Swerling, Jo(seph) 1897-1964

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SWERLING, Jo(seph) 1897-1964

PERSONAL: Born April 18, 1897, in Bardichov, Russia; died 1964; married Florence Manson; children: Peter, Jo, Jr.

CAREER: Screenwriter, playwright, and short-story writer. Journalist for Chicago Herald and Examiner and Chicago correspondent for Variety until 1964.

AWARDS, HONORS: Antoinette Perry Award, American Theatre Wing, 1951, for Guys and Dolls.


Typo Tales and Verses, Ertman (Chicago, IL), 1915.

One of Us (play; produced in New York, NY, 1918), S. French (New York, NY), 1929.

One Helluva Night (play), produced in New York, NY, 1924.

The New Yorkers (play), produced in New York, NY, 1927.

(With Edward G. Robinson) Kibitzer (play), produced in New York, NY, 1929.

(With Abe Burrows) Guys and Dolls (play; produced in New York, NY, 1950), S. French (New York, NY), 1951.


Ladies of Leisure, Columbia, 1930.

Melody Lane, Universal, 1930.

Sisters, Columbia, 1930.

Rain or Shine, Columbia, 1930.

Hell's Island, Columbia, 1930.

The Last Parade, Columbia, 1931.

Dirigible, Columbia, 1931.

Ten Cents a Dance, Columbia, 1931.

The Miracle Woman, Columbia, 1931.

Platinum Blonde, Columbia, 1931.

Forbidden, Columbia, 1932.

Behind the Mask, Columbia, 1932.

War Correspondent, Columbia, 1932.

Washington Merry-Go-Round, Columbia, 1932.

Below the Sea, Columbia, 1933.

Man's Castle, Columbia, 1933.

No Greater Glory, Columbia, 1934.

The Defense Rests, Columbia, 1934.

Lady by Choice, Columbia, 1934.

The Whole Town's Talking, Columbia, 1935.

(With Robert Riskin) Love Me Forever, Columbia, 1935.

The Music Goes 'Round, Columbia, 1936.

Pennies from Heaven, Columbia, 1936.

Double Wedding, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1937.

I Am the Law, Columbia, 1938.

(With Richard Connell) Doctor Rhythm, Paramount, 1938.

Made for Each Other, United Artists, 1939.

(With Robert Presnell, Sr.) The Real Glory, United Artists, 1939.

Gone with the Wind, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1939.

(With Niven Busc) The Westerner, United Artists, 1940.

Blood and Sand, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1941.

New York Town, 1941.

Confirm or Deny, Paramount, 1941.

(With Herman J. Mankiewicz) Pride of the Yankees, RKO General, Inc., 1942.

Crash Dive, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1943.

A Lady Takes a Chance, RKO General, Inc., 1943.

Lifeboat, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1944.

Leave Her to Heaven, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1945.

It's a Wonderful Life, (additional scenes), 1946.

Thunder in the East, Paramount, 1953.

King of the Roaring Twenties, Allied Artists, 1962.

Also wrote television script "The Lord Don't Play Favorites," with Hal Stanley for Producers' Showcase, National Broadcasting Company, Inc., 1956.

SIDELIGHTS: Screenwriter Jo Swerling, who won a Tony Award in 1951 for coauthoring the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls, emerged from humble beginnings to sustain a writing career spanning more than three decades.

When Swerling was a small child, his family fled Czarist Russia, narrowly escaping a pogrom. With five sons and two daughters in tow but little money to build on, Swerling's parents settled in New York City's lower east side, where he sold newspapers to help support his family. As a young man, Swerling traveled to Chicago and found a job at the Chicago Herald and Examiner. He proceeded to carve out a twelve-year career as reporter, editor, and comic strip author.

Thanks to a review Swerling published in Variety, raving over the Marx Brothers' vaudeville act, the young journalist got a chance to meet the silly siblings and pen a musical comedy for them. Though the play, Streetwise Cinderella, did not succeed, the experience inspired Swerling to return to New York and concentrate on playwriting full time.

His first play, One of Us, premiered in 1918 at New York's Bijou Theatre; One Helluva Night followed six years later at the Sam H. Harris Theatre. When Swerling asked Edward G. Robinson to star in his 1929 play, Kibitzer, Robinson not only accepted, but also helped Swerling rework the script, receiving a cowriter credit. The two became longtime friends.

Swerling's next move carried him cross-country to Los Angeles, where over the next several decades he produced dozens of scripts, many for legendary director Frank Capra, and watched them become star-studded motion pictures.

Thomas Slater wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "In his screenplays, Swerling praises individual ingenuity, common sense, and the goodness of the common man, who is usually right in following his natural inclinations, as opposed to the amoral rich and powerful who abide by a book of rules that leaves no room for humanitarianism."

A writer in the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers described Swerling's early films, such as The Defense Rests and Ladies of Leisure, as emblems of optimism, patriotism, and personal faith. He explained, "An important reason for Swerling's success with such films is that his vision of American life was very much in harmony with what conservative moral forces in the country, particularly the Catholic Legion of Decency, were demanding that the studios provide."

