Academic journal article Journalism History

The Final Victim of the Blacklist: John Howard Lawson, Dean of the Hollywood Ten

Academic journal article Journalism History

The Final Victim of the Blacklist: John Howard Lawson, Dean of the Hollywood Ten

Article excerpt

Home, Gerald. The Final Victim of the Blacklist: John Howard Lawson, Dean of the Hollywood Ten. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. 360pp. $24.95.

When asked what he thought about the so-called Hollywood Ten, the uncooperative, "unfriendly" witnesses at the House Unamerican Activities Committee hearings in the fall of 1947, director Billy Wilder quipped that only two or three of them had any talent while the rest were "just unfriendly." That statement revealed less about his politics than his caustic sense of humor, but the remark was funny in part because it was to some extent true.

To be fair, at least four of the ten were pretty successful when the blacklist hit: writers Dalton Trumbo and Ring Lardner, director Eddie Dmytryk, and producer Adrian Scott. The rest were at best modestly successful Hollywood screenwriters better known for their politics than their screen work. The most politically notorious was John Howard Lawson, whom "friendly witness" Martin Berkeley dubbed "the grand Poo-Bah of the [Hollywood] Communist movement."

Lawson presented a significant challenge to biographer Gerald Home, a challenge he was mostly well prepared to meet. As the author notes early on: "[T]o the extent that he is remembered at all, John Howard Lawson is constructed as the epitome of the humorless, rigid, dogmatic, unsmiling, doctrinaire Communist, mixing ruthlessness promiscuously with insensitivity." The characterization is in the end accurate, but there are compelling reasons why he was such an unpleasant guy. He was a man of conviction. He found little time or use for social niceties and viewed his personal, private life as little more than a distraction from his work as an artist and activist.

In the first few chapters of The Final Victim of the Blacklist, Home sets out to write a fairly traditional biography. He tries to make the case for Lawson as an important Hollywood writer, but he was not. The first part of the book tracks back and forth through Lawson's family life and offers a backstory for his pugnaciousness and defensiveness. Then, about 100 pages in, Home strays from the biography to look more expansively at Hollywood and in doing so deftly examines an American cultural history. He proves to be a painstaking researcher and a canny social commentator, as shown by the hundreds of footnotes to primary sources; this is a history (and thus much more than a biography) that is bottomed on exhaustive archival research and a thorough understanding of the era. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.