Swerling, Jo

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Writer. Nationality: American. Born: Joseph Swerling in Bardichov, Russia, 8 April 1897; emigrated with his family to the United States. Family: Married; two children, including son: the television producer Jo Swerling, Jr. Career: 1916—journalist: reporter, editorial writer, columnist, and comic-strip author for Chicago Herald and Examiner; Chicago correspondent for Variety; also a playwright and short-story writer: produced plays include One of Us, 1918, One Helluva Night, 1924, The New Yorkers, 1927, Kibitzer, with Edward G. Robinson, 1929, and Guys and Dolls, 1950; 1930—first film as writer, Ladies of Leisure: contract with Columbia, and association with Frank Capra; 1964—retired from film writing. Died: October 1964.

Films as Writer:


Ladies of Leisure (Capra); Melody Lane (based on his unpublished play "The Understander"); Sisters (Flood); Rain or Shine (Capra); Hell's Island (Sloman)


The Last Parade (Kenton); Dirigible (Capra); Ten Cents a Dance (L. Barrymore); The Miracle Woman (Capra); Platinum Blonde (Capra)


Forbidden (Capra); Behind the Mask (Dillon); War Correspondent (Sloane); Washington Merry-Go-Round (Cruze)


Below the Sea (Rogell); Man's Castle (Borzage)


No Greater Glory (Borzage); The Defense Rests (Hillyer); Lady by Choice (Burton)


The Whole Town's Talking (Ford); Love Me Forever (Schertzinger)


The Music Goes 'round (Schertzinger); Pennies from Heaven (McLeod)


Double Wedding (Thorpe)


I Am the Law (Hall); Doctor Rhythm (Tuttle)


Made for Each Other (Cromwell); The Real Glory (Hathaway); Gone with the Wind (Fleming)


The Westerner (Wyler)


Blood and Sand (Mamoulian); New York Town (C. Vidor); Confirm or Deny (Mayo)


Pride of the Yankees (Wood)


Crash Dive (Mayo); A Lady Takes a Chance (Seiter)


Lifeboat (Hitchcock)


Leave Her to Heaven (Stahl)


It's a Wonderful Life (Capra)


Thunder in the East (C. Vidor)


The Lord Don't Play Favorites (co-written with Hal Stanley for NBC's Producers' Showcase)


King of the Roaring Twenties (The Big Bankroll) (J. Newman)


By SWERLING: books—

Typo Tales and Verses, Chicago, 1915.

Kibitzer (play), New York, 1929.

On SWERLING: articles—

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

Slater, Thomas, in American Screenwriters, 2nd series, edited by Randall Clark, Detroit, 1986.

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The conversion to sound in the late twenties meant that the American film industry needed to hire a different kind of screenwriter, one used to creating effective dialogue rather than simply outlining a workable scenario and devising title materials. Hollywood found such writers in the top ranks of journalists and successful playwrights. Swerling is perhaps the only of these to have achieved outstanding success in both fields. After selling papers as a youngster, he moved up to join the staff of the Chicago Herald and Examiner, where he excelled in a number of roles, most memorably as the author of the popular comic strip "Gallagher and Shean," then a well-known vaudeville act. The Marx brothers admired his writing, and Swerling was subsequently invited to write a musical comedy for them that, unfortunately, was not successful. Convinced, however, that his future lay in playwriting, Swerling returned to his hometown New York and wrote four comedy dramas, most with a New York Jewish flavor, that were produced with some success; the most notable of these is perhaps Kibitzer, in which Swerling persuaded Edward G. Robinson to star.

The opportunity to make what was then a huge amount of money writing for the sound pictures proved impossible to resist despite a thriving Broadway career, and Swerling moved to the west coast where he spent six years under contract to Columbia, collaborating most importantly with Frank Capra, whose optimistic vision of the American common man and distrust for the wealthy establishment Swerling very much shared. After establishing himself in Hollywood, Swerling made a comfortable living freelancing until his retirement in 1964. Like Capra, in the early thirties Swerling had little interest in probing the limits of public taste with titillating or erotic drama, then much in vogue. Swerling's characters, in contrast, display that Horatio Algerism that is very much associated with Capra, a kind of optimistic faith in the national institutions and down-home decency that is often derided as "Capra-Corn." His early films often feature women who have made early, but not disastrous, mistakes in their lives; by the end of the final reel of The Defense Rests and Ladies of Leisure, the heroine has faced up to her error, made the best of the strong virtues she inherently possesses, and embarked upon a life devoted to decency and respectability.

