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The Dalton Trumbo I Knew

The Oscar-nominated film revives the boisterous screenwriter—and my own family’s experience with the Hollywood Blacklist.


It is a truth widely acknowledged that an actor in search of an Oscar would do well to portray an indomitable overcomer of adversity. This is the formula generally expected to do the job for Leonardo DiCaprio on Sunday, and speaking as one who has heard, along with the rest of humanity, about his raw-bison-liver diet and the special team of ants flown in to crawl over his flesh, I am prepared to concede Best Actor to him for the grueling preparations alone. In case the Academy cares to consider another nominee in a role that meets the same overall requirements, however, I would like to speak up for Bryan Cranston and the man he plays splendidly in Trumbo.

Dalton Trumbo was a resolute indoorsman who avoided bears as well as harsh climates. A screenwriter by trade, his principal weapon was the typewriter, which he sometimes wielded in the bathtub. If you’ve seen Spartacus or Exodus or Roman Holiday, you know a very small part of his very large body of work. He was also a novelist, a playwright, and like my father Ring Lardner, Jr., a Communist for part of his life and one of the Hollywood Ten, who were imprisoned as well as blacklisted for refusing to answer the House Un-American Activities Committee’s questions about their political activities and associations.

The movie Trumbo takes up its hero’s story at the height of his pre-blacklist success, preparing to sign an MGM contract that will make him, as Louis B. Mayer suggests in the film, possibly the world’s best-paid writer. But Trumbo grew up poor and spent nearly a decade of his early adulthood doing heavy, gritty, and unhealthy labor at an industrial bakery in downtown Los Angeles, dutifully supporting his mother and two sisters after his father’s premature death of, as Trumbo diagnosed it, “shame at his inability to get a job.”

His hardscrabble beginnings, which the movie omits, help explain Trumbo’s extraordinary determination and drive. If anything could slow a writer down, it ought to have been the political, legal, professional, and financial hell that Trumbo went through between the HUAC hearings of October 1947 and his arrival at a federal prison in Ashland, Kentucky, in June 1950. During that time, he managed to turn out screenplays for the romantic-comedy classic Roman Holiday and three highly-regarded film noirs, Gun Crazy, The Prowler, and He Ran All the Way.

Hundreds of writers, directors, and actors soon found themselves on the Hollywood Blacklist, and survival was the task at hand for most. Trumbo, almost from the moment of his release from prison, set his sights higher: He was going to beat this thing, and he had a plan. Step 1: Cultivate a black market by agreeing to work for outrageously low pay. Step 2: Get paid better. Step 3: Demand credit. The industry had resolved to turn the blacklistees into non-people to prove Hollywood was cleansing itself. Trumbo’s response was to make sure they remained an inescapable force in American moviemaking.

Before I knew anything of his filmography or biography, Dalton Trumbo was a large figure in my childhood—a verbal swordsman with a crackly voice and a courtly manner who made his speeches pleasing to the ear. His visits would keep me up past my bedtime; I would sneak out of my room to eavesdrop on whatever-the-crazy-hell he was saying around the corner in the living room.

It was big news in our family when, in January 1960, Otto Preminger announced that Trumbo would have his name on the screen as the writer of ExodusKirk Douglas claims he had already resolved to give Trumbo credit for Spartacus, and thus deserves to be remembered as the producer who broke the blacklist. I don’t buy it. That kind of decision doesn’t count until you go public, as Preminger did while Douglas and his partners were still debating the question. But Spartacus was a resounding statement in itself—a widescreen eye-opener, with all of human history folded into a piece of ancient history as reimagined by Trumbo and Howard Fast, the author of the book the movie was based on (and another ex-communist, it so happens). Trumbo had tied the civil rights and civil liberties struggles of his own time—resistance to McCarthyism and the blacklist included—to a fight that went back two thousand years. “The enemies of the state are known,” the new dictator Crassus tells the old populist Gracchus after the defeat of Spartacus and his slave army. “Arrests are in progress. The prisons begin to fill. In every city and province, lists of the disloyal have been filed.”

Spartacus is also a rich display of Trumbo’s craftsmanship and screenwriting chutzpah. I’m thinking, for example, of Varinia encountering Spartacus on the cross, and, within the sightlines of an absent-minded Roman soldier, hoisting their infant son into the air, telling Spartacus the child will grow up free, and pleading with him to hurry up and die. That is an insanely great scene.

Trumbo the movie is a decidedly small-screen affair— it’s a biopic, and rather an odd duck of a biopic, with actors doing their best to play John Wayne and Edward G. Robinson, among other impossibly real people. But Cranston is wonderful as well as eerily Trumbo-like, and there are captivating scenes of Trumbo explaining communism to his daughter through a Socratic dialogue about whether to share her lunch with a hungry classmate; and Trumbo running a black-market assembly line with his wife and kids as typists and couriers; and his blacklisted friends helping him churn out scripts about bug-eyed aliens and swamp killers for the King Brothers, a trio of pinball-machine magnates turned minor movie moguls.

