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Dalton Trumbo's Fight for Hollywood

On the 69th Anniversary of the First, Unofficial Blacklist, Dalton Trumbo Steps Back into the Spotlight with a New Biography and a Biopic Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival

On July 29, 1946—sixty-nine years ago today—Billy Wilkerson, founder of The Hollywood Reporter, published an editorial naming 11 alleged Communists working in Hollywood. Among the notable figures included on this list was screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who at the time was the acclaimed writer of films like Kitty Foyle (1940) and novels such as Johnny Got His Gun (1939). In the article “A Vote for Joe Stalin,” Wilkerson claimed that those listed were a threat to the “free world” and the “millions of readers” dependent on the free trade of ideas.

Trumbo, who was a member of the Communist Party, was soon called to testify to his political affiliation before the House Un-American Activities Committee. As a result of refusing to answer questions, he was sentenced to prison for a year, blacklisted from working in Hollywood, and, after a thirteen year struggle, fought his way back to become one of the most sought-after and respected screenwriters in the industry.

Dalton Trumbo Speaking Out University Press of KentuckyA fight was something Trumbo was not afraid of. In 1962, in a cover letter attached to an archive of his papers donated to the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, he addressed this theme that dominated his adult life:

“I’ve always thought of my life as a sequence of conflicts, each a separate battle, segregated in my mind under the heading, “My fight with these guys” or “My fight with those guys.” . . . I now realize it was all one fight . . . It just happened in my case that the original fight once undertaken, expanded marvelously into what seemed like many fights.”

Now, Trumbo’s fight is about to hit the big screen with Trumbo, a new Bryan Cranston-starring biopic set to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. While the biopic, directed by Jay Roach, focuses on Trumbo’s battle against HUAC and the resulting fallout, historian Larry Ceplair and Trumbo’s late son, Christopher, have written a recently released biography that gives a full account of Trumbo’s life and impact on American culture, politics, and the film industry.

Dalton Trumbo Blacklisted Hollywood Radical University Press of KentuckyDalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical follows the beleaguered screenwriter from his youth in Grand Junction, Colorado to his film career both on and off the blacklist and his death in 1976—seventeen years before he would receive a posthumous Oscar for writing Roman Holiday (1953). A prolific letter-writer his entire life, Trumbo’s son Christopher, collected these missives of his father’s ideas and politics, his irascible personality, conversations with notable collaborators like Stanley Kubrick and Kirk Douglas, and his campaign to break the blacklist, to compile an honest portrait.

Through it all, Trumbo used his barbed tongue and slashing pen to combat his adversaries, especially Billy Wilkerson, who wielded his own pen against the perceived Red Scare in Hollywood. Trumbo’s propensity for speaking out was well known, and he and Wilkerson had been baiting each other in print for the past year—Trumbo, as editor of Screen Writer, and Wilkerson through his “Tradewinds” column in The Hollywood Reporter. Wilkerson was one of the most outspoken, vehement anti-Communists in Hollywood, and he used his platform at the magazine often to call out “Hollywood’s Red Commissars!”

To Wilkerson and his allies, the Screen Writers Guild was the main propaganda arm of the Communist Party in Hollywood, and Screen Writer—at the time, a new publication published by the guild—was widely seen in the industry as a “party line” journal. With Trumbo as editor, two other party members as managing editor and editorial secretary, and two Communists on the editorial committee, Screen Writer was an easy mark for those looking to root out “anti-American” sentiment.

When Democratic congressman John Rankin from Mississippi first called on HUAC to investigate the motion picture industry, Billy Wilkerson enthusiastically welcomed his call in The Hollywood Reporter. In response, Trumbo excoriated Wilkerson in Screen Writer for “endorsing in advance an appraisal of Hollywood by one of the most dangerous fascist-minded men in America.” Trumbo felt that Wilkerson, HUAC, and the recently formed Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals were conspiring with studio heads to vilify Communist Party members in Hollywood in exchange for advertising dollars and scoops from the inner circle. What followed was a series of hostile letters to the editor and advertisements placed by the two factions in each other’s publications. Screen Writer and The Hollywood Reporter became the ideological battleground where Hollywood waged war against itself.