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. The adoption of the Production Code in 1934 institutionalized the Victorian version of moral uplift that Swerling saw as the essence of the American experience: a rejection of modern temptation (especially of the big-city variety) in favor of time-tested traditional values. If Swerling's heroes are eager to achieve material success in a world that seems inhospitable to such aims (an accurate reflection of Depression era sentiments), they are never served well by political (read "communist" or "socialist") solutions, always in the end holding fast to republican ideals of self-reliance and community service. The main characters are often petite bourgeoisie, such as the owners of a small circus in a Capra collaboration, Rain or Shine, whose livelihood is threatened by an employee strike; or the struggling young couple in Made for Each Other, whose love for each other is nearly destroyed by dire economic straits. The threat to happiness, however, may just as easily come from above as from below. In another Capra film, the heroine in Ladies of Leisure finally recognizes that her successful efforts at self-advancement have made her a kind of prostitute; she then forswears material comfort for a life of romantic bliss with a poor but honest "Mr. Right"; in Platinum Blonde, also for Capra, Swerling explores the gender difficulties faced by a gritty newspaper reporter who marries a wealthy woman, and therefore abandons the traditional American-male role of breadwinner.

The limitations and glories of Swerling's vision of American life can be seen in his two most famous scripts, for Pride of the Yankees, co-written with Herman J. Mankiewicz, the life story of the most sentimentalized American hero of the early forties, Lou Gehrig; and It's a Wonderful Life, a project that whose 11th-hour script difficulties Swerling was called upon to solve by a desperate Capra. Pride of the Yankees is vintage Swerling, an emotionally affecting paean of praise of the most cherished elements of the national character: hard work, selflessness, devotion to family, patient acceptance of adversity, and endurance. Like his main character, Swerling possessed incredible stamina; seemingly supplied with endless inspiration, he carved out a secure living in a business where a writer was only as good as his or her last picture. The darker aspects of Gehrig's experience, especially the inevitable rivalry with teammate Babe Ruth, whose showmanship and flashiness garnered him more notoriety and a higher salary, are elided in Swerling's treatment; the screenplay never even hints at the contrast between the free-living Ruth and his conservative teammate, at their achievement of very different kinds of fame. In other words, Gehrig is provided with no alternative way of life, a source of temptation that is avoided only through moral diligence and innate strength of character. The film, lacking a central struggle, fails to be interestingly dramatic, though it is a tribute to Swerling's ability to keep the narrative flowing that Pride of the Yankees is never boring. It is typical of Swerling that the script's most interesting moments are provided by expertly evoked sentiment, especially in the closing sequences where Gehrig tries to hide the disease that is soon to kill him from his wife, who already knows but is desperate to maintain the illusion in which his pride and considerateness are so invested.

In contrast, It's a Wonderful Life is structured around the most basic of life's struggles, against a despair born of hostile and unrewarding circumstance that can rob even the strongest and most virtuous of the will to live. Completely beyond the experience of Swerling's Lou Gehrig is the urge for self-annihilation to which George Bailey is reduced by the apparent victory of pure chance and malevolence over his self-sacrificing efforts to serve others. At the film's center is the heavenly effort, directed by one of the Hollywood screen's most charming angels, to convince George that he must go on living. This psychological task is not achieved by holding out an alternative vision of the life George might subsequently lead, but by a kind of moral subtraction, the reduction of George to an identity-less being who must experience the horror of the world as it would have been had he never lived, a nightmare vision of what would have happened had George not been there to prevent it. Like Swerling's protagonists in The Defense Rests and The Miracle Woman, George undergoes a moral rehabilitation that is essentially self-generated, the product not of changed circumstances, but of a transformed sensibility. The film ends in classic Horatio Alger fashion, with George's moral virtue rewarded by benefaction, in this case the generous gifts of money that allow George to avoid going to jail for bank fraud. This touch seems pure Swerling.

What Capra undoubtedly was responsible for, in contrast, was the presentation of the hero in extremis (shades of the filibuster in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, on which Swerling did not collaborate); for Capra, the fight for virtue is always barely won, the product of an immense suffering that wins the day (e.g., the moral collapse of the crooked senator in Mr. Smith who cannot stand the agony of watching his youthful protégé endure the unendurable). For Swerling, however, the victory of virtue is always, already assured by the protagonist's moral righteousness, a quality that will ensure that he or she does the right thing once the proper kind of self-recognition has been achieved. 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 virtue is always more attractive than vice, where the simple faith of simple people is to be preferred to the dangerous sophistication, the idle self-indulgence of the rich. As Hollywood turned to different forms of entertainment in the fifties and sixties, Swerling became much less in demand. In Thunder in the East, Swerling demonstrates the enduring power of the old entertainment formula; in this effective recycling of Casablanca, an immoral gunrunner operating in the Far East is persuaded to support the cause of democracy and freedom by a beautiful blind woman. Less successful was King of the Roaring Twenties, a screen biography of gangster Arnold Rothstein, most famous for fixing the 1919 World Series; Swerling's heart was obviously not in this late noir portrayal of decadence and the criminal demimonde, which forms a kind of reverse image to Pride of the Yankees. In 1964 Swerling retired from a quite different Hollywood than the one he contributed so much to in the thirties and forties.

—R. Barton Palmer