Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 8, 2008


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 3:40 pm

Dalton Trumbo

Scheduled for theatrical release in NYC and LA on June 27th, Peter Askin’s “Trumbo” is based on the stage play by the famous blacklistee’s son Christopher Trumbo. Dalton Trumbo’s struggle against the witch hunt would be compelling enough in itself, but the film has a more general appeal as a study of one of the most complex and interesting personalities to have ever worked in Hollywood. While Trumbo could be gracious and charming to a fault, he also had his prickly side especially when he felt that his rights were being challenged.

Ring Lardner, Jr., his friend and fellow-member of the Hollywood Ten, eulogized Trumbo this way:

At rare intervals, there appears among us a person whose virtues are so manifest to all . . . who lives his whole life in such harmony with the surrounding community that he is revered and loved by everyone with whom he comes in contact. Such a man Dalton Trumbo was not.

As a long time critic of the generally crappy state of Hollywood movies today, I have pinned the blame on a general decline in screenwriting, which I attribute to the dumbing down effect of television on our culture. As movies become more and more like television shows, the race to the bottom accelerates. After I’ve seen a Judd Apatow film, I get the distinct impression that he never read a book after graduating college. Maybe not even when he was in college.

By contrast, Dalton Trumbo was a man of letters and in a distinctly old fashion way, a letter writer. Like the 19th century novelists whose letters matched their public work in intelligence and creativity, Trumbo was one our great letter writers. “Trumbo” is structured around a series of dramatic readings of Trumbo’s letters, with a number of more enlightened actors taking turns, from Michael Douglas to David Strathairn. Both of these actors are in their element. Douglas is a long-time partisan of left-liberal causes, while Strathairn obviously became familiar with the witch-hunt during the filming of “Goodbye and Good Luck”. Playing Edward R. Murrow, he assumed the role of one of the few powerful figures in media who was willing to stand up to McCarthy.

The movie also includes interviews with Dalton Trumbo, his son Christopher, and a number of people who were impacted by the blacklist, including Walter Bernstein who wrote the screenplay for “The Front”. Like the characters in Bernstein’s movie, Trumbo relied on “fronts” to get any work at all during the blacklist. These people, who were sympathetic to Trumbo’s plight even if they might have not shared his radical politics, got the on-screen credit while Trumbo got the cash. Even though this permitted him to support his family, he was always angry about the power that the studios and the witch-hunters had over him.

While the red-baiters were generally associated with the right wing of the Republican Party, liberals occasionally got into the act. My first exposure to Trumbo’s brilliance as a letter writer was in 1970, when I read the famous exchange between Trumbo and Steve Allen that had been reprinted in the January edition of Esquire Magazine. Titled “The Happy Jack Fish Hatchery Papers”, it grows out of Allen’s open letter to the committee to elect Tom Bradley, an African-American who was running for Mayor in Los Angeles. Allen, who had formerly been the host of the Tonight show on NBC, stated that he would have to have his name removed from the invitation letter to a fundraising party at Trumbo’s house since Trumbo had at one time been associated with “totalitarianism.” Here is one of Trumbo’s replies to Steve Allen:

Miss Betty Drew June 2, 1969
Secretary to Mr. Steve Allen
Encino, California

Miss Brew:

Thanks for informing me of Mr. Allen’s absence from the city and his intention to answer my letters when he returns. I must tell you, however, that from my point of view his Indianapolis and Northern California commitments have not come at a convenient time.

He won’t believe this (at first I didn’t either) but Sunday evening Mrs. Trumbo and I were invited to dine person to person and face to face with he-knows-who in the house of a mutual friend. Knowing how gross an abuse of free speech and assembly my presence at such an affair would constitute, dreading the impact of a second apostolic interdiction while not yet fully recovered from the first, I heard a voice remarkably like my own begging off with the idiot’s excuse that we were departing the city Friday noon for a Mexican holiday which hadn’t entered my mind until that moment.

Since a chap in my position has to be even more scrupulous with the truth than Caesar with his wife’s, or vice versa, there was nothing for it but to transmute my lie into its opposite by immediate proclamation of a southbound hegira to begin no later than Friday noon, June 6, 1969.

Mrs. Trumbo, I’m sorry to report, didn’t take the news at all well. For some years she has been doing whatever she can for a group of young preteenage and hopefully prepregnant sub-Aquarians who foregather throughout the mating season (June 1 through August 31) each Saturday afternoon at Happy Jack’s Fish Hatcheries, 8041 North San Gabriel Canyon Road in Azusa, where they receive much enlightenment from pisciculture in general, and in particular from unblinking observation of the relatively chaste tech­niques which characterize the breeding habits of even the most concupiscent among the fishes.

At their last meeting (end of August, 1968), in a somewhat rowdy but nonetheless moving demonstration of gratitude and loyalty, the youngsters unanimously chose Mrs. Trumbo to be Vice-Den Mother for their 1969 season which begins, as anyone with a calendar at hand can see, on Saturday next.

