Issues with our government have prevailed from the time we first HAD a government. This post first ran in 2016.
Some critics—predictably—knocked the 2015 biographical drama, Trumbo, for its “historical inaccuracies.” Still, this excellent film, starring Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo and Helen Mirren as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, served to open the eyes of many who might otherwise not have been aware of the dark period in the 1940s and ’50s known as the Hollywood Blacklist.
FROM WRAPPING BREAD TO EARNING BREAD
Those of us who call ourselves writers can doubtless relate to Dalton Trumbo’s early years. He spent nearly a decade wrapping bread at a bakery in L.A. while trying to get his writing published. During that time he wrote dozens of short stories and six novels, all of which earned him a tall stack of rejection slips.
Things picked up for Trumbo in the 1930s, when some of his stories were published in a number of prestigious magazines, including McCall’s and the Saturday Evening Post. He also saw a novel titled Eclipse published in 1935. In 1939 another novel, Johnny Got His Gun—an anti-war story—won a National Book Award. By then, Trumbo had already launched his screenwriting career, and from the late 1930s through the mid-1940s he became one the highest-earning writers in Hollywood. His credits included Kitty Foyle (1940), for which he received an Academy Award nomination, and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944).
As you all know, we writers are a totally sane lot, with no quirks or hang-ups of which to speak. (If you believe that, I have multiple bridges in New York City that I can sell you cheap.) One of Dalton Trumbo’s memorable quirks was doing some of his best work while in the bathtub. Bryan Cranston appeared to enjoy duplicating this scene in the film.
THE “RED MENACE” REARS ITS HEAD
In the 1940s Trumbo, his wife Cleo (Diane Lane in the film), and their three children lived comfortably on a sprawling ranch outside of L.A. Although he showed an interest in the Communist Party of the U.S., he did not actually join till 1943. By that time many people in the film industry belonged to the party. Some of their gatherings were held at the home of renowned actor Edward G. Robinson, who later on would pay the price by not being able to find work. He would eventually testify a number of times before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that he had been duped into supporting the party, but unlike his portrayal in the film he did not name Dalton Trumbo, or anyone else, as a communist.
By 1946 the threat of communism—dubbed the “Red Menace” in the media—became a grave concern in America. That year, The Hollywood Reporter published an article naming Trumbo and other screenwriters as Communist sympathizers. HUAC caught wind of this and, fearing that these writers were slipping subliminal communist propaganda into their screenplays, they ordered Trumbo and nine of his colleagues to testify in Washington, DC. The “Hollywood Ten,” as they were called, appeared before HUAC in 1947 and refused to cooperate. All were convicted for contempt of Congress. (Many years later Trumbo would say, “I had contempt for that Congress, and have had contempt for several since.”) An appeal to the Supreme Court failed, and in 1950 the Hollywood Ten served nearly a year in federal prison. Trumbo did his time in Ashland, KY.
THE HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST
By the time Trumbo got back to California the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) had issued a statement saying that no one in the film industry would be allowed to work unless they disavowed Communism under oath. The blacklist was strongly supported by Hedda Hopper, whose columns reached tens of millions of readers, and by arguably America’s most popular actor at the time, John Wayne.
Already hurting financially, Trumbo sold the ranch and moved his family to Mexico City. (In the film they moved into a small house in suburban L.A. This was likely a device to show how ordinary Americans—his neighbors—held him in contempt for his Communist leanings.) He had already written a screenplay for what would become the award-winning film, Roman Holiday, but knowing that he could not sell it under his name he gave it to a colleague, Ian McClellan Hunter, for a share of the money. In 1953 Hunter would be given the Academy Award for Best Story. (Trumbo received the award posthumously in 1993.)
During the 1950s Dalton Trumbo would write nearly three dozen screenplays using various pseudonyms for small studios that produced shlock “B” movies. Many of them were done by King Brothers Productions. One in particular, however, stood out. Trumbo’s script for The Brave One (1956), about a boy trying to save his pet bull from having to fight in the bullring, won the Academy Award for Best Story. The pseudonym, “Robert Rich,” led to speculation that Trumbo was the writer, until the producer announced that Robert Rich was his nephew. In 1975 the Academy acknowledged Dalton Trumbo as the winner for The Brave One and presented him the statuette with his own name on it.
BIG NAMES RESURRECT HIS CAREER—AND LIFE
The end of the blacklist, according to many, came about in 1960. Famed director Otto Preminger approached Trumbo and asked him to write the screenplay for Exodus, based on the bestselling novel by Leon Uris. Despite his reputation as being difficult to get along with, Preminger loved Trumbo’s work on the script and announced that he would receive full screen credit.
At the same time, popular actor Kirk Douglas asked Trumbo to script his latest epic, Spartacus, to be directed by Stanley Kubrick. Originally he was to write it under the pseudonym of “Sam Jackson,” but Douglas insisted that he be given full screen credit. By this time much of Hollywood suspected that Trumbo was ghosting scripts. Still, until Douglas left a pass for him at the Universal Studios gate, it had been a decade since Trumbo had set foot on a movie lot. He thanked Kirk Douglas profusely for giving him back his name.
If the support of these film industry giants wasn’t enough, Trumbo received further validation from the newly elected president, John F. Kennedy. Bucking protests from the American Legion, and vitriol from Hedda Hopper (“…the script was written by a commie, so don’t go see it”), JFK viewed Spartacus and gave it a big thumbs-up. Trumbo never used a pseudonym again. The Hollywood Blacklist had run its course.
Dalton Trumbo died in Los Angeles in 1976 at the age of seventy. His wife, Cleo, died in 2009. She was ninety-three.
Fine actor Bryan Cranston did an excellent job of portraying this complex man in Trumbo, for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Sadly, not too many people saw this fine film. It is highly recommended.