The first time I encountered the name Dalton Trumbo was in the credits for a little 1960 Stanley Kubrick movie called Spartacus. All I knew was that Trumbo had written an excellent script for that film, but I was not yet aware of the significance of the writing credit he received for Spartacus. It was much later (mainly after purchasing the 2-disc Criterion Collection DVD release of Spartacus) when I learned that he had been one of the “Hollywood Ten,” a group of screenwriters and directors who were blacklisted during the 1950s for refusing to testify before HUAC (the House of Un-American Activities Committee) in 1947, which was headed by Senator Joseph McCarthy (the man who famously “witch-hunted” for Communists). Kirk Douglas, the star and producer of Spartacus, was instrumental in starting the process of ending the blacklist and restoring Trumbo’s credits (the other 1960 film whose screenplay was credited to Trumbo and would help end the blacklist was Otto Preminger’s Exodus).
I recently had the opportunity to attend a screening of the 2007 documentary feature Trumbo at the IFC Center, which was playing as part of their “Stranger Than Fiction” documentary series. Directed by Peter Askin, Trumbo is based on the letters of Dalton Trumbo as well as the stage play Trumbo: Red, White, and Blacklisted by Christopher Trumbo, Dalton’s son. The big draw of the film would be the letter readings being performed by David Strathairn, Joan Allen, Paul Giamatti, Michael Douglas, Brian Dennehy, Liam Neeson, Josh Lucas, Donald Sutherland, and Nathan Lane (who had originally performed in the stage version when it opened). The letters are witty, funny, and at times so truthful they hurt. What I found most hurtful was that it was the studios that actually enforced the blacklist by not hiring those who were blacklisted and not giving them their official credits. HUAC would’ve been powerless had the studios been brave enough to take a stand and defend the blacklisted. Instead, Dalton Trumbo had to work using either a front writer or a pseudonym. For example: Ian McLellan Hunter fronted for Trumbo on 1953’s Roman Holiday, which won the Best Story Oscar. Trumbo finally received a story credit in 1991 (15 years after his death) from the Writers Guild of America, and was posthumously awarded the Best Story 1953 Oscar in 1993 (Trumbo would be given a proper screenplay credit by the Writer’s Guild in December 2011). Trumbo used the pseudonym of “Robert Rich,” and when he won the Best Story Oscar for 1956’s The Brave One, he couldn’t immediately claim it (it would take another 14 years for him to claim it).
The screening I attended was followed by a Q&A with director Askin. Askin revealed that he first became aware of Trumbo mainly through Spartacus and a few other films; he learned a lot more when he was chosen to direct Christopher Trumbo’s stage play. He said that Christopher had been asked to put something together to commemorate a newly-crafted garden sculpture that was based on the Hollywood Ten (that’s how the letter readings came about). One of the differences between the play and the film, Askin pointed out, was that the play only had one actor performing the letters while the film had multiple actors performing the letters (the use of multiple actors actually helped finance the film). Askin stated that one of the big challenges of the documentary was creating a narrative based on the letters. He also revealed that he was grateful that the actors had wanted to participate in the film for free. Paul Giamatti had been the first to sign on; Brian Dennehy, who didn’t really support Trumbo, recognized great material when he saw it (he even went on to perform on stage as Trumbo). Danny Glover was thanked in the credits, and that was because he came in for a day to perform some of the letters. The footage, however, was unusable. Askin claimed that Glover did a great job but felt that he hadn’t prepared for the letter readings (the filmmakers nevertheless appreciated his coming in to perform). Askin said that Trumbo continued to find work after 1960; the last film he worked on was 1973’s Papillon (he expanded Dustin Hoffman’s character in the film).
Joseph McCarthy’s hunt for Communists left a shameful mark on the movie industry. It destroyed more lives than saved, and it demonstrated the power of fear. Those who took a stand against it suffered the consequences, some worse than others. Trumbo’s defense of the First Amendment in regards to HUAC remains inspiring to me (even though he was a member of the Communist Party) and I hope that future generations will find it inspiring as well if they’re ever faced with a similar situation.