Trumbo: Hollywood, politics, and beating the blacklist

05 Feb 2016 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

9 mins

A hidden hero of cinema

Trumbo tells the true story of Dalton Trumbo, one of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s. Until, that is, he and a group of other industry figures were blacklisted for their political ideals and alleged communist sympathies. Trumbo was ostracised within the film community, with studios refusing to hire him for fear of being associated with his supposed un-American beliefs. Undaunted, but also struggling to earn a living, Trumbo began writing low-budget films under a pseudonym. This continued for years, until Kirk Douglas, star of historical epic Spartacus, insisted on giving Trumbo due credit for Spartacus' script, finally bringing Trumbo in from the cold and effectively ending the era of the blacklist.

To make ends meet during the blacklist period, Trumbo began writing screenplays for Frank King, played in the film by John Goodman. Together with his brothers, King produced dozens of cheap genre films, known as B-Movies. Indifferent to Trumbo (or anybody)'s political beliefs, King hired Trumbo because at the time he was cheap - but by keeping him and his colleagues in work, he became an unlikely ally, undermining the blacklist and protecting free speech. King is the third time John Goodman has played a larger-than-life film studio boss in recent years, appearing in very similar roles in The Artist and Argo. Hugely popular for decades, when they often played as double-bills, the B-movie is less a feature of modern cinema-going, although with the rise of smartphones and online platforms, the low-budget independent spirit of filmmaking they represent is perhaps more popular than ever.

McCarthyism and Hollywood

Trumbo's Hollywood of the 1930s was very different to the one we know today. The major studios were dominant, with stars, directors and writers contracted to produce a certain number of films each year, to meet the demands of an insatiable audience, for whom films with sound were still a relatively new innovation. Genres such as film noir, musicals, screwball comedies, and gangster films emerged for the first time. Politically, the aftermath of The Great Depression, combined with a large number of artists and filmmakers fleeing persecution and the rise of fascism in Europe, created not only a taste for escapist fare, but also an industry with increasingly left-wing beliefs.

After America entered World War Two in 1941, Hollywood produced many films about self-sacrifice and heroism, such as Casablanca, as well as more overt and less fondly remembered pieces of propaganda and escapism, some scripted by Trumbo himself. During the war, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. had been allies, but after 1945, the real horror of Stalin's regime and its gruesome practices became ever more apparent. This caused people to link the U.S. Communist Party to the Soviet regime, despite the fact that it had been a patriotic organisation in the U.S. for years, dedicated to advancing the course of Civil Rights and human liberties.

In 1947, as relations between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. became increasingly strained, a culture of fear and paranoia began to spread. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigated activities carried out by private citizens linked to the Communist Party. Interrogating thousands of individuals, the committee paid particular attention to Hollywood, perhaps fearing that supposed subversive messages could be incorporated into popular entertainment. Led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, the notorious period became known as McCarthyism. 

Threatened with the loss of their livelihoods, many agreed to testify against friends and colleagues. One such was Elia Kazan - legendary director of On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire - whose testimony against friends was seen as an act treachery by many, and even when Kazan was presented with an honorary Oscar® fifty years later, the event was still overshadowed by protestors in the auditorium. Ten individuals refused to answer the committee's questions, including Trumbo, and were subsequently jailed for contempt of Congress. 

McCarthyism is a complex and fascinating subject, we recommend watching Goodnight and Good Luck, The Crucible and The Manchurian Candidate, as well as any Hollywood films produced at the time to learn more about it.


Linking the past with the present

The Trumbo filmmakers were keen to highlight the film's contemporary resonances and links to ongoing debates around freedom of speech. Director Jay Roach wanted to produce a thoughtful, entertaining film that captured the glamour of Hollywood at the time, but also wanted to remind audiences that the fundamental human right of freedom of speech is not always embraced as much as it should be across the world, both in terms of artistic expression and government control. 

A number of iconic movie stars appear as characters throughout Trumbo. For the actors playing them, the challenge was to capture the actors' unique persona and charisma, without reducing them to mere caricatures. This was perhaps most demanding for David James Elliot, who plays John Wayne, a man whose rugged, masculine persona made him a star at the time, but may seem rather dated to modern audiences. There's further distance created by Wayne's antagonistic stance towards the film's heroes. John Wayne, Kirk Douglas and Edward G. Robinson were three of the biggest screen idols of their era, and their appearance in the film is not incidental - all had crucial roles to play in the development of the story. It is a fascinating representation of the power that movie stars were able to yield at the time.

The power of the Media

One of the architects of Trumbo's downfall was Hedda Hopper. A former actress turned gossip columnist, Hopper was a writer of enormous influence, with a readership of millions. Taking against Trumbo and his allies, she wielded her pen to write scathing and vindictive smears, convincing her readers that these individuals were traitors. Gossip columnists carried huge weight across the film industry, as readers were fascinated by Hollywood and its movie stars. Today's media remain similarly obsessed with celebrities and exposing their fallibilities, whether it's related to their bodies, private lives, or political beliefs. Then, as now, an uneasy relationship existed between subject and writer, both being dependant on the other to varying degrees for remaining in the public eye. Films such as A Hard Days NightSunset BoulevardNotting Hill and Amy have all investigated this relationship between celebrities and the media that feed on them.

Politics and the Oscars®

Politics and Hollywood remain intertwined. Many of today's highest profile actors, such as Mark Ruffalo, Angelina Jolie, Leonardo DiCaprio and George Clooney continue to be known as much for their off-screen campaigning as for the films they produce. While he was blacklisted, Trumbo wrote two screenplays - The Brave One and Roman Holiday - that went on to win Oscars®. Trumbo couldn't claim his awards at the time, and it wasn't until 1993 that the Academy posthumously recognised his achievements and awarded his wife the statuettes he deserved. 

As recent controversy surrounding the Oscars® reminds us, the supposed frivolity of an awards ceremony can still carry tremendous symbolic weight and highlight darker facets of the industry that are often hidden beneath the glitz and glamour. Whether it's political persecution of individuals, straining relations within the industry, or addressing issues of diversity, Trumbo reminds us that Hollywood does not always represent its filmmakers and audiences as fairly and accurately as it might.

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Film Curator

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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