One of the bravest screenwriters of the 1940s, John Paxton’s run as RKO’s top story-crafter between 1944 and 1947 culminated in one of the era’s most acclaimed ‘message pictures’ and preceded one of Hollywood’s most controversial witch-hunts.
Born in Kansas City in 1911, John Paxton attended the University of Missouri where he studied journalism before moving to New York where he got a job organizing a playwriting contest for the Theatre Guild. He was a reviewer for Stage magazine where he befrieded future RKO producer Adrian Scott and in 1943 he moved to Hollywood and was hired by Scott as a screenwriter. His first film was My Pal Wolf (dir. Alfred L Werker) in 1944 and, that same year, he received critical acclaim for his screenplay of Murder, my Sweet (dir. Edward Dmytryk), starring Dick Powell, which he adapted from the Raymond Chandler novel. He received the Edgar Award for Screenplay and the Scott-Dmytryk-Paxton-Powell team was born. Their second collaboration came in 1945 with Cornered, and two years later, there was So Well Remembered, this one Dick Powell-less. In 1947 came what is arguably John Paxton’s greatest and most praised achievement, his screenplay for Crossfire (dir. Edward Dmytryk), which he adapted from Richard Brooks’ novel The Brick Foxhole. Having changed some of the themes to fit the then-current Hollywood blacklist wave, Crossfire became a message picture about anti-Semitism, which we covered here. Ironically, Scott and Dmytryk were actually blacklisted and surprisingly, Paxton was not and ended up receiving an Oscar nomination for it. He didn’t win, but did received his second Edgar Award. He left RKO the following year, and throughout the 1950s, he worked for a number of studios and wrote such screenplays as Fourteen Hours (1951, dir. Henry Hathaway), The Wild One (1953, dir. Laszlo Benedek), The Cobweb (1955, dir. Vincente Minnelli), as well as On The Beach (1959, dir. Stanley Kramer). In 1971, he won the Golden Globe for Kotch (dir. Walter Matthau) and in 1972 he adapted the Adrian Scott play The Great Man’s Whiskers for television. John Paxton died in 1985 at the age of 73.