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Film / Trumbo

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Trumbo is a 2015 biopic about Dalton Trumbo and his experience in The Hollywood Blacklist.

The year is 1947. Dalton Trumbo (played by Bryan Cranston) is one of Hollywood's best screenwriters. An unapologetic member of the Communist Party, he stands with labor unions and sticks to what's right. Unfortunately, the Cold War is in full swing and paranoia has swept America. The House Un-American Affairs Committee begins its sweeping witch hunts to root suspected communists, and Trumbo is thrust into prominence as he stands against people who seek to destroy his career.


This movie contains examples of these tropes:

  • Affably Evil: Hedda Hopper is publicly very polite and charming with Trumbo even after she screwed him and his friends over. This said, it tends to be in a rather snide, gloating fashion, leaving little ambiguity over how much contempt she feels for them.
  • Ambiguously Jewish: Discussed when Hedda Hopper blackmails Mayer reminding him that he and other studio bosses were poor Jewish immigrants who changed their names to fit in with WASP America. Mayer tells Hopper to Get Out!, but it's implied that this blackmail had an effect in the studio bosses deciding to blacklist their communist affiliated employees.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • Edward G. Robinson did say he was duped by communist organizations, but he never actually named names.
    • When Otto Preminger introduces himself to Trumbo, the latter acts as if Preminger was an obscure film-maker. Preminger was in fact one of the biggest and most famous Hollywood directors of his day (only slightly less famous than Hitchcock), having made several controversial hits that challenged censorship. Trumbo definitely knew who he was when the latter approached him to write Exodus. The film does give itself a bit of an escape clause, in that it establishes Trumbo as being a bit sleep-deprived after working a lengthy day-nighter and never actually outright confirms that he doesn't recognise Preminger.
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    • While former HUAC Chairman J. Parnell Thomas really was convicted and imprisoned for tax evasion and corruption at the same time that Trumbo was serving his sentence, they served time in different prisons and so never met as the film depicts. He was, however, coincidentally imprisoned in the same facility as Lester Cole and Ring Lardner Jr., two other members of the "Hollywood Ten" imprisoned along with Trumbo thanks to Thomas's inquiries.
  • Author Tract: In-Universe. Frank King calls out Arlen Hird for putting obvious reflections of his own political views into the script of a crappy sci-fi B-movie about a bug-headed alien romancing a human woman
  • Batter Up!: Frank King scares off a HUAC guy who wants him to fire Trumbo by whipping out a baseball bat and unleashing hell on his own office.
  • Benevolent Boss: Otto Preminger acts like this for Trumbo, albeit a little more needling than usual. While this was definitely true of Preminger's relationship with Trumbo and other screenwriters, he was actually notorious in his day for being a very bullying Prima Donna Director to actors.
  • Berserk Button: Trumbo pushes John Wayne's by reminding him that, for all his macho rhetoric, he spent the entirety of World War II on a film set while others were on the front line. Truth in Television as his not serving due to studios refusing to let him out of their contracts was a major sore spot for Wayne and implied to be the reason for his extremely vocal activism after.
  • Big Good: Kirk Douglas, who comes directly to Trumbo with the first draft of Spartacus and asks for a rewrite. He does not break his stride when Hopper tries to convince (i.e. threaten) him to fire Trumbo.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: As mentioned about in Affably Evil. Hedda might sound friendly and affable to people but behind the mask there’s pure sadism and glee in the fact that she loves to see her so called “enemies” and innocent people suffer. Big example is when she sits and talks with Louie B. Meyer about firing Trumbo and the others and when Meyer tells her that even though he doesn’t like their politics he can’t just fire them, Hedda drops the pleasantness and reveals her true nature by threatening to ruin Meyer and the other studio moguls if they don’t fire them while also showing her anti-semitism. She also tries to keep Eddie Robinson blacklisted even after he relented and named names of suspected Communists to congress, mentioning that if it was up to her “he would be dead” if it could just bring back one boy from the Korean War. John Wayne out of all people calls her out on her two-faced nature.
