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May 25, 2020 (3,429 words)

As if by design, after not watching the streaming service Netflix for a while I flipped it on again to find the movie Trumbo at the top of my queue. Turns out this 2015 theatrical release is one of four new titles it just added to the rotation.

For younger readers, Dalton Trumbo was one of the highest-paid Hollywood screenwriters of the 1940s, and maybe the most famous such screenwriter blacklisted for his communist sympathies. His punishment included being jailed for eleven months in a federal penitentiary starting in the summer of 1950, and then being prevented from working under his own by-line in Hollywood for a decade after his incarceration.

Considering that only a few days ago I commented on the “disgruntled screenwriters” portrayed to comic effect in the 2016 movie, Hail Caesar!, the decision of Netflix to add Trumbo just now seems to have been made specifically with me in mind.

Prior to this I had only a passing acquaintance with the name of Dalton Trumbo, and certainly no awareness of his career’s particulars. In fact my knowledge of the Blacklist period as a whole could be described as sketchy, at best. I knew the bare outline of the historical record, as perhaps many of us do, but was not educated enough on the subject to assign praise or blame with any degree of certainty to anyone on either side of this controversy.

captivated by a flattering portrayal…

So I approached Trumbo with an open mind, and found myself captivated by its flattering portrait of an irascible, though highly principled, contrarian. We learn Mr. Trumbo was a long-time supporter of Hollywood trade unions and a staunch defender of civil liberties. He was idiosyncratic, larger than life, and loved being rich. (Bryan Cranston is wonderful in the lead role, by the way.)

If there was a sinister side to his affiliation with the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA), which he spends the early part of the film artfully dodging in public, the audience is given no indication what that might consist of.

In fact, Dalton Trumbo is presented to us as pretty much a garden variety New Deal Democrat. The filmmakers establish his lasting appeal and liberal bona fides straight away, in a couple of key early scenes.


A mere four minutes into the proceedings, our tuxedoed hero and his lovely wife attend a swanky, night-time Hollywood party. He is shown holding forth pool-side, with a drink in one hand and a cigarette-holder in the other. He is engaged in a heated exchange with a mogul-producer type on whether to cross a picket line erected by striking set-builders at the studio.

Producer: You’re a writer. What the hell does set-building have to do with writing?

Trumbo: I’m a screenwriter. Builders build what I write. You shoot what they build. Now, you make the most money you possibly can, and so do I… Why shouldn’t they? Why can’t we help them?

Producer: Listen to you, the swimming pool Soviet…


In the next shot, still only seven minutes into the picture, we cut to a beautiful sunny day at the idyllic Trumbo family home, a ranch north of Los Angeles. Nikola, the older of two young Trumbo daughters is on horseback, sans saddle, and Dad is slowly walking the horse and rider away from the paddock, with their house in the background, stage right. The daughter inquires as to her father’s political affiliation.

Under direct questioning by his curious child, who is quoting news reports hotly debating the subject, he quietly admits to being a communist, with neither pride nor resignation. Still on horseback, she then asks about claims he is also a “dangerous radical.” He calmly owns up to the tag of “radical,” but reassures her he is not in any way “dangerous.”

Trumbo: (thoughtful, reflective) I love our country. And it’s a good government. But anything good could be better.

Nikola: Is Mom a communist?

Trumbo: No, your mother is not a communist.

Nikola: Am I?

Trumbo: Well, why don’t we give you the official test… Mom makes your favorite lunch, and at school you see there is someone with no lunch at all… What do you do?

Nikola: Share.

Trumbo: Share? You don’t tell them to just get a job? Oh, I know, you offer them a loan at 6%… Yes, that’s very clever…

Nikola: No, Dad, I wouldn’t do that.

Trumbo: Oh, you would just ignore them, then?

Nikola: No, I would just share.

Trumbo: Well, now, you little commie (and gently pinches her right check with affection).

more of a closest Christian than a subversive Communist…

And so the tone of the piece is thus firmly established. Dalton Trumbo is no threat to the Republic. He’s just an articulate champion of the First Amendment right to free speech and free association. Actually, he comes across as more of a closet Christian than a subversive Communist. His character is beyond reproach, and he expresses himself with economy and wit throughout, always managing to find the well-chosen word.

