History by Hollywood

This is a short blog post designed to accompany the release of the recent History by Hollywood podcast episode that features Dr Rad, which you can listen to HERE.

Before the Blacklist

In the mid-1920s, a young man from Grand Junction moved to L.A. with his family. For nearly a decade, he struggled to contribute to the family coffers, working in a bakery and dabbling in low-level criminal activities. This decade made him particularly aware of the class divisions in society (Cook, 1977). In the early thirties, the young man found his escape from the bakery when he began writing for magazines before transitioning to the film industry in the mid-30s. For better and sometimes worse, it was in Hollywood that he would make his name – Dalton Trumbo. Whilst not all the movies he worked on were hits, there were some notable successes, such as Kitty Foyle (1940) and Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1944). Dalton Trumbo received a new contract in 1947, one that would make him the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood and the first deal that did not include a morality clause. This would become the same year in which he was targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) (Cook, 1977).

Dalton and Cleo Trumbo (1947 HUAC hearings)

The lives of Dalton Trumbo and the other men who were subpoenaed (the ‘Hollywood Ten’) were changed forever when HUAC began investigating the movie business and the studio producers & executives subsequently released the Waldorf Agreement of 26/11/1947.  The agreement stated that the studios would suspend or not hire any of the Hollywood Ten until they had testified under oath that they were not a Communist.  Furthermore, the producers would not hire any Communists in the future—unless they repented and cooperated with HUAC by naming names (Cook, 1977; Ahl, 2007).  One of the Ten, Edward Dmytryk, would cave in under the pressure of losing his career and comply with the Committee’s demands, but the rest held firm.

The Blacklist Years

Throughout the next thirteen years, Trumbo would appeal his conviction for contempt of Congress, lose the appeal, serve ten months in prison, sell his beloved family ranch, live in Mexico for two years, start doctoring and writing scripts under various pseudonyms on the emerging black market, formulate a plan to manipulate the black market and defeat the blacklist, work tirelessly to support his family and see his blacklist plans fulfilled, write political speeches and pamphlets to protest the injustices of the domestic Cold War, win an Oscar that he could not claim, manipulate the press to highlight the absurdity of the blacklist and finally earn screen credit on two blockbuster movies in 1960.

This hardly does justice to this tremendous period of activity between 1947-1960, but it gives some idea of the juggling act that Trumbo (and his family) performed during this time in his life.  This is the focus of the recent biopic Trumbo (2015).  Dr Rad was very excited to be a guest on the History by Hollywood podcast to talk about the film and you can listen to the episode HERE.


Dalton Trumbo is still a controversial figure and this film highlighted that fact. I should say upfront that, whilst Trumbo had many flaws, I do not think he was a danger to the US government or the movie industry and I certainly do not believe that HUAC and the studios had the right to act in the way that they did in 1947 (and on).  Yet, not all people share my views. Anti-communist forces still become very worked up when they think that Trumbo is being lionised. As Larry Ceplair recently summarised:

Ann Coulter headlined her screed: ‘Bryan Cranston: From Meth Cook to Hitler Apologist.’ When the movie opened, Ryskind (The New York Post) and Paul Kengor (investors.com) followed her lead, labelling Dalton Trumbo a ‘heavy-duty Hollywood Stalinist’ and characterising the movie as a ‘whitewash of an unrepentant Hollywood Commie.’ Sonny Bunch (The Daily Beast) went to great lengths to explain how the movie ‘whitewashes Stalinism.’ Ron Radosh (PJMedia.com) accused the filmmakers of using a ‘rosy’ filter on this ‘serious Communist’ and Stalinist.’”

Ceplair, L., ‘Trumbo (The Movie) Versus Trumbo (The Life)’, in Cineaste (Spring, 2016), 20.

However, some of Trumbo’s supporters (like Ceplair himself) were also disappointed in the film, asserting that it was riddled with inaccuracies and distortions. Film reviewers without a vested interest in the main character also tended to be lukewarm in their coverage.

I confess that I am a fan of this film, particularly Cranston’s performance. Ceplair (2016) accurately points out some shortfalls in terms of accuracy, but I think this story is quite difficult to transmit to the screen. The political and legal aspects to the HUAC hearings and the experiences of the Hollywood Ten can be complex and Trumbo’s phenomenal output in terms of political writings and scripts would be hard to capture in one film. Adding in the impact of this period on the Trumbo family and the Hollywood community – one’s head begins to spin. The perfect balance between accuracy and entertainment value is yet to be found. It is always a matter of debate with films – what is an acceptable level of creative license?  There are quite a few invented interactions and composite characters in the movie, and the portrayal of people like Hedda Hopper is probably going too far. Kirk Douglas would be thrilled with his role, as he has consistently played up his part in ‘breaking the blacklist’, and whilst he deserves praise for some of his dealings with Trumbo, he does not fully deserve the heroism attributed to him here. Arlen Hird was an effective composite character in my eyes and I appreciated the fact that he was able to highlight different aspects of Trumbo’s personality. However, I agree with Ceplair (2016) that the amusing scenes with the King Brothers make negotiating the blacklist seem much easier than it was really was, and this is a problem.  

All in all, for me, Trumbo is an enjoyable effort to bring the verve of this dynamic radical and his battle to restore his career to the screen. Trumbo himself, when working on Spartacus, remarked that the team had chosen to “….[falsify] the specific facts of history in order to dramatize the essential truth. That is our job as artists, to brush aside inconvenient facts, to shift time and place and even persons, to get at the essence of the thing.”[1] In spite of the ‘shifts’ in this film, I think the essence of the period and Trumbo himself was captured and I think he would have understood the devices used, even if he might not have agreed with all of them. Hopefully, people will be inspired to learn more about the man behind the movies. That is what an entertaining piece of cinema can do.

