The Heroism of Dalton Trumbo: An Interview with Larry CeplairHistorians/History
tags: interview, Dalton Trumbo, Larry Ceplair
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Today, the name Dalton Trumbo may not be remembered immediately by many, but he returns to the national stage in November as the subject of the new feature film Trumbo. Bryan Cranston stars as the celebrated writer and radical Trumbo with an accomplished supporting cast including Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman and Michael Stuhlbarg.
Dalton Trumbo (1905–1976) was an award-winning American screenwriter and novelist. He may be best remembered, however, for sacrificing his successful career to assert his rights and take a stand for political freedom. As one of the Hollywood Ten, he refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 during its investigation of Communist influences in the movie industry. He was convicted for contempt of Congress and jailed for almost a year. When he was blacklisted from 1947 to 1960, he struggled to survive yet he wrote dozens of works, and he won two Academy Awards--one for a script using a front (Roman Holiday) and another for a script using a pseudonym (The Brave One).
In 1960, Trumbo was publicly given credit for two blockbuster films: Exodus and Spartacus. President John F. Kennedy famously crossed American Legion picket lines to see Spartacus, a vivid expression of his view of the weakening blacklist.
In a magisterial new biography, Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical (University Press of Kentucky), historian Larry Ceplair with co-author the late Christopher Trumbo, Dalton’s son, present in depth the story of Trumbo from his humble beginnings in Colorado and early struggles as a writer, through his rise as one of Hollywood’s most successful screenwriters in the thirties and forties, to his Communist Party membership, his blacklisting, his return to public notice in 1960, and later works until his death in 1976. Professor Ceplair relied on Christopher Trumbo’s memoir and notes and then did years of extensive research on the life and times of Trumbo to complete the comprehensive biography.
This biography of Trumbo has been praised for its deep research and balance in presenting the complexity and contradictions of Trumbo, the eminent writer, artist, and political radical. Author Paul Buhle commented: “Ceplair and Trumbo examine a major victim of the Hollywood blacklist, with a depth and insight, not to mention exhaustive research, that is unprecedented in biography or autobiography." From a review in Publisher’s Weekly: “Ceplair resists other writers' tendencies to either lionize Trumbo as a martyr or criticize him as a hypocrite, finally humanizing a celebrity often reduced to a one-dimensional icon of his era.” And, from a review in Booklist: “In addition to providing Trumbo's life story the author explores the seemingly inherent contradiction of the man's life: Trumbo, a man so determined to tell stories that he let nothing stand in his way, not even a prison sentence and a blacklist, esteemed personal principle so highly that he refused to name his fellow Communist Party members, knowing his refusal could end his writing career. A long-overdue biography.”
Larry Ceplair is a professor of history emeritus at Santa Monica College, California. His other books include Anti-Communism in Twentieth Century America: A Critical History; Under the Shadow of War: Fascism, Anti-Fascism, and Marxism, 1918–1939; The Marxist and the Movies: A Biography of Paul Jarrico; and A Great Lady: A Life of the Screenwriter Sonya Levien. He also coauthored The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930–1960.
Professor Ceplair generously responded to a series of question about his work by email.
Robin Lindley: How did you come to write your magisterial biography of Dalton Trumbo with his late son Christopher Trumbo?
Larry Ceplair: Christopher had been working on a biography/memoir for several years. He had amassed an enormous amount of research and notes to himself, but he was having difficulty beginning the writing process. In the autumn of 2010, I initiated an oral history interview with him, to jump start the writing process. Simultaneously, he suffered a recurrence of his kidney cancer and declined rapidly. One month before his death, he asked me to write the book. I used as many of his thoughts as I could.
Robin Lindley: Trumbo is not a household name today. What are a few things you would say about Trumbo to introduce him to a general audience?
Larry Ceplair: He was the most sought-after screenwriter during three different phases of Hollywood history: the classic studio years (1939-47); the blacklist years (1947-60); and the post-blacklist years (1961-68). He won two Academy Awards.
In addition, he won a national book award (for Johnny Got His Gun), wrote several brilliant political pamphlets (The Time of the Toad, The Devil in the Book), and he devised the strategy and tactics that undermined the motion-picture blacklist.
Robin Lindley: Trumbo wrote in obscurity for years. How did he break into the rarified world of screenwriting in the thirties?
Larry Ceplair: He wrote constantly, stories, novels, film reviews, during the 1920s. He then sought employment as a reader at Warner Bros. And, while he was commenting on the cinematic qualities of novels and plays for possible production, he was writing scripts on speculation. He was taken on by an important agent, who was able to sell one of Trumbo’s scripts. He then worked on over a dozen “B” movies. One of them, A Man to Remember (RKO, 1939), was a financial and critical success. It vaulted him into the ranks of “A” writers.
Robin Lindley: Who were some of Trumbo’s influences in his writing of novels and screenplays?
Larry Ceplair: In novel writing, he very much liked Mark Twain and Theodore Dreiser, and he tried to emulate their realism. He had no particular influence in screen writing. He learned by watching many movies and writing many scripts.
