BLACK­LISTED and blue DAL­TON TRUMBO

Pasatiempo - - PASA REVIEWS - Jonathan Richards

Dal­ton Trumbo is con­sid­ered a hero by many, a man who stood up for free­dom of speech at a time when his coun­try was in the grip of anti-Com­mu­nist hys­te­ria, when Amer­i­can cit­i­zens were be­ing shunned and jailed and black­listed for their be­liefs. Trumbo did his jail time, and then he fought back against the movie in­dus­try black­list un­til he beat it.

Bruce Cook, who pub­lished the bi­og­ra­phy Trumbo in 1977 when his sub­ject was still alive, makes him­self a prom­i­nent char­ac­ter in the story. And for the book’s new edi­tion, a movie tie-in trade pa­per­back pub­lished to co­in­cide with the release of the film Trumbo (di­rected by Jay Roach and star­ring Bryan Cranston), the screen­writer John McNa­mara has writ­ten a fore­word that in­dulges in the same in­ser­tion of the au­thor into the nar­ra­tive, as he talks about the book he adapted: “The book and I made our way through the next three decades. To­gether we dated, mar­ried, and di­vorced; had ca­reer highs and lows, moved in and out of houses, mourned the death of my dad, cel­e­brated my sec­ond mar­riage and the birth of my son.”

It’s a rhetor­i­cal flight of fancy that doesn’t en­tirely hold to­gether. The book must have been ex­hausted! But it’s just the fore­word.

The Cook bio it­self is well writ­ten, and does a cred­itable job of lay­ing out the story of the man who rose out of an im­pov­er­ished child­hood by dint of a fierce in­tel­li­gence to forge him­self into a suc­cess­ful writer. In his Colorado high school, the book­ish, driven Trumbo was the boy most likely to suc­ceed; and, a class­mate re­called, “The worst foot­ball player ever to come out of the school.”

He be­gan by writ­ing nov­els, and one of them, Johnny Got His Gun (1939), be­came a clas­sic of an­ti­war lit­er­a­ture. But a de­sire to earn a liv­ing got Trumbo side­tracked into writ­ing for the movies. Screen­writ­ing to­day has be­come re­spectable, but in those days it was some­thing a se­ri­ous writer slipped into with a cyn­i­cal smirk. “There was then and ev­i­dently would al­ways be a sharp con­trast in Trumbo’s mind be­tween his hon­or­able lit­er­ary work and the work he would do for the movies,” Cook ob­serves.

By 1940, Trumbo was an es­tab­lished screen­writer with a rep­u­ta­tion as a go-to guy for res­cu­ing trou­bled projects. He was called in to save RKO’s Kitty Foyle (1940) for Gin­ger Rogers, which brought an Os­car nom­i­na­tion for him and a Best Ac­tress award for her. This win­ning com­bi­na­tion was tried again a few years later, when Rogers and Trumbo reteamed in Ten­der Com­rade (1943).

By the end of WWII, Trumbo was rid­ing high in Hol­ly­wood, the high­est-paid screen­writer in the busi­ness. And then came the House Un-Amer­i­can Ac­tiv­i­ties Com­mit­tee (HUAC).

The Hol­ly­wood Ten, as they came to be called, were a group of writ­ers and direc­tors who were sum­moned in late 1947 be­fore the con­gres­sional com­mit­tee in­ves­ti­gat­ing Com­mu­nism in the movie in­dus­try. Even Gin­ger Rogers’ mother ap­peared be­fore the com­mit­tee, com­plain­ing that in Ten­der Com­rade, Trumbo had put Com­mu­nist pro­pa­ganda into her daugh­ter’s mouth. The Ten de­vel­oped a strat­egy of re­ly­ing not on the Fifth Amend­ment, but the First, for their de­fense, in the be­lief that the Con­sti­tu­tion pro­tected free­dom of speech, and thus pro­tected the right to keep silent. This proved not to be the case. For re­fus­ing to an­swer the com­mit­tee’s de­mand of “Are you now, or have you ever been, a mem­ber of the Com­mu­nist Party?” (all 10 had been, at one time or an­other), and for re­fus­ing to fur­nish the com­mit­tee with the names of col­leagues who might be Com­mu­nists or sym­pa­thiz­ers, the Ten

were con­victed of con­tempt of Congress and sen­tenced to jail. When they emerged, they were black­listed.