It has been a while since The Partial Historians did our own episode on the movie, so here is a slightly refreshed reference list for listeners with a keen interest in the blacklist, Trumbo and Spartacus. I drew on the information in these volumes to write this short post. This is still only a selection – there is so much material out there on these topics. There also is a lot of promotional material and articles by Peter Bowen related to the 2015 film on the Bleeker Street website. These are informative, but also tell the reader a lot about the image of Trumbo the filmmakers wanted to present and their ‘take’ on the blacklist.

Ahl, F., ‘Spartacus, Exodus, and Dalton Trumbo: Managing Ideologies of War’, in Spartacus, ed. M. Winkler (Blackwell Publishing, Malden: 2007), 65-86.

Brownell, K. C., ‘ “Movietime U.S.A”: The Motion Picture Industry Council and the Politicisation of Hollywood in Postwar America’, in The Journal of Policy History 24:3 (2012), 518-542.

Ceplair, L.; Englund, S., The Inquisition in Hollywood (Anchor Press and Doubleday, New York: 1980).

Ceplair, L., ‘The film industry’s battle against left-wing influences, from the Russian Rebolution to the Blacklist’, in Film History Volume 20 (2008), 399-411.

Ceplair, L., ‘Kirk Douglas, Spartacus, and the Blacklist’, in Cineaste (Winter, 2012), 11-13.

Ceplair, L.; Trumbo, C., Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical (University of Kentucky Press, Lexington: 2015).

Ceplair, L., ‘Trumbo (The Movie) Versus Trumbo (The Life)’, in Cineaste (Spring, 2016), 20-23.

Cheshire, G. (Nov 6, 2015), ‘Review‘ (Last accessed 13th May, 2016) on Roger Ebert.com

Cook, B., Dalton Trumbo (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York: 1977).

Cooper, D., ‘Dalton Trumbo vs Stanley Kubrick: Their Debate Over the Political Meaning of Spartacus’ (1996) (last accessed on 3/1/2012), on D. Cooper, Three Essays from Cineaste Magazine, http://www.visual-memory.co.uk/amk/doc/cooperdex.html

Cooper, D., ‘Who Killed the Legend of Spartacus? Production, Censorship, and Reconstruction of Stanley Kubrick’s Epic Film’, in Spartacus, ed. M. Winkler (Blackwell Publishing, Malden: 2007), 14-55.

Douglas, K., The Ragman’s Son (Simon & Schuster, London: 1988).

Douglas, K. (2012). I am Spartacus!: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist. New YorK: Open Road Integrated Media.

Frost, J., ‘Hollywood Gossip as Public Sphere: Hedda Hopper, Reader-Respondents, and the Red Scare, 1947-1965’ in Cinema Journal 50:2 (Winter, 2011), 84-103.

Gladchuk, J. J., Hollywood and Anticommunism: HUAC and the Evolution of the Red Menace, 1935-1950 (Routledge, New York: 2007).

Hanson, P., Dalton Trumbo: Hollywood Rebel (McFarland & Company Inc., Jefferson: 2001).

Herzberg, B., The Left Side of the Screen: Communist and Left-Wing Ideology in Hollywood, 1929-2009 (McFarland and Company Inc, Jefferson, North Carolina: 2011).

Kincaid, C. (January 18, 2016) ‘Hollywood’s Despicable Hero: Dalton Trumbo’ last accessed 13th May, 2016) on Accuracy in Media, http://www.aim.org/special-report/hollywoods-despicable-hero-dalton-trumbo/ .

Lewis, J., ‘“We Do Not Ask You To Condone This”: How the Blacklist Saved Hollywood’, in Cinema Journal 39:2 (Winter, 2000), 3-30.

Palmer, T., ‘Side of the Angels: Dalton Trumbo, the Hollywood Trade Press, and the Blacklist’, in Cinema Journal: 44.4 (Summer, 2005), 57-74.

Paul, A., ‘Making the Blacklist White: The Hollywood Red Scare in Popular Memory’, in Journal of Popular Film and Television (41:4), 208-18.

Smith, J. P., ‘A Good Business Proposition: Dalton Trumbo, Spartacus, and the End of the Blacklist’, Velvet Light Trap: 23 (1989), 75-100.

Trumbo, D., Additional Dialogue: Letters of Dalton Trumbo, 1942-62, ed. H. Manfull (M. Evan Company Inc, New York: 1970).

Trumbo, D., ‘The Time of the Toad’, in The Time of the Toad: A Study of the Inquisition in America and Two Related Pamphlets (Harper and Row, New York: 1972), 1-66.

Trumbo, D., ‘Honour Bright and All That Jazz’, in The Time of the Toad: A Study of the Inquisition in America and Two Related Pamphlets (Harper and Row, New York: 1972), 137-61.

Trumbo (2007) – Peter Askin, Safehouse Pictures/ Filbert Steps Productions/ Reno Productions

Winkler, M., ‘The Holy Cause of Freedom: American Ideals in Spartacus’, in Spartacus, ed. M. Winkler (Blackwell Publishing, Malden: 2007), 154-88.

You Must Remember This Podcast – An excellent podcast on Hollywood in the 20th century.  They have an entire series on the blacklist, so we won’t narrow it down to just one episode! A compelling and comprehensive resource for this entire period.

[1] Roman Info for Stanley Kubrick, Box 24, Folder 6, Dalton Trumbo Papers (Wisconsin Centre for Film and Theatre Research).

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