John Cromwell (director)

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John Cromwell
Elwood Dager Cromwell

(1886-12-23)December 23, 1886
DiedSeptember 26, 1979(1979-09-26) (aged 92)
OccupationDirector, actor
Years active1912–1978
Spouse(s)Alice Lindahl (?–1918; her death)
Marie Goff (divorced)
Kay Johnson
(m. 1928;div. 1946)

Ruth Nelson
(m. 1946;his death 1979)
Children2, including James Cromwell

Elwood Dager Cromwell (December 23, 1886 – September 26, 1979), known as John Cromwell, was an American film and stage director and actor. His films spanned the early days of sound to 1950s film noir, when his directing career was cut short by the Hollywood blacklist.

Film noir film genre

Film noir is a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas, particularly those that emphasize cynical attitudes and sexual motivations. Hollywood's classical film noir period is generally regarded as extending from the early 1920s to the late 1950s. Film noir of this era is associated with a low-key, black-and-white visual style that has roots in German Expressionist cinematography. Many of the prototypical stories and much of the attitude of classic noir derive from the hardboiled school of crime fiction that emerged in the United States during the Great Depression.

Hollywood blacklist people banned from American entertainment for suspected Communism

The Hollywood blacklist was the popular term for what was in actuality a broader entertainment industry blacklist put in effect in the mid 20th century in the United States during the early part of the Cold War. The blacklist involved the practice of denying employment to entertainment industry professionals believed to be or to have been Communists or sympathizers. Not just actors, but screenwriters, directors, musicians, and other American entertainment professionals were barred from work by the studios. This was usually done on the basis of their membership, alleged membership in, or even just sympathy with the Communist Party USA, or on the basis of their refusal to assist congressional investigations into the party's activities. Even during the period of its strictest enforcement, from the late 1940s through to the late 1950s, the blacklist was rarely made explicit or verifiable, but it quickly and directly damaged or ended the careers and income of scores of individuals working in the film industry.



John Cromwell (seated) as John Brooke with Alice Brady as Meg in the Broadway production of Little Women (1912) Little-Women-1912.jpg
John Cromwell (seated) as John Brooke with Alice Brady as Meg in the Broadway production of Little Women (1912)

Born in Toledo, Ohio to a well-off Scottish-English family, executives in the steel and iron industry, Cromwell went to private high school at Howe Military Academy, in nearby Indiana, but never pursued a higher education. Instead, he fell in love with theater in Chicago and then made his way to New York City and a life in theater there in his early 20s.

Toledo, Ohio City in Ohio, United States

Toledo is a city in and the county seat of Lucas County, Ohio, United States. Toledo is in northwest Ohio, at the western end of Lake Erie bordering the state of Michigan. The city was founded in 1833 on the west bank of the Maumee River, and originally incorporated as part of Monroe County, Michigan Territory. It was re-founded in 1837, after conclusion of the Toledo War, when it was incorporated in Ohio.

Howe Military Academy private, co-educational, and college preparatory boarding school

Howe Military Academy is a private, co-educational, and college preparatory boarding school located on a 100-acre (0.40 km2) campus in Northeast Indiana. The school enrolls students in grades 7-12. On March 18, 2019 Howe announced it will be closing its doors permanently after the 2019 school year.

Cromwell made his Broadway debut in Little Women (1912) a stage adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's novel by Marian De Forest. This version of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy was an immediate hit and ran for 184 performances. His first directing effort, The Painted Woman (1913), failed, but young Cromwell was soon taken under the wing of William Bundy's Playhouse theater and spent the next fifteen years as the kind of traditional actor/stage manager of the time who put on dozens of plays on Broadway's stages.

<i>Little Women</i> 1860s novel by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women is a novel by American author Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888), which was originally published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869. Alcott wrote the books over several months at the request of her publisher. Following the lives of the four March sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy—the novel details their passage from childhood to womanhood and is loosely based on the author and her three sisters. Scholars classify Little Women as an autobiographical or semi-autobiographical novel.

