As you may know, 95-year-old Kirk Douglas has a new book out, I Am Spartacus, claiming credit for breaking the blacklist of mid-20th-century Hollywood by openly hiring ‘Hollywood 10’ screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to pen Spartacus — the 1960 epic starring Douglas (he also was the producer) about the freeing of Roman slaves.
But wait a minute.
Wasn’t producer-director Otto Preminger the first to hire Trumbo under his own name to write the script for 1960’s Exodus, based on a Leon Uris novel about the founding of Israel?
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here to observe that in this battle of two out-sized egos, Douglas will necessarily have the last word. Preminger died in 1986, at the age of 80.
Following all this closely is our pal and veteran Hollywood correspondent, Hy Hollinger, who for Variety interviewed Trumbo while Exodus was being made on location in Israel. (Says Hy today, it seems Douglas was the first to break the blacklist, but Preminger was the first to announce it.)
Trumbo, who died in 1976, also can’t comment. He was one of Hollywood’s most successful screenwriters in the mid-Forties until joining the ‘Hollywood 10’ group of writers and directors refusing to cooperate with House Committee on Un-American Activities supposedly investigating Communist infiltration of the movie business.
(Trumbo in fact was a Communist Party member from 1943 to 1948, according to the Los Angeles Times.) For refusing to ‘name names’ he was cited for contempt by the House Committee and jailed. His screenwriting career under his own name effectively ended until 1960.
Hy met up with the screenwriter in June of that year, and filed this (edited) report:
Jerusalem, June 14.
Dalton Trumbo, the most prolific and successful of the blacklisted Hollywood writers, acknowledged here that he had written at least 30 screenplays during the 13 years he has been classified as an “untouchable.”
He admitted that the majority of the films were in the low-budget “B” picture category, but indicated that a number of his “underground” contributions consisted of top budget “A” pictures.
Trumbo came to Israel to witness the filming of “Exodus,” the Otto Preminger production for which he wrote the screenplay. Preminger was the first producer to reveal openly, that a blacklisted writer is the author of a script and the first one to declare that the writer will receive full screen credit.
Seated on the terrace of the King David Hotel, a favorite hangout of British colonials in the days prior to Israel’s war of independence, Trumbo—who sports a rather large meticulously groomed white moustache—resembles the prototype of a British colonial official.
In a relaxed mood over a double scotch, he spoke with some candor of his experiences in the period after he emerged from 11 months in jail for contempt of Congress. First he moved to Mexico had remained there for two years until he had used up all his savings. Returning to Hollywood completely broke, he said he managed to latch on to rewrite jobs on small “B” pictures.
His pay for these assignments averaged between $3,500 and $7,500. “The chiseling was not as great as rumor has it,” he declared. “For the most part I received the going rate.”
He wrote these films under a number of pseudonyms, turning out 12 scripts in the first 18 months of his blacklisting….He has never verified or commented on the reports that he is the screenwriter of “Spartacus”and “Hot Eye of Heaven” (a western costarring Douglas and Rock Hudson released in 1961 under the title, The Last Sunset).
Trumbo realizes that he can purge himself of his problems as a blacklistee by writing a letter saying that he is not a Communist or a Communist sympathizer. However, he contends that his politics are a private thing and that as a matter of principle he has refused to provide the necessary document…..
As a sidebar to his blacklisting, Trumbo recalled l’affaire “The Brave One,” which he wrote under the name of Robert Rich. Trumbo admitted authorship the year after the film won an Academy Award as the best original screenplay. He said he acknowledged writing the film after the King Bros. (Frank, Maurice and Herman), the producers, had been slapped with a number of plagiarism suits.
Although the Academy has rescinded its rule withholding awards from blacklistees, Trumbo has never collected his Oscar for (RKO’s)”The Brave One.” “I never communicated with them and they never communicated with me,” he declared.
Thanks, Hy. It should be noted that in 1993, Trumbo was posthumously awarded an Oscar as one of the screenplay writers of 1953’s Audrey Hepburn-Gregory Peck classic Roman Holiday, and was officially recognized with an Oscar shortly before his death for his best-original-story work on 1956’s The Brave One.
The Los Angeles Times’ Patrick Goldstein put it best when he wrote: Staring back into history from our time, when actors and filmmakers are free to express all sorts of spectacularly preposterous political viewpoints, it’s hard to imagine there was a time when your political beliefs could destroy your career.
But that time existed, and it claimed Trumbo (picture above; he liked to write in bathtubs) as one of its victims.