"Trumbo" Saturday at Bevard Room: Hollywood's black-listed screenwriter

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 05/25/09More articles
(Dalton Trumbo on the way to federal prison in Kentucky to begin serving his sentence for contempt of Congress, 1950.)

“My father wrote his letters in three acts,” said Christopher Trumbo last year when Peter Askin’s documentary film "Trumbo" had its theatrical opening in New York City.

Both that film and the play "Trumbo" – which simply new theatre, inc. presents for a second performance this Saturday evening at the Civic Center’s Bevard Room – were written by Trumbo the son.

Born in 1940, the son was seven when successful, prolific screenwriter/novelist Dalton Trumbo was called to testify in Congress by the House Unamerican Activities Committee. One of the Hollywood Ten who refused to cooperate and name names in the initial round of HUAC hearings, Trumbo tangled with his interrogators, was charged with contempt of Congress, fired from MGM Studios and for the next 13 years could not work openly in film due to the industry-imposed blacklist that Hollywood denied existed and even federal judges did not acknowledge until the mid-60s. In 1950 he lost his court appeal and served 11 months in federal prison in Kentucky. He later moved his family to Mexico for a period of time as the political climate worsened in the mid-50s with continued HUAC hearings and blacklisting that spread to radio and television broadcasting, journalism, university campuses, law, and industrial jobs.

Two Trumbo scripts, “fronted” by other writers, won Oscars during this period. Then in 1960, director Otto Preminger hired Trumbo openly to write "Exodus"; after that Kirk Douglas hired him to write "Spartacus." In 1960, Trumbo’s son – who has primarily worked as a television writer for series like "Naked City," "Quincy, M.E." and "Brannigan" – also began working in film as assistant director on "Exodus."

The son started this play in 1997, but it lagged until wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the nation’s subsequent slide into the Patriot Act and related excesses. Similarly, at the height of the Vietnam War in 1971, Trumbo the father adapted his own 1939 anti-war novel about World War I, "Johnny Got His Gun," for screen. That film was finally released on DVD in April and screens this weekend in Hollywood as part of a three-night salute to Trumbo; it was, says the son, “the best response he could manage to the carnage of the war in Vietnam.”

The son’s play premiered in 2003 at New York’s Westside Theatre and has had two dozen productions since. In directing both the film and first stage production, Peter Askin employed multiple actors to play aspects of Trumbo as well as the “actor as narrator” (who is most often the son). By Steppenwolf’s 2004 Chicago production, the play ran with two actors, as have subsequent productions.

The play is a hybrid creature anyway, already half-way to cinema in its sensibility. One of this production's great strengths is that it extends that quality, already present in the play. So the live action is book-ended by Heather Buck's excellent video mini-doc about the father projected on-screen over the stage, which acts as an introduction, and a second projection that scrolls, final credits-like, the names black-listed at the end. (Most of last Saturday’s audience stayed to scrutinize that list, leaving our seats but standing in what was the set itself to watch). Further, the live action is interspersed with what is really the son’s voice-over narrative as often as it is dialogue.

As drama, the play’s heart is a montage of readings of those “three-act” letters that cover close to three decades from the mid-40s to Trumbo’s later years (he died in ’76). Set simply with a desk and some rugs, with a distinguishing spotlight that dissolves time and place, Dalton Trumbo (Bill Molesky) sits, reads aloud from papers, sometimes rises to pace.

Thus a prelude of mid-40’s haggling about political expediency, the spirited HUAC exchange, anniversary and birthday missives to wife and son from prison, complaints to a commercial contractor about bad work (“Dear Burglar,” begins one), droll commentary about literary criticism in which he ribs Ring Lardner, Jr. about a new manuscript, an extraordinary condolence letter to the mother of a fellow writer about their experience together in the South Pacific as war correspondents, a speech to the Screenwriters Guild, fury at the shunning his small daughter suffered in school, and a lewdly hilarious letter to the son in college that riffs on Albert Ellis’ "Sex without Guilt" (Nathan Lane reads this part in the film).

Footage of the ferociously bright, bold-tongued Trumbo exists online and, in a ferociously satisfying, many-hued performance, Molesky nails him.

As “the narrator” – foil, son, straight man, aside-maker and footnote-supplier – Tom Ciancaglini holds his own and complements Molesky. But Ciancaglini’s delivery is not always forceful enough to hear above Emmett Van Slyke’s live original score for guitar. Wonderful music, and Van Slyke plays wonderfully, alternating two instruments – especially the classical segment during Trumbo’s Mexico sojourn. But the music's volume still fights with the dialogue often enough to distract. A little adjustment the second weekend would do a world of good for an already superior production.

A shorter version of this review appears in the May 28, 2009 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle. See
“Trumbo” on Sat., May 30 at 8:00 PM in the Civic Center’s Bevard Room. Directed by John Nara, produced by Jillian Dailey. Tickets at 558.9124 or Below see the trailer for the film “Trumbo,” now on Netflix’s Save list. Nancy covers the arts. See her review of Dalton Trumbo’s film “Johnny Got His Gun,” elsewhere in this issue or go to Blogs and click "Make it Snappy" on this site. Reach her at

Sidebar: Food for thought

Are Trumbo’s time and his story merely distant relics? And, as Trumbo says in the play, weren’t the era’s culprits as much the film industry employers who stole his livelihood as the politicians who hounded him?

Intermission brought a chance meeting and a cautionary tale.

“This happened right here, you know!” said long-time local social worker and peace activist Mary Ann Zeppetello. “I had to go to New York in 1953 and testify because I was the chair of the local branch of the Labor Youth League. I wore a red dress, on purpose. They had the usual questions about whether it was Communist, et cetera, et cetera. And the blacklisting in radio and TV started in Syracuse with Larry Johnson who owned a grocery store right down on South Salina Street. He was stopped by the radio personality John Henry Faulk in a lawsuit.”

Later, as the play ended, Zeppetello pointed up at Faulk’s name on the scrolling black-list.

“There,” she said. “He’s the one. I’ll send you some links.”

Later in the weekend, Zeppetello recounted that she was called before the Subversive Activities Control Board, who investigated and demanded membership lists of 200 organizations listed as subversive by the US Attorney General. Those who refused to “register” were prosecuted under the McCarran Internal Security Act, which the Supreme Court later struck down.

Laurence Johnson’s story is more circuitous, but the owner of four Central New York supermarkets was able to convince Madison Avenue ad agencies for products sponsoring radio and TV shows that he could get their products boycotted from coast to coast unless suspect personalities were fired. This helped enable the creation of a system whereby ad agencies with the help of Johnson and associates - Aware, Inc. - vetted and had approval of every employee working on any given production. Johnson was one of those whom Faulk finally sued for malicious libel in 1963 – CBS had cancelled his radio contract in 1957 and replaced him with Arthur Godfrey, despite his continuing excellent ratings – as detailed in David Everitt’s "A Shadow of Red: Communism and the Blacklist"(2007), Faulk’s own "Fear on Trial" (1964) and attorney Louis Nizer’s "The Jury Returns" (1966).

CATEGORY: Performing Arts
TAGS: Dalton Trumbo, Christopher Trumbo, simply new theatre, Bill Molesky, HUAC, McCarthy era
EDITION: The Eagle

Rating: 2.9/5 (21 votes cast)

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