Living With Trumbo Under the Blacklist

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If any movie deserves an Oscar this February 28, it is “Trumbo” with Bryan Cranston as best actor. The film is about James Dalton Trumbo (December 9, 1905 –September 10, 1976,) the screenwriter who broke the Hollywood Blacklist. When I first saw the trailer directed by Jay Roach, I broke down in convulsive sobs I worried neighbors would hear. See, I lived with the Trumbos for a year in the Hollywood Hills and the eight year-old inside me didn’t expect him to reappear as though for a hug, his thick mustache yellowing like the pages of a cherished book, sporting a khaki mechanic jump suit with “Trumbo” embroidered on the pocket. The trailer and film, thanks to Cranston, capture perfectly Trumbo’s feisty, non-compromising spirit and integrity, encapsulating the contradictions of the avuncular man, who joked with my mother as they watched me dog paddling in his pool, “Come the revolution, we’ll all have swimming pools.”

“Trumbo” screenwriter, John McNamra has received flack for a scene painting communism, my parents’ and Trumbo’s ideals, with humane brush strokes. When Trumbo’s daughter Niki confesses she would rather share her sandwich with a schoolmate who has forgotten his, even if she might still be hungry, Trumbo proudly tells her she is a communist.   The embodiment in a child of the altruistic ideals that birthed socialism—empathy and fairness, despite personal sacrifice—conveys pacifism, not the grave threat of violent overthrow McCarthy alleged.

While perhaps my parents’ community’s means to these universalities might be rethought today, their recognition that a “capitalist democracy” is an oxymoron is dawning on popular consciousness. After all, can a system which condones distributing half its wealth to 1% of its population and the other half to the remaining 99% be either equitable or a democracy? Trumbo himself described America as “fundamentally” racist, with racism “the keystone of national policy both domestic and foreign…” James Baldwin likewise described America as “Two Americas.”

Yet while my parents and the intelligentsia in their community were pacifist, working to support socialist politicians through the electoral system, they were demonized as treasonous. Thousands of radicals like my father were blacklisted throughout dozens of industries as “potential communists,” which meant their termination or exclusion from their professions.

My parents’ close friends, Dalton Trumbo, Albert Maltz, John Howard Lawson and Ring Lardner Jr., (M*A*S*H,) were jailed with six other Hollywood screenwriters and directors (Herbert J. Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott and Alvah Bessie) for “contempt of Congress”—refusing to answer the illegal questions about their private political affiliations put to them by the House Un-American Activities Committee or, as some prefer, HUAC—the sound made when spitting out a big wad of phlegm.

At the time, they were not protected by the Fifth Amendment: because thus far no one had been jailed for admitting to be communists, there was no proof of self-incrimination. Once these first “Hollywood Ten” had been jailed, the Fifth Amendment protected subsequent defendants from testifying against themselves and going jail, though not censure or job loss. My parents were not eager to be among these.

My father, George Pepper, a blacklisted Hollywood organizer and later producer who worked under the pseudonym George P. Werker (Luis Buñuel’s The Young One and Robinson Crusoe) dodged a subpoena by fleeing with my mother, Jeanette Gillerman, to Mexico City, where I was born. After Trumbo was released from ten months in jail, my parents’ move inspired the Trumbos to follow suit. Mexico is where Trumbo, under the pseudonym Robert Rich, wrote dozens of screenplays for the King Brothers. It is a shame Trumbo’s Mexico period in the 1950s was omitted from the film, perhaps because the casting would have been a nightmare to find actors to play Luis Buñuel, Bertold Brecht, Miguel Covarrubias, B. Traven, Marylyn Monroe, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and his model Nieves Orozco—my parents beloved community of intellectuals while in exile.

When my exiled father died of lung cancer, Cleo, my mom’s best friend, returned to Mexico D.F. to be of support, then took me back to the States until my mother settled her affairs. Thus began my year of foster care at the Trumbos, bringing a second act to what would have otherwise been an unmitigated tragedy. Not only did I see Trumbo writing in his bathtub, his toes all shriveled and cigar ashes occasionally drifting into the water—contrary to the movie, he welcomed interruptions at the marble bar that he had converted into a desk in his poolside “study.” According to my mother, some of the most creative stories he had invented were the ones to extend his deadlines. Then he’d essentially begin and finish works within that stolen time frame.

McNamara only hinted at Trumbo’s humor but overlooked his predilection for magic and practical jokes. Trumbo often told young pool guests like myself that the pool might contain pellets that would turn unwanted streams of urine red. From him I learned several magic tricks and developed a passion for the Hollywood’s Magic Store where I purchased rubber vomit that Trumbo pretended to flush down the toilet. Trumbo had once in jest flushed Niki’s plastic Magic Store dog poop down the toilet and actually swallowed Chris and Mitzi’s Magic Store rubber chocolates—or so I still believe. When he lived in Mexico, he had also swallowed whole the hottest red chiles available, feigning to masticate them thoroughly and inviting unsuspecting visitors to keep up with him.

I knew Trumbo as a director because of his work on the internationally-acclaimed anti-war movie he had adapted from his novel, Johnny Got His Gun. A couple of times, Timothy Bottoms came to the house—after he had recovered. The lead actor had suffered a breakdown prompted by his insistence on simulating, by floating in water, the soldier he would play who had lost all limbs in the war and could not hear, see, nor speak. It is a tragedy that the film “Trumbo” omits what is probably Trumbo’s finest creation and work of pure genius.

