'Trumbo' and the Hidden Story of the Red Scare
The post-World War II years could have shaped America into a very different country by building on the foundations the New Deal and moving more along the lines of European allies with publicly financed health care and other social protections.
Instead, reactionary forces that never made peace with President Franklin Roosevelt’s Depression-era reforms generated a new Red Scare, wildly exaggerating the threat from a small number of mild-mannered communists and leftists in Hollywood to steer the nation in a right-wing direction favored by big business.
A new movie, Trumbo, recounts one early chapter in that saga, the persecution of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and other leftists in the movie industry who became known as the Hollywood Ten, subjected to jail and “blacklisting” for their political views.
The film tells Trumbo’s personal story as a victim of ambitious congressmen, a zealous columnist and intimidated movie executives, but also how this talented screenwriter ultimately prevailed with the help of actor Kirk Douglas and a few other Hollywood luminaries who appreciated Trumbo’s skills and saw the blacklisting as a hysterical witch hunt.
But what the movie fails to explain is how the scars from the Red Scare permanently changed America, making it a place of fearful conformity with a relatively narrow band of acceptable political thought. The era killed off a vibrant Left that could have challenged the Right’s hostility to government social programs fulfilling the constitutional mandate to “provide for the … general Welfare.”
Yet, as a tale of one man’s struggle against a fearsome combination of government pressure and industry complicity to control his freedom of thought, Trumbo is a worthy – and even rare – historical drama.
An Exceptional Talent
Dalton Trumbo was one of the most colorful, fascinating and prolific writers that the Hollywood film colony ever produced. Trumbo wrote, or co-wrote, well over 50 produced screenplays. In addition, he wrote numerous plays, novels and non-fiction books. Some of his most famous scripts were A Bill of Divorcement, A Guy Named Joe and Kitty Foyle.
Unfortunately for Trumbo, he was never allowed to walk up on stage to receive an Academy Award. Not because he did not win any. He actually won two: one for The Brave One and one for Roman Holiday. But at the time he won those Oscars — in the 1950s — he was on what became known as the Hollywood blacklist.
This was an unofficial assemblage of the names of persons working in the motion picture industry who were not allowed to be employed by any of the major studios or television networks. Therefore, when Trumbo won those two awards, his Oscars were given to people who either did not actually exist or who worked as a “front” for Trumbo.
A “front” was someone who had an acceptable name to the studios and who was deemed employable. This person did either little or no work on the completed script, but was allowed a percentage of the fees accrued for the screenplay. Trumbo was finally given his Oscar for The Brave One in 1975, the year before he died. It was not until 2011 that his name was restored to prints of Roman Holiday.
Trumbo was born in Colorado in 1905. He began writing in high school for his local newspaper. When he attended college at the University of Colorado, he worked as a reporter for the Boulder Daily Camera. After working for a number of years at a bakery and after years of having his stories and novels rejected, he finally began to have some success when his essays were accepted in some major magazines. He then became a script reader for Warner Brothers.
From about 1937 to 1947, Dalton Trumbo was one of the highest-paid writers in Hollywood. Some sources state that he was the highest paid writer in the film colony. Trumbo had two qualities that producers craved: he was versatile and he was fast. He could write in a variety of film genres, from comedy to fantasy to personal drama to the epic structure. And since he was a workaholic, he could produce completed screenplays and rewrites at a rate that was exceptional.
Actor Kirk Douglas was astonished at how fast Trumbo wrote the script for Spartacus. In Douglas’s book, I am Spartacus, the actor said Trumbo worked at least twice as fast as any writer with whom he worked. Those qualities, plus a gift for finding a story arc and creating credible characters and dialogue, helped Trumbo ascend to the highest peak of Hollywood success before the age of 40.
Trumbo’s career all but collapsed when he ran headlong into the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). This infamous committee first became prominent under Texas Congressman Martin Dies in 1938 when it was initially supposed to investigate Nazi espionage in America. But since it was largely composed of Republicans and conservative Democrats (like Dies), it quickly turned to inquiring into one of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, the Federal Theater Project. (Robert F. Vaughn, Only Victims, p. 36)
The Federal Theater Project was a part of the Works Progress Administration, which became the largest single employment program of the New Deal. The Federal Theater Project was meant to employ out-of-work actors, directors and stage managers in federally funded stage productions; both in New York and several regional outlets.