When it comes to the HUAC hearings and the onset of the blacklist, Trumbo is shaky on the details but strong on the basics. Did J. Parnell Thomas, the crooked former HUAC chairman, do time with Trumbo in Kentucky? No: Thomas was sent to Danbury, Connecticut, where his fellow inmates included my father. Would Hedda Hopper have unleashed an anti-Semitic rant during a tête-à-tête with Louis B. Mayer? Not likely: Gossip columnists, even the nastiest of them, feed on tips from high places. In rough outline, however, screenwriter John McNamara and director Jay Roach give an accurate account of the lurching steps that led Hollywood and the country into police-state hysteria in the years after World War II, when an obscure congressional committee, hungry for publicity, cooked up the idea of a fifth column of writers and directors plotting, on orders from Moscow, to undermine free enterprise system through the movies. The movie also does a good job of capturing the nondoctrinaire brand of communism practiced by Trumbo and his friends, for whom the Hollywood branch of the Party was a place to oppose fascism, defend labor unions, campaign for the rights of people of color, and find fellowship with others hoping to be artists and good citizens in the belly of the entertainment business.

But Trumbo is ultimately its hero’s story, and important things get lost in the preoccupation with one man, however extraordinary. For economy’s sake, two writers serve as stand-ins for all the other blacklistees. One, played by Louis C.K., is an invented character, there to remind us of the much greater mental and physical travails of those who, well, weren’t Trumbo. The other, Ian Hunter, was a real person. Hunter, along with my father, was part of a small band of Trumbo intimates who spent many a long evening together in Hollywood in the 1940s and again during a brief period of joint exile in Mexico in the early 1950s, and stayed in close touch thereafter.

Ian Hunter’s presence in the movie is tied to the story of Roman Holiday; but the story gets mistold. Shortly before Trumbo went to prison, he asked Hunter, not yet blacklisted, to be his front in the sale of the screenplay that became the basis for the movie that William Wyler produced and directed three years later, introducing Audrey Hepburn to the world and winning an Oscar for Hunter. But Trumbo gives Hunter no actual creative role in Roman Holiday beyond proposing the title; in fact, he worked on two rounds of revisions, making contributions sufficient, it was ultimately ruled, to justify a co-credit; on top of that, he had come up with the kernel of the idea after reading an account of a visit to Rome by Britain’s young Princess Margaret.

The bigger injustice, however, is done not to any individual but to the large and far-flung community of the blacklisted. By the time Trumbo got his black-market factory going in Hollywood, many of his fellow-victims, and most of those specifically identified as his subcontractors, had moved elsewhere. Some were in Mexico, others in Paris or London, making notable contributions to French and British films. Still others had relocated to New York City, where Hunter and my father helped build a parallel operation, providing gainful and honorable employment to a slew of blacklisted writers on a cycle of high-quality TV series including The Adventures of Robin Hood, which became a big hit for CBS.

Blacklisted writers, directors, and producers had a hidden hand in some of the best movie and television work of the 1950s, and the Hollywood establishment, as Trumbo had seemingly foreseen, found it increasingly difficult to hold them down. In 1952, the Screen Writers Guild cut a shameful deal with the producers, giving them permission to withhold credit from any writer who was suspected of subversive activity and failed to disprove it. In one of the odder results of this practice, the movie Friendly Persuasion was released in 1956 without any screenplay credit. The industry had thus dodged the potential embarrassment of giving an Academy Award to Trumbo’s good friend Michael Wilson, who had written the script before being blacklisted. Meanwhile, no one had noticed another contender, “Robert Rich,” who went on to win a screenwriting Oscar that year for a sleeper called The Brave One, but conspicuously failed to appear on stage when his name was announced. Rich, as the rumor mill soon revealed, was Dalton Trumbo. Soon the Academy and the Guild threw in the towel, declaring that they would no longer enforce a loyalty standard for credit or award purposes.

“It’s over,” Trumbo’s wife Cleo says in the movie after returning home from the star-studded Hollywood premiere of Spartacus in the summer of 1960. But the only blacklist Trumbo had definitively ended was his own. Others had to fight it out for themselves, project by project. Michael Wilson got credit in Europe, but not in the U.S., as the co-writer of Lawrence of Arabia in 1963. Lester Cole had to use a pseudonym on Born Free as late as 1965. Only a few other writers ever got the kind of satisfaction that my dad did when he won an Academy Award for M*A*S*H in 1970, 28 years after winning one for the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn comedy Woman of the Year. Many never recovered their careers. The blacklist was especially hard on actors; I know, because my mother was one. After a strong start, she found the doors to movie and TV roles closed for a long while—you can’t act under somebody else’s name.

By the end of the 1960s, the blacklist was truly over. As witch-hunts go, it had been comparatively tame, and the luckier survivors got to enjoy a measure of vindication and even lionization that is certainly not the norm in the annals of political persecution. I think their greatest source of satisfaction, though, lay in the difficulties they had endured together and the bonds of friendship, support, good humor, and camaraderie that carried them through. For all the loss and suffering, they had gone places and done things that would not have been possible otherwise; and some found more opportunities to write from the heart then had before. I suspect that at least a few of the victims of the Hollywood Blacklist would not have traded that shared experience for more of the smoother and cushier lives they had been forced to leave behind.