The eponymous protagonist of Trumbo, a new drama starring Bryan Cranston in the title role, comes billed as a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter and a hero of sorts. Moviegoers may be surprised to learn that Dalton Trumbo was much more than that.
At the debut of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945, Trumbo wrote the speech of U.S. Secretary of State Edward Stettinius. It was not Trumbo’s first foray into international politics.
Trumbo joined the Communist Party USA during the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939-1941, when many other Soviet sympathizers left the Party in disgust, never to return. In 1940, when Britain stood alone against the Nazi war machine, Trumbo wrote The Remarkable Andrew, a quirky fantasy in which the ghost of General Andrew Jackson argues against American military aid on the grounds that Britain is “already licked.”
Trumbo’s Communist Party hack job proved no object to a lucrative Hollywood career. Indeed, it helped him. During the 1930s the Communist Party built a powerful organization on the movie studios’ back lots and in the talent guilds alike.
Though not a Party straw boss, like John Howard Lawson, the first president of Writers Guild of America, West, Trumbo worked three shifts for Communist causes. That backstory was the source of his future difficulties.
After World War II, Stalin mounted a surge to co-opt the studios through labor strikes and jurisdictional disputes. Trumbo scripted speeches for stars such as Katharine Hepburn who aligned with the Party-backed Conference of Studio Unions. After some initial victories, the Party encountered strong opposition.
Screen Actors Guild president Ronald Reagan sniffed out the Stalinists and found an ally in fellow liberal Democrat and union leader Roy Brewer. The battle raged in the streets and behind the scenes, and the outcome was very much in doubt. The Party organizations relentlessly slandered Reagan and Brewer, but the pair prevailed through sheer perseverance.
Washington became interested in Hollywood through an investigation of Communist International (Comintern) agent Gerhard Eisler, whose brother Hanns was a studio composer. The House Committee on Un-American Activities decided to hold hearings, and the unfriendly witnesses — the infamous Hollywood Ten — included Dalton Trumbo. As Billy Wilder quipped, only a few were talented. The rest were just unfriendly.
The reason Trumbo and other Stalinists defied the committee, as John Huston learned some years later, was that they had already testified to a California committee that they were not Communists. To admit that now would have been troublesome.
“When I believed them to have engaged to defend the individual,” Huston wrote to a colleague on August 23, 1952, “they were really looking after their own skins.”
Contrary to what some appear to believe, there is no constitutional right to a lucrative job in Hollywood. Before the 1947 hearings studio bosses defied the committee and said they would hire whomever they pleased. After the hearings, the movie moguls caved and said they would not hire Communists. But Trumbo and other writers continued to work under fake names.
By the 1960s the so-called blacklist collapsed and Trumbo emerged as a hero, as Cranston portrays him in the hagiographical biopic. Viewers may be unaware that he had already appeared on screen in a fictional role that in a poetic sense reflected his twisted commitments.
In the 1973 film Papillon, which he co-wrote with Lorenzo Semple, Jr., Trumbo plays a prison commandant. That is a suitable role for a man who defended murderous dictators and the totalitarian regimes that walled in their subjects. That’s how Dalton Trumbo and the other screen Stalinists should be remembered.
Some viewers might prefer films about the victims of Stalinism, about those who bravely defied Communist oppression, and about those who upheld the cause of freedom and human rights. Such viewers will have to go elsewhere.
The California dream factories aren’t into that kind of story. With Trumbo the industry turns back the clock to the good old days of pure fantasy.
Lloyd Billingsley is a policy fellow and communications counsel for the Independent Institute. He is the author of Hollywood Party: Stalinist Adventures in the American Movie Industry and the new crime book Shotgun Weddings.