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Trumbo: Lessons from the Blacklist

Ron Briley: Trumbo is not a traditional Hollywood biographical feature as it concentrates almost exclusively upon Dalton Trumbo’s reaction to the investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) into communist subversion within Hollywood and the film industry’s ensuing blacklist.

The new film Trumbo, directed by Jay Roach and featuring Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame in the title role of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, offers important lessons for contemporary violations of civil liberties fostered by publicity-seeking politicians and the media playing upon fear and insecurity. The filmmakers are be congratulated for acknowledging that Trumbo and many of his associates were, indeed, members of the Communist Party that had assumed a leading role in challenging racism and fascism during the depression and World War II. The emergence of the Cold War and the discovery of Soviet spies in the United States led to a changed atmosphere in the late 1940s and early 1950s as communists were perceived by many Americans as disloyal and agents of a foreign government.

Trumbo

Trumbo is not a traditional Hollywood biographical feature as it concentrates almost exclusively upon Trumbo’s reaction to the investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) into communist subversion within Hollywood and the film industry’s ensuing blacklist.

Trumbo is not a traditional Hollywood biographical feature as it concentrates almost exclusively upon Trumbo’s reaction to the investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) into communist subversion within Hollywood and the film industry’s ensuing blacklist. Trumbo’s biographer Larry Ceplair states that the screenwriter was a member of the Communist Party from 1943 to 1948 and rejoined for a short time in 1956. Thus, Trumbo does not avoid the communist issue as did the 1991 film Guilty by Suspicion, featuring Robert De Niro, with accusations of communism a case of mistaken identity or guilt by association.

Ceplair insists that while Trumbo was no doctrinaire Marxist, he was drawn to the party’s anti-fascist stance. And the screenwriter consistently maintained that his political views and associations were none of the government’s business. This was Trumbo’s position when he was called before HUAC and refused to answer any questions regarding his membership in the Communist Party. For this refusal to cooperate with HUAC, Trumbo and the other members of the Hollywood Ten were found guilty of Contempt of Congress and sentenced to a year in prison.

Following their imprisonment, the Hollywood Ten were subject to the industry blacklist and could not find employment in the film capital. Hollywood liberals, who initially seemed to support the Ten, deserted them; intimidated by HUAC and the studios. In his 1949 pamphlet The Time of the Toad, Trumbo, however, argued that if liberals really wanted to defend the Constitution, it would be necessary to protect freedom of speech for all Americans, including communists.

The film, nevertheless, introduces a degree of ambiguity with Trumbo’s political views. The scriptwriter is presented as instinctively drawn to the basic principles of communism, yet Trumbo also enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle with his friends and family in their ranch home. In fact, Trumbo is sometimes presented as more upset over the economic ramifications rather than the free speech aspects of the blacklist. In the film, this inconsistency is addressed through Trumbo’s more idealistic friend and fellow writer Arlen Hird, played by comedian Louis C. K.

Hird, unlike most of the figures in the film, is a composite character seemingly based upon the six members of the Hollywood Ten who were Jewish. Critical of Trumbo for compromising his artistic integrity, Hird is a voice for using the written word to bring about change in society and not simply to earn a living. Hird also seems to represent those blacklisted who suffered so much from the Hollywood inquisition with broken marriages, destroyed careers, and early deaths—sometimes through suicides. His wife leaves Hird, and he is diagnosed with lung cancer. Trumbo helps to pay his hospital bills, and he is one of the few mourners at Hird’s funeral.

Trumbo took a different approach to the blacklist; continuing to write screenplays by employing aliases and other writers as fronts for his work. He was not above writing material for the King brothers (John Goodman and Stephen Root), who produced low-budget pictures and did not really worry about the politics of the major studios. The King brothers did not pay well, preferring quantity over quality, and Trumbo assembled a stable of blacklisted writers to maintain product.

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Working constantly, Trumbo was often guilty of ignoring his family. Two of Trumbo’s scripts, Roman Holiday (1953) and The Brave One (1956) won Oscars, but he was unable to accept the awards due to the blacklist. Trumbo’s authorship, however, was hardly a secret in Hollywood circles; leading Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) and Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Garman) to give Trumbo screen credit for Exodus (1960) and Spartacus (1960). These screen credits certainly broke the blacklist for Trumbo, but the film is a little disingenuous as the boycott of less gifted and opportunistic writers, directors, and actors persisted into the 1960s.

The major villain of the film is gossip columnist and former actress Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), who exercised considerable influence within the film industry through her syndicated columns. Hopper was a prominent figure within the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals; the organization that invited HUAC to Hollywood and included such industry figures as Walt Disney (not pictured in the film), director Sam Wood (John Getz), and John Wayne (David James Elliott).

In her crusade to destroy any vestige of communism within the film capital, Hopper even intimidates Wayne and reactionary studio had Louis B. Mayer (Richard Partnow). When Mayer tries to explain that contractual obligations made it difficult for him to fire studio employees whose politics are questioned, Hopper retorts by calling him a “Kike” and suggesting that she could use her persuasive powers to stir up anti-Semitism against the Jewish studio heads. The film demonstrates a degree of compassion for the MGM executive which Mayer did not extend to Upton Sinclair when the producer manipulated the media to destroy the novelist’s 1936 campaign for Governor of California.

The head of HUAC, Congressman J. Parnell Thomas of New Jersey, is given far less attention, although the film does point out that Thomas ended up in prison on corruption charges. Nevertheless, by reducing the blacklist to the efforts of one powerful woman, there is a tendency to negate the extent to which the blacklist was an effort by government, industry, and media to deny fundamental American rights to citizens during a time of fear and crisis.

The film concludes in 1970 with Trumbo’s acceptance speech for the Laurel Award bestowed by the Writers Guild of America. Trumbo angered some of his colleagues on the left when he struck a note of reconciliation by suggesting that both informers and the blacklisted were victims of the anticommunist crusade that possessed America during the 1950s. Here the film attempts to provide a degree of understanding for figures such as actor Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), who was generous in his support of antifascist groups later named communist front organizations by the government. Robinson was unable to find work, and, as he pointed out to Trumbo, it was impossible for an actor to use a front. Accordingly, Robinson cooperated with HUAC, legitimizing the activities of the committee.

There, indeed, was Soviet espionage in the United States, but Hollywood communists were hardly the equivalent of spies or agents for the Soviet Union. In fact, HUAC was far more of a threat to American freedoms than the Communist Party of the United States. HUAC attempted to prove that screenwriters were placing communist propaganda in Hollywood pictures. The writers, however, hardly controlled the collaborative studio filmmaking process which was more akin to a factory system.

Leftist writers were sometimes thrilled to earn a small victory such as making the villain of the picture a corrupt businessman. In addition to control by the studios, the Production Code exerted considerable influence over film context. Despite the limited impact of the Hollywood left, the blacklist destroyed lives and career. This fear of communism and the scourge of McCarthyism was hardly limited to the film industry as government employees, teachers, and college professors were forced to sign loyalty oaths or lose their jobs. Reforms were limited and rolled back as labor leaders,, feminists, and civil rights advocates were often denounced as communists.

The anticommunist crusade led the United States to support dictatorships and encourage military coups around the world. Trumbo reminds us of this troubling legacy from the Hollywood blacklist and Second Red Scare which Americans do not want to repeat in response to contemporary fears and insecurities.

ron briley

Ron Briley