By 1914, he was acting in and co-directing Too Many Cooks (1914), which ran for 223 performances. He was in American productions of two George Bernard Shaw plays: first in Shaw's Major Barbara and, in 1916, in a revival of Captain Brassbound's Conversion.

George Bernard Shaw Irish playwright, critic and polemicist, influential in Western theatre

George Bernard Shaw, known at his insistence simply as Bernard Shaw, was an Irish playwright, critic, polemicist and political activist. His influence on Western theatre, culture and politics extended from the 1880s to his death and beyond. He wrote more than sixty plays, including major works such as Man and Superman (1902), Pygmalion (1912) and Saint Joan (1923). With a range incorporating both contemporary satire and historical allegory, Shaw became the leading dramatist of his generation, and in 1925 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

<i>Major Barbara</i> play written by George Bernard Shaw

Major Barbara is a three-act English play by George Bernard Shaw, written and premiered in 1905 and first published in 1907. The story concerns an idealistic young woman, Barbara Undershaft, who is engaged in helping the poor as a Major in the Salvation Army in London. For many years, Barbara and her siblings have been estranged from their father, Andrew Undershaft, who now reappears as a rich and successful munitions maker. Undershaft, the father, gives money to the Salvation Army, which offends Major Barbara, who does not want to be connected to his "tainted" wealth. However, the father argues that poverty is a worse problem than munitions, and claims that he is doing more to help society by giving his workers jobs and a steady income than Major Barbara is doing to help them by giving them bread and soup.

<i>Captain Brassbounds Conversion</i> play

Captain Brassbound's Conversion (1900) is a play by G. Bernard Shaw. It was published in Shaw's 1901 collection Three Plays for Puritans. The first American production of the play starred Ellen Terry in 1907. The play explores the relationship between the law, justice, revenge and forgiveness.

Soon Cromwell himself was shipped off for a brief stint in the U.S. Army in World War I.

By the 1920s he had become a respected Broadway director, staging and still occasionally acting in works by future Pulitzer-Prize-winners Sidney Howard and Robert E. Sherwood, performing in the rarely-seen Ibsen play, Little Eyolf and being an in-house director for his mentor, William Bundy. In 1927, Cromwell directed and played the lead in the gangster drama, The Racket , with newcomer Edward G. Robinson debuting in the kind of tough guy role for which he would become synonymous.

<i>The Racket</i> (play) play written by Bartlett Cormack

The Racket is a 1927 Broadway three-act drama written by Bartlett Cormack and produced by Alexander McKaig. It ran for 119 performances from November 22, 1927, to March 1928 at the Ambassador Theatre. Edward G. Robinson had a major role as a snarling gangster, which led to his being cast in similar film roles. It was included in Burns Mantle's The Best Plays of 1927-1928.

Edward G. Robinson Romanian American actor

Edward G. Robinson was an American actor of stage and screen during Hollywood's Golden Age. He appeared in 40 Broadway plays and more than 100 films during a 50-year career and is best remembered for his tough-guy roles as gangsters in such films as Little Caesar and Key Largo.

This hit expose of Chicago corruption - so scathing that it was banned in Chicago, supposedly by Al Capone himself - travelled to Los Angeles, where Cromwell was promptly snapped up by B.P. Schulberg to a Paramount Pictures contract as an actor and director, one of the Broadway feeding frenzy at the arrival of sound. "The first thing that struck me," the lanky Midwesterner said, "was the absolute paralysis of fear that the talkies had cast all over Hollywood."


Early films in Hollywood

He made his motion picture debut in The Dummy (1929), an early comedy talkie starring Ruth Chatterton and Fredric March - whom he would later direct - along with silent stars Jack Oakie, and ZaSu Pitts. His work as co-director with Edward Sutherland on the musical/romance Close Harmony starring Buddy Rogers, Nancy Carroll, Harry Green and Jack Oakie, and the musical/drama The Dance of Life (both released in 1929), allowed him to begin directing without collaboration, beginning with The Mighty that same year starring George Bancroft, in which he also played the part of Mr. Jamieson.

