Part 1: Introduction
By the 1950s, America had moved on from the turmoil of WW2 and was enjoying a bit of peace and prosperity. The Cold War was but a looming threat that would escalate fiercely in the 1960s—but in the 50s, Americans were generally content to enjoy themselves. Still, the specter of Communism loomed and had been perceived as an encroaching problem in Hollywood since the 1930s. Following WW2, Senator Joe McCarthy began his crusade to raise awareness about this specter by flaunting a list of Communists that he knew were secretly hiding in the American government. As fear grew that the Soviets had infiltrated American society, the list grew to include others in other spheres—including Hollywood, where writers suspected of propagating Communist ideology and subtly inserting it into American films came under scrutiny. The Hollywood Blacklist actually began in the latter half of the 1940s but it reached its height in the early 1950s. It represented a period of roughly a decade wherein writers accused of Communist sympathies were barred from working in Hollywood, though some still managed to write under pseudonyms. This essay will show the Blacklist formed, how it led to the stigmatization of Dalton Trumbo; how it inspired him to write the film Spartacus, which would go on to star Kirk Douglas and be directed by legendary director Stanley Kubrick; and how the film served as a contemporaneous critique of McCarthyism and the Blacklist, ultimately helping to weaken the crusade against Communism in Hollywood.
Part 2: The Communist Party and the Blacklist
The US had been allied with the Soviets in WW2—but now that the war was over, American politicians were rethinking that relationship. The Communist Party became a target though the perceived threat of the Party within the US did not necessarily reflect the reality. For the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, who wanted total control over American intelligence, labeling people as Communist was a way to get control over them. Joseph McCarthy was useful to Hoover politically because he fueled the idea of a Red Menace.
In the first half of the 20th century in the US, Communists were essentially activists who supported labor unions and workforces.[footnoteRef:2] The idea that these same people were plotting the overthrow of the American government and the undermining of American ideals was greatly exaggerated.[footnoteRef:3] McCarthy and Hoover made it seem that everyone could be a Communist and films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) were a good example of how that fear played upon people. The fact was the Communist Party was not really that popular, had high turnover, and few people ever met a member.[footnoteRef:4] [2: Ellen Schrecker, Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 8-9.] [3: Ellen Schrecker, Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 120-121.] [4: Ellen Schrecker, The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History with Documents (Boston: St. Martin’s Press, 1994), 18.]
McCarthy helped to fuel the paranoia in America at this time, often appearing on television to frighten Americans. He needed something to generate interest in his own campaign for reelection and so he turned to the Red Menace.[footnoteRef:5] The Hollywood Hearings, in which Hollywood writers were charged with Communist subversion, were a way for McCarthy to drum up support for his crusade and thus for his political future.[footnoteRef:6] [5: Robert Griffith, McCarthyism: The Politics of Fear: Joseph R. McCarthy and the Senate (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987), 28.] [6: Ellen Schrecker, Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 319.]
A witch hunt ensued in which people were brought in to testify before Congress and encouraged to name names. Hundreds lost jobs because they were “suspected” of being Communists or Communist sympathizers.[footnoteRef:7] The reality was that Communists and sympathizers were basically merely reacting to the ills of the Great Depression and the need for social improvements and supports for workers. Millions had suffered from the Wall Street Crash of 1929.[footnoteRef:8] [7: Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle, Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), xiiv.] [8: Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle, Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), xv.]
The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had been looking for Communists in Hollywood since the 1930s.[footnoteRef:9] The Anti-Communists believed Hollywood was putting Communist propaganda into films. Hoover believed Hollywood was being used by the Communists as “one of the greatest propaganda machines the world has ever seen.”[footnoteRef:10] So Hollywood became a natural target during McCarthyism—and the Blacklist was a way to inhibit the spread of communist propaganda in film. Dalton Trumbo was part of that Blacklist—and being on that list impacted his life in a huge way. [9: Ellen Schrecker, Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 318.] [10: Frank Krutnik, “Un-American” Hollywood: Politics and Film in the Blacklist Era (New Brunswick N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2007), 4.]
