Dalton Trumbo: Who He Was And Why We Should Care
If you have even a passing knowledge of cinema history, you know about the Hollywood Ten—a group of creatives who refused to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (or HUAC, an organization lead by J. Parnell Thomas) against fellow members of the Communist Party. The ten were subsequently blacklisted and barred from working on motion pictures, as well as imprisoned for one year for contempt of court. They were Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samual Ornitz, Adrian Scott and Dalton Trumbo, and they were only the first to go before this very, public metaphorical firing squad.
From a History.com article:
These men...not only refused to cooperate with the investigation but denounced the HUAC anti-communist hearings as an outrageous violation of their civil rights, as the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave them the right to belong to any political organization they chose. Some compared the committee's coercive methods and intimidating tactics to the oppressive measures enacted in Nazi Germany.
Of all the original ten, as well as subsequent blacklisted individuals, Dalton Trumbo is arguably the face of these Hollywood "witch hunts." There are numerous biographies about the man, including a much-lauded one by Bruce Cook; a documentary from director Peter Askin featuring big names like Donald Sutherland, Joan Allen, Michael Douglas, Nathan Lane and Paul Giamatti, just to name a few; and opening November 6th, a new biopic starring Bryan Cranston as the titular protagonist, directed by Jay Roach and adapted by John McNamara from the aforementioned Cook biography.
But why does Trumbo receive so much attention? After all, among the original Hollywood Ten, nine were writers (Edward Dmytryk was a director, who also famously recanted his support of the ten and cooperated with the committee). Furthermore, numerous other writers would find themselves blacklisted in subsequent years, including novelist Dashiell Hammett and screenwriter and playwright Lillian Helman, as well as those named in the right wing pamphlet Red Channels, a publication not connected to the HUAC, and not nearly as damning, but still disastrous for several careers. So then, why, among all those destroyed by Parnell, the HUAC and the Hollywood studios, is Trumbo the most remembered and celebrated?
I think there are three elements that sufficiently answer this question—Talent, Ideology, and Success. Combined, these ingredients create the perfect recipe for Trumbo's long-lasting fame (or perhaps even infamy).
In the aforementioned documentary Trumbo (2007), actor Kirk Douglas stated,
Everybody wanted to use the name of Dalton Trumbo. He probably was the best writer at that time.
Make no mistake: Douglas is referring to Trumbo prior to the blacklisting, so this isn't a situation where a person's artistic merits are inflated due to a civil injustice. By the time he arrived in Hollywood, Trumbo had already written a novel, Johnny Got His Gun, which won an early National Book Award—Most Original Book of 1939. Within the movie studios, he quickly rose from the ranks of script reader to writer during the thirties and forties. As Douglas indicated above, the studio heads kept assigning him projects because he was simply one of the best. Before being blacklisted, Trumbo had eighteen full-length screenplays under his belt, as well as numerous story and dialogue credits. He received his first Oscar nomination for Kitty Foyle in 1940, which features this hilarious (and bitingly blasphemous) exchange:
Tom: From now on, you're going to Sunday School every Sunday. Rain or shine, you're going.
Kitty: But why, pop?
Tom: Well, it'll be giving you a little Christian upbringing. A sense of values.
Kitty: Oh. And then you mean I won't ever sin or anything.
Tom: Well, it might not keep you from sinning, but by Judas Priest, it'll keep you from getting any fun out of it.
Following the HUAC proceedings, Trumbo was pseudonymously responsible for the noir classic Gun Crazy, the romantic comedy Roman Holiday (which he co-wrote with his friend Ian McLellan Hunter), the western The Brave One (which won an Academy Award for best Original Screenplay in 1957, the award going to one of Trumbo's nom de plumes, Robert Rich), and a slew of other titles. It would not be until 1960 with the near-simultaneous releases of Exodus and Spartacus—both considered classics—that Trumbo would finally see his name credited on the screen again, courtesy of Exodus director Otto Preminger and Spartacus actor/producer Kirk Douglas, who each publicly announced Trumbo's involvement and denounced the blacklist.
For more examples of Trumbo's talents, look no further than his letters. In the clip below, Paul Giamatti recites Trumbo's correspondence to the telephone company (from Trumbo, aired as part of PBS's American Masters series).
And, from the same documentary, witness Trumbo's letter to his son on the subject of masturbation, as read by Nathan Lane. All the proof of his wit and writerly prowess lie in these words.
