Tuesday 16 January 2018

Film: Trumbo - the man who defied the witch-hunt

Show must go on: Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper and Bryan Cranston as talented scriptwriter, Dalton Trumbo, who paid for his political beliefs during the McCarthy witch-hunt.
Show must go on: Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper and Bryan Cranston as talented scriptwriter, Dalton Trumbo, who paid for his political beliefs during the McCarthy witch-hunt.

Paul Whitington

If anyone could have used a laptop, it was Dalton Trumbo. The great screenwriter worked in a time before computers or even Tipp-Ex, and created ragged palimpsests of tagged together notes and pages that looked like something out of a rubbish skip. But using these arcane methods, he created scripts for such memorable films as Spartacus, Roman Holiday and The Brave One.

These last two screenplays won Academy Awards, but Trumbo never got to receive them, because by the early 1950s he had been placed on a Hollywood blacklist, and was forced to write under various assumed names. His astonishing life is recounted in a new film called Trumbo, which stars Bryan Cranston and opens next week.

Despite a fine performance from Mr Cranston, it isn't especially good and has the look of a TV mini-series. But even with its shortcomings Trumbo still manages to entertain, primarily because it tells such an extraordinary story, and one that casts America in its worst possible light.

Born in Colorado in 1905, James Dalton Trumbo's politics were moulded by his early experiences. When his father was sacked from a shoe store, he developed an abiding suspicion of all employers, and after his father's early death in 1926, Dalton took on a series of manual jobs to help support his mother and sisters. He spent nine years on the night shift at a California bakery, but all the time he was writing.

Dalton Trumbo always planned to become a novelist, but like many a writer before and after him, initially found the going tough. In his 20s he pumped out over 80 short stories and six novels, all of which were rejected for publication. At one point he was even reduced to reviewing films - a shameful occupation - but things looked up in the early 1930s when his well-crafted articles and stories began appearing in Vanity Fair and The Saturday Evening Post.

In 1934, Trumbo moved to Los Angeles to become the managing editor of The Hollywood Spectator: one of his stories got noticed at Warners, who hired him as a reader in their hectic B-movie department. Trumbo would always write and think quickly, and the trashy ingenuity required to make films on low budgets appealed to him. In 1937 he began writing scripts, and though one of his novels, Johnny Got His Gun, won a National Book Award in 1939, by that stage Trumbo had become one of the most sought after screenwriters in Hollywood.

When Warners complained about him joining the Screen Writers Guild which was run at that time by a known communist playwright called John Howard Lawson, Trumbo quit and went to work for the opposition - first Columbia, later MGM and RKO. Soon he was earning $4,000 a week, a small fortune in those days, knocking out slick and witty screenplays for films like A Guy Named Joe, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and the Ginger Rogers melodrama Kitty Foyle, which earned him an Oscar nomination.

Though he would eventually join the Communist Party in 1943, and was always socialist-leaning in his politics, Trumbo would later be described as "a swimming pool communist". Dalton liked to live it large, and after marrying Cleo Fincher in 1938, the newly wealthy writer moved to a 320-acre ranch in Ventura County, built a lake and threw lavish parties for his Hollywood buddies.

He ran a chauffeur-driven limousine, collected pre-Columbian art and liked to work in his bathtub, sipping Martinis and chain-smoking cigarettes. He was a character, a contradiction, who could be hugely generous with his time and ideas but turn on people suddenly and subject them to his cruel and cutting tongue.

None of which were crimes of course, but Trumbo's robustly expressed political beliefs would come back to haunt him.

In July of 1946, The Hollywood Reporter's publisher William R Wilkerson wrote an incendiary column in which he named Trumbo and a number of other high-profile Hollywood players as communist sympathisers. And when the House Un-American Activities Committee turned its attention to Hollywood in 1947, Wilkerson's work was seized on as a handy guide.

In October of that year, the HUAC summoned Trumbo and nine other writers and directors to Washington to testify. Led by their chairman J Parnell Thomas, a New Jersey congressman who'd later be imprisoned for corruption, the committee insisted that the 'Hollywood Ten' give them names of fellow travellers within their industry. When they refused they were cited for contempt of Congress, and though Trumbo reacted with his usual withering wit, he was sent to prison for a year in 1950.

Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, things were turning sour. A nasty nexus of right-wingers, opportunists and flag-waving ultra-nationalists began setting the agenda: stars like Ronald Reagan and Gary Cooper appeared as friendly witnesses before the HUAC, while columnist Hedda Hopper (played by Helen Mirren in the film), a capitalist running dog if ever there was one, made sure wavering sympathisers like Humphrey Bogart and Edward G Robinson behaved themselves.

The communist witch-hunts would tear Hollywood apart through the 1950s. Big names like Orson Welles, Charles Chaplin and Paul Robeson fled to Europe, and only about 10pc of those indicted by the committee would ever manage to rebuild their movie careers. Unsurprisingly, the redoubtable Mr Trumbo was among them, but it wasn't easy, even for him.

When he got out of prison he sold his ranch to pay his debts and moved to Mexico. There he began to write his way out of trouble, pumping out scripts at cut rates and high speed.

His work rate during these difficult years was extraordinary, and became even more hectic when he returned to live anonymously in a modest Los Angeles suburb. He worked on a half a dozen scripts at a time, pumping out trashy sci-fi B-movies and classy A-list dramas, sold to producers and studios under various assumed names.

But by the mid-1950s, the covert activities of Trumbo and other blacklisted writers were an open secret in Hollywood, and things got really complicated when one of Trumbo's screenplays, Roman Holiday, was nominated for an Oscar. It won, and the Oscar was given to one Ian McLellan Hunter, an English screenwriter who sometimes acted as Trumbo's front. It happened again in 1956 with The Brave One, and Trumbo, watching at home on TV, smiled wryly as the Oscar for Best Story was awarded to one Robert Rich, a pseudonym who didn't actually exist.

By that time the power of the rapid anti-communist lobby was beginning to fade, and in 1957 the HUAC's brightest and most malevolent member, Senator Joseph McCarthy, died. But still the Hollywood blacklist persisted, and Trumbo's time in the wilderness only ended in 1960, when Kirk Douglas and the director Otto Preminger decided to defy the blacklist on his behalf.

Trumbo's daughter Mitzi still remembers opening the family's front door to find Kirk Douglas standing there sheepishly, looking for their father. Douglas was producing the grandiose epic Spartacus, and already had Stanley Kubrick to deal with: he needed a sharp and faultless script, and knew Trumbo was his man.

So did Mr Preminger, when he set out to turn Exodus, Leon Uris's long-winded account of the foundation of the state of Israel, into a Hollywood hit. Again, Mr Trumbo would do the business, and when both films were released in 1960, Preminger and Douglas separately defied their studios by giving Dalton the credit.

His nightmare was finally over, but he would always remain aware of the lasting damage the blacklist had caused to friendships, families and glittering careers.

The new movie sentimentalizes Trumbo somewhat, and knocks the edges off his story, though his daughter Mitzi recently praised the skill with which Bryan Cranston managed to capture her father's mannerisms. One detail, though, did grate a little.

"There's a scene where he takes me and my sister for ice-cream," Mitzi told the Guardian recently. "I was laughing with her afterwards saying 'that would never have happened!' My father worked all the time, and if we had issues we went to our mum. But he was fiercely entertaining. We learned about language and politics and how to think from him. That was pretty great."

Hollywood Blacklist

The communist witch-hunt in Hollywood had its roots in the union agitation of the 1930s, and when the HUAC called the Hollywood Ten to testify, the battle lines were quickly drawn. While moguls like Howard Hughes would use the hysteria to fire troublemakers wholesale, future US President Ronald Reagan cemented his conservative credentials by acting as a kind of witch-finder general. Walt Disney was another rabid anti-communist, but a group led by Humphrey Bogart and John Huston briefly challenged the treatment of the Hollywood Ten before falling apart in disarray.

When the witch-hunt reached its height in the early 1950s, things got really nasty. Actors like Lee J Cobb and Sterling Hayden would later bitterly regret having named names, and when director Elia Kazan received an honorary Oscar in 1999, many people refused to applaud him because he'd testified. There were so many victims of this shameful episode: actor Larry Parks was blackmailed into testifying, then blacklisted anyway. Zero Mostel spent 20 years in the wilderness after being put on the list, and other high profile victims included Arthur Miller, Leonard Bernstein, Dorothy Parker, Charlie Chaplin and Lucille Ball.

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