Jefferson Hendricks: The importance of Trumbo

Trumbo arrives at the RFC this week, a film that presents a darkly-comic view of one of the least-comic periods in American history, the McCarthy era of the 1940s and 50s.  Trumbo covers several years in the life of Dalton Trumbo, an award-winning, highly-respected Hollywood screenwriter who was blacklisted from the movie industry for over a decade after running afoul of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) for his left-of-center political views. 

But some may wonder: who was the historical Dalton Trumbo? And what was the McCarthy Era and The Blacklist? And why should we care?
Born in 1905 in western Colorado to a working-class family, Trumbo moved to Los Angeles with his parents in 1925.  While a college student he chose writing as a career but juggled several part-time jobs while piling up rejection letters from his short stories and novels.  By the early 1930s, however, he was beginning to be successful, publishing in national magazines such as Vanity Fair and The Saturday Evening Post.  

His big break in Hollywood came in 1935 when he was hired by Warner Brothers studio as a script reader.  Soon, Trumbo was writing his own scripts and he proved to be fast, versatile, and prolific, working successfully in a wide range of genres, from the college romance Sorority House (1939), to the soap-operaish Kitty Foyle (1940) – which was his first Oscar-nominated screenplay, to the patriotic war film Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944). By the late 1940s, when Hollywood was at its height of popularity in American culture, Trumbo was one of its most sought-after – and wealthy – scriptwriters. 

The world of Hollywood began to internally combust, however, in October of 1947, when The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a House of Representatives committee formed in the late 1930s to combat Nazism, came to Hollywood to investigate the influence of Communism in the film industry.  Trumbo, and scores of other Hollywood writers, actors, and producers – from Ronald Reagan and Walt Disney to John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart – were called to testify before the committee, either “to confess” their political beliefs and affiliations or “to name names” of those who were Communists or “fellow travelers.”   

Trumbo, like many American writers and intellectuals shaped by The Great Depression, supported progressive politics during the 1930s and 40s.  He even joined the Communist Party for a while during the 1940s.  During the HUAC hearings in Hollywood, Trumbo became linked with “The Hollywood Ten,” a group who refused to answer questions by the committee, citing their First Amendment rights to privacy, speech, and thought.  

In the anti-communist climate of Cold-War America, where Senator Joseph McCarthy dominated national headlines investigating Communist influence in Washington, the Hollywood Ten was cited for contempt of Congress, and each was fined $1000 and spent from six months to a year in prison. Afterwards, they were all blacklisted, meaning they were denied work by the Hollywood studios not wanting to appear “soft” on leftist politics.  

Several hundred people ended up being blacklisted in the entertainment business during the late 1940s and 50s, with many careers being ruined forever.  Some of the more fortunate ones, like Trumbo, continued to work, though at grossly-reduced salaries, under pseudonyms or were “fronted” (Woody Allen starred in a film about this: The Front, 1976) by other screenwriters.

Trumbo's journey through this tortured era (what writer Stefan Kanfer called “The Plague Years”) is one of the most famous of the Hollywood stories.  He continued to get occasional work – behind the scenes – for example, writing the Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn film Roman Holiday (1953) in which his “front” man won an Academy Award for Screenwriting. And in 1957, Trumbo's screenplay for The Brave Ones, written under the pseudonym “Frank Rich,” won another Oscar.  

The following year, Otto Preminger hired Trumbo to write the Biblical epic Exodus (1960) and Kirk Douglas soon followed by hiring him to write Spartacus (1960).  With the publicity surrounding these two Hollywood blockbusters and Trumbo's name publicly acknowledged, the Blacklist was essentially broken, though the psychic trauma within the Hollywood community has only recently begun to fade.  

So Why See This Film? 
Focusing on Trumbo’s eccentricities (writing his scripts in the bathtub!) – as well as on his superb wit and stubbornness – Bryan Cranston’s performance is the center of the film, a performance that’s receiving a lot of Oscar speculation for Best Actor.  And the supporting cast is filled, too, with wonderful actors:  Helen Mirren, as right-wing gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, and John Goodman, as movie producer Frank King, help re-create a Hollywood amidst a political civil war.

Perhaps, more importantly, though, this film may give us some insight into how to handle our own turbulent times, when the pressure of world events is leading us to judge and exclude others, to essentially “blacklist” them from the possibility of the American Dream.  In a world getting increasingly complicated, remembering our country's history and what we might learn from it, might be a very good thing indeed.  

Jefferson Hendricks is the George A. Wilson Eminent Scholars Endowed Chair of American Literature at Centenary College of Louisiana.  A member of RFC’s Board of Directors, he has published four books on the American poet Edwin Rolfe and his involvement in the cultural politics of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.