In a previous post, BRIAN DENNEHY, I mentioned working with Dennehy when he brought his touring show, TRUMBO, to the Pantages in Minneapolis. The production was based on an off-Broadway play conceived by Christopher Trumbo, son of Dalton Trumbo, screenwriter and one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten.
The play had two characters, Dalton Trumbo and a narrator. The script is actual letters written by Trumbo and read by the lead actor. The narrator sets it up and offers insights on a few occasions. The lead is on stage throughout. The narrator very seldom. The set is an eight sided wooden table and a chair. The props are copies of actual letters written by Trumbo.
Originally Trumbo was played by Nathan Lane. When Lane left Trumbo was played by a rotating cast including, F. Murray Abraham,(Oscar winner in Amadeus and a favorite of mine from his season at the Guthrie), Brian Dennehy, Richard Dreyfuss, Charles Durning, Christopher Lloyd and others.
There is a documentary, Trumbo, that is similar to the play. There is also a conventional movie, Trumbo, with an all star cast staring Bryan Cranston 4 time Emmy Winner for Breaking Bad, and Tony winner for LBJ. Cranston received an Oscar nomation for Trumbo.
Dalton Trumbo was a high paid Hollywood screenwriter and a respected novel writer. His quick wit and his warmth showed in his work…And his letters.
Like many in the Depression Years, he was a member of the US Communist Party. An anti-war pacifist he sided, in theory only, with the Communists against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War and in the party’s ideas concerning getting out of the Depression which basically were F.D.R.’s actions that helped to end the Depression.
Eventually he dropped out of the party because of their lack of really doing anything. He stated that the U.S. Communist Party was less of a danger than the Elks, and they had less guns also.
Leading up to WWII, he thought the Russian-Germany Peace Concord would stave off Germany’s aggression. He was an isolationist because he was pro peace, unlike other isolationists like Charles Lindberg who admired the German industrial advances and German efficiency under Hitler.
And then he ran into HUAC….
Dalton Trumbo was not brought before HUAC because of his past Communist affiliations. He was brought after he did a patriotic act.
In 1939,he wrote a novel, Johnny Got His Gun, an anti-war story of a soldier who lost his four limbs in war. It was well received and won several awards. However, I in 1941,when Hitler broke the pact with Russia and invaded it, Trumbo and his publisher felt it was not a time for an anti-war novel and stopped publishing any more.
This caused hate mail to be sent to Trumbo. The writers denounced Jews and demanded that a peace pact be negotiated between the U.S. and Nazi Germany. Trumbo contacted the FBI. Two agents came to his house, but Trumbo soon regretted his actions; because as he wrote, ‘their interest lay not in the letters but in me.’
Then in 1946, he wrote a magazine article from the standpoint of a Russian citizen. He pointed out that the ordinary Russians should be worried about the West’s animosity towards the USSR, and the ‘mass of Western military power surrounding Russia. Something should be done to lessen the hostilities between the East and the West.
This set off a column by William Wilkerson, publisher of The Hollywood Reporter. The title was ‘A Vote for Joe Stalin’ and it named Trumbo and several others as Red sympathizers. He continued to dig up more names and his list became known as Billy’s Blacklist. In 1947, HUAC used the list to summon Trumbo and nine others to appear before it.
The Hollywood Ten, as they were called by the media, refused to recant and name names like the others had done. They also refused to take the 5th Amendment, refusing to testify on the grounds it may incriminate them. This defense became a household phrased in 1950 because of the televised Senate Hearings on organized crime. Instead they depended on the right of free speech guaranteed by the 1st Amendment.
Their reasoning was they had done nothing criminal, which they hadn’t, and therefore to recant would suggest that they had committed a crime by belonging to a ‘Red organization’. As far as naming names like so many others had done, the Ten refused on the grounds that they knew of no one that had committed a crime that tied in with the belonging to a ‘Red Organization’ and questioned if HUAC had any right to suppena them.
Writer-producer, James McGuinness, a right-winger who was regarded as a friendly witness pointed out to the committee that among his many fine screenplays, Dalton Trumbo had written two magnificent patriotic scripts, A Guy Names Joe, and 30 Seconds Over Tokyo. HUAC wasn’t interested. And they weren’t interested in what Trumbo was doing during WWII.
When the US went to war, Trumbo was one of the top screenwriters in Hollywood. He had nothing to fear about being drafted. A married man with children and of an age that was above the draft regulations. Actually, he was two years older than John Wayne. He could have stayed put and continued to write movie scripts. He could have enlisted and probably would have been assigned to writing propaganda or training films. But instead he used his talent and his name to become a war correspondent in the Pacific Theater. Quite a cut in pay and much different working conditions.
When the Allies invaded Okinawa, the longest and bloodiest battle of WWII, Dalton Trumbo, armed with a pencil and writing pad, stormed ashore with the troops. He was under fire constantly for the next 82 days. He sent back dispatches. He wrote letters to the parents of his fallen comrades.
