Review of "Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical" by Larry Ceplair and Christopher Trumbo

tags: book review, Dalton Trumbo, Larry Ceplair, Christopher Trumbo

Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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The story of the Hollywood Ten and the ensuing film industry blacklist has long fascinated defenders of free speech and artistic expression. One of the most outspoken of the ten was screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who is also credited with playing an essential role in breaking the blacklist. Trumbo is the subject of an in-depth biography commenced by the screenwriter’s son and sometimes collaborator, Christopher, and completed by film scholar Larry Ceplair following Christopher Trumbo’s death. Ceplair concentrates the biography upon Trumbo’s personal life rather than the numerous scripts he authored; employing the numerous letters written by the author as a primary source. Ceplair acknowledges that Trumbo was a member of the Communist Party, but he disagrees with anticommunists who attempt to make this political affiliation the focal point for evaluating Trumbo’s life and career.

According to Ceplair, Trumbo was a member of the Communist Party from 1943 to 1948 and for a short period of time in 1956. He was neither a doctrinaire Marxist nor an apologist for Stalin and the Soviet Union. Trumbo was drawn to the party for its antifascist stance, and his membership was a product of his friendship with writers Hugo Butler, Ring Lardner Jr., Ian Hunter, and Michael Wilson. Ceplair asserts, “In sum, he was persuaded to join the party by the motivations and actions of the Communist Party members he knew, not by the worldwide goals of Soviet communism” (142). Trumbo was a consistent champion of the First Amendment and believed communists should enjoy such basic American rights as freedom of speech and association. In addition, when he did leave the party, Trumbo did not call attention to his decision and denounce the organization.

Instead of concentrating upon communism, Ceplair believes the key to Trumbo’s maverick nature lies in a sense of Western independence he learned while growing up in the small Colorado community of Grand Junction. The modest working-class Trumbo family expressed progressive views on issues such as racial prejudice. As a student, Dalton enjoyed journalism and debate but eschewed athletics. Following the premature death of his father, the family moved to Los Angeles where the young Trumbo attempted to support his family through working in a bakery and pursuing his passion for writing in the evenings. Although a hard worker, Trumbo did develop some bad habits such as heavy drinking that plagued him for the rest of his life.

Although his goal was to become a novelist, Trumbo finally found steady employment as a Hollywood scriptwriter. Throughout his writing career, Trumbo published novels, plays, and short stories, but his was constantly drawn back to Hollywood in order to support his family after he married the love of his life Cleo Fincher in 1939. While he authored several novels set in his hometown of Grand Junction, he is best known for his antiwar novel of World War I, Johnny Got His Gun (1939). The novel was controversial amid the shifting opinions of the American left regarding the war in Europe following the Nazi-Soviet Pact, but Ceplair argues that Trumbo was never a pacifist. He was simply opposed to the nationalistic and jingoistic rhetoric of the First World War and Woodrow Wilson which manipulated many young men into fighting an unnecessary war. On the other hand, Trumbo supported the antifascist crusade of World War II. Ceplair vehemently denies that the antiwar sentiments of Johnny Got His Gun had anything to do with the Communist Party line.

During the Second World War, Trumbo was active in antifascist causes and wrote notable scripts such as Kitty Foyle (1940), The Remarkable Andrew (I941) based upon a Trumbo novel, Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1943), and Tender Comrades (1943). In the post-war period, Trumbo was a vocal critic of the Truman administration which he perceived as promoting reaction at home and conflict with the Soviet Union on the global stage. He also became involved in the politics of the Screen Writers Guild and opposed efforts to purge communist writers. Nevertheless, leftists in Hollywood were under attack as the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPAPA) invited the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to investigate the infiltration of communists into the film industry. Trumbo was one of the nineteen members of the Hollywood left called to testify before the committee. Trumbo and his friend Ring Lardner Jr. convinced their colleagues to oppose the legitimacy of HUAC to interrogate their political opinions and associations. This approach might lead to citations for contempt of Congress, but the courts would then overturn the convictions and repudiate the committee. This strategy, of course, backfired for the Hollywood Ten who refused to cooperate with HUAC and whose convictions were upheld by the courts. In hindsight, Trumbo concluded that if the defendants relied on the First Amendment for a public campaign for free speech and employed the Fifth Amendment on self-incrimination for their legal defense, they may have avoided imprisonment but would still have been blacklisted by the film industry. While raising some questions regarding defense strategy, Ceplair is unequivocal in his assertion that the tactics of the ten were not directed by the Communist Party.

