Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Trumbo (Bleecker Street Films, ShivHans Pictures, Groundswell Productions, Universal, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night the “feature” Charles and I watched was Trumbo, a quite good movie about the Hollywood blacklist of the late 1940’s and 1950’s, in which the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) announced an investigation of Hollywood in 1947. Ostensibly their purpose was to — in the modern phrase — “de-fund the Left” by identifying major Hollywood stars and filmmakers who were giving large donations either to the Communist Party itself or its network of front groups, and intimidate them into stopping those contributions. It was also to expose Communist propaganda Left-wint filmmakers, especially writers, had allegedly slipped into film scripts. The last charge was true, but only to an infinitesimal extent; occasionally one can watch a movie written by a Communist like Dalton Trumbo or Lester Cole and detect a few lines that reference class struggles and the like, though you didn’t have to be a Communist to entertain Depression-era movie audiences with stories that hinted that maybe, just maybe, rich people weren’t super-intelligent, godlike figures the rest of us should stand back and revere. The line — to use a Communist phrase — changed abruptly when World War II ended and the Soviet Union, our allies against Germany and Japan in the war, emerged as at best a worldwide rival and at worst a bitter enemy, committed to imposing Communist tyranny on the rest of the world. HUAC’s initial investigation focused on two groups of witnesses, the “friendlies” and the “unfriendlies.”

The “friendlies” were people like studio head Jack L. Warner, Motion Picture Projectionists’ Union chief Roy M. Brewer (the real power behind the blacklist; though he’s only shown in this movie in one brief archival film clip, it was he more than any other single individual who made the blacklist effective by ordering his union members not to project any films that involved blacklisted talent), Right-wing actors Adolphe Menjou, Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck and John Wayne, and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who in Trumbo screenwriter John McNamara’s version of the tale becomes sort of the Evil Genie, the Dark Eminence behind the blacklist. The original “unfriendlies” were eight writers, of whom Trumbo, John Howard Lawson and Lester Cole were the most prominent and successful (a lot of the others were not big-time screenwriters but people like Alvah Bessie and Albert Maltz who had been war correspondents in the Spanish Civil War and who were brought to Hollywood by studio producers who hoped their expertise would help with making credible World War II films), along with producer Adrian Scott and director Edward Dmytryk, who between them had made the classic film noir Murder, My Sweet and helped burned-out musical star Dick Powell (a conservative and a member of the blacklist-supporting Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals) make a comeback as a noir actor. (There was an eleventh “unfriendly,” Bertolt Brecht, who basically evaded the whole thing by playing word-games with the committee; confronted with an English-language script for a film that had his name on it as a writer, Brecht pointed out that he didn’t know English well enough to write in it and he had written a German script whose content may or may not have literally got lost in translation. (Brecht was in a hurry to get back to Communist-dominated East Germany and didn’t want his departure delayed by a year in an American jail serving a sentence for contempt of Congress.)

The Hollywood Ten and their supporters in liberal Hollywood (who, at least until they were scared off by committee and/or studio pressure, included such luminaries as Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Huston and Katharine Hepburn) worked out a strategy by which, asked the committee’s infamous question — “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?” — they would essentially work out an answer that would establish the idea that under the U.S. Constitution the committee didn’t have the right to ask that question. They knew that would probably mean they would be found guilty of contempt of Congress and threatened with a year in federal prison, but they were hoping that all the liberals President Franklin Roosevelt had put on the U.S. Supreme Court would reverse the verdicts, put HUAC out of business and set them free. Then two of the Court’s strongest liberals, Frank Murphy and Wiley Rutledge, died within weeks of each other in 1949, and though Roosevelt’s successor as president, Harry Truman, was also a Democrats, his Court picks were considerably to the Right of FDR’s and they joined the Court’s conservatives and moderates in upholding the constitutionality of the blacklist and the anti-Communist laws Congress passed during the early stages of the Cold War. Trumbo picks up the story in 1947, when Dalton Trumbo’s commercial success — he’s bought a ranch house on a large estate just outside of Los Angeles where he’s living with his wife and three kids, and he’s just signed a three-year no-options contract with MGM (“no options” were magic words in Hollywood in the age of the studio system; typically movie contracts bound the talent for up to seven years but the studio for only three months, after which the studio had the option to keep you under contract or fire you — and for decades “option time” was a high stress point for just about everyone who worked in the film business), when he sees a newsreel announcing HUAC’s upcoming investigations of Hollywood, featuring Hedda Hopper proudly boasting that the committee will soon clean up the Red stains that threaten to engulf Hollywood.