I had written for the occasion a rather stirring First Inaugural Address (based in part on Mr. Allen’s Epistle to the Thespians) which can be rattled off in just under forty-seven crackling minutes; and Mrs. Trumbo, having memorized and come to believe it, thought poorly of a command holiday which was bound to spoil what she has lately taken to calling-sentimentally, perhaps, but not unjustifiably-her Vice-Den Mother’s Day among the pisciculturians.

Ethics, however, is ethics, and my honor, when it comes to a showdown, invariably takes precedence over hers. Result: we depart Los Angeles International Airport on Western Airlines’ Flight Number 601 on Friday, June 6, 1969, for Mexico City, where we shall be met by chartered car, driven forthwith to Cuernavaca, and lodged at Privada de Humboldt 92. Our mailing address, however, will be Apartado 1292, Cuernavaca, Morelos, etc. We can be reached by telephone almost daily between the hours of three and six-thirty A.M., central standard time, at Cuernavaca 2-31-38.

And why, do you ask, have we been put to all this hurly and scurly and involuntary aggravating unexpected burly? Because I, in Sunday’s moment of mistruth, had no stern critic at hand to straighten my morals and narrow the range of my political and social pretensions. So much for NCLers who rush off to rival Communists for the political affections of the masses without preschooling their own acolytes in the mysteries of honest unilateral action.

Most respectfully, Dalton Trumbo

P.S. The Ninth Earl has somehow leapt to the untidy conclusion that Burt Lancaster is under house arrest as a carrier of Huntington’s chorea. Although I have done everything in my poor power to explain that no man on earth can carry a pestilence like H’s c (he has to haul it), I might just as well have spent my time hollering down some neighbor’s empty grain barrel. He has filed an emergency application with the Chula Vista branch of Travelers Aid for immediate transport to the Control Institute in Oman and Muscat, and compels his entire household, including two of the most dejected old family retainers you’ve ever seen, to wallow with him thrice daily in tubs of boiling Lysol hugely adulterated with white lye, sheep dip, and magnums of granulated loblolly flambe en brochette.

Raw-wise, the skins around that house have passed the point of no return, and for some reason I can’t fathom old Linster has tried four nights running to deposit the whole begrutten mess (the Sixth Earl married a Scotswoman described by a contemporary as “begrutten of face, large of wen and warp but small woof) at rnv doorstep. For all his breeding, which I am told has been prodigious the big L shows every sign of becoming, as we say in my middle-class but hopeful precinct, just one more unwanted and ungrateful anguis in herba.

cc: Mr. Eason Monroe, Mr. Tom Bradley, Mr. Burt Lancaster, Mr George Plimpton, The Hon. Mr. Lyndon B. Johnson, The Ninth Earl of Linster, Estate of Harold Bell Wright, Mr. Haroldson Lafayette Hunt, Mr. Gus Hall, The Rev. Dr. Billy Graham, Al-Ibrahim Institute for Control of Huntington’s Chorea, Princess Conchita Pignatelli, Estate of Miss Brenda Holton, Happy Jack Fish Hatcheries

Look for “Trumbo” when it arrives on June 27th in NYC and LA, and in theaters nationally soon afterwards. It is great stuff.


  1. Thanks for the heads up on this, Louis. I’m a long time admirer of Trumbo, since the first time I read “Johnny got his Gun” in the eighth grade in Fairbanks Ak almost forty years ago. I understand that this is one of his weaker works, actually, but be that as it may, it remains a part of my rotating four year world and U.S. history curriculum that I teach in the Seattle public schools.

    Also, as one who has only recently begun to understand the relevance of the political and literary efforts of the “old left” from the classic years of Bolshevism through Khruschev’s “repudiation” of Stalin in the mid 50s, the complexities of both sides of that argument stalinist and trotskyist, Trumbo rates even higher with me these days. Particularly when I see what a hash our “postmodern” generation of “socialists”- of which, sadly I must say, I was long part- has made of “left” opposition in the United States. The legacy of people like Trumbo, Cole, Hammett and Hellman even at her worst is something that real opposition to the hup ho must come to a balanced assessment of if we’re ever going to have a chance of hitting late capitalism hard in what remains of our lifetimes.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — May 9, 2008 @ 3:31 pm

  2. Is the Esquire article, The Happy Jack Fish Hatchery Papers”, nowhere to be found on the Internet?
    I clipped the original article from Esquire for my files in 1970 but unfortunately, my files of more than 50 years accumulation are a mess and I can’t find it today.
    That’s simply maddening since I remember the article as one of the most amusing I’ve ever read. I’d like to share it with friends. Do you have a suggestion for the article’s retrival today?

    Sincerely, George Dunbar

    Comment by George Dunbar — September 25, 2008 @ 2:59 am

  3. A brilliant man and I agree with your general point about the old leftie screen writers. However it’s hard to forgive Trumbo for Exodus, though it it not?



    Comment by Gary MacLennan — September 2, 2009 @ 11:42 pm

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