John Cromwell (director)

John Cromwell
Born Elwood Dager Cromwell
(1887-12-23)December 23, 1887
Toledo, Ohio, U.S.
Died September 26, 1979(1979-09-26) (aged 91)
Santa Barbara, California, U.S.
Occupation Actor, director, producer
Years active 1912–1978
Spouse(s) Alice Lindahl
Marie Goff
Kay Johnson (1928–1946)
Ruth Nelson (1946–1979)

Elwood Dager Cromwell (December 23, 1887 – September 26, 1979), known as John Cromwell, was a highly regarded American film and stage, as well as a film director during the Golden Age of the studios, spanning the early days of sound to 1950s film noir, whose directing career was cut short by the Hollywood blacklist.


Born in Toledo, Ohio to a well-off Scottish-English family, executives in the steel and iron industry that had not yet rusted, 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 20's.

He made his Broadway debut in Little Women (1912) in an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's beloved 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.

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 anti-war Major Barbara," the 1905 play of a devout young woman in The Salvation Army and her tortured relationship with her wealthy father, a munitions dealer. By the time the play got to Broadway in 1915, the war Shaw feared had broken out in Europe. And, in 1916, Cromwell played in a revival ofCaptain Brassbound's Conversion.

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 that would become synonymous with his name.

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), was so skillful he was allowed 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's 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, but Bette wanted none of that, and didn't trust a studio make-up artist to go as far as she wanted. In an early example of the necessity for actors to choose and define their own roles, Bette had campaigned for the part relentlessly, and grabbed it when she got it. It made her a star for the rest of her life.

Films with Selznick and Zanuck

With this triumph behind him, Cromwell was wooed by the young but already 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 no less than William Faulkner}. The final script by the soon-to-be-celebrated writer-director Nunnally Johnson was well-received, but neither of these films produced the fireworks Bette Davis had created. Banjo on my Knee got an Oscar nomination for Sound Recording by Edmund H. Hansen, an Oscar-winning sound engineer and special effects wizard, for whom this was one of 12 nominations in as many years.

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 exciting 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 beautifully 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. A disappointment at the box office, the film has become a sentimental favorite for fans of both actors. 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 bascially coralled 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 greatest 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 Oscar-winning Fredric March, in this steamy tropical psychological thriller, with Betty Field as the female lead (March had begged the recently arrived Ingrid Bergman to do it but she'd refused). An uneven film, it bears a startling turn by Sir Cedric Hardwicke as a languid killer instead of his usual huffy, slightly nutty English gentry roles.

According to one recent analysis, In the hands of Cromwell and March, both ardent anti-fascists in favor of then neutral United States joining Britain in the fight against Hitler, Conrad's 1915 novel became a critique of the perils of isolationism - an issue rending Hollywood and the US apart as England suffered under the London Blitz from Nazi bombers while the majority of Americans wanted nothing to do with the war.[3]

Cromwell and Frederic March teamed up for an even stronger message 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 viciously anti-Semitic and anti-democratic Nazi dictatorship.

Directed almost like an early film noir, Oscar-winning William H. Daniels's stunning black and white cinematography (he was Garbo's favorite DP) conveys their terror and confusion as the exiles try to live without a passport in the seemingly endless night of countries eager to deport them. Frederic March plays a middle-aged German World War I veteran who despises the Nazis on ideological grounds and has already escaped from a concentration camp. Sullavan is a young Jewish university student, now stateless and desperate to continue her studies which had just been made illegal in Germany. And Glen Ford, in a wonderful early performance, is a sensitive 19-year-old boy from a cultured German family that discovers it is only "half-Aryan" and has abruptly been declared stateless by the Nazi regime.

Composer Louis Gruenberg, himself educated at the Vienna Conservatory, created a soundtrack of moving memory-inflected music alongside raucous band and other source music that frequently mocks the exile's despair. By the time he was nominated for Best Score, the United States had finally entered the war. Other notable credits were the Academy-award-winning William Cameron Menzies, who had invented the title of production design for his work on Gone With The Wind; and a very young Stanley Kramer as a production assistant.