The black­list lasted un­bro­ken un­til 1960, and for some, its dark shadow ex­tended many years fur­ther. Ca­reers and lives were ru­ined, and men com­mit­ted sui­cide. Writ­ers like Trumbo, un­able to sell work un­der their own names, used pseu­do­nyms and “fronts” — will­ing ac­com­plices who rep­re­sented the work as their own and split the pro­ceeds. The stu­dios were happy with this sys­tem, as it saved them money, and though the black­lis­tees’ names were banned from the screen, the real iden­ti­ties be­came in­creas­ingly an open se­cret in the in­dus­try. Dur­ing this pe­riod Trumbo wrote the clas­sic Ro­man Hol­i­day (1953) and The Brave One (1956), both of which won screen­play Os­cars that Trumbo could not of­fi­cially claim.

But the sham was break­ing down. “A sure sign that the end of the black­list was near,” Cook writes, “could be seen in the in­creas­ing size of Trumbo’s checks.” Trumbo had “be­gun a co­or­di­nated and per­sonal de­lib­er­ate cam­paign in the me­dia against the black­list. It was a cru­sade, a vendetta. It be­came al­most an ob­ses­sion with the man.”

When the black­list fell, it ex­ploded with an al­most comic flair. Af­ter all those years in Hol­ly­wood pur­ga­tory, Trumbo found him­self the prize in a con­test be­tween two pro­duc­ers as they fought for credit to be the first to pub­licly rec­og­nize his work. On Jan. 19, 1960, Otto Preminger broke the news in The New York Times that Trumbo was the writer of his film

Ex­o­dus. The other an­nounce­ment came soon af­ter from ac­tor-pro­ducer Kirk Dou­glas, who an­nounced that Trumbo’s name would ap­pear in the screen cred­its of Spar­ta­cus.

The nar­ra­tive that Cook cre­ated back in 1977, and that McNa­mara has car­ried with him all th­ese years and has now turned into a screen­play, tells an im­por­tant Amer­i­can story, and tells it well, de­spite the in­dul­gence of self-drama­ti­za­tion and an oc­ca­sional care­less­ness with tense. Cook paints an adu­la­tory pic­ture of his sub­ject, with­out min­i­miz­ing Trumbo’s nasty side. He tells of a pe­riod when Amer­ica, as it does from time to time, lost its head in the face of a per­ceived threat. Cook de­tails an era when some ide­al­is­tic Amer­i­cans, moved largely by lib­eral so­cial con­cerns, em­braced a phi­los­o­phy — Com­mu­nism — that seemed like a good idea at the time; when its per­ver­sions in the Soviet Union be­came ap­par­ent, and the tyranny of the Amer­i­can Com­mu­nist Party be­came op­pres­sive, most of them drifted away.

Trumbo joined the Com­mu­nist party in 1943 and left it in 1948. There’s no ev­i­dence that he ever tried to over­throw the U.S. gov­ern­ment. (The di­a­logue in Ten­der Com­rade that up­set Gin­ger Rogers’ mother was about work­ing girls pool­ing their rent to share a house where “we could run the joint just like a democ­racy.”)

Trumbo was a man who made de­voted friends and bit­ter en­e­mies. He was no stranger to hold­ing a grudge. But in a speech he de­liv­ered in 1970 at the Writ­ers Guild of Amer­ica upon re­ceiv­ing an award, Trumbo made this ob­ser­va­tion:

“When you who are in your for­ties or younger look back with cu­rios­ity on that dark time, as I think oc­ca­sion­ally you should, it will do no good to search for he­roes or vil­lains or saints or devils, be­cause there were none; there were only vic­tims. Some suf­fered less than oth­ers, some grew and oth­ers di­min­ished, but in the fi­nal tally we were all vic­tims, be­cause al­most with­out ex­cep­tion each of us felt com­pelled to say things he did not want to say, to do things he did not want to do, to de­liver and re­ceive wounds he really did not want to ex­change. That is why none of us — right, left, or cen­ter — emerged from that long night­mare with­out sin.”

“Trumbo” by Bruce Cook was reis­sued in pa­per­back by Grand Cen­tral Pub­lish­ing in Septem­ber.

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