this link to the Cinematica site and this link to a trailer for the film.
This January The Screening Room is playing Trumbo, a triumphant biopic about Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who, despite being on the Hollywood blacklist, sold screenplays in Hollywood under aliases with a group of other writers in late 1940s and 1950s.
Interestingly, although the blacklist didn’t start until 1947, Dalton Trumbo had a run-in with the FBI in 1940 after he wrote a novel in 1940 called The Reluctant Andrew (made into a movie released in 1942). In it, there is a scene in which the dead president Andrew Jackson returns as ghost and appears to caution the US not to get involved with WWII. From this novel Trumbo was given the reputation of being an isolationist in terms of the war. Leading up to the US involvement in WWII, Trumbo received letters from anti-semites and people who believed that the US should negotiate with Germany. Trumbo, aghast, believed he was doing the right thing in passing these letters onto the FBI. He later called this a “foolish” decision, implying that it’s not wise to put oneself on the radar with the FBI. When they came to visit he realized that they were very suspicious of him.
Trumbo was very open about his membership in the Communist Party – he was a member between 1943 and 1948. He had written fourteen screenplays by that time and was a very prolific career writer. Before he came to Hollywood his articles were published in The Saturday Evening Post, Vanity Fair, and The Hollywood Spectator. Along with screenplays, he wrote several works of fiction and non-fiction. He was one of the highest-paid screenwriters before the House of Unamerican Activities had their first hearing in Hollywood.
The film Trumbo tells the heartbreaking story of how the Trumbo family dealt with his hearing, trial, and eleven-month imprisonment; and then how Trumbo began selling his screenplays in secret and enabled other blacklisted writers to do it too. Dalton thereby rescues himself, his family, and some of his colleagues from poverty. The House of Unamerican Activities did not just target writers. Just in the entertainment industry, many actors, directors, musicians, journalists, playwrights, an attorney, and a scenery designer were also blacklisted. In all more than three-hundred individuals were persecuted in this way including Richard Attenborough, Harry Belafonte, Luis Bunuel, Gypsy Rose Lee, Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, Lena Horne, and Leonard Bernstein. Washington was still adding names to the list as late as 1956.
Trumbo sold ten screenplays in secret to Hollywood producers until the blacklist was openly challenged. The film shows Otto Preminger listing Trumbo’s name as the writer of Exodus in 1960, and Kirk Douglas openly declaring him the writer of Spartacus while it was still in production. At that point, there had been an obvious political shift in the United States. President Kennedy, who had been elected in 1961 saw Spartacus and said he liked it, and people declared that the blacklist was “broken.” Trumbo was awarded with his Academy Award for the 1953 film Roman Holiday in the ceremony of 1976. He was then publicly acknowledged for the screenplays he’d secretly written. After the blacklist was broken he went on to have a successful career, selling thirty screenplays in his lifetime.
It’s interesting to see how divided Hollywood was over the blacklist and how many said they agreed with the House of Unamerican Activities and those who co-operated with them when they were accused of being Communist themselves. Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan spoke at the first HUAC (House of Unamerican Activities) hearing, both stating strongly that the Communist influence was a dangerous one. Witnesses who were willing to “name names” at the hearings (also known as “friendly witnesses”) included Ayn Rand. This film makes it clear that Lucille Ball and Gregory Peck openly disagreed with the targeting of people because of their political beliefs; also with these sympathies were many including Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, and Danny Kaye.
The story that comes to mind to me most often is that of two very prominent targets of the HUAC: Arthur Miller, and Elia Kazan. Elia Kazan the director was friends with the fantastically prolific playwright Miller who was most famous for his 1949 play Death of a Salesman. In 1951, on the heels of this success, Miller and Kazan were shopping a screenplay Miller had written around Hollywood. It was called The Hook and it was about a man in an adversarial relationship with Mafia labour union organizers. They pitched it to Darryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox who turned it down for being too political.