He seems to enjoy sparring with the Hollywood heavy-hitters who disparage him for what they are always referring to as his communist sympathies. Though we are never told or shown what those supposedly hardcore anti-American inclinations amount to.

Mr. Trumbo spends the entire movie hammering away at writing his famous screenplays on a manual typewriter, either at his desk or from his bathtub. His industriousness is unparalleled, his creativity knows no bounds. When he’s not writing, he’s meeting with his fellow dissident screenwriters to discuss legal strategies if subpoenaed by the House un-American Activities Committee.

He is eventually called before the committee, and convicted of contempt of court for not answering “that” question (“have you now or have you ever been…”). After serving jail time he is right back at it, though. His only respite from work seems to be complaining with one or another of his brethren about how they have been “blacklisted” and forced to ghost-write without screen credit or proper compensation.


Naturally there were many serious concerns interwoven into this issue at the time, many more than a two-hour dramatization could be expected to address, let alone do justice to. But this movie does seem to leave out a lot of important stuff.

Mostly what it leaves out is that Dalton Trumbo, in addition to being a talented screenwriter and a devoted family man, was also apparently attracted to what some have referred to as the revolutionary violence of Bolshevism. It’s also been duly noted that he seemed to oblige every twist and turn of the Moscow party line.

Before the movie begins, the following introduction appears in white lettering against a black screen:

During the 1930s, in response to the Great Depression and the rise of fascism, thousands of Americans joined the Communist Party of the United States.

This sounds straightforward enough, because, well, the Great Depression was horrible, and who doesn’t think fascism is evil?

Today most readers will automatically think this mention of “fascism” refers specifically to Hitler’s Germany. Eventually, it did. But before Hitler, the focus of the CPUSA was the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Due to the international political climate at the time, Spain’s internal conflict was characterized in a variety of ways: a class struggle, a war of religion, a struggle between dictatorship and republican democracy, and between fascism and communism.

So the “rise of fascism” meant different things to different people.

Though Mr. Trumbo did not officially join the Communist Party of the United States until 1943, he was part of the anti-fascist Popular Front coalition of communists and liberals in the late 1930s, at the time of the Spanish Civil War.

When this group “transferred” their protest from what they saw as Spain’s version of fascism to Hitler’s, their effort was undermined in August 1939, when Russia signed a non-aggression pact with Germany. Many party members in the U.S. left the cause in disgust at this contradiction, but those that remained adapted to the revised communist party line, which was now “pro-peace.”

Dalton Trumbo was known to be a fervent isolationist at first, opposing the United States’ entry into World War II. He gave a speech in February 1940, four months before the Nazi blitzkrieg of France, in which he argued against our entering the war on the pretense of “preserving democracy.” He considered that justification “a lie, a deliberate deception to lead us to our own destruction. We will not die in order that our children may inherit a permanent military dictatorship.”

This speech was widely seen as a rebuke to New Deal liberals. The CPUSA began demonizing President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a war-monger, and ordered its members to be pro-peace and anti-FDR in their work and statements.

When Hitler overran France, Trumbo’s comment seemed to justify the Nazi brutality: “To the vanquished all conquerors are inhuman.”

His quirky 1941 novel “The Remarkable Andrew” charged FDR with “black treason” for seeking to aid England in its desperate battle with the Nazis.

Then in June 1941, after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the CPUSA did an about-face and became pro-war, now supportive of FDR’s aggressive behavior toward the Germans.

So one begins to gain an appreciation of how Dalton Trumbo’s political activism on the international level could be a bit incoherent, and also somewhat prickly.

in the marketplace of ideas, some are better than others…

Be that as it may, we’re all supposed to be entitled to our opinions. But let’s face it, the odds are some of those opinions will be off the mark from time-to-time. This will be true even though the person formulating them is doing his or her best to figure things out in a responsible manner.