The blacklist costs the Unfriendly 10 their freedom and about a year of their lives, and when they get out they find that the studios have imposed a policy that no one named as a Communist, sympathizer or “fellow traveler” can work in the movie business. But the studios still need scripts, and cheap-jack producers like Frank and Hymie King (John Goodman and Stephen Root — incidentally Frank King was for real but his brother/partner was really named “Maurice”!) need them even worse, enough that they’re willing to pay Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) and his blacklisted confreres under the table for scripts as long as the writers don’t seek on-screen credit for them and deliver them in virtual cloak-and-dagger ways (in the film Trumbo’s kids get tired of being pressed into service as couriers for manila envelopes containing his scripts) and at warp speed — which causes Trumbo to become addicted to amphetamines in order to maintain the workaholic schedule working under such conditions requires of him. At one point fellow blacklistee “Arlen Hird” (Louis C. K.) — a fictitious character McNamara blended together from the lives of several real blacklisted writers — has an outer-space alien delivering collectivist ideals in a script in which the alien is supposed to have an affair with an Earth woman (though in real-life 1950’s Hollywood such a story line would itself have been politically verboten: not only would it have been too kinky to pass the Production Code Administration, the same censors who were keeping Left-wing writers from working under their own names would have probably come down hard on a script like that because they would have read it as a metaphor for an interracial relationship). During the 1950’s Trumbo’s scripts actually won two Academy Awards, but of course he got neither of them; his script for the 1953 romantic comedy Roman Holiday, directed by William Wyler and starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, was credited to Ian McLellan Hunter, who at least was a genuine writer with enough credits to make it believable that he could have written an Academy Award-winning script. (Ironically, according to Murray Schumach’s book The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor, Hunter himself was threatened with blacklisting just before Roman Holiday was released and Paramount told him they were going to take his name off the script. Hunter and Trumbo had a lunch together at which Trumbo said, “That’s shameful! They can’t do that to you!” Hunter replied, “But, Dalton, you wrote that script!”)

The second one was even more embarrassing: it was for The Brave One, a 1956 RKO tearjerker about a young Mexican boy who adopts a bull as a pet and then cries to see it killed in a bullfight, and on that occasion the script was credited to “Robert Rich.” There was no Robert Rich (though some accounts say the producer had an underage nephew named “Robert Rich” and that’s where he got the name), and at the Academy Awards that year an embarrassed Jesse Lasky, Jr. (son of one of the co-founders of Paramount Pictures) accepted the award on behalf of this nonexistent person. What makes the depiction of this incident in Trumbo even more ironic is that the award “Rich” has received is for “Best Original Story” — but Trumbo, though he wrote the screenplay for The Brave One, did not write its original story. The actual writer was documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty, who had written a story called “My Friend Bonito” for a four-part omnibus movie called It’s All True which Orson Welles was supposed to make in South America in 1942. The film was never finished, but the story sat in RKO’s vaults for 14 years until the King Brothers, pushing up from Monogram to a major studio, did a deal with RKO to produce it and hired Trumbo, a.k.a. “Rich,” to turn Flaherty’s story into a script. The fact that no one, including the indefatigable Hedda Hopper, can trace down the nonexistent “Robert Rich” after he wins an Academy Award starts suspicions circulating as to just who wrote that script, and Trumbo’s name tops the list of suspects. Eventually Trumbo gets a job from Kirk Douglas to write the script for Spartacus, the big spectacle movie he’s about to produce as well as star in for Universal-International in 1960, and at first it’s going to be just another pseudonymous job until Otto Preminger decides that he wants Trumbo to adapt Exodus, Leon Uris’s sprawling novel about the 1948 war between Israelis and Palestinians that led to the formation of the modern state of Israel, and that Preminger — who for all his weaknesses as a filmmaker (he was lousy at atmosphere and so tyrannical with his actors virtually all of them ended up hating him) had a knack for stirring up controversies around his films in hopes that breaking taboos would get people to want to see them — is actually going to put Trumbo’s name on the script and dare John Wayne, Hedda Hopper, the American Legion (which threatened to picket theatres that showed films involving blacklisted talent) and everyone else who didn’t like it to come after him. That shames Kirk Douglas into putting Trumbo’s name on Spartacus as well, and the blacklist is finally broken — or at least bent out of shape enough that the talented people on the “wrong” side of it can finally come out of the shadows and work under their own names.

