Dalton Trumbo is not a household name today, but he was one of the most influential screenwriters in the old Hollywood studio system. Many of his films like Roman Holiday and Spartacus are beloved classics, but Trumbo is also a significant figure for his part in the Hollywood blacklist, a period of anti-Communist hysteria that swept through the United States in the 1940’s and 1950’s.
Trumbo, like many Hollywood intellectuals, was targeted for his progressive politics in an unprecedented purge that saw many actors, directors and writers, lose their livelihoods, their freedom and even their lives. Trumbo’s refusal to cooperate with a Congressional investigation into alleged Communist activity in Hollywood made him a symbol of principled resistance to unjust accusations. Now, his story will be told in a new biopic, Trumbo, starring Bryan Cranston and directed by Jay Roach that will be released on Nov. 6 in the United States.
Who Was Dalton Trumbo?
Dalton Trumbo was born Dec. 9, 1905, in Montrose, Colorado. He decided to become a writer at a young age, and he worked his way through the University of Southern California by working the night shift at a local bakery. He wrote several short stories and three novels, one of which won a National Book Award, before trying his hand at screenwriting. Trumbo soon established himself as one of the best writers in Hollywood, churning out screenplays for popular films like Kitty Foyle and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. Trumbo married his wife, Cleo (played by Diane Lane in Roach’s film) in 1938, and they had three children (Trumbo’s eldest daughter is portrayed by Elle Fanning in the movie).
Trumbo’s comfortable life was shattered when he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, in 1947. HUAC began in the 1930’s as a way to monitor Nazi sympathizers in the US, but, after World War II, America’s new enemy was the Soviet Union, so, goaded on by publicity hungry congressmen like Richard Nixon, HUAC decided to investigate alleged Communist activity in Hollywood. At first, the committee only called friendly witnesses like Ronald Reagan and Walt Disney, but, soon they expanded their focus to include Hollywood liberals who were thought to have Communist sympathies.
Trumbo, like many intellectuals during the Great Depression, did join the American Communist Party for a period of time, but the independent and stubborn screenwriter believed it was a violation of his Constitutional rights to share personal beliefs with HUAC, and — what was much more important to the publicity hungry committee — he and nine other men who became collectively known as the Hollywood 10 refused to “name names” of friends and colleagues with Communist ties. Trumbo was convicted of contempt of Congress, and he was fined $1,000 and served a ten month prison term at the federal penitentiary in Ashland, Kentucky.
Even more devastating than losing his freedom, Trumbo lost his career. No Hollywood studio would hire the Hollywood 10 so Trumbo was forced to go underground as a screenwriter. He wrote several movies under assumed names; in fact, he won two Oscars during this time period that he didn’t dare to show up and collect. The movie Trumbo tells the story of this period in his life and how he made his comeback with the help of Kirk Douglas. (While Trumbo has not been released in the US, the early reviews from film festivals are mixed. Some I read declared the movie a masterpiece, while others labeled it emotionally manipulative Oscar bait, although every review praised Cranston‘s strong performance.)
Why Is Trumbo Relevant Today?
Trumbo is part of a series of recent movies that re-examine US actions during the Cold War. While director Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies deals with international diplomacy, Trumbo tells the story of how Americans can turn on a group of their own citizens in times of uncertainty. The fear of Communism largely came and went with the Soviet Union, but today, Americans face new threats that are perhaps even more frightening than the specter of Soviet domination, and some public figures have reacted by finding new “enemies from within” that are deemed unsafe to the American way of life. Some American citizens are greeted with fear because of their religious beliefs or their ethnicity, and plans to deny them basic human rights, deport them and even revoke their citizenship are publicly discussed in some quarters.
These proposals are as antithetical today to American democracy as the blacklist was in 1947, and there is a good reason to hope that the forces of reason will outnumber those of fear, just as they eventually did during the blacklist. Even so, the taint of the blacklist ruined many lives and careers and sent some of those implicated into an early grave (the wonderful actor John Garfield died of a heart attack at age 39 that many believe was do to with hounding by HUAC to “name names”).
Others, like Trumbo, lived to tell the tale. He re-established himself as a successful screenwriter and he even directed a movie based on his novel, Johnny Got His Gun. It’s impossible to tell how Trumbo would have reacted to this movie, but, for his own part, Trumbo never thought of himself as a crusading hero for truth, justice, and the American way. The blacklist, like all evil things, tainted everyone who was caught within its grasp, Trumbo said during an acceptance speech for a lifetime achievement award from The Writer’s Guild of America.
“The blacklist was a time of evil, and no one on either side who survived it came through untouched by evil,” he said. “Caught in a situation that had passed beyond the control of mere individuals, each person reacted as his nature, his needs, his convictions, and his particular circumstances compelled him to . . . It will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims.”
If you’ve seen Trumbo, what’s your take on the movie? Do you think artists and movie makers are still persecuted for having political beliefs that are controversial or unpopular?
Trumbo will out in the US on Nov. 6 & in the UK Feb. 5 next year. For the release dates in your country follow the link here.
(top image source: unknown)
Does content like this matter to you?
Become a Member and support film journalism. Unlock access to all of Film Inquiry`s great articles. Join a community of like-minded readers who are passionate about cinema - get access to our private members Network, give back to independent filmmakers, and more.
Amanda Garrett is a freelance writer with a passion for classic films. You can catch her writing reviews and features at Film Inquiry or at her website, Old Hollywood Films.