Surviving the Blacklist: Trumbo

By Pamela Zoslov

This fall, Hollywood is offering a crash course in modern sociopolitical history. The curriculum includes the women’s suffrage movement in England (Suffragette), American tinkering with overseas elections (Our Brand Is Crisis), the human cost of techno-capitalism (Steve Jobs), press coverage of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal (Spotlight) and the Bush-Kerry election (Truth), and the story of embattled whistleblower Edward Snowden (the forthcoming Snowden).

Trumbo image

But for pure entertainment value, it will be hard to surpass Trumbo, the zesty dramatization of the struggles of celebrated Hollywood screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo, who was imprisoned and blacklisted for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947. While blacklisted, Trumbo, who had been one of Hollywood’s highest-paid writers, won two Academy Awards for screenplays written under other names.

The movie is a wonder. It avoids, for the most part, extreme caricature; it’s relatively accurate historically; and it was directed by Jay Roach, previously known for broad comedies (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents, ). Who knew Roach had this in him? Same goes for screenwriter John McNamara, who adapted Bruce Cook’s book, Trumbo. McNamara is a prolific TV writer (Lois & Clark, The Adventures of Briscoe County Jr.).

Granted, there are some broad bits, and some characterizations are a little over the top — I’m thinking of Helen Mirren’s caustic and imperious Hedda Hopper, the gossip columnist, calling Louis B. Mayer a “kike” — but oh, it’s so enjoyable. We even get John Goodman as Frank King, head of the King Brothers B-movie studio, wielding a baseball bat at a government official who presumes to threaten him. (Point of trivia: this is the third time Goodman has played the head of a sleazy movie studio.) This film is that rarest of all phenomena — a Hollywood treatment of historic events, and of Hollywood, that works fairly well on all levels — writing, acting, editing, design, music. It has the verve of a Coen Brothers romp, but without the sardonicism.

The sun around which the movie’s planets spin is Bryan Cranston, the Breaking Bad star. The craggy-faced Cranston plays Trumbo with a heartiness befitting its subject, even if his vocal style sounds a little more Clark Gable than Dalton Trumbo. This is an energetic, full-throated performance certain to be nominated for all the awards.

I have a special feeling for the history of the Hollywod 10, the blacklisted writers and directors and producers who went to federal prison in 1950 — for terms of five months to a year — because they refused to answer HUAC’s questions about their Communist Party affiliation, or to “name names” of colleagues who were Party members. The first movie review I ever wrote, as a high-school sophomore in Mrs. Tappenden’s journalism class, was of The Front, the formerly blacklisted Martin Ritt’s film about a restaurant cashier (Woody Allen) who acts as a “front” for a blacklisted writer. I had only the dimmest understanding of McCarthyism at the time, and complained in my review — banged out on a portable Smith-Corona —  that the movie didn’t spell it out for 15-year-old me. Years later I was captivated by the memoir of screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr., I’d Hate Myself in the Morning. Lardner, son of the famous humorist, had won an Academy Award for Woman of the Year, and was an outspoken witness when questioned by HUAC chairman J. Parnell Thomas.

Are you now or have you ever been a Communist?” Thomas demanded. “It is a very simple question. Anybody would be proud to answer it — any real American would be proud to answer the question.”

I could answer the question exactly the way you want,” Lardner replied sardonically. “But if I did, I would hate myself in the morning.” He was removed from the witness stand and later sentenced to a year in prison. (The other members of the Ten, in addition to Trumbo and Lardner, were Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, John Howard Lawsom, Herbert Biberman, Adrian Scott, Lester Cole, Alvah Bessie and director Edward Dmytryk, who later did “name names.”)