  • B-Movie: What the King Brothers make, with no illusions and no shame. They make crap because it sells. Ironically, some of the King Brothers' crap are actually considered classics today by cinephiles. Indeed, some would argue that Trumbo's work on Gun Crazy, a Film Noir by Joseph H. Lewis (and one of the framed posters Frank King smashes) is a lot more significant as cinema than The Brave One, the film he won an Oscar for (as Robert Rich).
  • Bourgeois Bohemian: Trumbo gets accused of this by everyone for being a "Swimming Pool Stalinist", which Trumbo doesn't deny. He's unapologetic about wanting to make money, but is also very defensive of the working class wanting to do the same. He's unwilling to give up his fortune for the sake of communism, but is willing to risk it all in the cause (and does lose a great deal in the process).
  • Career Resurrection: In-universe. The latter half is of Trumbo's efforts to reestablish himself in Hollywood. He wins an Oscar for Roman Holiday, by giving credit for his screenplay to another writer, then wins for The Brave One under a pseudonym. The release of Spartacus is his first hit with his own name on it.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Kirk Douglas first appears presenting the Oscar that Trumbo wins for Roman Holiday. Sometime later, after Trumbo wins another award for The Brave One, Kirk shows up on his doorstep, asking him to write a big movie for him.
  • Chummy Commies: Many of the writers involved are communists who genuinely wish to help improve things, mostly in the Unions In Hollywood such as helping set builders get equal pay. Of course, the film focuses on the domestic policies of the party far more than their international opinions.
  • Composite Character:
    • Arlen Hird (played by Louis C.K.) is based on several blacklisted writers such as Alva Bessie (whom he physically resembles) and Samuel Ornitz (who had lung cancer).
    • Edward G. Robinson is probably himself and Elia Kazan. Kazan wasn't involved with Trumbo, but Robinson's speech justifying his naming as I Did What I Had to Do and that he only gave the HUAC names that would have been blacklisted anyway was Kazan's lifelong self-justification. Robinson, as Artistic License – History reveals, never "named names" while Kazan most certainly did.
  • Conflicting Loyalty: What the blacklist amounts to. Do the studios stay loyal to their contracted employees or to the government? Do you stay loyal to your friends and the party or the government? Risk your own career out of solidarity for your friends' largely hopeless and limited struggle at the expense of your own? Trumbo gives a speech to this effect at the end of the film (based on a very controversial speech he gave in real life), noting that while the blacklist was "evil", it was an era without heroes and villains, where people were forced into impossible and difficult situations with a great deal at stake.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Aside from all the Red Scare paranoia, there's the treatment of smoking. Arlen Hird smokes heavily, but even after he survives one scare with long cancer, he doesn't kick the habit, thanks to a lack of public knowledge about the dangers of smoking.invoked
  • Establishing Character Moment: Our first shot of Trumbo shows him in the midst of his standard habit, writing screenplays in the bathtub.
  • Everyone Has Standards:
    • Virgil Brooks thinks that Trumbo is a traitor Commie, but he's disgusted when Edward G. Robinson reads a list of names of suspected communists and says that anyone who snitched like that in prison would be killed.
    • Although he's just as jingoistic/anti-Communist as she is, John Wayne is angered that Hedda Hopper still wants Robinson to be blacklisted even after "recanting" and naming names. While Wayne enthusiastically supports the blacklist, he insists it "ain't right" to keep punishing someone who's cooperating, and is willing to go toe-to-toe with Hopper over the issue.
  • Everybody Smokes: In keeping with the period/setting, many cast members are smokers. The film seems to be implicitly Smoking Is Not Cool given that Arlen Hird is shown with a hacking cough and losing a lung to cancer (which doesn't stop him from smoking) and Trumbo's heavy smoking and drinking goes from being (to the modern audience) retro cool to a serious addiction after his career and life fall apart.
  • Exact Words: After approaching Trumbo for rewrites of his script for Exodus, Otto Preminger quips that if Trumbo doesn't lift up the quality then he'll make sure that Trumbo's name is on the picture "to take the blame". Later, when Kirk Douglas shows up also looking for rewrites, Trumbo uses a conveniently paraphrasing of this exchange to imply that Preminger is planning on genuinely giving Trumbo a credit for the movie.
