To anti-communists, he was the leader and epitome of the well-fed Hollywood communists. Among his comrades behind closed doors, he was regarded as a “sectarian son of a bitch,” who was, outside of Stalin, the cause of defections. For the California Democratic Party during World War II, and much to their later embarrassment, he was deemed worthy enough to write their 1942 state platform.
John Howard Lawson, screenwriter, activist and head of the Hollywood branch of the American Communist Party, he was all of the above. A celebrated playwright, on the basis of one play, Lawson came to the Communist Party fairly late in the game, in 1934, five years after a Stock Market Crash that sent so many into the Communist Party.
But Lawson made up for lost time with feverish activity that limited his so-called artistic output. He was one of the prime movers behind organizing the Screen Writers Guild, but that was really his high point, unless you consider ascending to the head of the Hollywood Communist Party as an achievement. In this capacity, he ruled the Party in a manner that would make Stalin proud. Deprived–thank God–of Stalin’s murderous options, Lawson nevertheless engaged in heresy hunts for those members who committed the “crime” of thinking for themselves, or unlike himself, did not defend every twist and turn of Soviet policy.
He kicked producer Adrian Scott and film director Edward Dmytryk out of the Party for the crime of firing a Party screenwriter because of the poor quality of the script. He presided over the star chamber attacking screenwriter Albert Maltz, whose crime–later recanted–was asserting that non-Communist writers had produced quality work, while writers like himself had hurt the quality of their work by writing as communists.
Such activity limited his so-called artistic output. But even without that factor, what he did produce showed a second-rate talent. He pointed with pride to his work on one of the few films in the 1930s that dealt with the Spanish Civil War. But the script was so watered-down and poor that fellow Stalinist Lillian Hellman stated she couldn’t tell one side–Spanish leftists–from the other–Hitler-backed rebels.
He only managed to script such World War II chest-thumpers as Action in the North and Sahara, both sub-par because of his dogged attempts to insert pro-Soviet propaganda into the production.
His own non-Hollywood work, a history of America, written with one eye on the current Soviet policy, was revised so many times because of the zig and zags of Stalin’s stances that he abandoned the effort altogether.
When Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin in his 1956 Secret Speech (in which the new premiere stated that the Purge Trials were a monstrous frame-up) Lawson’s son, who regarded his father as a cold fish reported that his father, with tears running down his cheeks, pathetically tried to find a way to still make Stalin look good.
Those, like Lawson, who were blacklisted, always asserted that the quality of Hollywood movies plummeted because of their absence, but based on Lawson’s output, it was better that he was off of the studio payroll.