Part 3: Financial Impact of the Blacklist on Trumbo
The HUAC created the Blacklist and brought infamy to the Hollywood Ten, one of whom was Trumbo. In 1947, his job as a screenwriter with MGM was threatened over the fact that he refused to testify before Congress that he was not a Communist—even though he stated privately he was not one.[footnoteRef:11] Trumbo owned a ranch but to pay the bills on it—totaling $27,000—he needed to continue his screenwriting career.[footnoteRef:12] That was now in jeopardy as he refused to cooperate with HUAC in the way HUAC wanted because he viewed HUAC, ironically, as un-American in its witch hunt style approach. Eric Johnston, the president of Motion Picture Association of America, asserted that Trumbo would not be employed as long as he held beliefs that aligned with the Communists’ agenda.[footnoteRef:13] Thus, Trumbo was suspended from MGM for being a Communist—but his financial hardship worsened because he was stigmatized in the…
…loved a movie written by a Communist then the stigma of blacklisted writers could be decreased.[footnoteRef:31] Trumbo demanded this right as the Spartacus project wore on. It was not the case, as Kirk Douglas would later remember it in his book I Am Spartacus, that he asked Trumbo for permission to give him the writing credit at the end of the film. Trumbo demanded it: in his eyes, it was time to take back the limelight and this was the vehicle to do it with because of its perfect allegorical symmetry.[footnoteRef:32] The tactic worked, too: as reviews began to pour in, it was clear that audiences loved the film in spite of Trumbo’s past “sins”—his name attached in the credits at the end of the film did not sour anyone’s opinion of the film.[footnoteRef:33] Though being a credited writer for the film did not end the Blacklist, it did weaken it. It helped to remove the stigma of being a Blacklisted writer. If Trumbo could step out into the public, out into the light, then so too could others. Hollywood no longer needed to fear the wrath of HUAC. Trumbo had won through excellence—just as he predicted.[footnoteRef:34] [30: Larry Ceplair and Christopher Trumbo, Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2015), 381.] [31: Larry Ceplair and Christopher Trumbo, Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2015), 381.] [32: Larry Ceplair and Christopher Trumbo, Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2015), 381.] [33: Larry Ceplair and Christopher Trumbo, Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2015), 391-4.] [34: Larry Ceplair and Christopher Trumbo, Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2015), 411.]
Part 5: Conclusion
The era of McCarthyism was a time when scorn for Communism was at its height and political and Establishment leaders like Hoover and Thomas were attempting to gain or increase power for themselves by attacking a weaker organization. The Communist Party in America was deemed a target, and the HUAC identified Communist writers in Hollywood as enemies of the people. The HUAC hauled people in to testify and to name names. Dalton Trumbo was one who refused to name names or testify about being a Communist. He felt his principles were on the line and that if he budged, the HUAC would gain control of America and rout the ideal of freedom. Trumbo faced the wrath of HUAC for not testifying and as a result was blacklisted in Hollywood. The Hollywood Blacklist was a list of names of writers suspected of being Communists and therefore of being un-American. They were unemployable once they were on that list. Trumbo was hit hard—financially and professionally. After prison and a stint in Mexico, however, he returned to Los Angeles to defeat the Blacklist. By writing excellent scripts and selling them on the black market he respect from many. With Spartacus he finally announced his return in big…
Ceplair, Larry and Christopher Trumbo. Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2015.
Griffith, Robert. McCarthyism: The Politics of Fear: Joseph R. McCarthy and the Senate. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.
Krutnik, Frank. “Un-American” Hollywood: Politics and Film in the Blacklist Era. New Brunswick N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2007.
McGilligan, Patrick and Paul Buhle. Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
Schrecker, Ellen. The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.
Schrecker, Ellen. Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.
Smith, Jeff. Criticism, the Cold War, and the Blacklist: Reading the Hollywood Reds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.
Spartacus An Analysis of Stanley Kubrick's 1960 Spartacus Gerald Mast (2006) notes that "as with Renoir, Kubrick's social evils are human evils; the problem is human nature," (p. 542) and such can easily be applied to Kubrick's 1960 Spartacus -- despite the fact that the film cannot really be said to be his. Spartacus is more Kirk Douglas' vehicle than anything. Bought by Douglas, the story was meant to be his answer