The long shadow of the Hollywood blacklist is still with us. This is made clear by the 2015 film Trumbo, which twice shows its hero, Dalton Trumbo, sitting on a couch with his family, watching on TV the Oscars he’s won for his screenplay be awarded to others. Trumbo was a difficult kind of guy, often truculent, sometimes plainly naïve, but warm and generous beneath it all. He was also a loyal husband and father, who needed to provide for a family left bereft when he was sent to prison for defying the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. As one of the so-called Hollywood Ten, he could not be hired by a Hollywood studio, even after his eleven-month stint in the federal penitentiary was completed. That’s why he, like so many blacklisted writers, was forced to sell his scripts under the names of others.
A 1976 film, The Front, showed us how that system worked. The Front, starring Woody Allen in the rare role he did not write, suggested the psychological toll on an average little man who has agreed to take credit for the achievements of others. In Trumbo, we see the situation from the true author’s perspective, in the context of Roman Holiday, a delightful 1953 romantic comedy with absolutely no political undertones. Because of the rules of the blacklist, Trumbo could only sell it by persuading a fellow screenwriter, Ian McLellan Hunter, to take credit where credit was not due. Roman Holiday won the 1954 Oscar for best original story, and a rather embarrassed Hunter duly received a golden statuette bearing his name. (This error was not rectified by the Academy’s Board of Governors until 1992, when Trumbo’s widow accepted his Roman Holiday prize, but sites like IMDB still list Hunter as one of the film’s actual writers.)
The second time around, rather than turning to a fellow screenwriter as a front, Trumbo borrowed the name Robert Rich from the nephew of his bottom-of-the-barrel producer, Frank King. The film was The Brave One, a tender tale about a young Mexican boy and his bull. When the name Robert Rich was called by the Academy Awards presenter, no one came forward. This Oscar was re-issued in Trumbo’s own name in 1975, once the power of the blacklist had been broken once and for all.
The film Trumbo (which boasts a terrific lead performance by TV favorite Bryan Cranston) is based largely on the memories of Trumbo’s two surviving children. If the film is to be believed, Trumbo did a masterful job of engineering an end to the blacklist by playing two big Hollywood personalities off against one another. Circa 1960, a brash young Kirk Douglas was angling for Trumbo to write Spartacus, about a slave revolt in ancient Rome, with Douglas himself producing as well as playing the leading role. At about the same time, the imperious director-producer Otto Preminger sought Trumbo’s expertise in transforming Leon Uris’s bestselling Exodus into a screenplay. What Trumbo wanted, above all, was a chance to write under his own name once more. By skillfully appealing to the oversized egos of Preminger and Douglas, he got both to agree to give him screen credit.
Dalton Trumbo was clearly not a man without flaws. But the real bad guys of this complicated story are those who seek to deny First Amendment rights to Americans who hold unpopular opinions. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper certainly had the right to come down hard on the “Reds” whose reputations she tarnished in the press. But, in Helen Mirren’s poison-pen performance, she’s a woman I loved to hate.