Posted by Susan Doll on December 9, 2013
As coincidence would have it, today marks the birthday of both Dalton Trumbo and Kirk Douglas, whose names are linked because of their participation in breaking the back of the infamous Hollywood blacklist during the production of Spartacus. The ultimate survivor, Douglas has lived through the decline of the studio system, the upheaval of the Film School Generation, the politics that come with a career in Hollywood, and the effects of a stroke. Today, he turns 97. Trumbo survived ten months in prison as one of the Hollywood Ten as well as the indignity of blacklist. He died in 1976 at the age of 71.
Trouble began for Trumbo, a highly respected screenwriter for such films as A Bill of Divorcement, Kitty Foyle, and A Guy Named Joe, when he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. Despite his impressive filmography, it was his script for Tender Comrades, and its alleged “communist” message, that landed him in front of the committee, along with nine other writers, directors and producers. Collectively known as the Hollywood Ten, the group refused to answer some of HUAC’s questions, resulting in a storm of publicity and an angry, vengeful Congress. Trumbo served about ten months in a federal pen for contempt of Congress. Afterward, he moved to Mexico City for a couple of years, then quietly returned to Hollywood in 1954, where he began writing screenplays under assumed names and behind “fronts,” that is, people who used their names to submit scripts and rewrites for blacklisted writers.
During the 1950s, a handful Hollywood producers and directors subtly challenged the blacklist. Indeed, the very existence of a black market of fronts and pseudonyms undermined respect for its authority. An oft-told tale of blacklist mutiny is the story of producer Stanley Kramer and his trick with the credits for The Defiant Ones. One of the scriptwriters, Nedrick Young, had been blacklisted under his pen name Nathan E. Douglas. Young was also an actor, so Kramer hired him and cowriter Jacob Smith to play truck drivers in the opening credit sequence of the film. Over a two-shot of Young and Smith in the cab of the truck, Kramer listed their credit as the writers of the film. In other words, “Nedrick Young” appears below Young’s face, identifying him as the writer of the film. Those in Hollywood would recognize the face of Young/Douglas as his credited name appeared onscreen.
A year earlier in 1957, Trumbo had won an Academy Award for the story for The Brave One, which he had written under the name Robert Rich. That same year, blacklisted writer Michael Wilson had penned the screenplay for Friendly Persuasion, and the Academy spearheaded a successful effort to prevent Wilson’s name from ending up as a nominee. When the name “Robert Rich” was announced for best story during the Oscar ceremony, and Jesse Lasky, Jr. accepted the award, the Academy ended up with egg on its face anyway. Within days, it became apparent that Mr. Rich simply did not exist. While not admitting to be Rich, Trumbo took the opportunity to point out that the blacklist obviously wasn’t working if banned writers were being touted for and winning Oscars. He baited the press with the question: How many other Academy-Award-winning films were authored by blacklisted writers? In 1959, Trumbo and the producers of The Brave One, the King Brothers, publicly revealed what many already knew: It was Trumbo who had authored the story. Throughout the 1950s, he ridiculed the blacklist and railed against those who supported it in the hopes of diminishing its hold on the industry. Likewise, other blacklisted writers added pressure to the situation by bringing lawsuits, giving speeches, and publishing articles about their experiences.
Trumbo was under contract to Kirk Douglas’s Bryna Productions when producer Edward Lewis asked him to revise the script for Spartacus. According to members of Trumbo’s family, his work on the script was an open secret in Hollywood. Official documents for the studio listed Lewis as screenwriter, but he had no intention of taking an onscreen credit. After much writing and rewriting, Trumbo pressed for official credit, but no one at Bryna could guarantee that he would receive it, because Universal Pictures would have to approve.
In the meantime, Otto Preminger asked Trumbo to re-write the script for his historical epic Exodus, based on the best-selling novel. The pair worked well together throughout the fall of 1959. In January 1960, Preminger took a very public stand against the blacklist by revealing in a press conference that he had hired blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo to write Exodus, and he would start shooting the film in April. He announced, “I will not participate in the blacklist because it is immoral and an illegal extension of the due process of law, just like lynching.” Preminger was releasing Exodus through United Artists, the one major studio that gave its production companies and producers complete control. He did not need the studio’s permission to credit whomever he wanted. In August, 1960, star and executive producer Kirk Douglas announced to the trade papers that Trumbo had written Spartacus and that he would get screen credit for it. Spartacus was released in October of 1960, which was two months before Exodus, making it the first film in 13 years to credit Trumbo under his real name.
Trumbo went on to write two more films for Douglas and Bryna Productions, The Last Sunset and Lonely Are the Brave. Using the name Sam Jackson, Trumbo was actually scripting Lonely Are the Brave for Bryna in 1959 when he was asked to switch to Spartacus. The writer gave the star some of the most best material of his career.
A nasty controversy about Douglas’s exact role in crediting Trumbo as screenwriter emerged when the big star penned I Am Spartacus! Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist, published in 2012. Trumbo’s family was unhappy with the amount of credit Douglas seemed to be taking, especially at Preminger’s expense, while webzines like Salon.com delighted in tearing down Douglas’s version of events. (Note to Salon.com: Considering some of the recent claims your writers have made about films, I would not moralize on the topic of hyperbole vs. truth.)
I have no doubt that Douglas loudly trumpeted his contributions to the making of Spartacus and overstated his participation in freeing Trumbo from the blacklist. I have read very few star bios that did not wrap up the truth in exaggeration and embellishment. After all, they are entertainers and storytellers. The problem with the critics is that they have forgotten the influence that movie stars once carried in Hollywood and with the public. Of course, Preminger should be remembered for announcing that he had hired Trumbo to write Exodus, but Douglas’s identity as a powerhouse Hollywood star backing a blacklisted writer undoubtedly carried more weight with the industry and the audiences. After working with major directors, landing a third Oscar nomination for Lust for Life, and using Bryna to back such features as Paths of Glory, Douglas was a major force in Hollywood in 1960. He stood to lose more than Preminger if there had been a backlash against his endorsement of Trumbo.
And, there was negative press about Trumbo, particularly by old-school columnists like arch-conservative Hedda Hopper. Upon the release of Exodus, Hopper announced in her widely syndicated column that she had no plans to see it, because it had been written by Trumbo. After both high-profile films were nominated for various Academy Awards, she declared, “If Dalton Trumbo gets an Oscar for either Exodus or Spartacus, the roof may blow off the Santa Monica Auditorium from boos and hisses.”
Considering their names are linked together in film history, it seems fitting that Dalton Trumbo and Kirk Douglas share a birthday.
Benedek, Tom. “Kirk Douglas’ Revisionist History,” Salon.com, November 8, 2012. http://www.salon.com/2012/11/08/kirk_douglas_revisionist_history/
Ceplair, Larry and Steven Englund. The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-1960. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
Douglas, Kirk. I Am Spartacus! Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist. Open Road Media, 2012.
Hirsch, Foster. Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King. Random House, 2011.
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