The characters convey what exile has cost them - spouses, love, money, respect and the freedom to merely stay in the same place without fear - in dreamlike flashbacks and harrowing present-day scenes. At its February, 1941 premiere at America's most prestigious film venue, Radio City Music Hall, the film was praised in the New York Times for conveying "the plight of the German refugee... forced to roam in an alien world like a hunted beast." [4] In an eerie pre-echo of the McCarthyism that would haunt Cromwell's life a decade later, Erich von Stroheim makes a subtly effective cameo as a Nazi official who will return March's passport in exchange for his 'naming names' of political friends still in Germany.

Since You went Away

With war declared on Dec. 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 the lovely rising star Gene Tierney and also featuring Frances Farmer, the beautiful actress whose career was soon to be cut short by mysterious mental health incarcerations and political persecution.

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 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, though little-known now, 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, but it has long been eclipsed by the 1955 musical version The King and I, with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr and their famous "Shall we dance?" waltz.

Film Noir and the Hollywood Blacklist

Cromwell's departure from this romantic froth in his 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. A follow-up of sorts to Bogart's darkly confused film of the previous year The Big Sleep, 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; despite mixed reviews when it opened, Dead Reckoning has grown in stature with French film theory and the rise of the Bogart cult in the 1960s and is now considered a Film Noir classic.

Cromwell came back with what has become another film noir cult classic, in 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 inspired 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 template in The Racket (1951) starring Robert Mitchum, Lizabeth Scott, and Robert Ryan.

By this point, the House Un-American Activities Committee, goaded by Senator Joseph McCarthy, had begun its witch-hunt of Hollywood artists, actors and directors - essentially a right-wing Republican-dominated punishment of every talented liberal in the movie business who had supported FDR and fought American isolationism, which refused pointblank to join the battle against Nazism in the 1930s and 1940s.[5]

Cromwell was blacklisted[6] 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 (which Robert Sherwood was for much of FDR's presidency).

Fortunately, 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 onset 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.

Kim Stanley's performance becomes the last in Cromwell's pantheon of remarkable women, brilliantly portrayed under his direction in his three decades at the helm. The film was nominated for Original Screenplay, but Cromwell, despite this being some of his best work, 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 once-thriving directing career sputtered to a halt 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. Ironically, it was only in 1960 that he got his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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 as Mr. Rose in the movie 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 (whose son John is also an actor).

His son James Cromwell remains highly regarded with a long career in television and films, most notably in the endearing film Babe and as the Chief of Police in L.A. Confidential (1997), set in a corrupt 1950's Hollywood that would have been very familiar to his father.


He died at age 91 in Santa Barbara, California. His remains were cremated.


Year Title Credited as
Director Actor Role
1929 The Dummy Yes Walter Babbing
Close Harmony Yes
The Dance of Life Yes Yes Doorkeeper
The Mighty Yes Yes Mr. Jamieson
1930 Street of Chance Yes Yes Imbrie
The Texan Yes
For the Defense Yes Yes Second 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 Yes
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 Yes Yes 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
Watchtower Over Tomorrow 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 Yes Yes Policeman
The Racket Yes
1957 Top Secret Affair Yes General Daniel A. Grimshaw
1958 The Goddess Yes
1959 The Scavengers Yes
1961 A Matter of Morals Yes
1977 3 Women Yes Mr. Rose
1978 A Wedding Yes Bishop Martin


  1. Memo From David O. Selznick, p. 115
  2. Selznick bu Bob Thomas, Pocket Books, NY (1972( p. 115-116
  3. "Victory Reviews & Ratings - IMDb". IMDb.
  4. "So Ends Our Night" movie review, The New York Times, Feb. 28, 1941
  5. Robert E. Sherwood - the playwright in Peace and War, by Harriet Alonso, U. of Mass. Press, 2007, pp. 301-308
  6. "John Cromwell - Director - Films as Director:, Other Films:, Publications".
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