A witch-hunt victim’s revenge

November 18, 2015

Elizabeth Schulte reviews a new film about the blacklisted novelist and screenwriter.

IN THE new film Trumbo, novelist and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo stares down the anti-Communist witch hunt of the late 1940s and '50s with stubbornness, defiance and a sense of humor.

It's a welcome turn of events when a communist--who in his day was vilified and imprisoned for his political commitment--is the affable hero of a Hollywood movie about the importance of civil liberties.

But right-wing pundit Ann Coulter wasn't quite as thrilled about the release of Trumbo. In an unhinged rant, she called the blacklisted Hollywood author and screenwriter a "Hitler apologist" and his timeless antiwar classic Johnny Got His Gun "ghastly."

Maybe Coulter is worried that today's audiences will recognize among the McCarthyite witch hunters depicted in the film some of the hate that she and her fellow right-wing zealots routinely peddle half a century later.

BRYAN CRANSTON plays Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten--screenwriters, directors and producers who refused to provide information to the anti-communist House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during its infamous hearings in the 1950s. The Ten all refused to testify on the grounds of First Amendment protections, and were held in contempt of Congress and sentenced to prison.

Helen Mirren and Bryan Cranston in Trumbo
Helen Mirren and Bryan Cranston in Trumbo

The movie industry bosses responded by blacklisting communists in Hollywood, forcing anyone with leftist sympathies out of the industry and sending a chilling message to the entire country: If the anti-communist fanatics could target a well-known Hollywood celebrities, they could target anyone.

Trumbo continued to write for the movies, but without getting any credit for it. Roman Holiday, starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, won an Oscar for best screenplay, but Trumbo didn't receive a credit under his real name until 2011.

In the movie Trumbo, director Jay Roach--better known for making the Austin Powers movies--recreates some of the iconic moments from the era, including Trumbo's appearance before HUAC and protests supporting of the Hollywood Ten.

Film and audio clips are also used to help recreate the era, including footage of HUAC testimony from those who defied the witch hunt, as well as those who came down on the other side, like actor-soon-to-become-politician Ronald Reagan. In one scene, a radio ad plays in the background, featuring Lucille Ball warning against the dangers of losing our civil liberties.

Review: Movies

Trumbo, directed by Jay Roach, screenplay by John McNamara, starring Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren and Louis C.K.

The film is good at showing the support that the Hollywood Ten initially received from some well-known Hollywood figures. Actors Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart were among them, although Bogart reversed his decision in the end, and wrote an article that appeared in Photoplay magazine titled "I'm No Communist."

Trumbo also does a good job portraying the witch hunters in all their viciousness and hypocrisy. Helen Mirren brilliantly plays Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who mixes her anti-communist fervor with a generous helping of anti-Semitism.

John Wayne, portrayed by David James Elliott, encapsulates the hypocrisy of patriotism--as Trumbo points out, Wayne "fights for democracy" in his movies, but not on any actual battlefield. (Trumbo himself was a war correspondent during the Second World War.).

Trumbo also recreates the real-life scene of Trumbo bumping into beady-eyed HUAC chairman Republican Rep. Parnell Thomas, while Thomas is in prison serving a sentence for an actual crime of corruption.

The film makes it clear that there are two sides to this fight, and the witch hunters are on the wrong one. Those who vacillate are viewed as weak, as illustrated by actor Edward G. Robinson (played by Michael Stuhlbarg), who, after initially supporting Trumbo, caves to pressure and deserts the cause.

The fictional character Alan Hird (played by Louis C.K.) stands in as a composite of various communist writers who remained true to their political commitments and were persecuted and thoroughly destroyed by the blacklist.

IT'S A shame that the rest of the Hollywood Ten don't get a little time in this picture--like Ring Lardner Jr., who won a screenplay Oscar for Woman of the Year, and then refused to testify, went to prison and didn't get his name on another film until M*A*S*H in 1970. Or Herbert Biberman, who would make the 1954 film Salt of the Earth about a strike of immigrant miners in New Mexico, with the actual strikers and their families as the stars.

The stories of these left-wing writers and directors helps to explain why there were so many radicals in Hollywood--because there was a place for radical ideas in U.S. society as a whole as a result of the years that preceded the witch hunts.

The Great Depression of the 1930s radicalized a whole generation, with many becoming socialists and communists. Some of those radicalized by the Depression era went on to make films in Hollywood. In this climate, it was possible for people to make pictures that portrayed the everyday lives of working-class people and even their struggles against injustice. The Hollywood blacklist was about smashing this sentiment.