At the time, Kazan had been having an extramarital affair with Marilyn Monroe – who was not yet well-known at the time – and he was feeling pressure from her on many fronts. Monroe’s first contract had just run out with 20th Century Fox and she was hoping that Kazan would give her some work because she didn’t have any money or any job prospects. Kazan was looking for a way to disconnect himself from Monroe and for this reason introduced her to Miller, who was also married, hoping that they would have an affair. The three of them, Miller, Kazan, and Monroe dressed up as a “personal assistant” took the script to Harry Cohn at Columbia. Cohn insisted that the script be changed to imply that the union leaders in the screenplay were communists. Miller later withdrew the script from consideration from Columbia – apparently in a refusal to make such a change. Cohn protested in a telegram that: ‘ITS INTERESTING HOW THE MINUTE WE TRY TO MAKE THE SCRIPT PRO-AMERICAN YOU PULL OUT.’ Shortly thereafter in 1952, Miller and Kazan were both brought before the House of Unamerican Activities to testify. When Miller testified, Marilyn Monroe came to the hearing to support him despite the risk to her own (at the time) unstable career.
Miller did not name names when the committee interrogated him and was held in contempt of court, fined $500, was blacklisted, and was unable to receive a US passport. He did not sell another screenplay until 1960 when the blacklist was broken but he wrote and produced several stage plays including The Crucible, which was literally about the Salem witch trials and metaphorically a representation of the House of Unamerican Activities hearings and McCarthyism. The first two screenplays Miller sold were Let’s Make Love, and Monroe’s last finished product The Misfits.
Contrastingly, when Elia Kazan, who had even in 1950 employed blacklisted actor Zero Mostel in his film Panic in the Streets, was called to testify, the level of his co-operation was very different from Miller’s. Under pressure from the committee, he provided eight names of former colleagues. In exchange, he was immediately able to continue working in Hollywood, which was not always the case even for “friendly witnesses.” This was despite his admission to having been a member of the Communist Party in his twenties for a year and a half. At the time of his testimony, he was in the midst of critical accolades – he had just directed Marlon Brando’s oustanding performance in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire the year before.
Later Kazan would go on to direct On the Waterfront, and James Dean in East of Eden. He was well-known for being an actor’s director, beloved by many and deeply invested in his work and in the craft of acting. In 1947 he started the Actor’s Studio in New York which was led by Lee Strasburg where they taught Method Acting, of which Marlon Brando and James Dean were both students. According to Stanley Kubrick, Kazan was “without question the best director we have in America.” Francis Ford Coppola made a documentary film tribute to Kazan called A Letter to Elia in 2010. Kazan had a very successful directing career and was also the author of 13 books, some of which are about political subjects.
Although Kazan spoke to Miller about his tortured decision to name names before the hearing and Miller said he understood the pressure that Kazan was under, Kazan’s co-operation with HUAC put a rift between Miller and Kazan and ended their friendship. Monroe continued to see Kazan after his testimony. She eventually married Miller in 1956.
In 1999, to differing reactions, Kazan was given an honorary Academy Award for a career’s worth of work. In the article about him, Wikipedia notes which famous actors did and did not stand or applaud during Kazan’s acceptance of the award: “When Kazan received an Honorary Academy Award in 1999, the audience was noticeably divided in their reaction, with some including Nick Nolte, Ed Harris, Ian McKellen, and Amy Madigan refusing to applaud, and many others, such as actors Kathy Bates, Meryl Streep, and Warren Beatty, and Producer George Stevens, Jr. standing and applauding.” There were 250 people with pickets outside of the event protesting that the Academy should not be recognizing him in this way because of his testimony to HUAC in 1952.
It’s interesting to consider what would have happened if Elia Kazan had done what Dalton Trumbo did and refused to name names during his hearing and how different Hollywood history would have been. Trumbo is just one story in hundreds of stories of persons and families affected by this gross lapse of judgement that was the House of Unamerican Activities.
Although there was a lot of damage done to so many by the Hollywood blacklist, it’s heartening that the small-minded, the paranoid, and the anal-retentive interference coming from Washington could not for long control the lives of those who were attempting to do the very important work of making great art.