Why “Trumbo” is One of the Most Important Films Ever Made

When I ran into a fellow member of New York Film Critics Online last night following the press screening of Trumbo that opens everywhere on November 6th (unlike most films that I review, this one gets full-page ads in the NY Times), he asked me what I thought. My response: “If you can see only one film this year, it should be Trumbo. Furthermore, if you can see only one film for the rest of your life, it might also be Trumbo, a desert island selection next to Citizen Kane or Modern Times.

This is a film that obviously matters a lot more to me than the average Hollywood film that has become not only distressingly escapist but poorly made as well, the quality of which tends to be in inverse proportion to the amount of money it costs to make. Making a biopic in 2015 about the famous blacklisted screenwriter with a cast of notables including Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad in the lead role should get the attention of any CounterPunch reader but when such a film is so head and shoulders over every American film made this year in terms of direction, screenplay, acting, incidental music, and costume design, it becomes one for the ages.

Dalton Trumbo joined the Communist Party in 1943 at the age of 38 and at the peak of his career. Despite the claims of the witch-hunters that they were trying to purge an industry of traitors spreading pro-Soviet messages, Trumbo’s screenplays were mostly fluff such as Sorority House or Curtain Call. There were some that had a “message” such as Heaven With a Barbed Wire Fence whose protagonists included an undocumented worker whose parents died in the Spanish Civil War but the film was much more about human drama than the need for open borders. His screenplay for the 1943 Tender Comrade that was directed by fellow Communist Edward Dmytryk was about women anxiously awaiting the return of their husbands from the war and not how to overthrow capitalism. The title referred to a Robert Louis Stevenson poem “My Wife” that was about the bonds of a married couple, words appropriate to such a film:

Teacher, tender, comrade, wife,

A fellow-farer true through life,

Heart-whole and soul-free

The august father

Gave to me.

Like most Communists, Trumbo had little idea in 1943 that even a title like this might eventually get him in trouble. In the first signs that a witch-hunt was brewing, Trumbo joins other party members in passing out pamphlets making the case for constitutional rights in the hallways outside a HUAC session in Washington where he spots John Wayne who begins red-baiting him. When Trumbo replies that the war was about defeating the fascists who opposed free speech, Wayne doubles down. He tosses the pamphlet Trumbo gave him on the floor and tells him to go back to Russia. When Trumbo reminds the Duke that he spent WWII on the backlots of Hollywood rather than on the battlefield, the ex-football player who towered over Trumbo looked ready to punch him in the mouth. Always one prepared for the perfect rejoinder either in word or deed, Trumbo takes off his glasses and invites him to take the first shot in the full view of a battery of photographers.

This confrontation derives from Bruce Cook’s biography that was adapted into a screenplay by John McNamara. It was reported widely at the time including in Hedda Hopper’s gossip column. Hopper, like fellow dirtbag Walter Winchell, was crusading to deprive Trumbo and any other CP’er of the right to make films. When Trumbo is in the office with studio boss Louis B. Mayer a few days after the confrontation to sign the most lucrative contract in Hollywood history, he is urged to avoid being in the news in the future, especially in Hedda Hopper’s column. Trumbo responds that if Mayer didn’t want to read about such incidents, he should avoid her column.

Helen Mirren plays Hedda Hopper with a malicious glee as well she might. Politically on the left for many years, she had an incentive to depict the gossip columnist as a real villain. But instead of turning in a cartoonish performance, she like every other actor adopts a measured and nuanced manner that helps to reinforce the film’s value as a recreation of a particularly dark moment in American history.

Another member of an outstanding ensemble cast, as my fellow members of NYFCO call it, is Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson who while not being identified as a party member was clearly sympathetic. When money is needed to pay for the legal defense, Robinson sells a Van Gogh to help out. After Trumbo is sent to prison for contempt of congress, the pressure continues to mount on everybody in Hollywood who was either a CP’er, a friend of the party, or maybe just someone who held a fundraiser at their home for the Spanish Republican cause.