  • The Friend Nobody Likes: Hedda is a Type 5. Nobody likes her, either for her backstabbing or her narcissism. However, because she controls such a large following, no-one in Hollywood would go against her. Even the all-powerful studio heads back down rather than face her wrath.
  • The Glasses Come Off: Trumbo riles up John Wayne by pointing out that he, Trumbo, and most of his "un-American" companions were journalists on the front lines during World War II while John Wayne was back in Hollywood filming propaganda movies. He finishes his speech by removing his glasses, since he'd like them not to get broken if Wayne punches him.
  • The Ghost: Stanley Kubrick is discussed, and Spartacus plays a huge role in the final act of the film, but he never appears on camera.
  • Hate Sink: Hedda Hopper is such a virulent communist-hater, acting as if their existence is a personal offense to her, that she blackmails studio heads into firing talented, hard-working writers using blatantly antisemitic rhetoric, and even tries to stop Robinson's reinstatement after he caves to the pressure and names names.
  • The Heavy: Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who is deeply interested in seeing Trumbo's career destroyed.
  • Heroic Safe Mode: Trumbo, after his time in prison, becomes increasingly closed off from his family, treats his children as errand-runners, and turns to drinking and amphetamines to crank out scripts.
  • Hidden Depths: Frank King is an openly and proudly trashy film producer but he's one of the few characters in the film who doesn't buy into the fear about communism.
  • Historical Domain Character: Dalton Trumbo, Frank King, Hedda Hoppernote , Edward G. Robinson, John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Otto Preminger, and Louis B. Mayer are all real people.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: The movie really glosses over the fact that Trumbo was a horrible person in real life. Not only was he a hypocrite Who gladly participated in the expulsion of a party member who advocated for free speech, when Trumbo himself claimed he was advocating for free speech, The movie also tend to forget that Trumbo was a communist sympathizer, and supported both Nazi Germany and Soviet Union(he adored Stalin)during the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact and the subsequent invasion of Poland. As well as calling FDR's efforts to aid the British against Germany 'treason' due to his isolationist ideals.
  • Hypocrite: At one point, Trumbo gets fed up with John Wayne bringing up the fact that "we just fought a war" as a justification for his anti-communist beliefs, and points out to Wayne's face that while many of the people he's attacking and railing against were in the frontlines of that conflict, he was safely back in Hollywood filming propaganda movies.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Robinson says this explaining why he named names. He was out of work as an actor for a year, having no other means of income and he only gave the HUAC the names they already had, the people who would be blacklisted even without his testimony. Trumbo doesn't accept this, but it's implied that he comes around at the closing speech at the end.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Arlen Hird, whose chain-smoking unsurprisingly leads to recurring lung cancer.
  • It's All About Me: Trumbo makes a lot of big speeches but it's clear that a good portion of his activism and grandstanding is about his pride as much as his beliefs. Notably, he gets annoyed when his kids aren't able to carry out tasks for him, either because of Their own lives or, in the case of Nikki, because of Their own social activism.
  • It Will Never Catch On: Trumbo writes a script titled The Princess and the Peasant. Ian thinks that's a lame title and changes it to Roman Holiday, to which Trumbo reacts with doubt.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Frank King. He's loud, crude, blunt and completely unabashed about making trashy films solely for the money. He also genuinely doesn't care about anyone's political or social views as long as they deliver for him, and he's exactly as blunt and free with praise as he is with criticism. He's also surprisingly loyal to his employees and impossible to intimidate (as a HUAC representative learns the hard way).
  • Large Ham: Trumbo is fond of giving big speeches that, Allen Hird notes, sounds as if each utterance ought to be chiseled into a rock.
    • Frank King is able to easily outclass Trumbo when it comes to hamminess. Them again, he's played by John Goodman so it's a given.
  • Like Father, Like Daughter: It's clear that Trumbo's daughter Nikki is a lot like him in terms of belief, being strong-willed and clever. In one scene, he even says she's much more devious as a compliment.
