Oscars Past: 1957, The Year Hollywood's Anti-Communist Blacklist Began To Crumble
The 29th Academy Awards, held on March 27, 1957 at the RKO Pantages Theater, was a banner year for some of Hollywood’s legendary stars.
On the eve of the 95th Academy Awards this Sunday, March 12, in Hollywood, we're looking back at some of the most exciting moments in the history of the Oscars and how they relate to U.S. history.
We examined these important turning points in the first season of our podcast And The Oscar Goes To… hosted by Jacqueline Stewart, now the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures director and president.
Ingrid Bergman triumphantly won Best Actress for her role in Anastasia, after being misogynistically abandoned by Hollywood in the aftermath of her extramarital relationship with director Roberto Rossellini. Yul Brynner won Best Actor for his iconic role in The King and I, while Anthony Quinn picked up a Best Supporting Actor trophy for his role in Lust for Life.
But in terms of societal change, the most important Oscar winner that night was somebody who didn’t actually exist.
When movie star Deborah Kerr announced that the winner for Best Motion Picture Story was Robert Rich for The Brave One, the crowd went wild.
“There's a big shout out for Robert Rich,” screenwriter Howard Rodman, a professor at USC's School of Cinematic Arts told LAist Studio's The Academy podcast in an episode about the momentous event.
“And then a guy gets up and everybody is assuming that this is Robert Rich come to get his award.”
Instead, Jesse Lasky Jr., vice president of the screenwriters branch of the Writers Guild, comes on stage to accept the award, saying simply, “On behalf of Robert Rich and his beautiful story, thank you very much.”
There were gasps from the audience. Who was this unknown Robert Rich? Why had he not accepted the award himself?
The April 1 edition of The Hollywood Reporter leaned into the mystery with the headline: “Oscar in Search of An Author: Who Wrote “The Brave One?”
Conflicting statements added to the mystery. Lasky claimed the missing writer’s wife was in labor the night of the ceremony, and he was with her. The King Brothers, who produced the film, said the writer was in Australia.
But The Hollywood Reporter flat out stated what many suspected or already knew: “In reply to intimations that the story might have been written by a member of the former ‘Unfriendly 10,’” the paper reported, “[Maurice] King denied this as preposterous.”
It was far from preposterous. Robert Rich was, in fact, celebrated screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted in 1947 for his earlier involvement in the Communist Party.
Listen to the episode
Who was Robert Rich?
Trumbo was at home with his family, watching the ceremony on TV, when his alter-ego won the award.
“It was just so amazing when he won,” Trumbo’s daughter Mitzi recalls. “I stood up and said, ‘Oh, Daddy, let's go pick it up tomorrow!’ And, of course, they had to remind me that no, we couldn't do that.”
It couldn’t be done for one simple reason.
“Trumbo couldn't write under his own name because he was blacklisted,” Rodman said, explaining:
“It was a very significant event in the history of the Hollywood blacklist. It was really the first kind of crack in the wall. Because even though he couldn't accept under his own name, it started a much larger conversation. And he kind of created a really big underground press campaign — ‘Who was Robert Rich? Who was Robert Rich? Well, it could be this one, could be that one'. When you sort of kick sand over something, sometimes you're drawing attention to it rather than away from it. And so that's what happened here. By accepting under the name of 'Robert Rich' and making a mystery out of who Robert Rich was, the conversation turned to the Hollywood blacklist.”
Communist Party affiliation
Dalton Trumbo had always known how to craft the perfect narrative. Originally from Colorado, Trumbo struggled for years, toiling in a bakery before becoming a successful screenwriter at MGM in the late 1930s.
“He is a quietly civilized — one almost says courtly — man, with none of the slickness you sometimes find in Hollywood types who have been very successful for a very long time,” Roger Ebert wrote. “But, of course, his career has never permitted very much of that slickness.”
Long a political progressive, in 1943, Trumbo joined the Communist Party.
“His closest friends were Communists, and he had been working alongside them in a variety of causes for several years,” Trumbo’s biographer Larry Ceplair said in an interview with George Washington University.
“He was concerned about the nature of the peace that the victorious allies would institute," Ceplair said. "He thought that the CPUSA was the best organized and most effective group on the left. He treated party membership as an exercise of his freedom of thought, and he never became an uncritical follower of, or a dogmatic believer in, party doctrine. He certainly had a low regard for the party’s leadership.”
