Bryan Cranston plays legendary screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in this weekend’s Trumbo, a biopic that doubles as a tribute to its subject’s brilliant (and eventually successful) efforts to undermine the Hollywood blacklist that drove his career underground after World War II. Of course, Trumbo was far from the only blacklisted writer during those years, and we’ve decided to dedicate this edition of Total Recall to a look at some of the best work turned in by a number of his fellow exiles.
A number of blacklisted professionals turned their backs on Hollywood in disgust after enduring the experience, while others — like Water Bernstein — continued plugging away by making uncredited contributions to screenplays or working behind “fronts” — people who volunteered to act as noms de plume for their exiled brethren. Bernstein continued to work steadily after being blacklisted, and ultimately ended up becoming one of the first writers to be plucked from oblivion when Sidney Lumet hired him to write That Kind of Woman (1959), which freed him up to start working under his own name again. He’d use his “front” years as grist for his Oscar-nominated screenplay for the biting 1976 Woody Allen comedy The Front, but if you’re looking for a truly gripping example of Bernstein’s capabilities, check out 1964’s Fail-Safe; this Cold War thriller was overlooked at the time due to its superficial similarities to Dr. Strangelove, but rather than treating nuclear brinksmanship as a source of comedy, it draws from a wellspring of bleak drama, turning up the screws on viewers as nuclear annihilation looms. The result, decreed Empire’s Kim Newman, is “an impressive and disturbing brink-of-doom thriller.”
Before being pilloried for his personal beliefs, Lester Cole put them to good use on behalf of screenwriters everywhere: In 1933, he joined with fellow future “Hollywood Ten” members John Howard Lawson and Samuel Ornitz to establish the Writers Guild of America. The following year, he joined the American Communist Party, which made him an easy target for the House Committee on Un-American Activities; after refusing to testify, he ended up being slapped with a $1,000 fine for contempt of Congress, serving 10 months in prison, and spending the rest of his career writing under assumed names borrowed from his wife and friends. It was under one of those names, Gerald L.C. Copley, that Cole adapted Born Free, the story of a real-life couple who adopted a lioness cub and raised her into adulthood before releasing her into the Kenyan wilderness. It’s the type of setup that plenty of other writers would have sent sailing into syrupy, emotionally manipulative territory, but Cole’s sweet screenplay practiced restraint; as Vincent Canby wrote for the New York Times, “Without minimizing the facts of animal life or overly sentimentalizing them, this film casts an enchantment that is just about irresistible.”
A staunch proponent of workers’ rights, Bernard Gordon helped found the Screen Readers Guild after starting his career as a member of their ranks; his wife, Jean Lewin, was also an activist, and helped organize the World War II military servicemen’s club known as the Hollywood Canteen. He’d just picked up his first couple of screenwriting credits — for the Tony Curtis boxing drama Flesh and Fury and the Rock Hudson Western The Lawless Breed — when producer William Alland gave his name to HUAC; although he was never called to testify, his budding career was quickly driven underground, and Gordon spent years as a prolific (yet largely uncredited) writer of B movies and sci-fi thrillers before branching out into film production with a series of Spanish Westerns. One of the biggest beneficiaries of the Writers Guild’s efforts to retroactively restore credit to screenwriters forced to work under pseudonyms, Gordon is perhaps best loved in cult film circles for his work on 1962’s The Day of the Triffids, a loose adaptation of the John Wyndham novel about plant-like aliens that invade the Earth. “Basically, this is a vegetarian’s version of The Birds, a science-fiction-horror melodrama about a vile people-eater of the plant kingdom with a voracious appetite,” chuckled Variety at the time. “Although riddled with script inconsistencies and irregularities, it is a more-than-adequate film of its genre.”
Ring Lardner Jr. started strong in Hollywood, winning an Oscar for his work on 1942’s Woman of the Year and ultimately snaring a contract that earned him the equivalent of more than $20,000 a week, but it all went off the rails after the film industry’s Communist witch hunt started, and he spent the majority of the next couple decades writing uncredited work and borrowing other people’s names. Lardner’s comeback started after Norman Jewison credited him with the screenplay for 1965’s The Cincinnati Kid; a mere five years later, he collected another Oscar for his work on Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H. Although Lardner took umbrage with the changes Altman made to his script, they were largely cosmetic — and the end result was a film that found the cinematic heart in Richard Hooker’s rather uneven (and, according to Altman, virulently racist) novel. According to Empire’s Alan Morrison, “As a savage comedy about man’s rebellion in the face of death it has rarely been bettered.”
A Red Cross worker during World War I, John Howard Lawson was already a seasoned pro with a number of stage credits under his belt by the time his Hollywood career really started gathering steam, and was in his 40s when he received an Oscar nomination for the 1938 Henry Fonda picture Blockade. That picture, like a number of his works, was strongly politically oriented, and Lawson’s outspoken nature — as well as his dogged commitment to the cause, which included touring the South to observe labor conflicts and economic inequality — made him a major target for HUAC when hearings started, and he ended up being fined for contempt and sentenced to a year in prison. Although he’d continue to work after enduring the blacklist, Lawson never regained his momentum in Hollywood — a shame, given how nimbly his early credits skipped between politically charged stuff like Blockade and lighter fare like the Humphrey Bogart picture Sahara, and how clearly he remained in control of his craft in later, uncredited efforts like the screenplay for the early Sidney Poitier effort Cry, the Beloved Country, which Variety lauded as “A very moving film, full of simplicity and charm.”