It should be clear that the man could write, and that Trumbo was deserving of credit for his work. That he was denied this at all is an injustice all its own. The fact that this injustice was implemented based on the man's ideological principals is all the more damning. But the real salt to the wound, in my opinion, is that while Trumbo was persecuted for being a member of the Communist Party, in reality his personal politics were far more aligned with populism and humanism, and were firmly rooted in good old fashioned democracy. Walter Bernstein (writer of The Magnificent Seven and The Front), states in Trumbo:
The irony, to me, of all these 'radical communist writers'...was that, what they were trying to do, really, was to be good liberals.
Trumbo's son Christopher echoes this sentiment, elaborating on his father's actual system of beliefs:
Very much what my father took to be his policies was the Constitution of the United States and the first Ten Amendments. That for him outlined a reasonable way that human beings could live within a society, that it guaranteed the individual specific rights and that it limited the rights of the state, it limited the influence of religion, and that very much was his idea about what the West was. It was an open place...
Trumbo stated in interviews that the reason he joined the Communist Party was because they were the only organization who seemed interested in action, in "doing something," as he put it. According to Tom Stempel in his book Framework: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film:
Part of the appeal of the Communist Party in the thirties was its promise to change the system...
On the international scene, there was the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany, which in the isolationist early thirties in America, only the Communists seemed to be protesting against...On the national scene the Communist Party's support of progressive causes, such as union organizing and equal justice for minorities, attracted those who wanted to find an outlet for their social activism.
Trumbo joined in 1943 in part because the party maintained a pro-peace platform, and as his novel Johnny Got His Gun all but spells out, the writer was staunchly anti-war.
So, here we have a man who joined ranks with a political party because at the time said organization offered, ideologically speaking, the best chance of making real strides in helping those in need, in raising awareness against the rise of fascism, and in advocating peace over war—tenets that have much in common with what today we would call, generally, liberalism, perhaps even socialism, but likely not Communism.
The famous question asked by the HUAC was "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" And while Trumbo refused to answer on the grounds it violated his First Amendment rights, had the question been, "Are you now or have you ever been a Communist," I think it's safe to say his answer would have been a solid, "No."
Perhaps the most important aspect of Trumbo's recognition is survival. Of all those blacklisted, his career was the most successful before and after the HUAC had its way with him. He continued working for a decade, using front writers and pseudonyms to disguise his involvement on numerous pictures, and then continued working beyond that too under his true name, having had his credibility (and thus, his credit) restored. While working under the table in this way was not a unique act on Trumbo's part, he is one of the few to survive the 1950s and reemerge with a career he could claim as his own. Ring Lardner Jr. is perhaps the second most successful, having gone on to adapt M.A.S.H. for Robert Altman, while the other original ten found work as journalists, novelists, and playwrights. But as far as work in Hollywood goes, they never really recovered. Stempel writes:
Some blacklisted writers still had difficulties getting credits under their own names, as happened with Michael Wilson on Lawrence of Arabia. Lester Cole wrote the screenplay for producer Carl Foreman for Born Free under the name Gerald L.C. Copley because the studio did not want to put Cole's name on the film...
Some screenwriters of course did not come back...
Perhaps it is this happy ending that makes us uphold Trumbo as a symbol. The Hollywood Ten chose to plead the first, not the fifth. They did not shy away from their political beliefs and they stood their ground. Many of them paid the price for this act of "defiance," as it was deemed by the HUAC, but Trumbo came out on top. He was the hero. He received Academy Awards and recognition for his past contributions, to the protest of no one (while Elia Kazan, who chose to name names rather than lose his livelihood, received a lifetime achievement Oscar to widespread uproar). Trumbo is proof that sticking to your guns can pay off, and this narrative arc is certainly more appealing than "sticking to your guns leads to obscurity and death," which is unfortunately true of several of Trumbo's fellow blacklistees.
One Last Question
So why is Trumbo's story relevant today? Simply put, censorship and persecution of those who communicate ideas are ageless issues, and ones we are still dealing with, whether it be in comparatively innocuous forms such as school's banning books (which we yearly combat with Banned Books Week), or in the extreme, which we witnessed with the spate of journalist beheadings by ISIS and the Charlie Hebdo massacre. At the same time, we do seem to be living in an age where just about any ridiculous idea can be put forth to a large forum without fear of reprisal. For better or worse, we have the internet to thank for that. But remembering the Hollywood Ten and knowing the story of one man who suffered but ultimately survived this decidedly un-American act against his name and career, we can at least (hopefully) ensure that something of this nature does not happen again, that writers will always be free to state their ideas openly, and that all citizens enjoy the right to free speech and general assembly.
As Trumbo himself warned:
Wherever there's fear, there's hysteria; and wherever there are people who whip up fear for their own purposes, they will produce the hysteria...And they will try to do it again.
Let us know what you think about Trumbo, the Hollywood blacklist, and censorship issues in general.
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