For example: Later in Mr. Trumbo’s career, after the Blacklist had been broken and he was back in the high life, he was invited to do a screenplay of William Styron’s 1967 novel, “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” about the Virginia slave who led a rampage of rape and murder in 1831.

Trumbo wrote back:

“(I)n carrying through his rebellion Turner did nothing more than accept a principle of white Christian violence which had enslaved all of Africa, and used it for the first time in American history as a weapon against white Christians.”

So then, we are to understand, it is Christianity, specifically as practiced by white people, that had been (and by implication, still is) responsible for the social inequity we see all around us?

In the movie Mr. Trumbo is seen giving a interview that is broadcast on television from his home. It takes place after the screenplay he wrote for “The Brave One” under the pseudonym Robert Rich won the 1957 Academy Award for Best Story, and rumors were swirling he was working on a screenplay for the new Stanley Kubrick movie of the Leon Uris novel “Spartacus,” starring Kirk Douglas.

It’s tagged on YouTube as the “A Hideous Waste of Life” scene, if you want to check it out.

What he is given to say in this interview about the House un-American Activities Committee investigations may well be true:

“It was convened to uncover enemy agents, expose communist conspiracies, and write anti-sedition laws.. Here we are, thousands of hours and millions of dollars later… agents uncovered, zero… conspiracies exposed, zero… laws written, zero. All they do is deny people the right to work…”

But that doesn’t mean there was never anything seditious in what Dalton Trumbo said or wrote. Only that the hysteria of the Blacklist wasn’t the appropriate way to address the situation. So this is my only problem with the movie: It can’t help making him out to be a saint.

When we reduce legitimate conflicts to fables of heroes and villains, it’s easy to miss what is really going on.

defending or attacking the status quo, take your pick…

There is always going to be a case to be made for either attacking or defending the status quo. Because humanity can always be said to be doing its level best at any given moment, given the built-in handicaps. Yet in all of human history we have never quite gotten it right.

What makes our disagreements so messy is how the principled defenders and the equally-principled attackers tend to get a little carried away with themselves. Both sides often go a little overboard in advocating their respective positions.

Those who were concerned back then over what they saw as subversive attempts to undermine the American way of life were not imaging things. But they needed to understand our way of life was (and still is) not without its inherent flaws and injustices, deserving of criticism and in need of repair.

On the other hand, those pointing out the flaws and injustices should have been more careful not to align themselves with political regimes or systems of thought that didn’t solve the problem under discussion, but only made things worse.

What on Earth was the appeal of Communism to an intelligent man like Dalton Trumbo? One could quickly point to his contrarian nature and his life-long concern for workers’ rights, I suppose. In our day we think of workers’ rights as being more of a “socialist” thing, rather immediately associating it with communism. That’s probably because communism has lost whatever cache it may have once had, and Bernie Sanders almost captured the Democratic nomination for President in this year’s primary race.

So maybe we should begin by asking how Communism differs from Socialism.

The answer to that question seems to be “not much.” One dictionary says Communism is both a political as well as an economic theory, while Socialism is just an economic theory. “Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the German philosophers, propounded the concept of communism whereas Robert Owen propounded Socialism.”

Maybe that’s so, but we’ve all heard of Marx and Engels, while nobody makes reference to Robert Owen these days, do they?

Another dictionary says “Socialism is a political, social, and economic philosophy encompassing a range of economic and social systems characterized by the social ownership of the means of production, and workers self-management of enterprise.”

So which is it? A reasonable summary of the situation might go something like this:

The communist regime of Soviet Russia is best known for implementing a socialist economic agenda after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Vladimir Lenin seized power once the Czar and his wife (Nicholas and Alexandria) were deposed.

That “implementation of a socialist economic agenda” was accompanied by widespread violence and religious persecution. When Joseph Stalin succeeded Lenin, who was no angel his own damn self, Stalin went on to become the only mass-murderer of the 20th Century who out-did Hitler in that shameful category.

The military excesses of the Soviet Union during this period should by all means have been condemned. It’s also easy to understand how the Americans public may have become wary of that country’s ideological influence on the world stage after the close of World War II.

