On March 9, 1954, CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow (1908-1965) prepared for a scheduled broadcast of the television program “See it Now“. In that episode he confronted the growing menace of the witch hunt for suspected communists in America. During the show, he stated that “no one man can terrorize a whole nation unless we are all his accomplices”. Viewers were aware that he was referring to Sen. Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957), whose hunt for communists had destroyed countless lives and reputations. Anyone even suspected of having communist affiliation was surveilled and, in some cases, forced to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. One witness was the screenwriter James Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976) who was blacklisted for his political beliefs and affiliations. The blacklisting of suspected leftist ended decades ago but Trumbo has remained forgotten, but during his era, he was one of the most sought-after screenwriters in Hollywood. In 2015, the biopic Trumbo was released with actor Bryan Cranston in the lead role. The film received high reviews and earned Cranston an Academy Award. What may surprise some is that one source of information for the movie is this biography of Trumbo written by Bruce Cook (1932-2003). The book was originally published in 1977 but has been re-published with a foreword by screenwriter John McNamara.
I have not seen the film and did not know what to expect when starting this book. That was a good thing as it allowed me read Cook’s story without any pre-conceived ideas about who Trumbo was. My ignorance of his contributions to the silver screen speaks volumes about his ordeal which is contained in the pages of this well-written and treasured biography. Cook sat down with Trumbo towards the end of the writer’s life as he was battling lung cancer. However, the book contains not just Trumbo’s words but is filled with interviews of those who knew him best, including his widow Cleo Trumbo (1916-2009). Through their words, the personal life of Dalton Trumbo takes shape. The late painter Charles White (1918-1979) talked with Cook and had this to say about his old friend:
“There are only two ways to relate to Dalton. You either love him or you hate him. Picasso is like that. Chaplin is, too. There are people in Hollywood, a lot of them, who hate Dalton.”
Trumbo’s life was anything but orthodox. His childhood is revisited through the memories of siblings and friends. His parents Orus (1876-1926) and Maud Trumbo (1885-1967) are pivotal figures in the story, and each influenced young Dalton. But Maud remained a crucial figure in his life until her death at the age of eighty-three. Orus exits the story early due to a series of events that clearly affected his son Dalton and his daughters. However, what Orus could not have known when he moved the family from Colorado to California, was that Dalton would find a place in an industry most people can only dream of. Some might argue that Trumbo was made for Hollywood and as Cook explains, his entry into screenwriting was not entirely by chance. In fact, what I learned about Trumbo’s early life make his entry into the film industry more understandable. But that is not to say that there were not obstacles along the way. What can be seen in the book is that the young Trumbo was quite the character and through anecdotes and research, the incredible tale is revealed with fitting detail.
The crux of the book is unquestionably the Hollywood blacklist. Cook goes into the matter but not simply to re-hash what has already been explained elsewhere but to focus on Trumbo’s actions and why he took the positions that he did. Trumbo could have chosen not to associate with leftists and maintain his place among the Hollywood elite, at least publicly. But he chose the path that was right for him, and never wavered in his beliefs. And as his widow Cleo tells cook, Trumbo never gave up once he had an idea in his mind. Yes, despite the harsh criticism and blacklisting by Hollywood, Trumbo was not an extremist by any means. He was driven for sure, but not an anarchist determined to rage against the machine. However, he was a firm believer in freedom of expression and constitutional rights. And to reinforce that image of Trumbo, Cook includes snippets of his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (“HUAC”) and parts of a letter he wrote to a friend who had taken issue with a statement he made to the media. Prior witness testimony to the HUAC had set the stage for a showdown when Trumbo made his appearance and Cook explains that:
“Except for Lawson, Dalton Trumbo was probably the Committee’s least cooperative and most “unfriendly” witness. He came to the stand on October 28, 1947, at ten-thirty A.M., just one day after Lawson had caused such an uproar in the caucus room. Trumbo was met by hostility from Chairman J. Parnell Thomas, and he gave as good as he got.”
His statements and refusal to answer various questions resulted in a contempt of Congress conviction. Trumbo served his time at the federal prison in Ashland, Kentucky and upon his release, resumed his career as one of Hollywood’s most gifted writers. The blacklisting of public figures was still in full force and Trumbo resorted to slick maneuvers and loopholes to continue screenwriting. Some readers may be surprised to learn of Trumbo’s extensive involvement in several blockbuster films that are considered all-time greats. Frankly, Trumbo was all over the place lending his talent to a respectable number of filmmakers who needed the expertise of the master. It is a shame that Trumbo was prohibited from openly working in Hollywood when he had not committed any punishable offense prior to his congressional appearance. But the “red scare” was in full force, and it did not take much to see a career ruined completely.
Eventually the blacklisting crumbles and those who once could not find work openly in Hollywood begin to resurface and move on with their lives and careers. For Trumbo, recognition for his talents would take many years to become legacy. But this book and the biopic have vindicated him as a brilliant screenwriter who suffered immensely for seeing things a separate way. His story is a reminder of the dangers that come with baseless rumors and unfounded persecution. Hollywood had a mend to make when it came to the blacklist, and it did right some wrongs. As the book closes, Cook leaves us with this fitting note:
“But at last they did. In a kind of collective and symbolic act of contrition, the officers and board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on May 5, 1975, awarded replica number 1665 of the “copyrighted statuette, commonly known as ‘Oscar,’ as an Award for the Motion Picture Story—The Brave One (1956).” It has Dalton Trumbo’s name on it. That made it official: the blacklist, now acknowledged, was behind them all. Trumbo had done his job. He died a little over a year later on September 10, 1976.”
If you want to know more about the life of Dalton Trumbo, this is a good place to start.