Volume 78 / Number 5 - July 2 - July 8, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
A prodigy of will
Upscale doc reveals personal side of blacklisted Hollywood scribe
Directed by Peter Askin
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Landmark Sunshine Cinema
143 E. Houston St.
By IOANNIS MOOKAS
“Share and share alike—that’s democracy!”
—Ginger Rogers, in “Tender Comrade” (1943), written by Dalton
Then as now, fear stalked and rampaged. Then as now, beliefs were suspect, and many deemed guilty by association. Constitutional tenets and the rule of law, as today, were mocked and trampled.
For more than a dozen years after the US emerged regnant from World War II, it was, in Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s phrase, “the time of the toad.”
Yes, “Trumbo,” a documentary adaptation of the 2003 stage play by Trumbo’s son Christopher, is assuredly timely –– the toad still seethes poison. And befitting its subject’s Beverly Hills penchants, the film is a luxe affair, boasting starry interpreters and a technical sheen that smells like money. As the highest-paid scribe in the dream factory before his defaming at the McCarthyite inquisition, Trumbo himself would have expected nothing less.
A man of capacious abilities and towering will, Trumbo suffered little angst reconciling collectivist values and communist leanings –– he joined the Party’s Hollywood chapter in 1943, after years in its orbit — with the profound satisfaction perhaps only Great Depression survivors could plumb from the savory fruits of what Lizabeth Cohen has called America’s postwar “consumer’s republic.”
Born in 1905 to a quiet shoe store clerk and a no-nonsense sheriff’s daughter, and reared on Colorado’s arid Western Slope, James Dalton Trumbo moved with his Christian Scientist family to Los Angeles two decades later and remained there in poverty after his father’s premature death from anemia. Left with his resilient mother and two sisters, Trumbo toiled nights at the Davis Perfection Bakery for eight trying years while attending USC day classes and nurturing his voice as a fledgling writer.
Having dabbled in bootlegging –– the Depression bred ingenuity –– Trumbo landed a gig through a friend’s graces as a reader in the Warner Bros. story department. After two of his own short stories were bought by the Saturday Evening Post, he vaulted up the Warners ladder, becoming a full-fledged screenwriter at $100 a week. His ambitions were still chiefly literary; as he wrote to his first agent, “I want the movies to subsidize me for a while, until I establish myself as a legitimate writer.”
In no time, he was agitating for the Screen Writers Guild, and getting himself canned in the process. Over a decade before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) inaugurated the anti-communist blacklist of infamy, Trumbo was told in 1936 by his new boss Harry Cohn at Columbia, “You’re blacklisted,” for refusing to endorse the grossly skewed, studio-backed Screen Playwrights accord.
But both before and during McCarthy’s blacklist, Trumbo — the lifelong model of industry — wrote his way over, around, and through the hurdles, a staunchless fount of story ideas, treatments, scripts, rewrites, doctoring, polishes for which demand rarely lacked.
It’s the professional and private dimensions of Trumbo that Peter Askin, smoothly transferring to film the work he directed onstage, brings into a deliberate balance against Trumbo’s iconic persona as one of the Hollywood Ten, the first round of movie people barred from their trade, imprisoned, shunned, and forced underground –– heralds of thousands to follow. The film’s intimate pedigree as Christopher’s portrait of his singular father, however, proves to be a constraint as well as a boon.
Few others, to be sure, could as expertly have burrowed through Trumbo’s papers to reconstruct from the writer’s own words the armature of his life, sampling from and sometimes combining his truckloads of letters. These supply the texts performed as monologues by a cast including Donald Sutherland, David Strathairn, Liam Neeson, Brian Dennehy, Nathan Lane, Joan Allen, Josh Lucas, and Michael Douglas, each taking turns in plain shirtsleeves against a matte black backdrop, emoting straight to camera.
The uneven star parade –– Paul Giamatti seems to be stifling a smirk; Lane looks bleary and visibly scans a teleprompter –– tends to be upstaged by encounters with Jean Rouverol Butler, the still-peppery widow of Trumbo’s close friend and fellow blacklistee Hugo Butler; Kirk Douglas, who sponsored Trumbo’s breaking of the blacklist in 1960 with screen credit for Kubrick’s “Spartacus”; and Christopher’s sister Mitzi (Melissa), here granting her first interview about life with dad.
But the film’s lode of filial reverence manifests, in part, through certain questionable emphases. As Robert Koehler rightly noted in Variety, “Trumbo” tacitly assumes that the writer’s work set the standard for screenwriting art in his day. Such a claim conflates artistic caliber with professional clout –– Trumbo commanded top dollar to the end, and before the blacklist uniquely exempted himself from the studios’ usual “morals clause” –– and ignores Trumbo’s own sangfroid toward his screen work, as distinct from his literary fiction.
Aside from the fact that he never expected his writing to reach the screen inviolate up the many rungs of studio-line production, even those scripts realized closest to Trumbo’s original conception –– Edward Dmytryk’s “Tender Comrade,” or Irving Rapper’s “The Brave One” (1956) — endure more as shrewd liberal entertainments than as exalted screenwriting on a par with, say, Samson Raphaelson’s “The Shop Around the Corner” or Ernest Lehman’s “North by Northwest.”
Inflation is in any case redundant to an accurate appraisal of Trumbo’s achievements. They’re fine indeed, from injecting startling radical content into pictures like John Farrow’s “Five Came Back” (1939) to penning scintillating adaptations like Joseph H. Lewis’ “Gun Crazy” (1949) to, perhaps most crucially, the poised mettle with which he faced the HUAC subpoena, the depraved hearings, the sentencing to federal prison for contempt of Congress.
Hollywood Ten inductee Ring Lardner, Jr. later recalled Trumbo’s instrumental role in devising a valiant, principled defense strategy for the group aimed at foiling HUAC’s trespass upon the filmmakers’ First Amendment guarantees rather than hiding behind Fifth Amendment safeguards against self-incrimination, as soon became the norm for “unfriendly” witnesses loath to confirm or deny whether they were then, or ever had been, a Communist Party member.
The second film artist to take the stand before HUAC once the nightmare began that October 1947, Trumbo followed the splenetic, unnerving John Howard Larson by coolly reversing the angle of attack, interrogating the Committee’s right to question his inalienable American freedoms of belief, of expression, of association. “Very many questions can be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” he attested, “only by a moron or a slave.”