John Howard Lawson

John Howard Lawson

John Howard Lawson was born in New York on 25th September, 1894. After studying at Williams College (1910-14) he became a successful writer with plays such as Standards (1916) and Servant-Master-Lover (1916).

When America entered the First World War in 1917 he became an ambulance driver with the Red Cross in Europe. While on the Western Front 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 plays. Although these often expressed Marxist ideas, some made it to Broadway. Plays performed in New York City 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 (1930), Bachelor Apartment (1931) and Goodbye Love (1933). In 1933 Lawson joined with Lester Cole and Samuel Ornitz to establish the Screen Writers and Authors Guild and was the organization's first president.

Lawson, who joined the American Communist Party in 1934, made several films that were were political, including Blockade (1938), the Academy Award winning film on the Spanish Civil War and Counter-Attack (1945), a tribute to the Soviet-USA alliance during the Second World War.

After the Second World War the House of Un-American Activities Committee 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 people who they accused of holding left-wing views.

Lawson appeared before the HUAC on 29th October, 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 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution gave them the right to do this. The House of Un-American Activities Committee and the courts during appeals disagreed and all were found guilty of contempt of Congress and Lawson was sentenced to twelve months in Ashland Federal Correctional Institution and fined $1,000.

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).

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

Primary Sources

(1) Edward Dmytryk, interviewed by the House of Un-American Activities Committee (25th April, 1951)

John Howard Lawson settled all questions. If there was a switch in the Party line, he explained it. If there were any decisions to be made, they went to John Howard Lawson. If there was any conflict within the Communist Party, he was the one who settled it. We had a third meeting at which Adrian Scott brought Albert Maltz, who was a more liberal Communist, to defend us. These meetings ended in a stalemate.

Albert Maltz had been concerned about the lack of freedom of thought in the Communist Party for some time, and this was the trigger for the article he wrote for the New Masses on freedom of thought which was so widely discussed. So he wrote the article which he later had to repudiate or get out of the Party, and he chose to repudiate it.