Maltz was an O. Henry winner who earned an Oscar nomination for Pride of the Marines, but his leftist leanings still made him a target of the HUAC’s wrath, and like the rest of his brethren in the Hollywood Ten, he was virtually unemployable for years; as late as 1960, not even Frank Sinatra’s clout was enough to secure him a job writing The Execution of Private Slovik. He wouldn’t be able to write under his own name again until 1970, when he penned the screenplay for Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine’s Two Mules for Sister Sara; in the interim, he continued writing acclaimed works under pseudonyms — including the 1950 Jimmy Stewart Western Broken Arrow, now regarded as one of the first films to portray Native Americans as something other than savages. Maltz’s career achievements also include The Naked City, a police procedural noir whose stark look at New York’s seedy underbelly proved influential — it’s since been preserved in the United States National Film Registry — as well as a critical and commercial hit that went on to inspire a fairly successful television series. The result, as Philip French wrote for the Observer, is “both a landmark and some sort of masterpiece.”
After serving in the OSS during World War II, Abraham Polonsky returned home and started writing for Paramount, where he’d signed a contract prior to starting his military service. Two years later, he earned an Oscar nomination for his work on the acclaimed boxing drama Body and Soul — and by 1948 he’d moved into directing as well, helming his own adaptation of the Ira Wolfert novel Tucker’s People. Given the somewhat more exciting title Force of Evil, the film wasn’t an immediate success, but it caught on overseas, and was ultimately recognized as a classic noir before being enshrined in the National Film Registry — a fitting tribute for the film Empire’s Danny Graydon deemed “a shining example of everything Hollywood falling into place, and a masterpiece of cinema.” Unfortunately, shortly thereafter, Polonsky’s refusal to testify during the HUAC hearings effectively brought his career to a halt, and it would be nearly 20 years before 1968’s Madigan brought him back into the spotlight. Polonsky later wrote the original screenplay for the blacklist-inspired drama Guilty by Suspicion, but ordered his name removed from the credits after a disagreement with director Irwin Winkler over Winkler’s changes to the script.
Perhaps best remembered as a member of the Hollywood Ten who was later accused by director Edward Dmytryk of pressuring Dmytryk to lace his films with Communist propaganda, Scott suffered great economic stress under the blacklist; although he eventually found work writing scripts for the British TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood, caring for an adopted son kept him from leaving the country to seek additional opportunities outside the Hollywood studio system. Arguably busiest as a producer early in his career — a stretch that saw him producing the Oscar-nominated Crossfire in 1947 — Scott was also a screenwriter of some renown, and wrote a handful of scripts for television and film, including the Cary Grant romance Mr. Lucky. A huge hit that went on to inspire a radio play as well as a short-lived TV series, Lucky starred Grant as a grifter and World War II draft dodger who falls for a socialite (Laraine Day) while in the midst of a scam to raise money for a gambling ship by faking a fundraiser for the war effort. It’s fairly standard stuff, right down to the dramatic dockside hellos and goodbyes, but there’s nothing wrong with formula if it’s applied correctly; as Adrian Turner wrote for Radio Times, “It sounds tacky, and it is a bit, but the movie from Hellzapoppin’ director HC Potter was a big hit in 1943 and Grant always rated it as one of his favourites ‘because the character I played was more like the real Cary Grant than any before.’”
Trumbo stayed busier than many of his Hollywood Ten contemporaries during their years on the blacklist, and managed to turn in some pretty incredible work in the face of financial injustices that might have dimmed a less persistent person’s enthusiasm for the craft — in fact, although the Academy didn’t know it at the time, Trumbo actually won two Oscars while he was blacklisted, for his work on 1953’s Roman Holiday and 1956’s The Brave One. For the purposes of our list, however, it would be hard not to honor Spartacus, if only for the simple fact that the blacklist was finally, fatally weakened when star Kirk Douglas made it public that Trumbo was responsible for the screenplay — and then President-elect John F. Kennedy crossed picket lines to attend a screening. So massively popular that it topped Universal’s all-time grosses for the ensuing decade, Spartacus also reaped nearly unanimous critical acclaim; as Ben Falk wrote for the BBC, “Of all the historical epics, this pretty much takes the biscuit, with an unbelievable cast, incredible cinematography and plenty of quotable scenes.”
Salt of the Earth’s home video artwork billed it as “the only U.S. blacklisted film,” and although that point would seem to be somewhat open to debate, its blacklisted pedigree is indeed impressive: Director Herbert Biberman was one of the Hollywood Ten, and while neither screenwriter Michael Wilson nor producer Jarrico were among that particular number, they were also blacklisted. The result, unsurprisingly, was a staunchly populist picture whose feminist and pro-labor leanings fed strongly into a plot that delivered a fictionalized account of a real-life zinc miners’ strike in New Mexico — and one whose politics and behind-the-scenes union ties led many to dismiss it as subversive Communist propaganda. While the cultural climate of the day may have driven Biberman and his collaborators to despair, American filmgoers eventually caught up with Salt of the Earth, which has since been preserved in the National Film Registry. At the time, Bosley Crowther of the New York Times was one of the few contemporary critics who saw past anti-Soviet bluster and appreciated the film on its merits, writing that “Michael Wilson’s tautly muscled script develops considerable personal drama, raw emotion and power.” As for Wilson, he’d go on to win an Oscar for his screenplay for Bridge on the River Kwai, although since he and collaborator Carl Foreman were blacklisted, the award officially went to novelist Pierre Boulle — an injustice that wouldn’t be corrected until 1984, six years after his death.