Robin Lindley: Trumbo is known as a blacklisted writer but it appears that he was, for the most part, apolitical until he was in his thirties. It seems he didn’t comment much on Hitler or FDR in the 1930s but he did become active in the Screen Writers Guild. What prompted his interest in politics and social justice?
Larry Ceplair: He derived two important elements of his politics from his parents: Western populism (distrust of government and corporate institutions) from his father; individual rights (from his Christian-Science-oriented mother). He learned about the exploitation of labor while working at the [Davis Perfection] bakery [in Los Angeles].
He first began to comment on political issues when he was writing for The Hollywood Spectator, between 1931 and 1934. He did not become politically active then because he was too busy earning money to support his family. It was only when he became a reader and came into contact with other politically active people, notably Dashiell Hammett, that he became a political activist himself.
Robin Lindley: In the late thirties, Trumbo wrote the haunting antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun, a story of the First World War from the perspective of a horribly maimed survivor. The novel was widely praised, but Trumbo said he was not a pacifist. What was his view of war in the thirties and forties?
Larry Ceplair: Beginning in the early 1920s, Trumbo was opposed to slogan-induced wars, like World War I. During the 1930s, he became convinced that war could be avoided by reasonable diplomatic methods, and he criticized the democracies for their ideological approach (shunning the Soviet Union as an ally, supporting other authoritarian regimes, staying neutral during the Spanish Civil War).
The combination of the German invasion of the Soviet Union and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor convinced him that the Second World War must be supported. He then opposed the Korean and Vietnam wars because he thought they were products of the cold-war strategy of the United States.
Robin Lindley: Why did Trumbo join the Communist Party in 1943?
Larry Ceplair: His closest friends were Communists, and he had been working alongside them in a variety of causes for several years. He was concerned about the nature of the peace that the victorious allies would institute. 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.
Robin Lindley: After the war, Trumbo was one of the Hollywood Ten called to testify before the US House Un-American Activities Committee on their political beliefs. Why were Hollywood figures targeted? Why was Trumbo called and why was he charged with contempt and later jailed?
Larry Ceplair: The Committee had made several sorties into Hollywood in the 1930s, mainly because its chairman understood the power of film and the publicity such hearings would attract, but it failed to receive any support in Hollywood. During the war, the FBI began a widespread investigation of the movie industry, and, when the cold war began, a Hollywood group, the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, made it known to the FBI and the committee that they would cooperate with an open investigation into communism in the industry.
It is not clear how the committee selected the unfriendly witnesses. Trumbo’s inclusion is not surprising, given that he had delivered many speeches, between 1939 and 1941, opposing the war; had campaigned loudly for a second front during the war; had edited The Screen Writer (1945-46), which was considered a “red” publication; and had criticized the committee.
Robin Lindley: Because of his involvement in the Communist Party, Trumbo was blacklisted and ostensibly prevented from working in Hollywood. However, he continued to write, at times under the pseudonym Robert Rich. Some of his work won Academy Awards and other acclaim. Can you say a bit about how he functioned during the blacklist period in the fifties?
Larry Ceplair: Trumbo used many fronts and pseudonyms between 1947 and 1960. Robert Rich was the most famous. Independent producers had not subscribed to the Waldorf Statement, blacklisting the Hollywood Ten, so they were not bound by it. However, they faced blacklisting if it became known that they were hiring blacklisted writers, hence the secrecy, fronts, and pseudonyms. Of course, the producers received a great bargain, securing the work of very fine screen writers for very low salaries.
Trumbo decided to try to undermine the blacklist by securing for himself and his friends as many assignments as possible. He knew that rumors would start to flow and the knowledge that blacklisted writers were writing a significant number of scripts would embarrass the movie industry and the Academy. The Academy Awards (The Brave One, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Defiant Ones) were serendipitous. (The Roman Holiday award came too early in the game for it to be useful.)
Trumbo also had to be careful about payments. 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. Christopher made many of the deliveries and collections.
In sum, it was a hush-hush situation, with many rumors and close calls. The closest for Trumbo came when several screen writers sued the King Brothers, claiming that they had plagiarized their work for The Brave One. The Kings had to settle out of court, to prevent depositions and testimony under oath.
Robin Lindley: After all of the problems from his Communist Party membership from 1943 to 1948, why did Trumbo rejoin the Party for a few months in 1956?
Larry Ceplair: Fourteen leaders of the California Communist Party had been indicted for violating the Alien Registration Act’s sections on subversive activity. Trumbo thought that the trial was a farce, and when the appeal to the United States Supreme Court was pending, he decided to write a pamphlet exposing the injustice of their conviction. He rejoined the Party to make a point: Unlike the liberals who had criticized the Committee on Un-American Activities but had not supported the Ten, Trumbo was saying that you could not separate the principle from those being prosecuted for defending it.
Robin Lindley: You write that the 1960 movie “Spartacus was Dalton Trumbo’s finest hour as a screenwriter and as an agent of historical change.” Why was Spartacus so important for Trumbo?
