Trumbo: Biopic of Blacklisted, Oscar-Winner Writer

Three decades after his death, screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo is remembered more as a victim of Cold War politics than as a hero or martyr in the battle to protect basic human rights. Like other members of the Hollywood Ten, he was convicted of contempt of Congress, blacklisted for refusing to name names and sent to prison for 11 months. Unlike most other writers, directors and actors in the same predicament, the Oscar-nominee was able to remain relatively prolific, even in self-imposed exile, albeit anonymously and for a bargain-basement wages.

The horrors of World War II were still fresh in the memories of most Americans when the House of Representatives began its long-running witch hunt for commies, pinkos and fellow travelers hidden in the woodwork of Hollywood studios, network newsrooms, the Pentagon and State Department. Years earlier, in the lead-up to war, Trumbo and other writers had openly expressed their pacifistic and anti-fascist beliefs, assuming they were protected by the Bill of Rights, if not common sense. Their collective naivet in this regard soon would be exploited by headline-hungry congressmen and a blood-thirsty Joseph Stalin.

As we are reminded in Christopher Trumbos compelling, if stage-bound epistolatory salute to his father and the courage of the Hollywood Ten, it hadnt taken long for America to forget such inspirational odes to democracy as A Guy Named Joe, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and the unfortunately titled, Tender Comrade. Neither did his nomination for Kitty Foyle cut much ice in Washington. HUAC wanted a spectacle, and where better to begin than in Hollywoods red-tinged guilds

Through letters and recorded testimony, Trumbo effectively makes the point that the Hollywood Ten hadnt attempted to dodge jail by invoking their Fifth Amendment right to protection from self-incrimination. Instead, they demanded that the panelists recognize their First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly–not that a rabidly anti-red citizenry would take the time to parse the difference.

Things could have gone a lot worse for Trumbo. He saw 16 of his screenplays produced under nearly as many assumed names, with The Brave One and Roman Holiday winning Oscars for Robert Rich and Ian McLellan Hunter. In 1960, Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger both seen in Trumbo — would demand he be credited for Exodus and Spartacus. He would continue to contribute high-profile screenplays until his death in 1976, at 70.

Theres no question he suffered mightily for his belief that the First Amendment granted the right to free speech to all Americans, not just those who owned printing presses, sprawling backlots or were granted a bully pulpit by the electorate. He eventually would take possession of the Oscar statuettes and be given proper credit for movies he wrote in the 50s. In movies, as in life, audiences love happy endings, and Trumbos subsequent success provided a satisfying story arc.

That certainly isnt the message Christopher Trumbo wants viewers to take away from Trumbo, which began its life on small off-Broadway stages. While not an outright petition for sainthood, the documentary does hedge on some of the less celebratory moments in his fathers flirtation with communism. His letters betray a cantankerous personality and flair for combative rhetoric, but the writer-director refuses to focus on his warts, even if fellow blacklistee Ring Lardner Jr. saw the humor in them:

“At rare intervals, Lardner said in his offbeat eulogy, there appears among us a person whose virtues are so manifest to all, who has such a capacity for relating to every sort of human being, who so subordinates his own ego drive to the concerns of others, who lives his whole life in such harmony with the surrounding community that he is revered and loved by everyone with whom he comes in contact. Such a man Dalton Trumbo was not.”

A true son of the American west, Trumbo rarely shied away from a good fight. Using words as his weapons, the Colorado native pummeled his opponents in ideological debates and in speeches delivered by characters in his screenplays. Although he actually did become a member of the American branch of Communist Party, in 1943, his work had more in common with Frank Capra than Lenin or Stalin.

Christopher Trumbo constructed his stage presentation from letters and carbons of letters (kids, ask your parents what these were) — his father wrote to his friends, foes and anyone else he felt was entitled to his opinion. If they gave awards for letter writing, Trumbo would have been a perennial nominee. In the documentary, his words are read by an all-star lineup of actors that includes Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Michael and Kirk Douglas, Paul Giamatti, Nathan Lane, Liam Neeson, David Strathairn, Dustin Hoffman, Christopher and Mitzi Trumbo.

Interspersed with the readings are personal reminiscences, newsreel clips from the HUAC hearings, home movies, photographs and scenes from movies well known and long-forgotten. While none are uninteresting, the greatest impact is left by the the footage taken at the hearings themselves.

With their orchestrated histrionics, pre-determined verdicts, groveling studio executives and hostile witnesses, the hearings resembled nothing so much as the then-popular Theater of the Absurd. Central Casting would have been hard-pressed to find actors who were anywhere near as monstrous as the human gargoyles on the committee and the writers who knew they couldnt put a happy ending on this cliffhanger. Trumbos letters, however brilliantly conceived and passionately read, still are unable to compete with the horror of watching our democratically elected leaders turn the House of Representatives into a kangaroo court. Knowing they had little to lose in a fixed trial, the defendants in the Chicago Conspiracy Trial learned a lesson from the Hollywood 10 and used it to make Judge Julius Hoffman look like a buffoon.

Trumbos biography would make a hell of a movie, but the monaural nature of letter writing and reading destroys any momentum generated by the news clips and interviews. Also absent in Trumbo is any discussion of the flip-flopping of Hollywood activists, as Moscow tried to decide whether to trust Hitler. Trumbo, for example, voluntarily pulled from circulation his powerful anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun, after Germany invaded Russia, and pacifism no longer was part of the official party line.

Its unlikely that Trumbo would find any joy writing screenplays in Hollywood, today. No ones making pictures that reward literacy and intellect anymore, and e-mail has eliminated the need to communicate through letters. Mores the pity.


Joan Allen
Brian Dennehy
Michael Douglas
Paul Giamatti
Nathan Lane
Josh Lucas
Liam Neeson
David Strathairn
Donald Sutherland
Emanuel Azenberg
Walter Bernstein
Larry Ceplair
Kirk Douglas
Peter Hanson
Dustin Hoffman
Lew Irwin
Kate Lardner
Helen Manfull
Victor Navasky
Jean Rouverol
Christopher Trumbo
Mitzi Trumbo


A Safehouse Pictures/Filbert Steps Prods. presentation. (International sales: Safehouse Pictures, New York.)
Produced by Will Battersby, Tory Tunnell, Alan Klingenstein, David Viola.
Written by Christopher Trumbo, based on his play.
Executive producer, Jim Kohlberg.
Co-producer, Kurt Engfehr.
Co-executive producers, Alan Hruska, Stelio Kitrilakis.
Directed by Peter Askin.
Original Music, Robert Miller.
Cinematography, Frank Prinzi.
Editing, Kurt Engfehr.
Production Design, Stephanie Carroll.

Running time: 96 minutes

Review by Gary Dretzka