Trumbo would be a better movie if it captured more of this--we would have got a better idea of why the real-life Trumbo took the stand that he did.

While there are scenes that hint at what Trumbo believes in--including a moving conversation with his daughter Nikola about whether she is a communist and a fierce defense of a set builders' strike at one Hollywood cocktail party, the film doesn't quite capture what he and others believed.

In the 1930s, Trumbo--who continued to work in a bakery during his early years in Hollywood--helped start a union for screen readers, alongside Dashiell Hammett, and was later active in the Screen Writers Guild. He spoke out against the film "production codes" imposed by the Catholic Church.

He spoke out for civil liberties and against right-wing censorship. When the right wing targeted longshore workers' strike leader and radical Harry Bridges, threatening him with deportation, Trumbo wrote a pamphlet in 1941 to help organize support for Bridges' defense.

In 1942, Trumbo took up the defense of 17 Mexican-American youths who were accused of murder in the much-publicized Sleepy Lagoon case. In Hollywood, he spoke out against the industry bosses' refusal to make movies with Black themes and employ Black workers.

He would also write a biography of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture and another about the true story of a Black GI lynched for dating a white woman in Louisiana.

While Trumbo's membership in the Communist Party made him a target of HUAC, he was hardly what you'd call a disciplined CP member. He didn't attend regular meetings, for example. According to Larry Ceplair and Christopher Trumbo's biography, Trumbo's close friendship with writers Lardner, Hugo Butler, Ian Hunter and Michael Wilson--who were more closely involved with communist, union and other left-wing causes--prompted him to join.

Still, if there's one thing that should have had a place in any movie called Trumbo, it's his most famous and enduring work: Johnny Got His Gun. The 1939 novel was based on an article Trumbo read about a British soldier in the First World War who was so badly injured that his family was told he was missing in action, even though he was lying in a hospital room.

One of the most famous antiwar novels ever, it is told from the perspective of a U.S. soldier in the First World War who lies in a hospital with no arms, no legs, no face.

Unfortunately, during the Second World War, Trumbo went along with his publisher's decision to suspend reprints of Johnny Got His Gun until after the war had ended. Like other members of the Communist Party, once Stalin's Russia sided with the Allies against Nazi Germany, he was convinced that this war had to be fought.

During the Vietnam War, however, Trumbo would return to his great antiwar novel and direct the 1971 movie Johnny Got His Gun with Timothy Bottoms and Donald Sutherland--who would also work with Trumbo on the antiwar film FTA.

THE BIG finish of the movie Trumbo, of course, is the writer's triumph over the blacklist--an epic struggle to finally get a banned author's name used on the epic movie Spartacus. With the help of actor Kirk Douglas--something the actor said he would forever be proud of--Trumbo's name appears as the writer of Spartacus, and the blacklist was forever broken.

But this is one thing that separated Trumbo from the hundreds of blacklisted writers, directors and actors who would never work in Hollywood again. And then there was the wider impact of McCarthyism in America--on union activists, radicals and everyday agitators who were isolated and marginalized. Lives were ruined, and the radical movement suffered for decades because of it.

This is something that Trumbo himself appreciated--that the fight was about more than one film or one man's job. As Trumbo wrote in a 1967 letter that is featured in a moving and hilarious PBS documentary:

I've delivered newspapers, reported for newspapers, peddled vegetables, clerked in stores, waited on tables, washed automobiles, picked fruit, hosed down infected cadavers, shoveled sugar beets, iced refrigerator cars, laid rails with a section gang, and served an eight-year hitch on the night shift of a large industrial plant.

I've looked at many American faces. I've seen them as flak burst around them 9,000 feet over Japan; in a slit trench on Okinawa watching the night sky to see where the next bomb would fall; in an assault boat as they moved toward a beach that tossed more violently than the surf through which they rode...

I've seen American faces in a miners' union hall in Duluth on a night when the wind off the lake blew the snow so killingly and so deep that cars couldn't be used and everybody walked to the meeting. I've seen their faces in the banquet room of a New York hotel when the American Booksellers' Association gave me a National Book Award; and I've seen them again in a jury box as each of them twice said, "Guilty as charged," and one of them wept as she said it...

And if I could take a census of all the American faces I have seen and of all the dead whose graves I have looked on, if I could ask them one simple question, "Would you like a man who told on his friend?" there would not be one among them who would answer "Yes."

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