Regardless of its omissions, the film, based on Bruce Cook’s biography, Dalton Trumbo, deserves more than one Oscar. It is rare to see a Hollywood film with such superb writing, directing, producing and cinematography—which includes photographs by Dalton’s wife Cleo and daughter Mitzi. Casting by David Rubin and acting by Bryan Cranston and Diane Lane was so brilliant, by the end I couldn’t tell whether I was watching old footage of Trumbo or black and white footage of Cranston, so completely did the film suspend disbelief. In the film, Lane juggles, recalling Cleo’s early Vaudeville days. Indeed it was Cleo who taught me to juggle and stand on my head, (the latter earning me a trophy in a surf contest.)

Just days after her admission to a skilled nursing facility for an infection at ninety-eight, my mother Jeanette, a former economist, could barely piece together coherent sentences, but when asked about the film’s Hedda Hopper, she mustered all of her anger:   “She was a monster. A rabid reactionary republican gossip columnist!”

It’s possible that McNamara’s choice to vilify Hedda Hopper—instead of the repressive tendencies in the U.S. government or at the very least, witch hunts mastermind and Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy himself, or even Robert E. Stripling, the chief investigator for the HUAC interrogating Trumbo—was a hangover from the blacklist days. Today, if Hollywood movies mirror Stalinist propaganda films in that they’re poorly written and insulting to the average intelligence, it’s because the blacklist purged the industry of content and any rendition of reality at odds with the “American dream” or prevailing economic system. An almost comic case in point is a comparison of Robin Hood films prior and after the blacklist. In the post blacklist version, Robin Hood does not steal from the rich to give to the poor.

It is not surprising “Trumbo” unfolds in what is largely a political vacuum, evading the events and motivations for the blacklist. Omitting historical context, criticism or class consciousness is an old Hollywood sleight of hand favored during the McCarthy days that spread to other print and media industries.

“If Trumbo has a weakness,” writes Tim Cogshell,  “it’s the film’s failure to convey the depth and breadth of the Red Scare. Or the fact that it forever diminished America as an idea. America was less after the blacklist and that diminishment can be seen in the myriad investigations….”

This sentiment is expressed by Trumbo’s suppressed statement submitted to the House On Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. Post 9-11, the words have even greater resonance but might have prompted “Trumbo’s” marginalization:

“Already the gentlemen of this committee and others of like disposition have produced in this capital city a political atmosphere which is acrid with fear and repression… a city in which no union leader can trust his telephone… a city in which men and women who dissent even slightly from the orthodoxy you seek to impose, speak with confidence only in moving cars and in the open air. You have produced a capital city on the eve of its Reichstag fire. For those who remember German history in the autumn of 1932 there is the smell of smoke in this very room.”

Historian and Author Larry Ceplair (The Inquisition in Hollywood), who was consulted for “Trumbo,” says it “seriously undercut Trumbo’s politics and the deadly serious nature of writing on the black market.” He disapproves of the made up Edward G. Robinson scenes and the Arlen Hird character, a fictitious composite character that he says bore no resemblance to Hollywood Ten writers, though he says Samuel Ornitz did die shortly after being released from jail. There are other friendships of Trumbo’s whom, if substituted for the fictional composite, would have prevented McNamara from muddying the historical record for subsequent generations. McNamara would not have had to look very far to find an industry success who whose life was destroyed by his or her choice to defend socialist ideals. The Trumbos’ year in Mexico, hanging out with my parents could have sufficed.

Several of my parents’ friends were deported from Mexico, others jailed, one was even illegally renditioned in Mexico—“kidnapped by the FBI and brought back across the border,” according to my mother. My parents’ mail was read, some seized, including royalty payments from the States, their lives spied on. My mother lost her job teaching economics at Mexico City College when the university administration discovered she had been blacklisted. My father, frustrated that he could not return to the States and would be deported for organizing in Mexico, increased his tobacco consumption and died of cancer, just like the fictitious Arlen Hird.

Regardless of its flaws, I’m grateful to Roach, McNamara and crew for rescuing from the memory hole that skeleton known as McCarthyism and inserting Trumbo’s historical contribution into popular consciousness. Not in my wildest dreams did I imagine so much discussion and debate about that historical period and one of my muses. “Trumbo” has given a platform to many unknown talented radical writers with invaluable contributions that will help inform the next generation.

Just as Trumbo broke the blacklist by signing his name to the screenplays for Spartacus and Exodus, it is likely that Roach and McNamara have, with “Trumbo,” broken the blacklist against Hollywood movies sympathetic to the spirit of communism.   Ceplair agrees that “‘Trumbo’ is the best of the blacklist films.”   (For those who prefer documentary, Peter Askin’s 2007 “Trumbo” inspired by son Christopher Trumbo’s play by the same name, combines archival footage and readings of Trumbo’s personal letters.)

On December 19, 2011, the Writers Guild of America announced that Trumbo was given full credit for his work on the screenplay of the 1953 romantic comedy “Roman Holiday,” almost sixty years after the fact. This is the happy ending to the film, but it is in actuality a half-truth. The blacklist will truly be over when corporate radio, television, books and Hollywood movies stop screening out works that reflect the politics and economic interests of our multi-racial 99 percent and when all the blacklist victims get their names restored on films and DVDs that contain their work including my father, George Pepper.