Robinson was one of those swept up in the dragnet. He tells HUAC that he was duped by the CP and names names, including Dalton Trumbo. Years later after Trumbo has been released from prison and begins working again using an assumed name, he goes to Robinson’s mansion to repay him for the donation. Robinson tells him that the return of the money was Trumbo’s way of demonstrating his purity. He also says that he had no choice—he hadn’t worked in a year. When Trumbo reminds him that he spent time in prison as well as losing his livelihood. Robinson points out that unlike Trumbo he could not use an assumed name. Pointing to his memorable mug, he says that he was stuck with the identity of Edward G. Robinson for life. To the great credit of the screenwriters, they make Robinson’s act of naming names understandable even if it remained unforgiveable. Other actors in a similar situation reached the point of no return. Broadway actor Philip Loeb overdosed on sleeping pills in the Taft Hotel in New York on September 1, 1955.

While all the cast members are seasoned professionals superbly directed by Jay Roach, who like Trumbo had a career mostly based on fluff such as the Austin Powers comedies, there is one performance that must be singled out. Louis CK plays Arlen Hird, a composite of Hollywood Reds much more committed to using film for exposing capitalist evils than Trumbo. In a great scene between the two characters that takes place when they are writing junk for a low-rent production company willing to take the risk of using blacklisted writers since it came cheap, Trumbo chastises Hird for including lines about bourgeois society, etc. in a script that involves a creature from outer space with the head of an insect hooking up with a farmer’s daughter. Hird says that this is always what he wanted to do, to make films a means to the end of changing society. He is not like Trumbo whose main interest in defying and eventually ending the blacklist was to restart his career so he could enjoy being rich once again.

That is how the film ends, with Trumbo finally being able to work in his own name again on films such as Spartacus and Exodus. Kirk Douglas told the studio bosses that if they fired Trumbo, he would quit the film himself. Since he was Spartacus, they had no choice. Preminger, the director of Exodus who always arrived at Trumbo’s modest home (forced upon him by the blacklist) in a Rolls Royce limousine was apparently stiff-necked enough to take on the red-baiters.

And my nomination right now for best actor of 2015 is Bryan Cranston, if not for all time, in his portrayal of Dalton Trumbo. He brings a weight and a thoughtfulness to his performance that is truly remarkable. Although I loved him in Breaking Bad (who wouldn’t), I never would have imagined him becoming Dalton Trumbo. For people who never had much awareness of what Lillian Hellman called the “scoundrel time”, it is an incentive to have such a marketable actor in a key role. One hopes that the film will generate a huge box office success since it will go a long way in teaching people about the indifference the ruling class had toward the bill of rights in the 1950s.

While the red-baiters were generally associated with the right wing of the Republican Party, liberals occasionally got into the act. My first exposure to how Trumbo could turn the tables on them just easily as he could on John Wayne or Hedda Hopper occurred in 1970, when I read the famous exchange between Trumbo and Steve Allen that had been reprinted in the January edition of Esquire Magazine. Titled “The Happy Jack Fish Hatchery Papers”, it grows out of Allen’s open letter to the committee to elect Tom Bradley, an African-American who was running for Mayor in Los Angeles. Allen, who had formerly been the host of the Tonight show on NBC, stated that he would have to have his name removed from the invitation letter to a fundraising party at Trumbo’s house since Trumbo had at one time been associated with “totalitarianism.” Here is one of Trumbo’s replies to Steve Allen:

Miss Betty Drew June 2, 1969

Secretary to Mr. Steve Allen

Encino, California

Miss Brew:

Thanks for informing me of Mr. Allen’s absence from the city and his intention to answer my letters when he returns. I must tell you, however, that from my point of view his Indianapolis and Northern California commitments have not come at a convenient time.

He won’t believe this (at first I didn’t either) but Sunday evening Mrs. Trumbo and I were invited to dine person to person and face to face with he-knows-who in the house of a mutual friend. Knowing how gross an abuse of free speech and assembly my presence at such an affair would constitute, dreading the impact of a second apostolic interdiction while not yet fully recovered from the first, I heard a voice remarkably like my own begging off with the idiot’s excuse that we were departing the city Friday noon for a Mexican holiday which hadn’t entered my mind until that moment.

Since a chap in my position has to be even more scrupulous with the truth than Caesar with his wife’s, or vice versa, there was nothing for it but to transmute my lie into its opposite by immediate proclamation of a southbound hegira to begin no later than Friday noon, June 6, 1969.