Larry Ceplair: It provided him with his best opportunity for a screen credit, the theme of the slaves’ bid for freedom resonated deeply with him, and the battles he fought to preserve his vision of Spartacus elicited some of his most brilliant analyses.
Robin Lindley: How do you see Trumbo’s relationship with actor Kirk Douglas and Douglas’s claim that he “broke the blacklist” with Trumbo?
Larry Ceplair: Trumbo was grateful to Douglas for the opportunity to write four scripts, one of which (Spartacus), gave him his first screen credit, and another of which (Lonely Are the Brave) represented his favorite post-blacklist script. He also knew how vulnerable Douglas, as an actor, was to retribution by anti-Communists, and Trumbo was assiduous in keeping his role quiet.
It was not until after Trumbo’s death that Douglas began to claim credit for “breaking” the blacklist. Trumbo would not have agreed, for two reasons: Otto Preminger bestowed a screen credit (Exodus) seven months before the Spartacus credit was announced; Trumbo knew that his credits did not “break” the blacklist. The other blacklistees trickled back to work over the next several years, one by one.
Robin Lindley: In one of his last efforts, Trumbo scripted the film version of his antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun at the height of the war in Vietnam. Your co-author Christopher Trumbo also worked on the movie. And the movie was acclaimed at Cannes. How did Trumbo and others respond to the movie?
Larry Ceplair: The responses of the critics were mixed, but the remarks of those affiliated with the larger publications were negative. Trumbo was satisfied with the film, given the financial constraints under which he had to work, but dissatisfied with the critics’ responses and the film’s failure to find an audience.
Robin Lindley: Some readers will be interested to know that “liberal” historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was critical of Trumbo throughout his career. What did you learn about their relationship?
Larry Ceplair: They had no personal relationship. Beginning in 1947, they sniped at each other from a distance. Schlesinger was a knee-jerk, supercilious liberal cold warrior, who regularly denigrated people he did not know. Trumbo deeply resented that posture, as he did a similar one by Steve Allen.
Robin Lindley: I’m curious about your research process and information that you found that wasn’t known before or was forgotten. What were some surprises you ran across in exploring Trumbo’s life?
Larry Ceplair: I have been researching and writing about the blacklist for forty years, so I pretty much knew the basics of the story. I was most intrigued by the depth of Trumbo’s political thinking and the details of the scripts he worked on, especially Roman Holiday, Spartacus, and The Way We Were. My biggest learning experience was the story of his filming of Johnny Got His Gun. (It was while writing the latter that I missed Christopher the most.) I did not realize how much time and energy he invested in getting that film made and distributed, nor did I know about the battles he had to fight with the film’s investors, some of whom were good friends. He thought they wanted to help him make a unique movie; they simply wanted to recoup their investment and make a profit. Finally, I did not know how deeply the experience harmed his financial situation.
Robin Lindley: What did you learn about FBI surveillance of Trumbo? Did FBI director J. Edgar Hoover have a personal interest in tracking and even undermining Trumbo?
Larry Ceplair: It was no more relentless than their surveillance of many other blacklisted people, but Hoover became especially irritated with Trumbo after he received the Spartacus and Exodus credits and was reinstated by the Writers Guild. The Director feared that Trumbo’s successes represented a return of the suppressed.
Robin Lindley: Did you consult on the new feature film starring Bryan Cranston as Trumbo or on the 2009 documentary Trumbo? If so, what was your role? What’s your opinion of these films?
Larry Ceplair: I read two versions of the script and commented on both. I saw a rough cut and commented on it. I was interviewed for the documentary, but I had no input. I very much like the documentary because it is mainly all Trumbo’s words. I have mixed feelings about the film.
Robin Lindley: How do you see Trumbo’s legacy? Is his writing still studied by budding screenwriters and others?
Larry Ceplair: In cinematic terms, I doubt very much if his scripts are studied. Most of his work is dated or in dated genres. I think that A Man to Remember and Lonely Are the Brave are near-perfect examples of the craft and are well-worth reading. Both are tightly woven, unembellished stories of courageous individuals. Politically, he was a stand-up guy, one who risked imprisonment and blacklisting to defend what he believed were his First Amendment rights, to challenge the proscriptive nature of the domestic cold war, and to eschew informing. In addition, he strongly supported the civil rights movement and opposed the Vietnam War.
Robin Lindley: What are you working on now? Do you have another book in the works?
Larry Ceplair: I have a few ideas, but nothing that has grabbed me by the throat and said “write me.”
Robin Lindley: Is there anything you’d like to add for readers about the life and legacy of Trumbo or about work you’re doing now?
Larry Ceplair: Most of my work is about the injustice of the domestic cold war, which too few people know about. Trumbo represents a small group of people who fought against that long, unjust period in this country’s history. This country has been undergoing a similar experience since 9/11, with Muslims replacing Communists as scapegoats and the National Security Administration replacing the House Committee on Un-American Activities as violators of the First Amendment.
Robin Lindley: Thank you for your thoughtful comments Professor Ceplair and congratulations on your in-depth biography of Dalton Trumbo.
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