. The contract recognized the Guild as screenwriters' exclusive collective bargaining agent; Lawson served on SWG's board and at the bargaining table when the contract he helped initiate in 1933 finally became law.

In 1945, Lawson walked the picket line during the Conference of Studio Unions' strike against the moguls and was a Motion Picture Committee for Strikers leader. He cosigned a telegram to mogul Jack Warner backing “picketing at your studio” while vowing “to do our utmost to prevent violence of any kind.”

But his union and political activism were noted. Inevitably, Lawson was on the frontlines of the postwar Reds-under-the-beds hysteria, becoming the first “unfriendly witness” subpoenaed to testify in 1947 before HUAC's grand inquisitors. Lawson's testimony was so explosive that HUAC chairman J. Parnell Thomas banged his gavel 16 times, reportedly breaking it.

“My political and social views are well-known,” Lawson was attempting to state. “My deep faith in the motion picture as a popular art is also well-known. I don't 'sneak ideas' into pictures. I never make a contract to write a picture unless I am convinced that it serves democracy and … the American people. I will never permit what I write and think to be subject to the orders of self-appointed dictators, ambitious politicians, thought-control gestapos, or any other form of censorship this Un-American Committee may attempt to devise. My freedom to speak and write is not for sale in return for a card signed by J. Parnell Thomas saying 'Okay for employment...'”

 Lawson concluded his testimony with, “…I shall continue to fight for the Bill of Rights, which you are trying to destroy.” Parnell ordered officers to drag Lawson away from the stand. The Hollywood Blacklist was on. After losing their appeals in June 1950, along with Dalton Trumbo and producer Adrian Scott, Lawson began serving a one-year sentence at Ashland, Kentucky's federal prison and was fined $1,000.

Unlike Trumbo's, Lawson's career never recovered from the picture purge. Many years later, Lawson told the New York Times: “I'm much more completely blacklisted than the others. I'm much more notorious and extremely proud of that. It had much to do with the fact that I helped to organize the Guild.”

Noting that writers were the vanguard of Hollywood activism, Lawson biographer Horne believes “the Auteur theory provided justification for eclipsing and reducing screenwriters' roles … A theory that takes the collaborative art of filmmaking and suggests it's all due to the wizardry of one person, a director, is misguided… It reminds me of when [director Elia] Kazan was tinkering with a script by Miller, who asked, 'Where were you when the page was blank?' It's difficult to make any movie without a script.”

Horne believes that the rise of less militant directors at writers' expense was another way to weaken moviedom's most progressive group. One only can ponder Lawson's reaction to the rise of agents and managers as movie creators or to casting directors as “reality TV” auteurs.

More Relevant than Ever

John Howard Lawson remains relevant to today's politically engaged filmmakers. Dalton's son, playwright Chris Trumbo, asserts: “Jack can't be ignored, because he is the first Writers Guild president and one of the main personalities involved in forming the Guild. The Guild exists today and is important. It has lots to do with the way Hollywood has matured into its present position, and whether people are aware of it or not, Lawson becomes important to film history in that way.”

On March 18, Paul Haggis led an antiwar march down Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame, past the Kodak Theatre, where two weeks earlier he'd co-won Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture Oscars for the anti-racist Crash. Marching past the theater with demonstrators, Haggis said this demonstration marked the first time he'd returned since winning the Oscars.

“It's a good way to come back,” he laughed, adding: “We shouldn't be cowed by the fact that somebody might not like what we're saying, [that] we might not be as popular … We owe it to ourselves as Americans to speak our minds, which is what the country was formed on-which is dissent.”

If, like the ghost in Lawson's screenplay for Earthbound, he could have returned from the grave and heard Haggis' remarks, Lawson might have raised a clenched fist as a new generation of committed screenwriters marches on.