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The blacklisted Hollywood writer who won two Oscars



On 22 June 1950, the notorious Red Channels pamphlet was published, implicating some of Hollywood’s biggest stars as communists.

As part of the “Red Scare” that followed, Dalton Trumbo – who went on to write Roman Holiday and Spartacus – was accused of spreading subversive ideas through his films, and imprisoned. In 1960, he told the BBC about his experiences.

When the BBC interviewed screenwriter Dalton Trumbo beside his Hollywood swimming pool in 1960, he had just written the scripts for two of the year’s biggest movies. Despite this runaway success, interviewer Robert Robinson observed in him a “certain reticence”, guessing that he had “no wish to revive old feuds”. It was no wonder he felt a little bruised.

Jailed, blacklisted by Hollywood and forced to work in secret under a series of fake names, Trumbo had spent the past 13 years being battered by the US anti-communist witch hunt. All he had done was refuse to tell a US government committee in 1947 if he was a communist, as he felt under the First Amendment he had the legal right to hold any political views he wanted.

Of course, Trumbo had been a member of the Communist Party but that wasn’t the point, and in any case, he was far from a stereotypical “Red”. He later told the BBC: “I never felt the slightest guilt about making what I earned – the pictures were making millions. If I got a small part, fine, I enjoyed it. The idea of guilt, I’m not puritanical, would have startled me.”

Born in 1905, Trumbo’s writing career took off in the 1930s and by the end of the decade, he was one of Hollywood’s highest-paid screenwriters. In that era, Hollywood was isolated from the worst of the Great Depression thanks to its popular and lucrative escapism in a troubled world, but a strong social conscience was stirring among some in the entertainment industry.

Trumbo later told the BBC in 1973: “People joined the Communist Party because it was doing things that they felt should be done. It was opposing the rise of fascism all through Europe. It was helping those who were refugees.”

Subversion through cinema

The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), which later became notorious for its scrutiny of the film industry, was formed in 1938 to investigate “subversive” tendencies such as communist links.

However, with the advent of World War Two, shifting allegiances made for strange bedfellows. Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 meant that Stalin’s communist Russia was suddenly an ally of the US.

Hollywood did its bit for the war effort with a few pro-Soviet films such as 1943 curio Mission to Moscow. Its director, Michael Curtiz, had won the best director Oscar a year earlier for Casablanca.

But when the war ended, the US and the Soviet Union’s uneasy alliance crumbled, ushering in a new era of Cold War paranoia. This worry about the perceived threat of communism was the perfect environment for HUAC to expand its influence.

In 1947, Trumbo was one of 10 Hollywood writers and directors put on the stand during its hearings on alleged communist propaganda in the movie business. One question was repeatedly asked of them: “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?”

In response, Trumbo said: “I believe I have the right to be confronted with any evidence which supports this question. I should like to see what you have.” His answer did not go down well. All of the “Hollywood 10” refused to testify and were found guilty of contempt of Congress.

As Trumbo recalled to the BBC’s Robert Robinson in 1960, the studio heads convened a meeting at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel where they announced the decision to blacklist the 10 men. He said: “They made this announcement that 10 persons who had refused to divulge before the committee their political affiliation would no longer be employed in the Hollywood motion picture industry, as they call it. I hate to call it an industry.”

While HUAC was the high-profile face of the anti-communist investigations, other Hollywood suspects were targeted more insidiously by a pamphlet called Red Channels, published in 1950. Among those implicated were actors Edward G Robinson and Orson Welles, writers Arthur Miller and Dashiell Hammett, musicians Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland and performers Lena Horne and Burl Ives.
Subtitled “the report of communist influence in radio and television”, inclusion on the list was enough to damage or even finish a career. The repercussions for Trumbo were even more severe.

In the same month that Red Channels was published, Trumbo went to prison for his conviction, or as he told the BBC with heavy irony, “I was given excellent board and lodging at the Federal Correctional Institution in Ashland, Kentucky for a year.”

Hitting rock bottom

Upon his release from jail, Trumbo’s name and reputation had been wiped out by the blacklist. Unable to find work in California, he moved with his family to Mexico City. He said: “I remained there two years. I was not happy. I also went spectacularly broke. And I returned and we have lived here ever since.”

No longer able to write scripts using his own name, he had to turn to the black market to beat the blacklist. “I had methods of circumventing it so that I was never entirely out of work,” he admitted to the BBC.

“However, the persons who were in a position to gamble for my services, that is to gamble that my relationship with the picture would not be revealed to the picture’s ultimate damage, were doing less expensive pictures and hence I earned much less money.”

He was forced to write under a series of pseudonyms or by using other writers as a front for his work. While some screenplays were for B-movies that lacked the prestige of his pre-blacklist work, they also included the 1953 classic Roman Holiday, starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck.

In 1957, under his imaginary alias Robert Rich, Trumbo won the Oscar for best original screenplay for The Brave One, a story about a boy and his pet bull.

Trumbo would later tell the BBC: “A number of claimants came forth, saying they were Robert Rich, or that the story really had been stolen from them. It was a very serious problem to admit that I had done it, and I certainly was going to say nothing because you cooperate with your man. And I must say, confidence in that period was beautifully kept… We had a mutual interest, which was economic.”

The absurdity of the situation exposed cracks in the Hollywood blacklist, and Trumbo could manoeuvre himself back into the mainstream movie business. First, he was hired openly by producer Otto Preminger to write the screen adaptation for Exodus, Leon Uris’s best-selling 1958 novel about the creation of the state of Israel. Next, Hollywood star Kirk Douglas picked him to write the screenplay for Spartacus, directed by Stanley Kubrick.

Both films were released in 1960, and by the time Trumbo was interviewed by the BBC, he was confident that the blacklist had been effectively smashed. By the time of Trumbo’s death in 1976, times had changed and he was fully vindicated.

A year earlier, while in poor health, he finally received his Oscar for The Brave One. In 1993, 40 years after the release of Roman Holiday, Trumbo was posthumously awarded an Oscar for his screenplay for that film. Trumbo himself was the subject of a Hollywood biopic in 2015. Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston was Oscar-nominated for his wry portrayal of the writer.

Towards the end of his life, Trumbo acknowledged that in some ways he had been more fortunate than some other people caught up in the “Red Scare”. “It was a matter of total disaster for others – financial, matrimonial, for some of their children,” he said. “And, you know, the success of a few should not temper the frightful quality of what went on. It was terrible.”



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