Among the 12,000+ Americans killed in Okinawa, was fellow war correspondent, Ernie Pyle, the most of famous of the WWII correspondents.
But HUAC wasn’t interested in what he had done during the war anymore than they cared about what Sterling Hayden had done.
When Trumbo was sentenced to a year in prison for Contempt of Congress. He appealed but before it reached the Supreme Court, two liberal members of the Court died and two conservatives were appointed. The conservative majority of the new Court voted not to hear the appeal and thus the ruling of guilty by the lower court stood.
After his release, he moved his family to Mexico City where for a year he and other members of the Ten drank and wrestled and used up their savings.
The Trumbo family went back to California where Dalton did what he was best at, namely writing screen plays. He wrote at least thirty using the names of friends as a front. He was adept writing screen plays for all genres, drama, action, crime, noir, western. He wrote for major studies and studios that never got past B movies.
Despite the cloud of the Black List over Hollywood, 1953 was a good year for movies. The highest grossing movie was the Biblical epic, The Robe, the first venture in CinemaScope. Second highest was From Here To Eternity, which got the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director among it’s eight Oscar wins in 1954.
The sleeper of the year was Roman Holiday, a romantic comedy that saw Audrey Hepburn, a bit actress up until then, win the Oscar for Best Actress in a Lead Role and her great career took off. She also won the Tony that year.
Among the Academy nominations for the picture, Ian McClennan Hunter received two… One for Best Screenplay which he lost to Daniel Taradash for Eternity… The second was for Best Story and that was a winner.
The picture almost never got made because of the rumors that some of the Black Listers might be involved. The name most mentioned was Dalton Trumbo. Frank Capra pulled out of directing it for this reason.
Offered to William Wyler, he accepted with one stipulation, the film had to be shot completely in Rome. He wanted to stay away from HUAC, Joseph McCarthy, and the the witch hunting mentality that prevailed in the US. Thus, Roman Holiday, was the first ‘Hollywood’ film shot in toto outside the US.
The rumor was true. Hunter was a front for his good friend, Dalton Trumbo, a fact Hunter publicly declared when the the List was pretty much a thing of the past. In 1993, long after Trumbo had died, the Academy officially awarded the Oscar to Dalton Trumbo.
Then something happened at the 1957 Academy Awards that pointed to Trumbo once again. The Oscar went to Robert Rich for Best Story. The movie was a little known family picture, The Brave One. And for the only time in Oscar history, no one, either the recipient or a proxy, were present to accept the award. It turned out that Robert Rich was not in the movie business but rather a nephew of one of the producers. Trumbo had pulled off another Oscar while he was on the Black List. This time the Academy managed to give him the Oscar while he was still living. And this was the last year for the Category Best Story.
In 1960 Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger stood up and shouted, ‘Enough’. They both announced that Dalton Trumbo would write screenplays for each of them, Douglas’s Spartacus, Preminger’s Exodus, using his own name. The Hollywood Black List was over.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Brian Dennehey commented how many times he read the Trumbo letters he was still in awe over their wit and their warmth and Trumbo’s skill. And what the man went through to stand up for what he believed in.
And working with Dennehey I realized that he, like Trumbo, also went through a lot for his art and what he believed in. Dennehey was in pain. His back. His knees. While the blocking called for him to remain seated at the desk while he read the letters, he often stood to read one or two. He couldn’t stay seated for fear when he had to stand at the play’s end, he would have a hard time. ‘I might need you to pull me out of the chair, Don,’ he warned me.
He also had terrible night vision after spending so long under the stage lights. His bow consisted of him standing up at the blackout that followed the bow and exit of the narrator and nodding his head to the audience when the bow lights snapped back on. He could not see anything in the darkness that followed. For him to attempt to leave the stage in the black out was out of the question. He needed help.
I stood in the second wing during the bows. When the lights came up for his bow, I closed my eyes and waited until I heard Brian say, ‘Don’. My night vision was better because my eyes hadn’t experience the brightness for a while. Then I would turn on my penlight hoping it would help Brian get orientated, and walk out onto the dark stage, place his hand on my shoulder and we would exit.
I am amazed that Brian Dennehy could perform on stages in such pain. It was one thing to do Trumbo; but he was doing major theater works of O’Neill and Shakespeare also.
Brian Dennehy was not only an excellent actor and good human being, he was also a man, like Dalton Trumbo, who believed deeply in his ideals and his art, and stood up for his beliefs in them.
And that’s a wrap.
There was more I wanted to say but in light of the Virus and now the looting and destruction going on the last four nights just a few miles from my house, looting and rioting caused not by protesters but by out of state white anarchists, I am not feeling up to writing at this time. Stay Safe. Stay angry and vow to stop these killings of blacks by white cops. Peaceful protesting, not arson and looting.