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Trumbo (3/10)

by Tony Medley

Who could buy the idea that the Hollywood Ten (originally known as the “unfriendly ten”) were totally ignorant of the monster Stalin’s bestiality (annihilating 25,000,000 kulaks [that’s 25 million!] in the early ‘30s by starving them to death, torturing to death his closest companions in the mid-‘30s), and that they were simply dupes when they joined the Communist Party in the ‘30s and ‘40s? Who could buy the idea that they were really good guys who were just “misinformed,” like Rick in “Casablanca,” after World War II and Stalin’s Communists were enslaving all of Eastern Europe, when many of them continued to belong to the Party? For a treatment of what really happened without the Hollywood whitewash, I direct you to Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley’s “Hollywood Party,” published in 1998.

This film ignores all that. The basis of this film, a documentary about blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (to whom legendary director Billy Wilder was favorably referring when he said, “Two were talented, the other eight were just unfriendly”), is that these guys were just standing up for the First Amendment when they refused to name names.

All is not black and white here, however. Although of varying talent, they were all fairly articulate and made good appearances while they were refusing. On the other side were ham-handed politicians, like Chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), J. Parnell Thomas, who looked like he was a bumbling politician straight out of Al Capp’s “Li’l Abner,” so pompous and overbearing was he. Appropriately, Thomas was later jailed for accepting kickbacks. There was no reason for a Congressional investigation of Communist influence on the movies, just as there is generally no reason for any Congressional investigation. What, were they going to draft a law as a result of the hearing? Clearly not. Mostly Congressional hearings are simply PR campaigns to get publicity for pompous, blowhard Congressional Phoghorns, and that’s what the HUAC was all about. This was a conflict that nobody could win, but the Hollywood Ten has had all the best of it because present day Hollywood has rushed to their defense and made them secular saints.

But saints they weren’t, especially Trumbo.  According to Billingsley, Dalton was responsible for “The Screen Writer,” which was a supplement to “People’s Daily World.” Says Billingsley, “When Alvah Bessie attacked Fred Niblo, a studio veteran who had directed the silent version of ‘Ben Hur,’ the publication refused to allow Niblo a response and rejected letters by other prominent non-Communist writers.”

Bessie later wrote one of the many propaganda tomes about the blacklist, “Inquisition in Eden: The American Inquisition 1945-1969.” Bessie should have known about inquisitions because he was a leader in the excoriation and forced recantation of Albert Maltz in 1946 over a period of a week. This was because of an article Maltz wrote in “New Masses” called “What Shall We Ask of Writers?” in which Maltz committed the cardinal sin of criticizing “the atmosphere and thinking of the literary left wing” as being “based upon a shallow approach.” Immediately after Maltz’s abject surrender, Trumbo was appointed to the board of a new Marxist literary magazine, joining Bessie, John Howard Lawson, Howard Fast and other committed Communists.

According to local Communist Dorothy Healey, Trumbo was one of those who would do “whatever they were asked.” Trumbo himself wrote, “Every screen writer worth his salt wages the battle in his own way—a kind of literary guerrilla warfare.” Trumbo and his fellow travelers were definitely not the victims that Hollywood encourages everyone to pity.

But from a PR point of view, because of the ineptitude of Thomas and his compadres, the Hollywood Ten got the high road. Who can criticize Larry Parks (Al Jolson in 1946’s “The Jolson Story”) when he pleads, “I’m here to talk about myself. Please don’t make me talk about anyone else.”?

The point of this film is that Trumbo and the rest sacrificed all for a principle, the Constitutional right of free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. And that is the result of what they did. Their careers and lives were ruined, or at least grossly affected, but not all for a principle. That’s only what Hollywood wants you to believe. It’s a great story if you don’t know the back story. Those who did name names, like Elia Kazan (“On The Waterfront” among others), continued with little or no effect on their careers. But in today’s Hollywood, Kazan’s memory is treated like he’s a pariah when to people who know what really happened he is a hero.

Unfortunately, director Peter Askin has chosen to tell the story by recreating the play “Trumbo” by Dalton’s son, Christopher. There are three mediums, letters, plays, and movies. They don’t mesh well. Plays are sometimes translated into film, but the successful ones, few and far between, need lots of change to be successful as a film. Letters simply don’t translate into either. Letters are written to be read silently, not spoken aloud. Even though Trumbo’s letters are read by accomplished actors (all from the left), Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Michael Douglas (whose father, Kirk, gave Trumbo his first post-HUAC credit for “Spartacus” in 1960; up until then Trumbo had written under pseudonyms), Paul Giamatti, Nathan Lane, Josh Lucas, Liam Neeson, David Strathairn, and Donald Sutherland, they don’t translate cinematically. The mind wanders. Particularly ineffective is the one read by Lane. I just couldn’t concentrate, and it takes concentration. Trumbo was a screenwriter. I don’t think he ever thought his letters would be read aloud to an audience.

I want to see Hollywood make a film about the Unfriendly Hollywood Ten that tells both sides of the story. What these people were promoting is as important to the story as the way they were treated. Today’s Hollywood ignores their Communism, what it stood for, and that they were supporting a Soviet-style despotism in America.

Because of the reading of letters and the political bias, the film only comes alive with archival footage of the HUAC hearings and interviews with Trumbo himself. When the letter-readers come on, it slows to a snails-pace, and that’s most of the film.

June 19, 2008