Why the Lies of “Trumbo” Matter

Michael Bernick
Former California Employment Development Department Director, whose newest book is The Autism Job Club (with R. Holden).

trumbo

(This is a slightly expanded version of an essay of mine that appeared the past Sunday in the San Francisco Chronicle “Insight” section. I asked our publisher Mr. Fox to include today, and he agreed. This mid-twentieth century period in California politics, though relatively little-known by recent generations, continues to have great relevance for our politics today.)

The movie “Trumbo”, currently in Bay Area theatres makes a hero of Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and others of the Hollywood Ten, and villainizes their political opponents in Hollywood, including actors John Wayne and Robert Taylor and columnist Hedda Hopper.

Since it was released, several historians, led by Ronald Radosh and Ron Capshaw (here and here), have come forward to expose how the movie whitewashes both Trumbo’s support of repressive regimes, especially the Soviet Union of the Stalinist period, and Trumbo’s attempts to silence anti-communist opponents of the time. As someone involved some decades ago in the anti-communist left, I’d like to add a few words on why the movie’s lies should not go unchallenged, and why the issues raised are timely today.

The movie focuses on Trumbo’s life in the late 1940s and 1950s. Trumbo had started in Hollywood as a screenwriter in 1935, and over the next decade, achieved enormous success and wealth as a screenwriter, for such movies as A Man to Remember (1938), Kitty Foyle (1940) and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944). His 1939 anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun, won the National Book Award, and at one time he was the highest paid screenwriter in the industry.

In the 1930s, Trumbo also became an active member of the Communist Party in California and its front groups. After World War II, he and other writers, directors and actors also active in the Party, refused to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities about their Party membership, and were convicted of contempt of Congress. Trumbo served almost a year in prison, and subsequently was blacklisted. For nearly a decade he wrote scripts using either pseudonyms or other writers as fronts, before being credited publicly with the screenplay of Spartacus and then the adaptation for Exodus. His screenwriting success helped hasten the end of the blacklist.

The movie portrays Trumbo and the fellow writers as gentle individuals fighting for worker rights and civil rights, brought down by the bigotry and meanness of elected officials from middle America and the right. In an early scene, Trumbo explains to his young daughter that communism is a mainly about sharing, for example sharing your sandwich with a classmate who is hungry. He speaks to a union rally telling the studio workers on strike that they create the wealth and should have a fair share. His daughter Nikola is active in civil rights and integrating restaurants.

As historians Radosh and Capshaw have set out, this portrayal of Trumbo and the Party activities in California could not be further from the truth. Trumbo was an active apologist for the 1930s Stalinist purges, secret police and state control in the Soviet Union, and continued to support Stalin up through the 1950s—terming Stalin one of the “democratic leaders of the world”. When the German-Soviet Pact was signed in 1939, Trumbo became a critic of Great Britain’s opposition to Hitler’s Germany, and urged American non-intervention. It was only when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 that Trumbo turned against Germany, and became a supporter of American war efforts.

Far from being in favor of free speech, Trumbo in his role as editor of The Screen Writer , the publication of the Screen Writers Guild, and with his growing Hollywood prominence, went out of his way to silence critics of the Soviet Union and anyone he deemed against the interests of workers. Historian Radosh notes that Trumbo took steps to block movies by anti-Communist authors Arthur Koestler, James Farrell and Victor Kravchenko whose works he deemed “untrue and reactionary.” He wrote 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.”

There is a significant and growing literature on Dalton Trumbo, his colleagues and the Communist Party in Hollywood , which I’d urge readers to review. Today, we look back and see the collapse of the Soviet Union as inevitable, but that was far from the case during this period. In debate were the big questions of individual freedoms and democracy, and the debates continue to have relevance today.

For example, you wouldn’t know it from the movie, but there were many people on the left who opposed Trumbo and the Party. These included liberal Democrats such as Eleanor Roosevelt, trade unionists, and democratic socialists, such as Michael Harrington. I first became involved in democratic socialist politics in the early 1970s when Harrington was the national leader of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee. Though the Communism Party in America was no longer a force, Harrington continued to warn against attempts by self-declared worker parties to curtail individual rights or democracy. His thoughtful warnings remain timely.

Further, our understanding of the period has been enriched in the past two decades with the opening of the Soviet archives documenting Moscow’s ties with Americans during the 1940s and 1950s. One fact most relevant to the movie: the claims of the villainized Trumbo opponents, John Wayne and Hedda Hopper, turn out to be correct regarding the ties of Hollywood communists to Moscow, as well as the Party’s efforts to control the ideology in movies.

Morrie Ryskind, the screenwriter for a number of the Marx Brothers films (Animal Crackers, Night at the Opera, Room Service) was one of the persons in the film industry who stood up to Communist attempts to take over union operations and the Screen Writers Guild—talk about the Marxist dialectic turned on its head. His son Allan, reflected recently about “Trumbo”, including what the new archival materials has revealed (here).

Finally, it’s worth noting that Trumbo’s life and thought were far more complex than presented in the movie. He left the Party in the late 1950s, after the Party turned on him for “white chauvinism” (based on a depiction of an African-American boy in one of his unpublished scripts). Historian Radosh has unearthed a 1958 unpublished article and several letters by Trumbo in which Trumbo denounced the Party’s secrecy and thought control.

Later in his life, Trumbo was honest enough to reflect critically on his earlier actions. Read the books about him and his times; if you decide to view this movie, do so with appropriate skepticism.

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Addendum: Question has arisen regarding how this film came to be made. The director of this film is Jay Roach, who directed Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery and Meet the Parents. The screenwriter is John McNamara, who did the TV show, Lois and Clark. Both of these gentlemen have skills in storytelling and filmmaking. But they are way out of their league in addressing a serious, complex political topic. How was such a movie greenlighted? I’d welcome hearing from any readers who know.

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