Editor’s Note: With the release of the new Bryan Cranston film Trumbo this week, NR is rerunning Ronald Radosh’s November 2013 piece on the the film’s Communist-screenwriter title character.
A few weeks ago, Deadline Hollywood announced that Bryan Cranston, straight from his starring role in TV’s Breaking Bad, will play the Communist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in the movie Trumbo, directed by Jay Roach, which will start filming next year. The film is based on a 1977 biography by Bruce Cook, who based his account on Trumbo’s own flawed narrative.
The truth was that Dalton Trumbo, undoubtedly a top-notch screenwriter, was no friend of free speech and the First Amendment, which he purported to defend when the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) investigated Communism in Hollywood in 1947. Along with the nine other writers, directors, and actors who were subpoenaed, Trumbo took the Fifth Amendment and declined to answer the committee’s questions, presenting himself as a defender of basic civil liberties.
Since then, the Hollywood Reds (or Hollywood Ten), as they were called, have been depicted in scores of films and documentaries as a group under attack by McCarthyites (though in 1947 Joseph McCarthy had just been elected senator from Wisconsin and would not become known as an anti-Communist for several years). The blacklisted writers are remembered as a group of innocent victims persecuted by reactionary, attention-grabbing congressmen. They had to fight the studio chiefs, the right wing, and the committee’s “friendly” witnesses — whom they branded “informers” who sold their own souls for the right to continue working by naming their old comrades as party members.
Disappointed readers wrote to Trumbo asking where they could obtain the novel to read. Trumbo invited the FBI to come to his home and gave them the names of those who had written to him requesting a copy of his book. The right wing, he told them, wanted to make his own censorship of the novel “a civil liberties issue.” So he informed on them, telling the agents that he feared they might be “acting politically” and might even oppose FDR. Some civil libertarian!
In later years he bragged how he had used his position to stop anti-Communist films from being made. Stalin, he said, was “one of the democratic leaders of the world,” so he used his position to stop Trotsky’s biography of the dictator from being filmed, and did the same with anti-Communist books by James T. Farrell, Victor Kravchenko, and Arthur Koestler, all of which he called “untrue” and “reactionary.” As he explained in 1954 to a fellow blacklisted writer, the Communist party had a “fine tradition . . . that whenever a book or play or film is produced which is harmful to the best interests of the working class, that work and its author should and must be attacked in the sharpest possible terms.”
Two years later, when many Communists learned some of the truth about Stalin from the Khrushchev speech, Trumbo wrote a comrade that he was not surprised. He explained that he had read the books by Koestler, George Orwell, James Burnham, Eugene Lyons, and Isaac Don Levine, who all had exposed the truth about the Soviet Union. These, of course, were the very books he had made sure would never be turned into movies. Trumbo supported Stalin, all the while knowing that he was a monster.
Years later Trumbo had second thoughts, which he largely kept private. In public he presented himself as a noble fighter against the unjust blacklist, and he gave a much-quoted 1970 speech about how no one came out of the time unsoiled; there were “only victims.” The public did not learn, however, that he had almost faced trial and expulsion from the Communist party on the grounds that he was guilty of “white chauvinism.”
That little-known episode showed how even a devout Red like Trumbo was not safe from the party’s political correctness. Members were regularly expelled for using terms such as “whitewash” or “black sheep.” Party leaders used the charge to settle scores, to climb up the ladder of leadership, and to get potential opponents out of the way. Trumbo’s problem was that he wrote a script in 1952 about the case of a woman named Jean Field, a white woman who was a devout believer in Kim Il Sung and North Korea’s Communist state, and who was in danger of losing custody of her children to her ex-husband. One of the charges that her ex levied against her was that she let her own children play with black youngsters their own age.
Field read Trumbo’s script and hit the ceiling. Accusing him of “RANK CHAUVINISM,” she singled out a sentence in which he described a black youngster as “clean and dressed in his Sunday best.” Field charged, and the party comrades agreed, that the implication was that the black child was “clean on only special occasions,” and hence the description was racist to the core. In fact, Trumbo replied, he had written “her son is in his best clothes,” and she had made up words he had not used. “Would it have pleased you,” he wrote to her, “if I had written ‘dirty and dressed in everyday clothes?’” To the party, he added that black children “get quite as dirty as your children,” and on special occasions, their parents “have just as much pride in their children as you do in yours.”
Traumatized by this episode, Trumbo suddenly understood what had caused so many party members to defect and even to inform and testify before HUAC. The CP, he told one screenwriter comrade, threw “a bucket of filth over me.”
Soon he acknowledged that he and his fellow members of the Hollywood Ten did not “perform historic deeds,” that in fact they took part in a circus orchestrated by Communist-party lawyers, all “to save [ourselves] from punishment.” Moreover, he even felt that his fellow Red screenwriters failed to get work not because they were Reds, but because they were “mediocrities,” all of whom failed to show “competence, ability [and] craftsmanship.”
Most of all, he said, one of the causes of the blacklist was not HUAC, but the very Leninist group they all pledged adherence to. In an unpublished 1958 article, Trumbo wrote that “the question of a secret Communist Party lies at the very heart of the Hollywood blacklist,” and that is why Americans believed the Communists had something to hide. They lived in the United States, not Stalin’s Russia, he wrote, and should have worked openly and put their ideas in the marketplace to be judged accordingly, rather than work in a Leninist cell. They should, he said, have been open Communists, or “not have been members at all.” The Communist party, he said, had exploited him and the others “for every left-wing cause that came down the pike,” and they all were nothing but “noble losers.”
He even admitted that the informers he had once hated had broken from the ranks “to avoid constant attempts to meddle with the ideological content” of their work and had good reasons to turn against their own comrades. Clearly, that conclusion stemmed from his own experience with the totalitarian group to which he belonged.
Judging from the publicity for the forthcoming movie, and from the book on which the Trumbo story will be based, none of the complex reality that informed Trumbo’s life will be depicted on the silver screen. Once more, Hollywood will honor John Ford’s famous axiom that if a legend has become the real story, go with the legend.
— Ronald Radosh is co-author of Red Star Over Hollywood: The Film Colony’s Long Romance with the Left. He is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute and a columnist for PJ Media.