Blacklisted: A tasty collection of films written by Dalton Trumbo
Dalton Trumbo (fourth from left) with family and friends before being sent to federal prison for contempt of Congress.
John Garfield looks and acts like a dope and a doomed putz in his last film, He Ran All the Way (1951).
It’s either a beautiful piece of acting, or Garfield was feeling the weight of the times closing around his neck.
His character, Nick Robey, a thuggish, unemployed ne’er-do-well who lives in a tenement apartment with his PBR-guzzling mother – who threatens to kill him in the first minutes of this odd film – is haunted and marked.
But look at this film and tell me that Garfield is acting. His cornered character mirrors the situation that was closing in on him.
This would be his last movie because he was blacklisted for alleged ties to the Communist party. He died less than a year after making He Ran All the Way, at the age of 39. Friends said he died of stress from the blacklist.
He Ran All the Way is a tight little film noir. Robey’s in the middle of a nightmare when we meet him, a nightmare nobody wants to hear about and one that turns out to be true. He wakes up, has an argument with dear old mom, and then he sees a handgun on his dresser and the usually confident Garfield features take on a haunted, paranoid look that he wears for most of the rest of the movie.
Is Garfield really acting, or is he under real stress? Did he know while making this film that it would be his last because of the blacklisting, because he failed to name names when he was compelled to testify before the U.S. Congressional House Committee on Un-American Activities (popularly known as HUAC)?
Or did Garfield simply understand the character created by the uncredited screenwriter Dalton Trumbo?
Trumbo famously refused to name names when called before HUAC in 1947 and when asked the standard question, “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?” he, rightly, responded, “I believe I have the right to be confronted with any evidence which supports this question. I should like to see what you have.”
John Garfield looking stressed in his last film, He Ran All the Way, penned by Hollywood blacklistee Dalton Trumbo.
Trumbo was a member of the Hollywood 10, ten men who refused to cooperate with HUAC and so were cited for contempt of Congress. Trumbo did 11 months in federal prison and, despite an already hugely successful career as a Hollywood screenwriter, was banned from writing for Hollywood. In fact, up until 1945, Trumbo was the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood.
But just because he was blacklisted didn’t mean he would – or could – stop writing. He had a family to support and obligations. He kept writing, but not as Dalton Trumbo. Friends fronted for him. He also submitted scripts under pseudonyms. He won two Academy Awards for screenwriting that way.
For Roman Holiday (1953), a writer friend, Ian McLellan Hunter, used his name and accepted the award. And for The Brave One (1956), the award went to the pseudonymous Robert Rich.
A collection of pre- and post-blacklisted Trumbo films recently appeared on the Criterion Channel. All of it makes for fascinating viewing. You’ve got to admire the spirit of a man who stands his ground the way Trumbo did. I do believe he helped other blacklistees get work as well, and, ultimately, it was his work that ended the blacklist when both Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger proudly and independently told the press in 1960 that Dalton Trumbo was the screenwriter for their current films, Spartacus and Exodus, respectively.
Blacklisted: Written by Dalton Trumbo on the Criterion Channel includes 11 films Trumbo wrote between 1940 and 1962, as well as the 2007 documentary Trumbo.
The collection begins with Kitty Foyle the 1940 Ginger Rogers’ vehicle for which Trumbo was nominated for his first Academy Award. The opening scenes in particular show Trumbo’s humorous view of the world.
That is followed by the war time epic Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), telling the story of Lt. Col. James Doolittle’s bombing raid on Tokyo, starring Van Johnson as one of the bomber pilots and Spencer Tracy as Doolittle.
Next is Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945), featuring Edward G. Robinson, Agnes Moorhead and young Margaret O’Brien as a Norwegian-American family in small-town Wisconsin. It’s a sweet little film and the last that would carry Trumbo’s name until 1960.
The next movie in the lineup was a surprise to me. While I’ve seen Gun Crazy (1950) several times because of its film noir credentials, I never knew it was written by Trumbo. The screenplay is credited to MacKinlay Kantor – who wrote the short story it was based on – and Millard Kaufman, creator of Mr. Magoo. But Kaufman simply lent his name to Trumbo (and four years later was nominated for an Academy Award for his excellent Bad Day at Black Rock screenplay).
