There are a great number of people complaining about the state of the world these days and admittedly we have a mess or two on our hands but in the grand scheme of things our fate is actually less difficult than that which mankind has endured in the past. A brief look at the history of the world confirms my grandfather’s favorite witticism that “these are the good old days.” We sometimes forget about the hardships and discriminations that people who came before us bore. We talk of a war on women but even the worst chauvinist pigs can’t compare with the treatment of our grandmothers and great grandmothers, not to mention a sizable number of ladies in other parts of the world even in modern times. It wasn’t that long ago that African Americans were slaves or that their children were prohibited from staying in hotels or eating in restaurants that were open to those of us lucky enough to have white skin. I’m Sharron Burnett rather than Sharron Gonzalez because when my father-in-law adopted my husband he insisted that Mike keep the name with which he was born lest he encounter prejudice. We still have much to improve but in general the world and our country in particular is a far better place than it was when I was still a young girl.
I remember when I was about six that one of my neighborhood friends told me that she was not allowed to watch I Love Lucy because Lucille Ball was a communist. I had no idea what she meant so I asked my mother who explained with a worried look that many of the people in Hollywood were being investigated by Congress to determine if they were traitors to the United States. Her explanation made little sense to me and I would be in my teen years before I learned about Joe McCarthy and his ilk who insisted that certain individuals had attempted to overthrow our democracy through propaganda in the media. In response to these concerns a number of writers, actors, and producers were identified as communists and then blacklisted. Among them was a talented writer named Dalton Trumbo who at the time was one of the highest paid and most sought after screenwriters in Hollywood.
I knew nothing about Mr. Trumbo before watching a movie about him this past week. I had heard a great deal about the horrific miscarriage of justice during that era from my mother-in-law who had found the investigations to be one of the most odious chapters in American history. Senator Joe McCarthy was perhaps the most famous member of the committee that brought a number of people to Washington D.C. for intense questioning but others included a young Richard Nixon one of whose assistants at the time was Hillary Rodham. The inquisitors asked those who were called to testify if they were or had ever been members of the Communist Party. Many of them admittedly had been, including Dalton Trumbo. Some of them maintained that they had adopted the philosophy in response to the Great Depression. Since the Soviets were allies during World War II it was not until after that conflict was over that a Cold War with them ensued in earnest. A sense of paranoia gripped many Americans and its influence filtered into daily life.
I remember those Friday air raid signals that blared fear at noon in every city. As children we practiced hiding under our desks, not so much to be safe from tornadoes but from attacks from the USSR. We were either consciously or unconsciously taught that the Russians were boogey men. What made things even more complex for me was the fact that the country from whence my maternal grandparents had immigrated was part of the Soviet block. I have always believed that the secretiveness of my mother and her siblings had much to do with a concern that their patriotism might one day be questioned because of their ethnicity. In fact, whenever my mother was in the throes of a psychotic break she imagined that the FBI was following our family and attempting to accuse us of some kind of criminal activity. For Dalton Trumbo and others like him the threat was all too real.
Mr. Trumbo was sent to federal prison for contempt of Congress when he did not answer the committee members’ questions in a satisfactory manner. Upon his release he was a pariah with nobody willing to accept his services. His family was on the brink of bankruptcy when he convinced a producer of low end films to pay him for his stories at a cut rate and without his name on the credits. He managed to make ends meet by anonymously writing pulp fiction. He was not even able to lay claim to a script that he had written before going to prison which ultimately won an Academy Award. It was one of my all time favorites, Roman Holiday. Instead a friend who had submitted the script received the honor.
Most of what Dalton Trumbo wrote during this bleak period was junk but needing to create something that made him proud, he presented an idea for a family film that he would call The Brave One. The credits named an unknown author which mystified many Hollywood insiders. When the film won yet another Academy Award Trumbo was only able to celebrate in silence with his family.
Eventually Trumbo received the break that he needed when Kirk Douglas came to him and requested his help on a movie called Spartacus. When Mr. Douglas was threatened with boycotts if he did not fire Trumbo he not only refused to fire his writer but also openly bragged that Dalton Trumbo was the author of the story. On the night of the premiere of the film Hollywood stars came out in droves to break the blacklist forevermore. Additionally director Otto Preminger wanted Trumbo to help him to fix a script for Exodus and offered to give him full credit for his efforts. These incidents made Dalton Trumbo respectable once again and resurrected his career.
After watching the movie about Trumbo I did additional research. I learned that he had written several of my most beloved movies. In thinking about them I was unable to find a single incident in which there appeared to be an attempt to influence me or anyone else to adhere to a communist philosophy. It angered me to think that Trumbo and his family had to suffer so much. He lost more than income. He lost his good name for a long time. Thankfully the Congressional inquiries were finally seen for the preposterous injustice that they were. In the end it was Joseph McCarthy whose legacy was forever tainted while people around the world have continued to enjoy the beautiful stories that Dalton Trumbo created.
In a show of loyal support Dalton Trumbo’s wife and children never wavered from standing with him. After years he ultimately received the Oscar for The Brave One and after he had died his wife accepted another one for Roman Holiday. Had it not been for the courage of men like Kirk Douglas the blacklist might have continued longer than it did and we would have all been denied the pleasure of enjoying the talent of men like Dalton Trumbo.
It was a dark time during the fifties and sixties of my youth. There were many many prejudices and inequities that demanded change. While some may be appalled that an avowed socialist is now running for the Democratic nomination for the presidency I see it as great progress. As Dalton Trumbo often insisted the First Amendment provides each of us with the right to our own opinions whether they are right or wrong. In spite of the invective that we hear in this year’s race it is a good thing that each side may speak openly without fear of reprisal. That’s a step in the right direction and we should always be fearful of anyone who tells us differently.