Swerling spent his first six years in Hollywood under contract at Columbia studios, collaborating mostly with Capra, whose work was already synonymous with optimistic Americanism. Key Capra themes include a celebration of the common man and a distrust of the wealthy establishment.

Swerling's first screen credit—a source credit, in this case—was for Melody Lane, a screen version of his unproduced play The Understander, and his second—a "screenplay by" credit this time—was for Ladies ofLeisure. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, the script features a female gold-digger who decides to repent when an artist asks her to model for a painting titled "Hope." Capra directed the film, in which Stanwyck gives up big bucks to commit herself to the middle-class man whom she loves.

Rain and Shine, another Capra/Swerling vehicle cowritten with Dorothy Howell, weaves the tale of small-business circus owners faced with striking employees. Dirigible, also cowritten with Howell, tracks a U.S. Navy expedition to the South Pole and emphasizes compassion and all-American teamwork.

Other scripts from Swerling's prolific first decade include Ten Cents a Dance, directed by Capra and also starring Stanwyck, this time as a tough taxi dancer hopelessly devoted to a criminal; Forbidden, in which gutsy Stanwyck delivers an illegitimate baby; and Behind the Mask, an action spy story.

Swerling's Washington Merry-Go-Round was directed by James Cruze, but, according to Slater, strongly anticipates Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the classic Capra-directed film starring James Stewart as a naïve but well-meaning Everyman elected to office.

Cowritten with Robert Riskin and directed by John Ford, The Whole Town's Talking (1935) was Swerling's biggest commercial success to date. The story, starring Robinson, sympathizes with its regular-guy male lead whose murder-convict lookalike is on the loose from prison. Critic Andre Sennwald of the New York Times named it "the best of the new year's screen comedies."

Musicals and comedies kept Swerling busy for the next few years. Love Me Forever, written with Sidney Buchman and directed by Victor Schertzinger, was a financial hit. Buchman, Schertzinger, and Swerling then teamed up again to produce The Music Goes 'Round.

Swerling scripted the classic film Pennies from Heaven, starring Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong. Crosby plays a singer who befriends a beautiful, socialworker and helps a poverty-stricken family. Crosby starred in other Swerling-written projects, none as critically successful as Pennies from Heaven.

Pride of the Yankees, according to some critics, also embodies hard work and family values. The screenplay tells of baseball legend Lou Gehrig's heroic showdown with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the deadly illness now known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Gehrig displays a masculine unwillingness to tell his wife about his sickness, though she understands completely.

Slater wrote, "The Pride of the Yankees was one of Swerling's best films of this period, earning him his only Academy Award Nomination," but quoted New York Times critic Bosley Crowther as saying, "It is, without being pretentious, a real saga of American life. … But, bythevery nature of its subject, it lacks conflict till well on toward its end." As Slater noted, "it is often difficult to write a good screenplay when no real sense of conflict is involved in the plot, and most of Swerling's weak writing results from this problem. … Nonetheless the mark of achievement in Swerling's career is that he made the formula work in many good scripts."

In 1939 Swerling contributed character-driven pages to Gone with the Wind. Swerling scripts of the 1940s include The Westerner, Blood and Sand, A Lady Takes a Chance, and the Alfred Hitchcock-directed Lifeboat. Lifeboat involves nine people, one a Nazi, sailing the stormy seas in a lifeboat after their passenger line goes down. American characters eventually kill the Nazi and overcome adversity and confusion to plow forward and survive. As Slater suggested, "One gets the impression that Swerling was not comfortable in a world in which his characters could not settle down into a happy, optimistic community."

In 1946 Swerling contributed additional scenes to It's a Wonderful Life, directed by Capra. Though the film was a box-office failure at the time, it lived on as an American classic and is considered one of Swerling's best-loved contributions to cinema. James Stewart stars as a family man, George Bailey, severely down on his luck and running out of hope, just in time for Christmas. An affable angel named Clarence walks George through his town as it would have been had he never been born, and George realizes how very much other people need him in their lives.

Swerling was less active the next two decades. Produced as films were Thunder in the East and King of the Roaring Twenties, a biopic of gangster Arnold Rothstein.

"Even more so than Capra's patriotic populism, such a belief in the innate invincibility of good people made Swerling the ideal voice for a Hollywood dedicated from 1934 until the mid-sixties to the making of films where good inevitably triumphs over evil … where the simple faith of simple people is to be preferred to … the idle self-indulgence of the rich," remarked a International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers contributor.



Cawkwell, Tim, and John M. Smith, The World Encyclopedia of the Film, A & W Visual Library (New York, NY), 1972.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 44: American Screenwriters, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986, pp. 363-369.

Halliwell, Leslie, Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion, eighth edition, Charles Scribner's Sons (New York, NY), 1984.

International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 4: Writers and Production Artists, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1987.


Film Comment, winter, 1970-71.*