He directed The Texan , starring Gary Cooper, in 1930; Tom Sawyer (1930), starring Jackie Coogan in the title role; Sinclair Lewis's Ann Vickers (1933), starring Irene Dunne, Walter Huston, Conrad Nagel, Bruce Cabot, and Edna May Oliver; and Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage (1934), starring Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, and Frances Dee. In 1934, Cromwell also directed a young Katharine Hepburn in Spitfire (1934), which succeeded at the box office despite its unlikely casting of Hepburn as a backwoods faith-healer.

Ann Vickers, by the celebrated Midwestern novelist Sinclair Lewis - and Of Human Bondage - were both at RKO and both had censorship trouble. In the novel by Lewis, Ann Vickers is a birth control advocate and reformer who has an extramarital affair. The screenplay was finally approved by the Production Code when the studio agreed to make Vickers an unmarried woman at the time of her affair, thus eliminating the issue of adultery.

Of Human Bondage

The screenplay for Maugham's Of Human Bondage was unacceptable to the Hays Code because Mildred Rogers (played by Davis), whom the club-footed medical student, Philip Carey (played by Howard), falls in love with, is not only a prostitute who conceives out of wedlock, but who also visibly dies of syphilis. Will Hays' office demanded that Mildred be made a waitress who comes down with TB, and that she be married to Carey's rival with whom she runs off and becomes pregnant. RKO agreed to everything to keep from having to pay a fine.

But, despite their attempts to gut the story, Bette Davis' performance was so powerful, and her immorality still so obvious, that an outraged Will Hays decided it was time to put real teeth into his office and seriously toughen up on all film censorship. He spelled out a list of do's and don'ts - on the length of kisses, the banning of double beds, the punishment of all villains and so on - which would dictate the content of Hollywood screens until the 1960s, and he brought in the rigid, anti-Semitic Catholic Joseph Breen to enforce it. Thus, the very year of Of Human Bondage's release - 1934 - is the dividing line for the morally looser "pre-Code" era (even though the less rigid code had technically been in place since 1931) and the more sanitized films which followed it.

Of Human Bondage made Cromwell's name as a director, and most specifically as a man knew how to cast - he had to bargain with Warner Bros. to get the then little-known Bette Davis, who got an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the vicious, lurid waitress Mildred in a performance unlike any a Hollywood actress had given to that point. Cromwell also agreed, quite unusually, to Bette Davis request to devise her own garish, mask-like make-up as she descends morally and physically into a kind of living hell. This was a radical departure from the glamorous looks that actresses were supposed to have even in their death scenes.

Films with Selznick and Zanuck

Cromwell was wooed by the powerful producer David O. Selznick to launch his new independent film company with Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936) starring Freddie Bartholomew and Dolores Costello. He followed this with two lesser-known works for Daryl Zanuck at 20th-Century Fox, directing Myrna Loy in To Mary With Love, a portrait of a marriage tested, not by adversity but by success. Then a hillbilly musical called Banjo on My Knee (1936) starring Barbara Stanwyck with a scene-stealing Walter Brennan, set in Alabama, and worked on by William Faulkner. The final script by the soon-to-be-celebrated writer-director Nunnally Johnson was well received. Banjo on my Knee got an Oscar nomination for Sound Recording by Edmund H. Hansen.

It was Selznick's glossy The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) starring Ronald Colman and Madeleine Carroll, with Raymond Massey, Mary Astor, David Niven, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. that truly solidified Cromwell's reputation as a top Hollywood director; wildly successful at the box office, it was nominated by the Academy for Lyle Wheeler's art direction and Alfred Newman's lush score (though Selznick did bring in another director, Woody Van Dyke, to reshoot the sword fights.) [1] It also won honors for him that year at the Venice (Italy) Film Festival as Best Foreign Film. Cromwell's Algiers (1938) unveiled two exotic European imports, the debonair French actor Charles Boyer and an Austrian Jewish emigre fleeing the Nazi Anschluss named Hedy Lamarr in her Hollywood debut. The film was a near-exact remake of Julien Duvivier's 1937 French film of a gangster on the run, Pepe le Moko, this Hollywood version was produced by activist anti-fascist producer Walter Wanger and shot by the great James Wong Howe. Made famous by a line which never actually occurs in the film - "Come with me to the Casbah" - Algiers also garnered 4 Oscar nominations: for Boyer, supporting actor Gene Lockhart, art direction and Howe's cinematography.