But those concerned Americans should have tried harder to understand what was really going on. Communism and socialism have never been anything more than a reaction to the excesses and injustices of capitalism. Why can’t we see that?

Maybe because the romantic allure of heroes and villains clouds our vision at times.

It prevents us from seeing that no matter how bad an opposing ideology may seem to us, or may in fact be in actual practice, that does not mean our preferred ideology is above reproach.

At this point I can only shed so much sweat over how people like Hedda Hopper or John Wayne conducted themselves in the 1950s when faced with what they viewed as the Red Scare. Even if it was unfair to jail Dalton Trumbo, and force him to spend ten years of his writing career “under cover.”

all opinions should be heard…

As the makers of Trumbo now tell us, the moral of their story is “all opinions should be heard.”

I agree. The problem is that every political episode down through history, including our contemporary political scenarios, is complicated – just as the Spanish Civil War was. This makes it difficult at times to clearly identify who is fighting on the side of the angels.

Often it seems no one ever escapes with their honor unscathed.

Maybe that’s because in the heat of the moment we are never able to conduct a rational exchange that explores the relative merits of ideas that appear to be in stark contrast. We retain a core susceptibility to choosing sides, and this hinders our progress.

It’s much more difficult to keep the urge toward partisanship at bay, and piece together the best of all possible worlds from the available options at our disposal.

Maybe that’s what Dalton Trumbo thought he was doing. But surely taking up with the Communist Party of the United States was not the right way to go about it.

And we are falling into a version of the same trap now, when in our own political moment such principled crusaders for economic justice as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are being dismissed out of hand as “socialists.”

Here’s the thing, folks: It doesn’t have to be all one thing or the other. We can respect the concept of private property, while still seeing there might be value in limiting the absolute private ownership of the means of production in certain situations.

Should utilities be privately owned? Should access to the internet be privately owned? Isn’t this what the anti-trust movement of the early 20th century was all about?

Should health care really be left exposed to the vagaries of supply and demand, and the profit motive?

Isn’t the idea of workers’ self-management of enterprise worth a closer look? Wasn’t the labor movement an attempt to protect those who lack an ownership interest from being treated as no better than a piece of equipment that can be depreciated on a balance sheet? Or disposed of when it breaks down?

While it may sound hopelessly simplistic to say so, both sides in this (and every other) debate usually have a valid point buried somewhere in their contentious arguments.

he who has the gold makes the rules….

Since fiscal conservatives currently hold the upper hand, it is they who must concede that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are raising legitimate concerns and suggesting viable policy initiatives. Such politicians are not trying to undermine the American way of life – they are trying to improve upon it. Those who have succeeded under the current rules of economic engagement have to be willing to look past their own nose, past their own family’s success and comfort.

The fact that our founding philosophy of “every man should fend for himself in this, our glorious land of opportunity” has worked out well for respectable Republicans should not blind such fine upstanding citizens to the economic plight of so many others.

We wouldn’t need to be discussing a federally-mandated minimum wage, if successful industries would distribute a more equitable percentage of their profits to the working stiffs who help generate that profit. Instead of keeping wages down in order to enhance investor return. This is the fundamental, historic beef with capitalism: It rewards capital at the expense of labor.

We wouldn’t need to be talking about a wealth tax if our outrageously successful movers and shakers didn’t exert so much energy trying to avoid their legitimate tax burden.

And there would be no Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren on the political scene today if our captains of industry would only conduct their affairs with the Golden Rule in mind. Just as there would never have been a Karl Marx or a Friedrich Engel if the Robbers Barons hadn’t done so much plundering of the working class on the way to their outsized fortunes in the Gilded Age.

So a tip of the hat goes out in memoriam to Dalton Trumbo for his life-long concern over workers’ rights. He was barking up the right tree on that one. But it doesn’t mean some of his other ideas weren’t kind of wacky.

Too bad he couldn’t bring himself to fully embrace the Christian ethos he expressed so well at times, and make it the animating force of his life. An example of which is the 1970 speech he gave to a gathering of Hollywood screenwriters, that closes out the 2015 theatrical release Trumbo on such a transcendent note.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
May 25, 2020

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