It was a smashing success in that it produced nearly 1,000 plays in four years. These were seen by hundreds of thousands of spectators. Some of the plays were directed by Orson Welles and have become legendary in stage history, e.g., The Cradle Will Rock.
HUAC did not like the spectacular success of this program. Dies once said that the WPA was the greatest boon the communists ever had in the United States. (ibid) Dies called several people to testify about supposed communist influences in certain productions. The committee was so unsophisticated in its understanding that it criticized the director of the project for going to Russia to see new experimental plays by theater innovators like Konstantin Stanislavsky. (ibid, p. 61)
Congressman Joe Starnes famously asked project director Hallie Flanigan if playwright Christopher Marlowe was a communist, though Marlowe had died in 1593. Yet, these clownish blunderings became popular with newspapers and magazines. And, at first, HUAC gained a large amount of public support. Dies unsuccessfully called for the resignation of New Deal officers such as Harry Hopkins and Harold Ickes. (ibid, p. 70). But Dies did kill the Federal Theater Project.
After World War II, HUAC became a standing committee and – under new chairman Parnell Thomas – the panel decided to hold hearings into the Hollywood film industry. The committee investigators, led by Harry Stripling, assembled dossiers which were largely created from information delivered by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. HUAC then held open hearings, calling a series of prominent players in the entertainment field.
Contempt of Congress
The first panel consisted of “friendly witnesses” who essentially agreed with the committee’s judgments and aims – that Hollywood was filled with communist agents who were assembling works of propaganda in order to weaken the foundations of American life. Then, HUAC called “unfriendly witnesses” who did not agree with these judgments, refused to cooperate with the committee and were then indicted for contempt of Congress.
The “friendly witnesses” included three heads of major studios: Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer and Walt Disney, all extremely powerful, wealthy and politically connected. Warner volunteered the names of suspected communists, e.g. writers Alvah Bessie, Howard Koch and Ring Lardner Jr. (Vaughn, p. 81)
Disney testified that a strike his studio endured a year before was caused by communist infiltration of trade unions, and he named union leader Herbert K. Sorrell as a communist agent. Disney also named an animator at his studio, David Hilberman, as a communist. (ibid, p. 85)
Mayer testified that HUAC should write legislation that would regulate the employment of communists in private industry.
With Republicans in control of the committee, it enlisted novelist Ayn Rand as a witness who watched the film Song of Russia and evaluated whether or not it was propaganda. Rand declared that since the film did not depict normal life in Russia as a gulag, it was propaganda.
As author Victor Navasky has written, the parading of these friendly witnesses was little more than the scaffolding for a sideshow. Famous actors such as Robert Taylor, Adolphe Menjou, Robert Montgomery, Gary Cooper and Ronald Reagan joined the studio executives. (Reagan continued defending HUAC into the 1970s even after it was formally disbanded.)
There was a tactical aim in all of this. By presenting these witnesses first and urging them to deliver speeches and name suspected subversives, the 10 “unfriendly witnesses” who followed were set up in the public eye as being antagonistic toward the earlier star-spangled cavalcade.
Trumbo was in this second group. He had been a member of the Communist Party from about 1943, an isolationist and anti-war, an attitude conveyed by his famous novel Johnny Got His Gun, published in 1939. In the rapidly ascending spiral of Cold War demagoguery, these qualities made him a perfect target of HUAC and one of its ambitious young members, Richard Nixon.
Pleading the First
Trumbo and his group of fellow writers – Albert Maltz, Ring Lardner Jr., Lester Cole, Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, John H. Lawson, Sam Ornitz, Adrian Scott and Edward Dmytryk (who was a writer-director) – decided to do battle with HUAC. They knew that the question the committee would ask was, if they were now or had ever been a member of the Communist Party, which would not be officially outlawed until 1954.
But the witnesses knew that if they admitted this, the next question would be: Who else do you know who is or was a member? Or the committee would ask, did you attend any meetings, and if so who did you see there?