In 1939, Cromwell made two back-to-back Carole Lombard pictures, first for Selznick, who paired the screwball comedian with upcoming actor Jimmy Stewart, in Made For Each Other (1939), a film that threw away Lombard's and Stewart's comedy skills on the trials of newlyweds who marry after one day, and whose baby nearly dies but is saved by a brave pilot making a treacherous flight bearing a miracle drug. The life-saving flight was a last-minute change based on producer Selznick's own white-knuckle experience when he chartered a TWA plane to fly a new serum developed in New York back to LA to save his beloved brother Myron's life. The serum was rushed to the hospital where Myron lay in a coma; the next day, he was out of danger. "This is too good to waste on Myron," Selznick cracked. "Let's put it in the picture." [2]

Lombard was then teamed with Cary Grant in RKO's In Name Only , where Grant plays an unhappily married wealthy man for whom Lombard's character, a young widow, falls but whose unloving society wife, played by Kay Francis, refuses to let him go. Carole Lombard was determined to work with Cromwell again and corralled him and Grant to team up with her. Oddly, this film also ended with a third act life-or-death medical cliffhanger, when the miserable Grant, sick with pneumonia, will die unless he has true love to live for - Lombard's. But it proved popular and turned a decent profit.

Rise of World War II

As tensions rose in Europe, Cromwell returned to his Broadway roots - and longtime friendships - by directing the film adaptation of Robert E. Sherwood's 1939 Pulitzer-prize-winning, anti-isolationist play Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) with Raymond Massey repeating his tour-de-force performance as Lincoln struggling with the decision to fight slavery, in which he had triumphed on Broadway. Gene Lockhart, and Ruth Gordon in her screen debut, starred with him, and Cromwell himself played the part of the abolitionist radical, John Brown. Once again, Cromwell's directorial skills brought his leading actor an Oscar nomination in what would be the most famous role of Massey's life, but neither Massey nor James Wong Howe, nominated for his work in the black-and-white category, won. The film also jostled with John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), covering much of the same period in Lincoln's life as in Henry Fonda's Oscar-nominated portrayal from the year before.

Cromwell's 1940 film adaptation for Paramount of Joseph Conrad's first popular novel, Victory (1915), repeated a film that had already been made in 1930 by William Wellman and, in 1915, as a silent film with Lon Chaney Jr. Cromwell's version was adapted by John Balderston, who'd written The Prisoner of Zenda, and starred Fredric March and Betty Field in a tropical psychological thriller.

Cromwell and Frederic March teamed up again in So Ends Our Night (1941), one of the most explicitly anti-Nazi films to be made in Hollywood before the United States entered the war at the end of that year. An adaptation of exiled German author Erich Maria Remarque's fourth novel Flotsam, screenwriter Talbot Jennings adapted the story from a series of magazine articles even before it came out as a novel in 1941. Producers David Loew and Albert Lewin cast Fredric March, Margaret Sullavan and Glenn Ford as three desperate German exiles trapped and on the run after being deprived of their citizenship and passports by the Nazi regime.

Since You Went Away

With war declared on December 7, 1941, Cromwell returned to a bit of on-location swashbuckling with Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake (1942) starring Tyrone Power in one of his many costume roles and paired with rising star Gene Tierney and also featuring Frances Farmer.

