Movie Review: Trumbo


For most people, the name Dalton Trumbo doesn’t ring a bell but for people who like good movies (and that must be you since you’re reading my blog), the films that Trumbo scripted are certainly ones they would have seen or, at the very least, heard of. These include:

★ Kitty Foyle (1940)
★ Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)
★ Roman Holiday (1953)
★ The Brave One (1956)
★ Spartacus (1960)
★ Exodus (1960)
★ Lonely Are the Brave (1962)
★ The Fixer (1968)
★ Johnny Got His Gun (1971)
★ Papillon (1973)

And these are just the big ones. During his career, Trumbo wrote dozens of screenplays, picking up two Oscars® in the process – albeit long after the statues were awarded. And that is what the film TRUMBO, starring Bryan Cranston (TV’s BREAKING BAD), is about.

In the 1940s, Trumbo was the highest paid writer in Hollywood. He was also a card-carrying member of the Communist Party (since 1943), though he wasn’t a radical by any means. Today we might call him a democratic socialist, who probably would have been no more dangerous to the American way of life as we know it than Bernie Sanders is today… though many GOP supporters would argue that Bernie is very dangerous indeed! According to historians though, Trumbo was terribly politically naïve. He was an isolationist, advocating that the US should avoid getting involved in a war against Nazi Germany. He also underestimated, or perhaps he simply closed his eyes and ears to what Joseph Stalin was doing in the USSR and its satellite states in Eastern Europe after the war. He was even a supporter of then North Korean dictator Kim Il-Sung.

The US government, though, was very concerned about the “Red Menace” and they were worried that the communists had started to influence such very American institutions as Hollywood. In 1947, Trumbo and nine other Hollywood screenwriters were handed subpoenas to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), which was nothing more than a witch hunt to see who would cave in first and implicate themselves and others as communists. But the Hollywood Ten, as they became known, held fast and they were all found in contempt of Congress. The very next day, Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) president, Eric Johnston, announced that the ten men would be fired or suspended without pay and not re-employed until they were cleared of contempt charges and had sworn that they were not communists. This was the start of the Hollywood blacklist.

Trumbo was sent to prison for 11 months. When he came out, he found that with bills to pay and no job to go back to, he had to be resourceful. He approached B-movie mogul, Frank King, offering to clean up existing scripts and writing new ones for his company for a fraction of what he was being paid by the major studios. The deal, though, was that Trumbo’s name could not appear anywhere. No one but King’s executives and the Trumbo family would know. But when King Bros. started turning out respectable films, whispers quickly went around Hollywood that Trumbo and the other blacklisted writers were still writing but under aliases.

By 1957, cracks started to appear in the blacklist. Actor Norman Lloyd (who is still alive today at age 101) was hired by Alfred Hitchcock as an associate producer on his TV show. In the following years, a few more blacklisted actors, writers and musicians found work in TV productions. In 1960, director Otto Preminger broke the blacklist for good when he announced that Trumbo would be writing the screenplay for his upcoming film, EXODUS. Kirk Douglas quickly followed up by announcing that Trumbo would be getting a screen credit for writing his latest epic, SPARTACUS.

TRUMBO is good entertainment but unfortunately it seems to have been better suited to TV than to the big screen. The performances are, with just a few exceptions, top notch though. Cranston, who, up to now, has been a successful TV actor, shows that he’s ready to take on film roles. (His Oscar nomination may have been the Academy’s way of acknowledging its acceptance of him.) Helen Mirren is delightful, camping it up as the film’s baddie, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. (I remember as a child hearing my mother say that Hopper was not a nice person. Now I know why.) John Goodman and, surprisingly, stand up comedian Louis C.K., both turn in great performances as shlock movie producer Frank King and fellow blacklisted writer Arlen Hird respectively. (Hird is a fictional character reputed to be an amalgamation of a few real writers who were blacklisted.)

On the negative side, David James Elliott’s (TV’s JAG) portrayal of movie legend John Wayne is amusing, and not in a good way, as is Dean O’Gorman’s (THE HOBBIT) version of Kirk Douglas. There are times when the actor has Douglas’ speech and mannerisms down pat and there are other times when he seems to have forgotten who he was playing.

TRUMBO is well worth seeing. Even if it’s not completely accurate, it is a good history lesson on the dangers of demagoguery particularly when certain presidential hopefuls are making headlines these days with their controversial statements and actions.

Another Trumbo screenplay – Montezuma – has been reported to be making its way to the big screen. Steven Spielberg is rumoured to be directing it.

Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 35:30.)

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