In fact, as Dalton Trumbo himself said when I saw him speak at the San Francisco Film Festival in 1971 (he came to introduce his movie Johnny Got His Gun, which he directed based on his 1939 anti-war novel and for which his son Christopher wrote the script), in the 1960’s blacklisted writers achieved a sort of cachet and a lot of them got more jobs than they would have otherwise because hiring a formerly blacklisted writer became an indication of prestige. (At least one blacklistee, Hollywood 10 member Ring Lardner, Jr., had to wait for his rehabilitation until 1970, when he wrote the script for Robert Altman’s anti-war comedy M*A*S*H.) The film ends with Trumbo making his famous speech before the Screen Writers Guild in 1970 (though the banner behind him on screen anachronistically gives the organization’s current name, the Writers Guild of America) in which he said there were no heroes in the blacklist, there were “only victims.” What you don’t learn from this film is that speech, with its surprising notes of sadness and conciliation towards the blacklisters themselves, raised hackles among other blacklist survivors, some of whom peppered Trumbo with comments along the lines of, “What the f--- do you mean, there were only victims?” The best aspect of Trumbo is that it doesn’t make Dalton Trumbo any better than he was: he’s not an unambiguous Hollywood hero. He’s an almost unbearably pretentious man who talks in so stilted a fashion one gets the impression that he’s consciously shaping every sentence that comes out of his mouth as if he were writing it down for a script. One readily sees why his long-suffering family — wife Cleo (a marvelous hang-dog performance by Diane Lane) and his kids — gets tired of him, though one also notes with pride that his daughter Niki doesn’t fall far from the family tree and becomes an activist in the civil rights movement, including raising money for the school integration cases that became Brown v. Board of Education. The film is well directed by Jay Roach, who previously had done only comedies, and for the most part its re-creations of 1940’s Hollywood are well done though the actors playing movie stars — Michael Stuhlberg as Edward G. Robinson, David James Elliott as John Wayne, Dean O’Gorman as Kirk Douglas — don’t even come close  to matching their originals (indeed, Stuhlberg was so far off that when he first appeared I thought he was supposed to be playing John Garfield instead!).

The real irony behind watching Trumbo right now is that the blacklist, like so many other terrible phenomena unleashed on America by its right, is staging a major comeback; yesterday an online story at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/11/arts/delta-airline-trump-public-theater-julius-caesar.html?ribbon-ad-idx=4&rref=theater&module=Ribbon&version=context&region=Header&action=click&contentCollection=Theater&pgtype=article reported that at least two major corporate sponsors of the New York Public Theatre’s annual free Shakespeare festival in Central Park, Delta Airlines and Bank of America, had pulled their donations from the festival over the current production of Julius Caesar, which was done in modern dress and had the title character costumed with a shock of orange hair, while Caesar’s wife was a rather detached woman of Slavic ancestry. Though Donald Trump’s name wasn’t mentioned, the parallel was close enough that Donald Trump, Jr. had a public hissy-fit and claimed that the production might incite somebody out there to assassinate his dad — and Right-wing media outlets like Fox News and Breitbart took up the cause, got Delta to cancel its entire sponsorship of the New York Public Theatre and Bank of America to pull their funding from that production. Coming on the heels of the reaction against comedian Kathy Griffin, who lost her gig co-hosting CNN’s New Year’s show over a photo she shot of herself holding a ketchup-adorned severed head made to look like Trump’s, and Reza Aslan also being fired for CNN for making a snarky anti-Trump comment on the air, it seems that U.S. artists are once more, as they were in the 1940’s and 1950’s, being told there are limits on what they will be allowed to say in public and in particular how much they can — and can’t — get away with in criticizing their Great Leader. The attack on the New York Public Theatre is particularly ironic in that it exists because of the blacklist; in the early 1950’s Joseph Papp was a writer-director on New York-based live TV shows when he was blacklisted, and he sought out the help of George Delacorte, founder of Dell Publishing, to found the New York Public Theatre and launch its annual Shakespeare productions. The attacks on Aslan, Griffin and the Public Theatre are badly needed reminders of just how much the free speech we think we have is dependent on the largesse of giant corporations that can be withdrawn in an instant, and the extent to which even so seemingly solid a bastion of free expression as the arts can be subject to political pressure aimed at silencing dissenting points of view and telling artists how they can — and cannot — express themselves and still hope to make a living at it.