The Hollywood Ten
This decision would crush his career in the dark days of the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1947, he was called before the committee and refused to comply.
“He spent 10 months in federal prison because of a contempt of Congress citation. That came for refusing to answer questions about his political views, and name names of people who were also current or former members of the Communist Party,” Rodman said.
Along with Lester Cole, Alvah Bessie, Edward Dmytryk, John Howard Lawson, Sam Ornitz, Adrian Scott, Albert Maltz, Herbert Biberman and Ring Lardner Jr., Trumbo became part of the “Hollywood Ten,” a courageous group of film industry creatives whose careers (along with many others) were ruined because of their stance against the government’s modern-day witch hunt.
"It will do no good to search for villains or heroes, or saints or devils. Because there were none,” Trumbo recalled of the era in 1970. “There were only victims."
Life in Mexico
Publicly blacklisted by all the major Hollywood studios, Trumbo and his family escaped to Mexico.
“We all had to learn Spanish,” Mitzi Trumbo recalls. “And I learned it the fastest because I was so young. And one of my most fond memories of that was my father didn't learn it at all. He always said, ‘I spent my whole life learning English, I am not interested in learning another language.’ So I was his little translator, and I've never had so much power over my father in my life.”
To earn a living, Trumbo worked for what he jokingly referred to as the “black market,” writing dozens of scripts under pseudonyms, or using friendly writers as a cover. In 1953, when his screenplay for the classic Roman Holiday won the Oscar, the screenwriter Ian McLellan Hunter took credit instead.
“He was pretty much always in high gear,” Mitzi Trumbo recalls. “He was working all the time, just constantly, and plotting ways to make it seem like this was an insane situation.”
Despite his close family’s love and his Hollywood friends’ support, the ruse was stressful.
“He used several bank accounts, so that the payments could not be easily traced, or he was paid in cash. He also had to keep very accurate records so as not to run afoul of the Internal Revenue Service,” Ceplair said.
The Brave One
The Brave One, like many of Trumbo’s stories, was a morality tale of bravery in the face of an ignorant mob. In the film, a young boy in Mexico heroically attempts to save the life of his beloved bull, destined for the matador’s ring.
“Something Trumbo strongly believed in all of his life was not only the power of one person to change enormous things, but the power of a collective to change things,” Rodman said. “And so, I think, in some ways, The Brave One is a kind of fractal miniature of his whole life and career.”
The small film, featuring no stars, received celebratory reviews when it was released. The Los Angeles Times raved that it “registers unique human appeal.” As the paper noted:
Conceived with freshness, bold sweep and a strong pull of the heart, “The Brave One” is the kind of motion picture that if it happened to carry the Walt Disney trade-mark would almost certainly be acclaimed as a classic long before it became one.
Trumbo’s Oscar win, soon an open secret in Hollywood, revealed the industry’s hypocrisy, turning its ludicrous 1957 ban on Communists’ ineligibility for Oscar nominations on its head.
“It worked well for his plan to destroy the blacklist. Because now, there was this Oscar,” Mitzi Trumbo said. “So, he proceeded to try to get other people work, to work more himself, to make the blacklist look ridiculous.”
But change didn’t happen overnight.
“In 1959, the Academy repealed this eligibility policy as quote, 'unworkable,'” said Jacqueline Stewart, host of "And the Oscar Goes To."
“That same year, the producers of The Brave One, and Dalton Trumbo himself, publicly acknowledged that the story by credit for the film belonged to Trumbo. In an interview with CBS news journalist Bill Stout in January 1959, Trumbo showed versions of the script as proof.”
Slowly, some blacklisted performers and creators began to be rehired or publicly recognized for their work.
“In January 1960, Otto Preminger announced that he would put Dalton Trumbo's name on Exodus, and then several months later, Kirk Douglas announced as well that his name would be on Spartacus,” Rodman said.
However, Trumbo did not formally receive his physical Oscar for his work on The Brave One until 1975.
“Walter Mirisch came from the Academy, came to our house, and gave him the Oscar,” Mitzi Trumbo said. “There's a photograph of that somewhere. He brought a photographer, but my father was very ill and died several months later. So, it was pretty poignant that it took so long for him to be able to actually have it. To me as his daughter, it seemed a little late.”
This episode was written and produced by Monica Bushman and edited by Antonia Cereijido.
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