But it was the war at home that inspired Cromwell's best-known and most-honoured film, the nearly three-hour-long Since You Went Away (1944) starring Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Shirley Temple, Robert Walker, and Monty Woolley, with Hattie McDaniel, Agnes Moorehead, Alla Nazimova, Lionel Barrymore and Keenan Wynn; This star-studded film portrayed an American family whose men have gone off to war - their struggles, fears and losses - and arrived in movie theaters when American women had been without their husbands, sons, and sweethearts for more than three years. It was, moreover, producer Selznick's first screen production in four years, and he both wrote the script and lavished attention on every detail, especially on the ingenue, Jennifer Jones, who was to become his second wife. A commercial as well as critical success, the film earned a million in rentals and received nine Oscar nominations - including Best Picture, virtually the entire cast and all technical credits - but winning only one, for Lee Garmes' cinematography.

Cromwell was by now president of the Screen Directors Guild, a tenure which lasted only two years (1944 to 1946) but reflects his stature in the business at the time. His next film, The Enchanted Cottage , from a play by Pinero, is a romantic fantasy, set in England, in which a disfigured war veteran, played by Robert Young, finds love with a shy, plain Dorothy Maguire, helped along by a blind composer, played by Herbert Marshall. This fragile tale was one of Cromwell's favourites, as was his next film Anna and the King of Siam (1946) a black-and-white, non-musical version of the story of the British governess and her arrogant employer, starring Irene Dunne, with a miscast Rex Harrison as the king, along with Linda Darnell, Lee J. Cobb, and Gale Sondergaard. The film won Oscars for black-and-white cinematography by Arthur Miller and again for Lyle Wheeler's art direction.

Film Noir and the Hollywood Blacklist

Cromwell's next picture, Dead Reckoning (1947), came about because Humphrey Bogart, a leading man after his triumph in Casablanca (1942), had his choice of director in his contract and expressly asked for him at Columbia Pictures, possibly because it was Cromwell who had given a very young Bogart his first break with a small stage role back in his salad days on Broadway. The film would become the first of Cromwell's "film noir" canon. Bogie plays a cynical veteran, who, despite his tough guy exterior, may or may not be being hoodwinked by femme fatale Lizabeth Scott in a baffling plot.

Cromwell came back with the harrowing women's prison drama Caged (1950) starring Eleanor Parker—who, like Bette Davis in 1934, was eager to drop her glamorous image for a meatier role. Its bitter depiction of suicide, sadism—in the form of matron Hope Emerson—head shaving, solitary confinement and brutal introduction into the hopeless underworld of women sucked into prison life again brought Oscar nominations for his cast and story. Finally, in 1951, Cromwell had the idea to resurrect the 1928 play which had made him a director and Edward G. Robinson a star, and in doing so created another noir, The Racket (1951) starring Robert Mitchum, Lizabeth Scott, and Robert Ryan.

By this point, the House Un-American Activities Committee had begun its investigation of Hollywood writers, actors and directors Communist affiliations. [3] Cromwell was blacklisted [4] in Hollywood from 1951 to 1958 for his political affiliations, which seemed primarily to consist of heading up a small group of Hollywood Democrats supporting FDR's third term - and having directed a famous film of a famous play - Abe Lincoln In Illinois - written by Roosevelt's favorite speechwriter. Cromwell had a theater career which he had returned to intermittently during his film directing years, and he returned to the Broadway stage that year, winning the 1952 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Play for his performance as John Gray in Point of No Return (1951) starring Henry Fonda.

In 1958, Cromwell was removed from the blacklist, and made his return to films with a scathing portrait of Hollywood and its stardom in The Goddess for Columbia. This was the first original screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky whose previous work had been for the stage, as well as the screen debut of Method actress Kim Stanley in the lead. The child star Patti Duke plays a lonely child born in poverty to a mother who doesn't want her; Kim Stanley portrays the still insecure but now alluring girl who shoots to Hollywood stardom only to find its meaningless acclaim and shallow relationships can't heal her inner wounds and in fact render her helpless and drug-dependent in the end.