Since they had already seen what men like Mayer, Warner and Disney did in getting rid of suspected leftists, the witnesses knew that not only would their careers be endangered but anyone else they named would be put at risk.
Therefore, Trumbo and other witnesses decided not to plead the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination but instead refused to directly answer the committee’s questions, citing their First Amendment rights of choice and privacy. For their stance, Trumbo and nine other witnesses, who became known as the Hollywood Ten, were prosecuted for contempt of Congress.
Their main attorney, Bartley Crum advised them that the Supreme Court would not uphold such a conviction. But after Trumbo was convicted in the lower court, the Supreme Court refused to hear his case. Trumbo went to prison for about 11 months in Ashland, Kentucky.
Besides prison terms, the Hollywood Ten case led to a blacklist by movie executives who “deplored the action of the 10 Hollywood men who have been cited for contempt by the House of Representatives.” All business ties and contracts with them were “suspended without compensation” and none would be re-employed until they were acquitted or purged themselves of contempt and declared under oath he is not a communist.
As the Red Scare spread, about 300 workers in the entertainment industry were blacklisted. Some, like actor Philip Loeb, were pushed to the edge. As Douglas notes in his book, Loeb could not care for his emotionally troubled son and committed suicide, a particularly painful experience for Douglas who knew Loeb when they were both up-and-coming actors in New York.
Eking Out a Living
When Trumbo emerged from prison, he first moved to Mexico for a couple of years. He tried to eke out a living writing scripts, but the man who once commanded $75,000 per screenplay could make only a fraction of that sum. So, he moved back to Los Angeles where he lived in a small house in Highland Park. For the next several years, he employed phony names and hired fronts to produce his scripts, even when he was dealing with small, independent production companies like the King Brothers.
Even though Trumbo was making much less money and working much harder and longer, he could not claim credit for his work. As Jay Roach’s Trumbo shows, this put a tremendous strain on Trumbo’s home life.
Beyond the movie executives, other powerful Hollywood figures piled on the Hollywood Ten and went after their support group, the Committee for the First Amendment. Actor John Wayne and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper formed the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservations of American Ideals.
When a performer or writer wanted to recant and purge himself, he got in contact with this group. As Reagan said in an interview for the film Hollywood on Trial, they would tell this person that the Alliance really could not help you unless you decided to help yourself. Once the person did so, he would get permission from studio executives to work again.
Roach’s film shows actor Edward G. Robinson, who had supported Trumbo with monetary contributions and didn’t work for a year, going through this penance under the approving eye of Wayne.
Some Hollywood Ten defendants, like director Edward Dmytryk, could not handle the pressures and made arrangements with the powers that be to recant and name names. As result, actress Lee Grant was added to the blacklist while the rehabilitated Dmytryk went on to direct films, including The Caine Mutiny, shot in 1954 at the high tide of the blacklist.
As the film shows, however, there were some brave souls who finally cracked the blacklist.
When Kirk Douglas came to Hollywood in 1945, he was hired to work on a film called The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. There was a strike going on, the one which Disney referred to in his testimony before HUAC. The striking union, largely representing set dressers, had asked the Screen Actor’s Guild to honor their picket line.
Under the influence of Guild leaders — such as George Murphy, Ronald Reagan and George Montgomery — SAG refused to do so. But the writer and the director of Douglas’s film, respectively Robert Rossen and Lewis Milestone, did support the strikers. They would not cross the picket line. Fearing a lockout, producer Hal Wallis had the actor sleep in his dressing room.
As Douglas related in his book, two years later, both Milestone and Rossen were called before HUAC. Milestone escaped to France. Rossen admitted membership in the Communist Party. Both men were blacklisted.
Another Douglas friend and colleague, Carl Foreman, producer of the film High Noon, was called to testify but fled to England. Foreman was targeted because some took High Noon as an allegory for what HUAC was doing to America.
A Disgusted Douglas
All this shocked Douglas, who knew that none of these men posed any threat to the security of the United States. He realized how absurd the practices of the HUAC actually were.
For instance, the committee called baseball player Jackie Robinson to testify against actor Paul Robeson, but Robinson could offer little or no information about the actor. Douglas concluded that the only reason Robinson was called was because, like Robeson, he was a famous African-American.
