By Elizabeth Bowley.
Trumbo, starring Bryan Cranston, tells the story of Dalton Trumbo and the Hollywood blacklist. The film demonstrates how fears surrounding the Cold War and communism managed to penetrate all aspects of society, including the filmmaking industry. Trumbo highlights the barbarity of the blacklist and the damaging effects it had on the lives not only of those who were on it, but also of their families and friends. And it reveals how Dalton Trumbo’s persevering spirit and sheer talent eventually managed to conquer that blacklist.
We take a look at the real story of Dalton Trumbo, using contemporary footage and images chronicling the blacklist’s history. Although British Pathé has no footage of the man himself, the archive does contain a great many interesting pieces that can be used to contextualise his life.
Dalton Trumbo was one of Hollywood’s highest-paid writers in the late 1930s and early 1940s. However, his involvement with the American Communist Party soon brought a shadow over his writing career. Trumbo officially joined the Communist Party in 1943 and in 1946 he wrote an article titled The Russian Menace. In the article, he wrote sympathetically of the Russian point of view, arguing that the Russians were likely to be fearful of US military might and describing America rather than Russia as the real “menace” of the title. The threat of nuclear war was an omnipresent fear at the time. The video below demonstrates why, highlighting the damaging effect of atomic bombs and why the Cold War was such a daunting prospect for both East and West.
It was in July 1946 that Trumbo was named as a communist sympathiser, along with several others, in a TradeView column. It was this list that led to Trumbo having to testify before the House of the Un-American Activities Committee (or HUAC) about whether communists had been planting propaganda within the motion picture industry. HUAC was a committee designed to investigate potential threats of propaganda and subversive influences in American society. In 1946, they believed that threat to be communism. The films below shows J. Edgar Hoover at Eugene Dennis’ trial speaking about the communist threat.
Trumbo and the others refused to testify in the belief that the First Amendment of the US Constitution gave them the right to refuse to answer questions regarding their political beliefs. The film below shows Hollywood stars being questioned by HUAC and sees Ronald Reagan, the then-movie star, share some interesting thoughts on the idea of outlawing the Communist Party.
Despite their beliefs in the First Amendment, the “Hollywood Ten” were convicted for contempt of congress. They appealed to the Supreme Court, however the Supreme Court chose to keep their convictions in place. This led to Trumbo having to serve almost a year in prison. Trumbo, along with the rest of the Hollywood Ten, were also blacklisted by the film industry and kicked out of the Screen Writers Guild – despite the fact that one of the Hollywood Ten, John Howard Lawson, was the first President of the SWG and one of its founders. This meant that they would not be able to obtain any work in Hollywood.
This video shows Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall at one of HUAC’s hearings. Bogart spoke out against the Committee, saying, “They’ll nail anyone who ever scratched his ass during the national anthem.”
However, the blacklist did not stop Dalton Trumbo, who wrote under “fronts” or assumed names. After the failure of the Hollywood Ten’s appeals, Trumbo and his family moved to Mexico. It was here that Trumbo wrote some of his best work, often chain-smoking in the bathtub, with a parrot that Kirk Douglas had given him for company. One film which he wrote during this time was Roman Holiday, which won an Oscar for his screenplay. But on this occasion, Ian McLellen Hunter, a fellow screenwriter, had acted as Trumbo’s “front” and therefore accepted the award as if the screenplay was Hunter’s own. It was not until 1993 that Trumbo was posthumously awarded this Oscar, 16 years after his death. Audrey Hepburn also won an Oscar for her performance in the film (see the image below).
Still on the blacklist, Trumbo won another Oscar in 1957 for Best Original Story for his film The Brave One, although Trumbo himself would not accept this award until 1975. This time, Trumbo had used the pseudonym Robert Rich. However, when Robert Rich was not present for the acceptance of the award, journalists began to dig around into the writer’s background. They found out that Robert Rich was a nephew of a producer, rather than a writer, which led to suspicion that Robert Rich was in fact Trumbo. It was these rumours that began to provoke discussion in the industry about the propriety of the blacklist, as it began to become apparent that a number of films were being written under assumed names – another famous film being The Bridge on the River Kwai written by Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman, both of whom were blacklisted.
It was Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas (below) who eventually broke the blacklist by hiring Trumbo and crediting him under his own name. Douglas came to Trumbo in 1958 asking him to write the script for Spartacus. And Otto Preminger hired Trumbo to write the script for Exodus in 1959. Both films were released in the winter of 1960, and despite some protests against Trumbo, effectively shattered the blacklist.
Even while Trumbo was on the blacklist he was still prized as a great writer, known for being fast and reliable with the ability to write in many genres. Avoiding references to communism in his work, Trumbo instead preferred to celebrate the individual rebelling against established powers within his writing. Trumbo continued to write films for big Hollywood movies after the blacklist was destroyed and was awarded the Laurel Award for lifetime achievement by the Screen Writers Guild in 1970. It was here that he made his speech about the evils of the blacklist, marking a reconciliation between all who had been involved or affected by that controversial period in Hollywood history.
Take a look at our full collection of Trumbo-related films here.