Dalton Trumbo, the “Spartacus” screenwriter who broke the blacklist

Dalton Trumbo, the jailed Hollywood Ten screenwriter who broke the Hollywood Blacklist, is making a comeback. He’s depicted by “Breaking Bad’s” Emmy and Golden Globe winner Bryan Cranston in the superb biopic Trumbo censorship message remains relevant, considering current efforts by police and rightwing media to intimidate and boycott director Quentin Tarantino after his criticism of police brutality at a Rise Up October rally in New York.

I saw Trumbo at a Film Independent Forum screening in the Directors Guild of America’s Sunset Blvd. theater. It’s the latest feature about the Hollywood Blacklist and McCarthy era, when Tinseltown talents and others were subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee about “subversion” onscreen and off. If witnesses were “unfriendly” and refused to “cooperate” by informing on their own political activities and those of others, they were banned from the motion picture industry. In the case of 1947’s Hollywood Ten, Trumbo and other leftists were fined for contempt of Congress and imprisoned.

HUAC/McCarthyism movies include Charlie Chaplin’s 1957 A King in New York, 1973’s The Way We Were with Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford, 1976’s The Front with Woody Allen, 1991’s Guilty by Suspicion with Robert De Niro, 2000’s One of the Hollywood Ten, 2001’s The Majestic with Jim Carrey, and George Clooney’s 2005 Good Night, and Good Luck.

Well directed by Jay Roach, Trumbo is arguably the best of the bunch. In addition to Cranston, it boasts a stellar cast: Helen Mirren portrays gossip columnist/witch-hunter Hedda Hopper, comic Louis C.K. plays another blacklisted scribe, Diane Lane is wife Cleo Trumbo, Elle Fanning is daughter Nikola Trumbo, John Goodman is producer Frank King, Michael Stuhlbarg is Edward G. Robinson, and David James Elliott is Cold Warrior John Wayne (who actually starred in this genre’s first HUAC/McCarthyism feature, 1952’s reds-under-the-beds Big Jim McLain).

After the Film Independent Forum screening, on the DGA stage, Jay Roach – who’d helmed HBO’s 2012 Game Change with Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin and 2008’s Gore vs. Bush Re count – said Trumbo “was theatrical. He cared about communicating ideas…. He was a humanist and earthy person; although wealthy, he was committed to social justice…. He showed the Blacklist’s absurdity by writing – using his superpower,” secretly winning two Oscars, including for 1953’s Roman Holiday – although he didn’t receive screen credit until, as Trumbo dramatizes, Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger bravely used his name on 1960’s Spartacus and Exodus, thus ending the Blacklist.

Roach criticized HUAC for investigating “Hollywood for sending secret codes through films…to hypnotize Americans through movies.” Despite years of Congressional hearings and millions of taxpayer dollars, HUAC “couldn’t prove [Hollywood was] subversive.” Roach compared HUAC to the House Select Committee that grilled Hillary Clinton shortly before Trumbo‘s premiere, quipping it gave the movie a PR bonanza and “a Benghazi bump.”

There were several Trumbo scenes that troubled me, in particular those depicting the impact the period’s repression had on the screenwriter’s son, the late Christopher Trumbo (portrayed as a boy by Toby Nichols and a teenager by Mattie Liptak), who wrote the 2003 off-Broadway play Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted, the basis of 2007’s documentary Trumbo, and who co-wrote with historian Larry Ceplair 2015’s Dalton Trumbo, Blacklisted Hollywood Radical (University Press of Kentucky).

These sequences especially disturbed me because I knew Christopher. We became acquainted through my writing about the Hollywood inquisition, a subject interesting to me because I was named after legendary CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, due to his televised exposés of Joe McCarthy. My first major Blacklist piece was published in “The Finger” column of New Times L.A. and I devoted part of my 2005 book Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States (Disinformation Company) to the topic. More recently, I initiated the special 46-page Blacklist section of the Sept./Oct. 2015 issue of the Writers Guild of America’s Written By magazine (Trumbo edited its precursor), which contains two of my articles and a cover story about Trumbo and its screenwriter John McNamara by Louise Farr.

In Trumbo‘s stirring conclusion, Cranston poignantly delivers the magnanimous 1970 speech the vindicated Trumbo made upon receiving the Writers Guild’s prestigious lifetime achievement Laurel Award: “[T]he Blacklist was a time of evil…. When you…look back with curiosity on that dark time, as I think occasionally you should, it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims.”

In 2004, Christopher was talking with ex-Screen Actors Guild President Ed Asner (who knows a thing or two about paying career consequences for political convictions) in the lobby of the Guild’s Beverly Hills theater at the memorial service for Bobby Lees, blacklisted screenwriter of 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. I told Christopher: “I disagreed with your father. When Dalton said the Blacklist had no ‘villains or heroes’ he was wrong. All your father had to do was name names and inform on others and he could have kept on working in Hollywood” as, reputedly, moviedom’s highest paid screenwriter.

“But instead, your father stuck to his principles,” I added. “For doing that, Dalton and all of the others who refused to be informers were true heroes.”

Christopher looked at me: “It’s okay to disagree with my dad. Lots of people did,” he replied, smiling wryly.

Trumbo http://www.bleeckerstreetmedia.com/trumbo

Director: Jay Roach

Writers: John McNamara, Bruce Cook (book)

Stars: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren

124 min. Rated R

Photo: Trumbo, Facebook


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.