Dalton Trumbo Bathtub University Press of Kentucky

Bryan Cranston will portray the blacklisted screenwriter in the Jay Roach-directed biopic ‘Trumbo,’ set to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

“A Vote for Joseph Stalin” was actually the first in a series of “Tradewinds” columns designed to red-bait the Screen Writers Guild. In the editorials, which came after The Hollywood Reporter’s initial list of exposed Communists, Wilkerson posed a series of questions to Trumbo: “Are you a Communist? Are you a member of the Communist Party?” Additionally, he published as evidence, a few of Trumbo’s “Communistic” activities, including his novel The Remarkable Andrew; his membership in the American Peace Mobilization, the National Federation for Constitutional Liberties, and American Youth for Democracy; and his support for LaRue McCormick’s campaign for the US Senate.

Trumbo, who by that time been hamstrung by Screen Writer’s new editorial board and could not publish a response, drafted a letter to Wilkerson which he never sent. In it, he charged Wilkerson with failing to prove the existence of Communist propaganda in any of Trumbo’s films and criticized his censure of the Screen Writers Guild. Trumbo ended his diatribe with a note on freedom of speech:

“We live in a country founded upon the principle that a man’s race, his religion and his politics are his private concern, protected as such by law. Any answer to your “questions,” either positive or negative, would constitute an admission on my part of your right to assume the function of industry inquisitor. I deny that right, and have no intention of collaborating with you to establish it.”

For all of his attempts to stave off the personal, professional, and philosophical attacks from Wilkerson and his fellow anti-Communists, Trumbo’s name, seven additional names from Wilkerson’s informal list, and two others were officially Blacklisted on November 25, 1946 by the studio chiefs and the Motion Picture Association of America in the infamous Waldorf Statement. Among those who assembled at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel and drafted the statement against the so-called “Hollywood Ten” were names like Louis B. Mayer, Henry Cohn, Samuel Goldwyn, and Albert Warner.

Their decree terminated current or future employment and called on the guilds to “eliminate any subversives.” The guilds ultimately capitulated to the Waldorf Statement, casting out their besieged members. In addition, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences passed a bylaw that prohibited Oscar nominations for anyone who invoked their Fifth Amendment rights in their testimony before HUAC.

Dalton Trumbo Mugshot University Press of KentuckyRefusing to answer questions about his involvement with the Communist Party, Trumbo sacrificed a successful career in Hollywood to stand up for his rights and defend political freedom. He was found guilty of Contempt of Congress, and as a result of the deepening Red Scare, was sent to the Federal Corrections Facility in Ashland, Kentucky, where he spent ten months writing letters for his fellow inmates and attempting to continue to write novels and screenplays when he could.

Though barred from being employed by the studios, after his release, Trumbo continued to write and assist with scripts, primarily under the pseudonym “Robert Rich,” or using other screenwriter’s names as a front. Roman Holiday, for example, had been completed by Trumbo prior to his conviction and incarceration, but was released in 1953 with Ian McLellan Hunter credited as the screenwriter. The film went on to be nominated for, and win, multiple awards, including an Academy Award for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story.

Roman Holiday was the first Academy Award Trumbo could not accept. Later, when Robert Rich won the Oscar for best motion picture story for The Brave One at the 1957 Oscars, a mere month after the AMPAS bylaw was enacted, Jessie Laskey Jr., vice president of the Screen Writers branch of the Writers Guild accepted the award. “On behalf of Robert Rich and his beautiful story,” Lasky said, “thank you very much.”

The blacklist finally ended for Trumbo in 1960, when he received screen credits for Exodus (1960) and Spartacus (1960). When Otto Preminger was asked why he had hired Trumbo to write Exodus, Preminger stated that “It is absolutely un-American. . . to ask people what political beliefs they have,” adding that in giving Trumbo screen credit, he was acting much more honestly than other producers who had employed blacklisted writers and did not give them credit.

Just before his death, Trumbo’s name was amended to the credits for The Brave One, and he received his long-awaited Academy Award. His wife, Cleo, received the Oscar for Roman Holiday at a special ceremony in 1993 with Trumbo’s name added to the award plaque. Though the names “Robert Rich” and “Ian McLellan Hunter” were called as Academy Award winners during his time, with Trumbo making its early award season bid in Toronto, perhaps Jay Roach and Bryan Cranston will finally bring Dalton Trumbo to the Oscar’s stage where he belongs.