  • Knight Templar: John Wayne and the Motion Picture Alliance. Trumbo hints that Wayne's gung-ho anti-communism is compensating for his guilt at missing out on World War II (which biographers agree might have been a motivation for his political commitment). Hedda Hopper is even worse than Wayne. He's at least willing to embrace people who recant their associations, she wants everyone hung out to dry, even after they cooperate.
  • Mean Character, Nice Actor:
    • The very first scene has Edward G. Robinson in one of his threatening gangster roles, but then he flubs a scene and cracks up and is friendly and apologetic and we see that he's filming a movie. Unlike the characters that he plays, the real Robinson is erudite, soft-spoken and generous.
    • There may be a bit of a Casting Gag in the scene given that the actor who plays Robinson, Michael Stuhlbarg, is also known for playing a threatening gangster.
  • Mr. Fanservice: We get a brief but impressive moment of Kirk Douglas filming Spartacus and his glistening physique.
  • Never Learned to Read: Invoked and defied by Trumbo's fellow prisoner Virgil Brooks. Brooks intimates this is the case after testing Trumbo's suitability for a desk job in prison by having him type out a document, and Trumbo starts to look at him with pity. Then he reads everything in the document perfectly and angrily berates Trumbo for his readiness to cast himself as the hero of a White Man's Burden narrative.
  • Nice Hat: Hedda Hopper wears a different, always showy hat for every scene.
  • No-Sell: One of Hedda Hopper's cronies attempts to threaten King's movie-making by publishing columns about him. King says he doesn't care because the people he makes movies for can't read. And then chases the man out of the office with a baseball bat.
  • The Noun and the Noun: The titles for scripts which Trumbo writes by himself follow this convention, and then are changed to something catchier by unimpressed colleagues. The Princess and the Peasant becomes Roman Holiday, and The Boy and the Bull becomes The Brave One.
  • Only in It for the Money: Frank King. As he so eloquently puts it, he "got into films for two reasons: Money and pussy".
  • Parting Words Regret: After a blazing row with Hird, Trumbo eventually visits Hird's apartment to offer a proper apology. But Hird's died from a relapse of his lung cancer. Trumbo arrives on the day of his funeral.
  • Percussive Therapy: When Nikola gets upset about her father neglecting her, Cleo pulls out a punching bag and tells her to take her frustrations out on it. Nikola seems to take to it.
  • Pet the Dog: John Wayne thanks Edward G Robinson for testifying and promises to help his career get back on track by getting him work. That also includes Wayne confronting Hopper who still wants to persecute Robinson regardless of what he has done in their favor to leave Robinson alone.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Hedda Hopper, who calls MGM executive Louis B. Mayer a "kike" (a derogatory term for Jew) and blackmails the industry for the fact that some studio chiefs were Jewish, and changed their names to fit in. It was (and occasionally still is) the case amongst certain right-wingers that "Jew" and "Communist" are essentially synonyms.
  • Prima Donna Director:
    • Sam Wood calls Trumbo out for sympathizing with the set builder's strike, noting that they should not concern creative types like the two of them. Trumbo points out that their work depends on the set builders and Wood seethes so much that Edward G. Robinson has to separate the two.
    • Preminger is not this, but he is very insistent in dictating to Trumbo the tone he wants from the script which is each scene should be brilliant. Trumbo points out that his film should have an even tone, to which Preminger tells him that he'll handle the tone while Trumbo will give him brilliance.
    • Kirk Douglas admits that the young director for Spartacus, Stanley Kubrick, is really fussy and critical, but Douglas says that the worst of it is that Kubrick is right.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Frank King. He doesn't care what someone's political leanings are; so long as they write something, he'll film it.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Arlen Hird and Dalton Trumbo. Arlen quickly wants to get in another lawsuit when Trumbo gets out of jail, even though it will certainly fail, while Trumbo wants to fight the system methodically, by working steadily and waiting for a big break.
  • Revenge: While Hedda's reasons for the blacklist are based on her anti-communist beliefs, she applies the screws to Louis B. Mayer out of revenge for trying to sleep with her when she was just starting out and for the fact that her acting career fizzled out.