Douglas was also distressed by the fact that six of the Hollywood Ten were Jewish as was he and as were many of the executives who capitulated so completely before HUAC. Douglas could not understand why people of the Jewish faith, who fully understood the price and pain of being persecuted, would go along with the HUAC circus, led by a clown like Thomas.
As Douglas wrote and as the film shows, much of this stemmed from fear. Men such as Warner, Mayer and Harry Cohn were “terrified their great power would be taken away from them if their loyalty to America was called into question.”
Roach’s film shows a scene with columnist Hedda Hopper going into Mayer’s office, calling him a kike, and threatening to vilify him in her columns unless he cooperated with the committee.
But Douglas rejected such pressure, agreeing with actor Fredric March who said: “They’re after more than Hollywood. This reaches into every American city and town.”
Ironically, HUAC’s aggressive witch hunt against leftists in Hollywood contributed, indirectly, to the undoing of Trumbo’s isolation. In 1950, author Howard Fast was called before HUAC and grilled about his colleagues in a group opposing Spain’s fascist dictator Francisco Franco. When Fast refused to answer, he also was imprisoned.
In prison, Fast used the library to research the life of Spartacus, a slave who turned gladiator and finally became a rebel leader against Imperial Rome. After getting released from prison, Fast wrote a historical novel about the man who almost undid the Roman Empire.
But Fast’s life was not the same as it had been before. He was banned from speaking on college campuses. He was under surveillance by the FBI. And he was denied a passport, which deprived him of his right to do research on Spartacus in Europe.
When Fast finished his book, he tried to sell it to his old publisher, Little, Brown and Company, but was turned down after the FBI visited the publisher. Six other publishing houses also turned it down. With no other alternative, Fast published it himself. In four months, it sold 48,000 copies with Fast and his wife shipping out copies from their basement.
By the 1950s, Kirk Douglas had built a very successful career as an actor. He also despised the fact that MGM made him sign a loyalty oath to play painter Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life. So, Douglas created his own production company with partner Ed Lewis, who dropped off a copy of Fast’s Spartacus on Douglas’s desk.
Douglas loved the book and decided to produce the film (and star in it). Fast insisted on writing the first draft of the script but it was quite poor, prompting Douglas to enlist Trumbo to do the re-write. But Douglas told Universal Studio chiefs Ed Muhl and Lew Wasserman that Lewis was writing the script.
About halfway through the film’s production, Trumbo stopped working, complaining that he had written about 250,000 words on the project so far and did not want to do that much work if his name was not on the film.
Douglas drove to Trumbo’s house and told him that when the film was finished, he would insist that Trumbo get screen credit, which is what Douglas wanted to do all along. Douglas invited Trumbo to a meeting at the Universal commissary with himself and director Stanley Kubrick, something Trumbo had not done for almost 13 years.
After columnist Hedda Hopper exposed the fact that Trumbo was secretly writing Spartacus, producer-director Otto Preminger approached Trumbo to write a movie from the Leon Uris book Exodus. Preminger announced this in the movie trade papers, joining Douglas in helping Trumbo crack the blacklist.
After Douglas and Preminger made their announcements, singer/actor Frank Sinatra also decided to employ a blacklisted writer, Albert Maltz, except Sinatra wanted to make this into a big event. But Trumbo advised Douglas to tell Sinatra to drop his crusade, since it would probably hurt Sen. John Kennedy in his presidential race against former HUAC member Richard Nixon. Joseph Kennedy, the candidate’s father, also advised Sinatra not to go that route.
A President Weighs In
But after Kennedy got elected in 1960, he and longtime friend, Paul Fay, attended a public screening of Spartacus. The American Legion was picketing and Kennedy could have asked for a private screening of the film. Wasserman and Muhl would have been glad to oblige.
But on the advice of his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the President made the deliberate public appearance.
Roach closes the film with a nice strophe. Hopper is in her living room watching television when a segment depicting Kennedy’s attendance at the film comes on the screen. The camera rotates around her face slowly, as she begins to realize that her reign of terror is now ending.