Mrs. Trumbo, I’m sorry to report, didn’t take the news at all well. For some years she has been doing whatever she can for a group of young preteenage and hopefully prepregnant sub-Aquarians who foregather throughout the mating season (June 1 through August 31) each Saturday afternoon at Happy Jack’s Fish Hatcheries, 8041 North San Gabriel Canyon Road in Azusa, where they receive much enlightenment from pisciculture in general, and in particular from unblinking observation of the relatively chaste techniques which characterize the breeding habits of even the most concupiscent among the fishes.

At their last meeting (end of August, 1968), in a somewhat rowdy but nonetheless moving demonstration of gratitude and loyalty, the youngsters unanimously chose Mrs. Trumbo to be Vice-Den Mother for their 1969 season which begins, as anyone with a calendar at hand can see, on Saturday next.

I had written for the occasion a rather stirring First Inaugural Address (based in part on Mr. Allen’s Epistle to the Thespians) which can be rattled off in just under forty-seven crackling minutes; and Mrs. Trumbo, having memorized and come to believe it, thought poorly of a command holiday which was bound to spoil what she has lately taken to calling-sentimentally, perhaps, but not unjustifiably-her Vice-Den Mother’s Day among the pisciculturians.

Ethics, however, is ethics, and my honor, when it comes to a showdown, invariably takes precedence over hers. Result: we depart Los Angeles International Airport on Western Airlines’ Flight Number 601 on Friday, June 6, 1969, for Mexico City, where we shall be met by chartered car, driven forthwith to Cuernavaca, and lodged at Privada de Humboldt 92. Our mailing address, however, will be Apartado 1292, Cuernavaca, Morelos, etc. We can be reached by telephone almost daily between the hours of three and six-thirty A.M., central standard time, at Cuernavaca 2-31-38.

And why, do you ask, have we been put to all this hurly and scurly and involuntary aggravating unexpected burly? Because I, in Sunday’s moment of mistruth, had no stern critic at hand to straighten my morals and narrow the range of my political and social pretensions. So much for NCLers who rush off to rival Communists for the political affections of the masses without preschooling their own acolytes in the mysteries of honest unilateral action.

Most respectfully,

Dalton Trumbo

P.S. The Ninth Earl has somehow leapt to the untidy conclusion that Burt Lancaster is under house arrest as a carrier of Huntington’s chorea. Although I have done everything in my poor power to explain that no man on earth can carry a pestilence like H’s c (he has to haul it), I might just as well have spent my time hollering down some neighbor’s empty grain barrel. He has filed an emergency application with the Chula Vista branch of Travelers Aid for immediate transport to the Control Institute in Oman and Muscat, and compels his entire household, including two of the most dejected old family retainers you’ve ever seen, to wallow with him thrice daily in tubs of boiling Lysol hugely adulterated with white lye, sheep dip, and magnums of granulated loblolly flambe en brochette.

Raw-wise, the skins around that house have passed the point of no return, and for some reason I can’t fathom old Linster has tried four nights running to deposit the whole begrutten mess (the Sixth Earl married a Scotswoman described by a contemporary as “begrutten of face, large of wen and warp but small woof) at rnv doorstep. For all his breeding, which I am told has been prodigious the big L shows every sign of becoming, as we say in my middle-class but hopeful precinct, just one more unwanted and ungrateful anguis in herba.

cc: Mr. Eason Monroe, Mr. Tom Bradley, Mr. Burt Lancaster, Mr George Plimpton, The Hon. Mr. Lyndon B. Johnson, The Ninth Earl of Linster, Estate of Harold Bell Wright, Mr. Haroldson Lafayette Hunt, Mr. Gus Hall, The Rev. Dr. Billy Graham, Al-Ibrahim Institute for Control of Huntington’s Chorea, Princess Conchita Pignatelli, Estate of Miss Brenda Holton, Happy Jack Fish Hatcheries

In the interests of making Trumbo’s delicious wit and principled politics available for posterity, I might just find time in my busy schedule to scan in and post the remainder of his ripostes to Steve Allen, a symbol of liberal bad faith second to none.

Louis Proyect blogged at https://louisproyect.wordpress.com and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.