John Paxton - Writer

Writer. Nationality: American. Born: Kansas City, Missouri, 21 March 1911. Education: Kansas City Central High School; University of Missouri, Columbia, B.A. in journalism,1934. Family: Married Sarah Jane Miles, 1948. Career: 1935–36—worked for Theatre Guild of New York, then associate editor, State magazine, 1937–38, and freelance writer and publicist for Theatre Guild; 1943—writer for RKO: first film as writer, My Pal, Wolf , followed by a series of films directed by Edward Dmytryk. Award: Writers Guild Award for Kotch , 1971. Died: In Santa Monica, California, 5 January 1985.

Films as Writer:


My Pal, Wolf (Werker)


Murder, My Sweet ( Farewell, My Lovely ) (Dmytryk)


Cornered (Dmytryk); Crack-Up (Reis)


Crossfire (Dmytryk); So Well Remembered (Dmytryk)


Rope of Sand (Dieterle)


Of Men and Mice (Reis)


Fourteen Hours (Hathaway)


The Wild One (Benedek)


Prize of Gold (Robson)


The Cobweb (Minelli); Interpol ( Pickup Alley ) (Gilling)


How to Murder a Rich Uncle (Patrick) (+ pr); On the Beach (Kramer)


Kotch (Lemmon)


The Great Man's Whiskers (Leacock)


By PAXTON: articles—

In The Hollywood Screenwriter , edited by Richard Corliss, New York, 1972.

Marshall, J.D., in Blueprint in Babylon , New York, 1978.

On PAXTON: articles—

Film Comment (New York), Winter 1970–71.

Focus on Film (London), Spring 1972.

Présence du Cinéma (Paris), June 1972.

Weaver, John D., in UCLA Librarian (Los Angeles), July-August 1978.

Obituary in Variety (New York), 16 January 1985.

Weaver, John D., in Los Angeles Times , 10 March 1985.

Feldman, Ellen, in American Screenwriters , 2nd series, edited by Randall Clark, Detroit, Michigan, 1986.

* * *

Perhaps the most amazing achievement in John Paxton's career as a screenwriter in Hollywood was that he remained untouched by the blacklist. The third member of the RKO team that made Murder, My Sweet , Cornered , and Crossfire , Paxton escaped the wrath of the witch-hunters while his colleagues, the producer Adrian Scott and the director Edward Dmytryk, were to become charter members of the "Hollywood Ten." But those three important examples of film noir represent Paxton's best work, particularly Crossfire , which attracted the special attention of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

The initial Paxton screenplay for the Scott-Dmytryk team was an adaptation of Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely . Retitled Murder, My Sweet for the screen, it was the first incarnation of Philip Marlowe in motion pictures, and successfully transformed Dick Powell's image of boyish crooner into that of hard-boiled hero. Paxton was forced to simplify Chandler's complex narrative to fit into a 90-minute package while maintaining the spirit of the novelist's mean streets. Much of the Chandler tone was perpetuated through Marlowe's first-person narration, the device justified by the framework of a police interrogation of the detective. Rather than using the narration to advance the story, Paxton fashioned it to function as a vehicle for Chandler's similes and wisecracks as Marlowe comments on the action. Along with Chandler's own screenplay for Double Indemnity in the same year, Paxton's script for Murder, My Sweet established cynical first-person narration as a convention of the film noir , particularly in its detective movie form. Cornered solidified Powell's tough-guy image and was one of the earliest films to place the returning soldier in the role of a vengeful hunter utilizing his skill at combat to settle a personal score.

Crossfire remains one of Paxton's most accomplished screenplays and one of the best films of the 1940s. Richard Brooks's didactic Second World War novel about unbridled prejudice and the murder of a homosexual by a soldier was reshaped by Paxton into a "message picture." To meet production-code restrictions, the victim was changed from a homosexual to a Jew and the film became an attack on anti-Semitism wedged into the genre framework of a murder mystery. Yet of far more interest than the "message" aspect of the film is Paxton's updating of the novel by several years to place it squarely in the postwar milieu and his shift of the novel's emphasis on the accused murderer to the collective of demobilized soldiers in Washington, D.C. The group of soldiers works together to ferret out the real murderer within their ranks, a narrative scheme which resulted in accusations of socialism in some quarters. Politics aside, the move to a story without a clearly defined protagonist yielded a film with a diffuse point-of-view, serving to dramatize the aimlessness of the soldiers and the country after the war. Paxton was able to take the character of "The Man," a pathological liar and pimp in the novel, and, by placing him within the new context, create a disillusioned everyman. "The Man" became the spiritual center of the film, emblematic of not only the soldiers, but the country as a whole, as he searches for direction and purpose within his own conflicting stories of identity. The murder victim's monologue about the nation's desultory state and residual wartime hate was a clear summation on the atmosphere which led to the HUAC hearings.

Paxton's screenplay for Crossfire went beyond the problem of anti-Semitism to accent other social issues, notably the decaying family and the culture's obsession with material goods. The emphasis on the collective, national ennui and a variety of social problems made Crossfire a central target of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. But it is that combination of factors which, couched within a genre mold, makes the film the most concise and revealing portrait of the confused national psyche following the Second World War.

With the Scott-Dmytryk team silenced by HUAC, the assignments Paxton received became fewer and more sporadic. The success of the RKO team and Paxton's place in it was not to be repeated on the same sustained level. His last major contribution was his screenplay for The Wild One which in many respects operates as a continuation of the themes of a decaying society presented in Crossfire , but without the saving grace of cooperation within a collective. Buoyed by be-bop dialogue, The Wild One displayed both the motorcycle gang and the community as groups gone amok, with little hope offered for a stable society. The reply Marlon Brando gives to the question "What're you rebelling against, Johnny?"—"What've you got?"—was not only the canonizing agent that made him into the patron saint of the youth culture, but was a rallying cry of the disaffected and disillusioned for the next 20 years. Indeed, the aimless soldiers of Crossfire seemed to find their logical extension as the wandering band of bikers in The Wild One .

—Eric Schaefer

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