As soon as it opened, Goddess was said to be based on Marilyn Monroe, then still very much alive, whose troubled on-set behavior, depressions and drug use were beginning to intrude on her staggering fame as a sex symbol. Playwright Arthur Miller, Monroe's then–husband, objected to critics naming Monroe as the real-life model for 'The Goddess' prompting Chayefsky to insist in interviews that, indeed, she was not. Perhaps not coincidentally, Kim Stanley had, in fact, studied at the Actor's Studio when Marilyn Monroe had famously left Hollywood to study there.

The film was nominated for Original Screenplay, but Cromwell hated what was done in the cutting room, apparently by Chayefsky himself, and walked away from the picture while it was still being cut.

Cromwell's film career came to an end with two lackluster films: The Scavengers (1959), made in the Philippines, and a low-budget drama, A Matter of Morals, made in Sweden in 1961.

Life after Hollywood

Cromwell devoted the rest of his career primarily to the theater where he'd begun it. He wrote three plays, all staged in New York; starred opposite Helen Hayes in a revival of What Every Woman Knows , directed the original Broadway company of Desk Set , and eventually found artistic satisfaction in four seasons at the Tyrone Guthrie theater in Minneapolis, founded by the expatriate British director in 1963 when he, like Cromwell, had grown disenchanted with Broadway's increasing commercialism.

Cromwell was cast by Robert Altman in the role of Mr. Rose for the film 3 Women (1977) starring Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek, and as Bishop Martin in A Wedding (1978) starring Desi Arnaz, Jr., Carol Burnett, Geraldine Chaplin, Mia Farrow, Vittorio Gassman and Lillian Gish. His wife Ruth Nelson also appeared in both those Altman films.

Personal life

Cromwell married four times. His first wife, stage actress Alice Lindahl died of influenza in 1918; stage actress Marie Goff (divorced); actress Kay Johnson (married 1928 – divorced 1946); and actress Ruth Nelson (1946–79; his death). He and Johnson had two sons; one is actor James Cromwell.


He died at age 92 in Santa Barbara, California of a pulmonary embolism. [5] His remains were cremated.


YearTitleCredited as
1929 The Dummy YesWalter Babbing
Close Harmony Yes
The Dance of Life YesYesDoorkeeper
The Mighty YesYesMr. Jamieson
1930 Street of Chance YesYesImbrie
The Texan Yes
For the Defense YesYesSecond reporter at trial
Tom Sawyer Yes
1931 Scandal Sheet Yes
Unfaithful Yes
The Vice Squad Yes
Rich Man's Folly Yes
1932 The World and the Flesh Yes
1933 Sweepings Yes
The Silver Cord Yes
Double Harness Yes
Ann Vickers YesYesSad-Faced Doughboy
1934 Spitfire Yes
This Man Is Mine Yes
Of Human Bondage Yes
The Fountain Yes
1935 Village Tale Yes
Jalna Yes
I Dream Too Much Yes
1936 Little Lord Fauntleroy Yes
To Mary - with Love Yes
Banjo on My Knee Yes
1937 The Prisoner of Zenda Yes
1938 Algiers Yes
1939 Made for Each Other Yes
In Name Only Yes
1940 Abe Lincoln in Illinois YesYes John Brown
Victory Yes
1941 So Ends Our Night Yes
1942 Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake Yes
1944 Since You Went Away Yes
1945 The Enchanted Cottage Yes
1946 Anna and the King of Siam Yes
1947 Dead Reckoning Yes
1948 Night Song Yes
1950 Caged Yes
1951 The Company She Keeps YesYesPoliceman
The Racket Yes
1957 Top Secret Affair YesGeneral Daniel A. Grimshaw
1958 The Goddess Yes
1959 The Scavengers Yes
1961 A Matter of Morals Yes
1977 3 Women YesMr. Rose
1978 A Wedding YesBishop Martin

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  1. Memo From David O. Selznick, p. 115
  2. Selznick bu Bob Thomas, Pocket Books, NY (1972) p. 115-116
  3. Robert E. Sherwood - the playwright in Peace and War, by Harriet Alonso, U. of Mass. Press, 2007, pp. 301-308
  4. "John Cromwell - Director - Films as Director:, Other Films:, Publications".