Gaetana Caldwell-Smith: Trumbo — The Hollywood Witch Hunt

Dalton Trumbo is third from left in protest as the Hollywood Ten are sent to prison.

From Gaetana Caldwell-Smith at the Socialist Action website:


TRUMBO, written by John McNamara, from the book by Bruce Cook. Directed by Jay Roach. With Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren, and Diane Lane.

Hopefully, word of mouth will encourage the general public to see this engaging film, in part because of the contemporary relevance of its focus on the consequences of not swearing an oath of loyalty to the U.S. government.

In the late 1930s and early ’40s, many artists, writers, and intellectuals who sympathized with the poor, the labor movement, and the fight against fascism aligned themselves with the Communist Party—which was then following the Stalinist policy of the “Popular Front.” Hence, when the government’s anti-communist witch hunt got underway soon after the end of the Second World War, many in Hollywood were placed under suspicion.

Lists of names were drawn up, and those named were subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Novelist and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (here in an award-worthy portrayal by Bryan Cranston) had joined the Communist Party in 1943, and he was on that list. Trumbo was one of the highest-paid screenwriters at the time, making about $4000 a week. He had an affable, understanding wife, Cleo (Diane Lane); and children. He had a lot to lose.

Under Jay Roach’s direction, the film recreates the era of the government witch hunt. Everyone was afraid, especially when people lost their jobs, their reputations, their families, or their lives (as some committed suicide). Many were shunned by friends and neighbors, and their children were bullied and even kicked out of school.

In “Trumbo,” actors like Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stulhbarg) and John Wayne (David James Elliot) are shown reviling Dalton Trumbo) to his face or avoiding him completely because of his alleged communist sympathies. Robinson ratted on Trumbo in his testimony before HUAC.

Another nemisis of the screenwriter was Hollywood correspondent Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), who ends people’s careers with her villainous tongue, pen, and poisoned hat-pin (she was known for her elaborate headgear). Hopper skewered Jews, communists, Blacks, LGBT people, and anyone who didn’t fawn to her—no one was spared.

In 1947, when called to testify before HUAC, Trumbo refused to testify. When told to answer “yes” or “no” to the question of whether or not he ever was a member of the Communist Party, he replied that anyone who thought it could be answered “yes” or “no” was a moron. He and nine others, known as the Hollywood Ten, were subsequently charged with contempt of court. Trumbo spent 11 months in federal prison in Kentucky. The film shows him being hassled and taunted by his fellow inmates.

Trumbo’s career was basically over; no studio in California would hire him. When he was released from prison in late 1950, he moved with his family to Mexico City, where he could crank out screenplays undisturbed and send them to Hollywood under pseudonyms. Jay Roach’s film avoids depicting the move to Mexico, and instead takes the tack of simply moving him to another neighborhood, where he is eyed with suspicion.

The film shows Trumbo getting a writing job at a B movie studio run by a Frank King (the unparalleled John Goodman, effective in another studio boss role). King hands him a stack of scripts to “fix’ in short order. Trumbo organizes a kind of assembly line in his home for his screenwriting pals and engages his kids, now teens with lives of their own, to proof read, type, and hand-deliver scripts directly to studios. He becomes a bully, insisting that what he does puts food on the table. Somehow, Cleo keeps it all together.

There is a wonderful scene based closely on Trumbo’s real life where he writes in his bathtub, a plank holding his Royal manual typewriter, along with scissors and glue for cutting and pasting. There are pages everywhere.

Trumbo submits one of his own scripts, ”The Brave One” under the name of Robert Rich, which wins an Academy Award. Another, in 1953, is about a princess who goes incognito in Rome and falls in love with a commoner: Trumbo gives it to Ian McLellan Hunter to pass off as his work. Hunter renames the film “Roman Holiday” and it wins an Academy Award. (In 1993, 40 years after its release, Trumbo received the award posthumously.)

Hedda’s career landed in the hopper (I couldn’t resist) when Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman, who recreated Douglas’s look and voice beautifully) insisted that Trumbo’s name appear as screenwriter for “Spartacus” in 1959. Dalton Trumbo also wrote the screenplay for “Exodus,” for which director Otto Preminger (doppelganger Christian Berkel) practically moved in with the Trumbos to oversee script changes.

Shortly after the release of these two films and Trumbo’s readmission into the Writers Guild of America, the era of the blacklist ended. He continued with his prolific output until he spent his last days in a hospice and died in 1976 of a heart attack at 70. Cleo lived to be 93 and collected his posthumous awards.

“Trumbo” is a compelling film in its detail. Roach’s work with the actors allows us to empathize with the real-life people that they portray.


5 thoughts on “Gaetana Caldwell-Smith: Trumbo — The Hollywood Witch Hunt

  1. Gene Berkman

    “When told to answer “yes” or “no” to the question of whether or not he ever was a member of the Communist Party, he replied that anyone who thought it could be answered “yes” or “no” was a moron.”

    I have never been a member of The Communist Party, That was easy to answer.

    Dalton Trumbo was a member of The Communist Party and a supporter of the Soviet Union when Joseph Stalin was murdering millions of people and enslaving millions. He might have suffered some loss of income in the United States, but imagine if he had been living in the Soviet Union at the time. Loyalty to Stalin did not prevent people from being tortured, sent to the gulag or executed. Loyalty to Stalin probably would not have saved Dalton Trumbo – he was lucky to be in the USA, where the worst punishment he faced was being on blacklist.

    Trumbo wrote the antwar novel “Johnny Got His Gun” during the period of the Hitler Staling Pact, when the party line was to oppose going to war against the Nazi regime. After Hitler invaded Russia, Trumbo switched to a pro-war position. When people who were antiwar approached him about distributing his antiwar novel, he called the FBI and reported them. I guess the writer might call that “ratting” on them.

    Trumbo was not really a hero for dissenters, just a talented writer who got attached to a very violent and anti-human ideology,

  2. Jed Ziggler Post author

    He still shouldn’t have been persecuted by the thuggish federal government for his political beliefs. Who knows when there might be a “Gold Scare” and famous Libertarians are humiliated at congressional hearings. While I agree Trumbo was supporting an even worse regime in the USSR, that doesn’t excuse HUAC’s actions.

  3. Gene Berkman

    If the federal government goes after Libertarians, I can assure that the Communist Party is not going to defend us. The Leninist concept of political dialectics says that Leninists must defend their own right to promote communism and claim persecution if there is any interference, but Leninists must also support the suppression of “bourgeois” viewpoints that prevent the triumph of the proletarian revolution.

    In principle I can say that Mr Trumbo’s treatment was unfortunate, but he is not a “heroic dissenter” when he supported a regime that murdered millions. If he had been a Nazi called before the HUAC the reviewer who wrote the posted review would not complain about his “persecution.”

  4. Mark Axinn

    Gene’s and Jed’s points are both valid.

    Stalin probably killed more people than Hitler, but that was also hidden from Americans in the ’30 when Trumbo joined the CPUSA. It was not still hidden by the 50’s so the American Communists who joined 15-20 years earlier should have repudiated their prior choice, but that’s easier to say now in hindsight than it might have been then.

    I read “Johnny” over forty years ago and still remember what a harrowing book it was. Every war-monger out there needs to read it. Hits you like a ton of bricks, just like Cimino’s movie “Deer Hunter”.

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