  • The Rival: Kirk Douglas and Preminger are this, both have epic blockbusters coming out and both want Trumbo, and Preminger tempts Trumbo from Douglas by offering to put his name on the credits, which Kirk Douglas takes as a challenge to follow suit. This is actually a meta-joke since Kirk Douglas has often disputed Preminger's contribution to ending the blacklist, insisting that he get sole credit for it. The way the film portrays it is more accurate, in that both of them were mutually important to ending it.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Frank King is a rare heroic example. He's willing to ignore the blacklist because of how profitable Trumbo is. Refusing to relent even when the Alliance threatens him with a boycott, or as he puts it "I'm in this for the money and the pussy, and they are falling out of the trees. If you take that away from me, this thing (a baseball bat) will be the last thing you ever see before I beat you to death with it."
  • Screw the Rules, I Make Them!: Being a communist is perfectly legal, technically, but thanks to a great deal of paranoid raving from Hedda Hopper and the HUAC, it makes evocations of the First Amendment a fruitless gesture, and being a communist nearly as acceptable as being black.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: Trumbo delivers one to John Wayne, pointing out that while Wayne was shooting blanks on a film set, Trumbo was a war correspondent on the front lines in Okinawa.
  • Smug Snake: When she's on top of the situation, Hedda Hopper tends to react to her defeated foes with smug gloating.
  • Stealth Insult: After watching a jingoistic World War II movie starring John Wayne, Virgil Brooks asks Trumbo if he's ever met him and what he's like. Trumbo replies that they'd get along great.
  • Stylistic Suck: From what we hear about Frank King's sci-fi movie about a woman having sex with an alien, it understandably sounds absolutely terrible. Even Frank admits it, and he could not possibly care less.
  • Take Back Your Gift: After Hird dies, Trumbo takes the account of how much Edward G. Robinson paid for their defense fund and attempts to pay it back. When Robinson protests that it was a gift, Trumbo says "we want it off our books."
  • Take That!: Preminger wastes no time dismissing Leon Uris' novel as shit before asking Trumbo to adapt Exodus.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: The film makes it clear that the Golden Age of Hollywood often had people of different political stripes working together under contract for studios. The opening scene shows anti-communist Sam Wood seething in rage at communist Trumbo while directing liberal democrat Edgar G. Robinson. Louis B. Mayer cites this as an example of how the movie industry works to Hedda Hopper but to little avail.
  • The Theme Park Version: The film is broadly accurate about Trumbo's personal situation and the circumstances that led to him being blacklisted and in the manner in which he and other writers worked under various front names and how the blacklist was broken. It is, however, considerably more broad in dealing with the actual communist movement and its controversies (which had nothing to do with Trumbo's blacklisting anyway).
  • The Thing That Would Not Leave: Preminger enters Trumbo's house and refuses to allow him to leave his room until he's finished, even putting Christmas celebrations on a counter.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: All of Frank King's office staff regard his baseball bat rampage as just another day at work.
  • Villainous BSoD: Hedda Hopper loses her class and composure as Trumbo gains more support in Hollywood. She finally just stares at her TV as President Kennedy exits a showing of Spartacus and comments that it was a fine picture.
  • Waiting for a Break: Trumbo does cheap movies for the King Bros., waiting for someone to come to him with a great project.
  • What the Hell, Hero?:
    • Trumbo's wife Cleo has a quiet but definitive discussion with him after he yells at their daughter on her sixteenth birthday. She reminds him that she'd left her first husband so that her children would not be raised by a bully, but that Dalton's turned into one himself. After that, he goes to apologize.
    • Edward G. Robinson gets this from Trumbo for "naming names" while Robinson turns it around and questions his poorly-thought-out defense that got him and his friends arrested, and hastened Allen Hird's death.
    • Trumbo also gets this from Nikola, who points out how Democrats are blocking integration of African-Americans in the South. Trumbo, who supports the Democratic party, states that those are dixiecrats and changes the subject. (Eventually, the Dixiecrats did break from the party entirely.)