Lardner is, I believe, one inspiration for the movie’s fictional Arlen Hird, played by comedian Louis C.K. Hird is both friend and foil to Trumbo, challenging him on the contrast between his fiery rhetoric and his comfortable lifestyle. “You talk like a radical, but you live like a rich guy.” says Hird, and it’s true; in the 1940s, Trumbo made as much as $80,000 a year writing screenplays for such films as Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Our Vines Have Tender Grapes and Kitty Foyle, and we see him and his wife, Cleo and their children enjoying their California ranch and other luxuries. In the movie it’s Hird who, while suffering from terminal lung cancer, delivers the sharp riposte before the Committee. He would answer the question, he says, “but first I would have to surgically remove my conscience.”

In the ’30s, when Trumbo, along with many other writers and intellectuals, aligned himself the American Communist Party, it was the sole group opposing the rise of Nazism and Fascism in Europe, and was not illegal. His views were strongly anti-interventionist, his opposition to war reflected in his famous 1938 novel Johnny Got His Gun, told from the point of view of a wounded World War I soldier who has lost all but the ability to think and remember, and yearn for death.

By 1947, Russia, once an ally, was the enemy, and Cold War hysteria cranked up in earnest. HUAC, using a list of suspected Communists that appeared in in The Hollywood Reporter, began subpoenaing film-industry people to testify about “subversives” planting Communist propaganda in movies. Some, like director Elia Kazan, actor Robert Taylor and writer Clifford Odets, did testify and provide names of Communist party members. The fact that the inquiry violated the First Amendment was apparently not an issue for the Committee, the Supreme Court failed to intervene.

Trumbo portrays this history with a mix of new and archival material — photographs, radio broadcasts and newsreel footage, with actors playing the Hollywood celebrities inserted with surprising grace. I can’t remember seeing a movie about old Hollywood in which the actors playing the movie stars didn’t seem like Warner Bros. cartoons. David James Elliot plays John Wayne, a chief antagonist of the suspected “subversives” in a way that captures “the Duke” and his diehard pro-Americanism without caricature. “I like Hollywood, but I love America,” he says in a speech.

Michael Stuhlbarg also avoids caricature as Edward G. Robinson, a friend to the Hollywood 10 until it hurt his career to continue supporting them. Dean O’Gorman’s portrayal of Kirk Douglas, who helped break the blacklist in 1960 by revealing that Trumbo wrote Spartacus — edges on parody, but the resemblance is remarkable. (Trumbo’s family disputes Douglas’ boasts that he “broke” the blacklist; they credit Otto Preminger, who hired Trumbo and and credited him for Exodus. Preminger is amusingly portrayed in the film by Christian Berkel.) Helen Mirren’s aforementioned Hedda Hopper is a hoot in her wild hats, denouncing and threatening the leftists, sidling up to Trumbo in a bar, coaxing him to name a film he’s written under a pseudonym. The characterization is wildly entertaining, and, if Hopper were alive, probably actionable.

We see Trumbo subpoenaed by HUAC and answering the question about his party membership: “Some questions can only be answered yes or no by a slave or a moron.” He gets a year’s sentence for contempt of Congress, and suffers strip searches and other indignities of prison. After serving 11 months, he is unable to get anyone to hire him. He starts cranking out pseudonymous scripts, enlisting his wife and children in an assembly-line process. Chain-smoking, guzzling scotch and cutting and pasting scripts in the bathtub (based on a famous photo of Trumbo), he works incessantly, often negelecting his family and arguing with his lovely and patient wife, Cleo (Diane Lane). The family watches on television as the Academy Award for Trumbo’s script for The Brave One is awarded to “Robert Rich.”

Dalton Trumbo died of heart failure on September 10, 1976, but not before he had received credit for his screenplays (credit for Roman Holiday was awarded posthumously, in 2011). He said, “The blacklist has done more to make my work known than any work I have ever done.” He further reflected on the blacklist in 1970, saying that there was ample blame to go around. “There was bad faith and good, honesty and dishonesty, courage and cowardice, selflessness and opportunism, wisdom and stupidity, good and bad on both sides; and almost every individual involved, no matter where he stood, combined some or all of these antithetical qualities in his own person, in his own acts.” Grade: A

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