After serving a year in prison, Trumbo could no longer find employment in Hollywood and returned to his ranch home outside of Los Angeles, where he planned to pursue the writing of novels, but the potential of selling scripts through fronts offered a more steady income. These blacklisted scripts, however, failed to pay the type of fees to which Trumbo and his family were accustomed. In addition, Trumbo published the pamphlet The Time of the Toad (1949) in which he maintained that if liberals wanted to defend the Constitution it would be essential to protect the liberties of all Americans, including communists.

As a blacklisted writer, Trumbo provided scripts for the independent productions of Maury, Frank, and Herman King, while his screenplays for Roman Holiday (1953) and The Brave One (1956) won Academy Awards for which Trumbo was eventually credited. Trumbo is also often lauded for breaking the blacklist when he was awarded a screen credit by Kirk Douglas for Spartacus (1960). However, both Ceplair and Trumbo place greater emphasis upon Otto Preminger’s decision to publicly embrace Trumbo’s screenplay for Exodus (1960). Ceplair also notes that while the credits for Spartacus and Exodus removed Trumbo’s name from the blacklist, other writers and performers continued to be banned from Hollywood and were never able to resume their careers.

While Trumbo returned to Hollywood in the 1960s, he continued to generate political controversy. In 1970, he received the Laurel Award from the Writers Guild of America, and in his acceptance speech, Trumbo angered many of his former colleagues on the left when he insisted that both informers and the blacklisted were victims of the anticommunist Cold War hysteria that possessed America during the 1950s. Ceplair argues that Trumbo used the Laurel speech “to encourage the old members of the Hollywood Popular Front group to stop clinging to past grievances and to move forward on the serious social and political issues facing the country. He was trying to promote a reunited Left. It may have been a naïve effort, but it was a laudable one” (485).

Trumbo’s last major project was his directorial debut with the film adaptation of Johnny Got His Gun (1971). He saw parallels between the novel and the Vietnam War, but Ceplair relates that a lack of funding made it difficult for Trumbo to realize his vision. As his health declined, Trumbo continued to write in hopes of recouping some of the income he lost during the blacklisted years. Suffering from lung cancer, Trumbo died from congestive heart failure on September 10, 1976; leaving his family in considerable debt. In the final analysis, Ceplair describes Trumbo as “a democratic socialist, and opponent of war and all forms of censorship, a believer in full freedom of opportunity for all, a successful writer, and hopeless manager of money” (582).

Ceplair’s massive biography completes the labor of love began by Christopher Trumbo. Making use of the screen writer’s considerable correspondence and with access to the Trumbo family, Ceplair paints a favorable portrait of the radical screenwriter. While no orthodox Marxist, Trumbo was a man of the political left who attempted to bring some unity between Popular front radicals and the New Left of the 1960s. A man of principle, he refused to compromise with HUAC and could be quite combative, but he also attempted to understand those who named names before the committee. Although he desired to establish his reputation as a novelist, he was best known as a screen writer. Often a workaholic, he also drank too much, Trumbo loved his family but could have spent more time with them. Trumbo’s legacy is certainly defined by the embracing of free speech and defiance of HUAC as a member of the Hollywood Ten. This emphasis upon the ten, however, does tend to reinforce popular perceptions of the Hollywood community as filled with leftists. As Steven Ross reminds us in Hollywood Left and Right (2011), conservatives have played a significant role in the film community as is evident in the MPAPA. Similar to Hollywood, Dalton Trumbo was more than one dimensional and reflects the complexity of American radicalism.  

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