The scene dissolves to black. Out of the darkness, we see Trumbo in the wings about to go on stage in 1970 to collect his Laurel Award, the annual distinguished career award given out by the Writers’ Guild of America. Eloquently, Trumbo addresses the issue of the whole blacklist period and the film closes.
Director Jay Roach began his career in comedy, directing Michael Myers in the Austin Powers films. He also directed the Robert DeNiro comedy Meet the Parents before going to the small screen to direct works closer to his heart. For HBO, he directed the political dramas Recount about the Republican heist of the 2000 presidential election in Florida, and Game Change about Sen. John McCain’s decision to pick Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate in 2008.
Roach has now made Trumbo, a political drama for the large screen. Overall, he does fairly well. Dalton Trumbo did several interviews that were captured on film and can be seen by almost anyone. Actor Bryan Cranston has obviously watched them at length as he does a nice job portraying Trumbo’s feisty character.
The English actress Helen Mirren plays Hedda Hopper. From the first time I saw Mirren in The Long Good Friday, I was struck by her intelligence, subtlety and technical proficiency. She furthers that tradition here with a nicely understated performance. In an easy part, John Goodman is strong and vivid as low-budget producer John King.
Roach likes to begin a scene low key and then build it to a powerful explosion or aria. For example, he does this with Goodman wielding a baseball bat at a representative of the producers’ alliance sent to intimidate him from employing blacklisted writers.
The one disappointment in the cast is Diane Lane as Trumbo’s wife Cleo. Either she could not find the center of her character, or Roach could not help her. It’s a completely blasé performance in a major role.
A Bigger Picture
In my opinion, some of the film’s shortcomings originate in the script by John McNamara. The film tries to make the opening of Spartacus into a crowning historical moment, which is not true. Because of the power of Douglas, Wasserman and Muhl, this achievement ended the blacklist for Trumbo but not for many others who did not have that kind of torque behind them. For them, it lingered on into the mid-1960s.
Another problem with the script is that it misses the core motivation for HUAC and the careers of some of its members, like Dies, Thomas and Nixon. For political reasons, they bitterly resented the scope and the goals of Roosevelt’s New Deal. They did not want government to be the solution to the Great Depression. So, they decided to poison the New Deal’s legacy with the taint of communism.
To a degree, they were successful. HUAC managed to drastically limit the American political spectrum by attacking, smearing, prosecuting and demonizing any political orientation left of the Democratic Party.
HUAC, Joe McCarthy and the Red Scare tilted the politics of the country decidedly to the right, meaning that – unlike many European industrialized countries – there is no serious left-leaning American political party.
Though HUAC Chairman Thomas went to prison on fraud charges, Sen. Joe McCarthy took up the anti-communist cause, expanding the Red Scare into the U.S. government and other aspects of American life. As with HUAC, FBI Director Hoover supplied information to McCarthy.
When Robert Kennedy became Attorney General, he looked at the information that Hoover had. There were maybe 50,000 members of the Communist Party in the United States and many of them were FBI informants. In other words, there was no real communist threat to fear. It was more a creation of men like Hoover who recognized that an exaggerated fear of communism was an effective weapon for gaining political advantage and personal power.
It was this subterranean agenda that the American public was never made to understand. Therefore the consequences went unabated.
Even today, prominent right-wingers decry government programs to create jobs or alleviate suffering – including President Barack Obama’s private-insurance-based health care program – as “socialism” or “communism.”
The value of scaring the American people has not been lost. Today, we live with another excessive threat, the War on Terror, which has led to the Patriot Act, torture, drone strikes and racial profiling.
The ability of Americans to resist these current excesses is crippled by the failure of politicians, the courts and the media to stop the Red Scare that started in Hollywood in 1947.
Trumbo is a decent enough picture. And Roach should be praised for his good intentions in filming it. There are few directors and producers making politically relevant films in America today.
But in my opinion, this subject would have been better served if Roach had made a mini-series on the subject. That would have given him the opportunity to depict a much wider American canvas and a much larger subject.
Dalton Trumbo was part of an epic struggle. In the end, he personally won, but the country lost.
James DiEugenio is a researcher and writer on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and other mysteries of that era. His most recent book is Reclaiming Parkland.
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