BLACKLISTED and blue DALTON TRUMBO
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.