As for Gun Crazy – I doubt Arthur Penn would have been able to make Bonnie and Clyde 17 years later had Trumbo not written about the doomed gun crazy lovers in Gun Crazy.
Next up is the aforementioned He Ran all the Way, followed by Roman Holiday (1953), the huge rom-com hit starring Gregory Peck and introducing Audrey Hepburn to the world. Trumbo’s name was finally added to the credits when Roman Holiday was released on DVD earlier in this century.
We jump ahead four years, to 1957 with the very weird The Green-Eyed Blonde, starring Susan Oliver as the title character (she would be green all over in 1964 when she appeared in the Star Trek pilot as Vina – and a 2014 documentary about her is titled The Green Girl).
The Green-Eyed Blonde takes place in a girl’s reformatory. It’s pretty silly. Trumbo is credited here as Sally Stubblefield. He/she also gets a producer credit.
Trumbo is back in form with Cowboy (1957), starring Glenn Ford as the title character and Jack Lemmon as a city slicker wannabe. It’s a different kind of western, with Lemmon a petulant learner of the cowboy way and Ford a tough teacher. The great Brian Donlevy has a small supporting role as a gunfighter turned cowboy.
Dalton Trumbo’s mugshot at the Ashland, Ky., Federal Correctional Institution, June 9, 1950. Trumbo spent 11 months in prison for showing contempt to a contemptible Congress.
Trumbo’s triumphant release from the ignominy of the blacklist happened in 1960 when two Hollywood powerhouses insisted on giving him the credit he was due. Kirk Douglas, who starred in and served as executive producer of the Stanley Kubrick-helmed Spartacus, insisted that Trumbo be given credit for the screenplay.
Almost simultaneously, director Otto Preminger insisted that Trumbo be given credit for writing the Exodus screenplay. That was the beginning of the end of the blacklist.
Two other films finish off the collection, both with western themes and both starring Kirk Douglas – The Last Sunset (1961) and Lonely Are the Brave (1962).
I have never heard of the first, and the second has always been a favorite film of mine.
Sunset is directed by Robert Aldrich, who the next year would make the bizarre gothic tale Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Sunset has its own bizarre gothic elements, such as potential incest.
Douglas is at his confident best as a derringer-packing American hiding out in Mexico from a murder charge. Following him to Mexico is a sheriff who also happens to be the brother-in-law of the man Douglas’ character killed, played by Rock Hudson. Joseph Cotten has a thankless role as a drunken coward married to the beautiful Dorothy Malone, who as a young girl was in love with Douglas.
Malone also has a beautiful daughter (Carol Lynley), who falls for Douglas while all these characters are on a trail drive to Texas. Neither Douglas nor Lynley know that she is Douglas’ daughter.
It’s a very strange western.
Finally, there is Lonely Are the Brave, an elegaic tribute to the old west but set in the new west. It’s based on Edward Abbey’s novel The Brave Cowboy, and the prolific Douglas said this was his favorite film.
I kicked off the collection by watching the 2007 documentary Trumbo, which features clips of Trumbo from various sources, along with an impressive list of actors reading his words. Donald Sutherland, in particular, seems to enjoy mouthing Trumbo’s words, and seems to have really known the man. Through this, you get a real sense of the man behind the work in this collection of big and small movies.
For completists, you will also want to see the 2015 biopic Trumbo, starring Bryan Cranston as the writer. It’s available on Amazon Prime.
While the Criterion Channel’s Trumbo collection is good, it is not complete. I was surprised that The Brave One was not included, and as a sci-fi fan, it would have been nice to see From the Earth to the Moon included, which he co-wrote in 1958 (was there any genre this man did not touch?).
After Lonely Are the Brave, Trumbo wrote eight other screenplays that were produced as movies, including in 1971 directing his screenplay of his 1939 anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun.
He died in 1976 at the age of 70.