Trumbo


Dalton Trumbo began writing professionally as a cub reporter while still in high school in Grand Junction, Colorado. His first Hollywood screenwriting credit was on Road Gang in 1936. For film noir devotees, some of Trumbo’s best work was done while blacklisted: Gun Crazy (1950) and The Prowler (1951) were "fronted" by Millard Kauffman and Hugo Butler, respectively. Trumbo also co-scripted the 1951 John Garfield picture He Ran All the Way.

Christopher Trumbo wrote the play Trumbo as a tribute to his late father. It features actors reading from his dad’s letters. The New York Times raved: "Trumbo was something of an epistolary genius. The letters are thrilling, uneconomical torrents of words, alternately grandiloquent, ferocious, withering, sentimental, thunderously overwrought and often hilarious. The show makes you lament the invention of email. A joy to hear read."

Anyone interested in the Hollywood blacklist or the lives of "golden age" screenwriters will appreciate the film adaptation of Trumbo. It interweaves footage of the staged readings with period and contemporary interviews and rare footage of the writer in action with family and friends. The documentary, also titled Trumbo, leaves the viewer yearning for a time when deranged wits pounded out brilliant communiqués on manual typewriters and rarely uttered the word "like."

Among the thespians channeling the prolific scribe are Michael Douglas, Liam Neeson, Paul Giamatti, Joan Allen, Donald Sutherland, and David Strathairn. For my money the most impressive is Nathan Lane, who gives voice to hysterically funny mock words of advice that the elder Trumbo, fresh from reading Nabokov’s novel Lolita, sent to then-teenage Christopher about guilt-free masturbation. As Christopher explains in the film, his first response to the letter was to start laughing; his second was to find a dictionary.

But even Lane can’t compete with Trumbo. Lung cancer from a lifetime of chain-smoking felled the great man in 1976, but thankfully plenty of interview footage still exists from earlier documentaries and various TV appearances. Thus, the man himself pops up throughout the film with droll asides and scathing comments about his movie career and the country he knew well and fought hard to help nudge leftward.

In an era when public figures have once again knuckled under to the forces of hate and intolerance, Trumbo’s unrepentant defiance is refreshing. Regarding the group of leftist movie industry people he joined in standing up to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), he much preferred the label "Unfriendly 10" to "Hollywood 10." Trumbo noted, "There were about 80,000 communists in the country at the peak of the party’s success. They weren’t as dangerous as the Elks and didn’t have nearly as many guns."

The veteran screenwriter and novelist spent a year in jail for contempt of Congress. In his estimation, "It was a just verdict. I had contempt for that Congress and had contempt for several since."

In a telephone interview, I asked actress Marsha Hunt, who appeared in Trumbo’s 1971 film adaptation of his classic anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun, to share some impressions of Trumbo. The 91-year-old Hunt, whose successful film career was cut short by the blacklist, told me her late husband Robert Presnell, Jr. acted as a "front" for a Trumbo script. Unlike most of those who took risks for blacklisted writers, Presnell refused payment. "I liked [Trumbo] enormously. I was so delighted that he wanted me in his film," Hunt said. "He was a walking example of urbanity and was just as smooth and sophisticated and unsurprisable, as anyone I knew…. His humor was very sardonic. It was bitter, it was cynical, but it was very funny."

Among many examples of such wit in Additional Dialogue, Letters of Dalton Trumbo, 1942-1962 is a 1951 letter to novelist Nelson Algren, who was preparing to sell stories by Trumbo. Trumbo advised, "If you have any moral compunctions about such a procedure in relation to motion pictures, please forget them. Hollywood is a vast whorehouse and any scheme by which tolerably honest men can abstract money from it for their own purposes is more than praiseworthy."

Hunt emphasized Trumbo’s incredible discipline, which led him during lean times of underpaid black market work to write 12 screenplays in 16 months. (Prescribed amphetamines contributed to that productivity.) The actress told me, "It’s hard to believe that the same talent who gave us Spartacus also gave us Roman Holiday—just as far from each other as possible in terms of style and everything else. Those are just the beginning…. He was an impressively versatile man, as well as brilliant."

Hunt added, "I think he often did things just out of his own [willfullness]…the hell with the consequences, this is what I’m going to do. He took risks, to do what he believed in or wanted to do." That feistiness paid off when Trumbo’s script for The Brave One won an Oscar in 1956 and no "Robert Rich" appeared to accept it. That signal event effectively began the gradual downfall of the blacklist.

Hunt said, "If it had not been for idealistic qualities of the golden rule and basic principles of morality, I don’t think he could have written the things he wrote or been guided in his life as determinedly as he was. Certainly he was a marvelous family man. He adored his wife Cleo, just adored her. And I think much of what he did was for [his family's] sake."

Trumbo stuck his neck out for friends in similar straits. He guaranteed all of the scripts he contracted for pals and acquaintances, so if the producer who commissioned it wasn’t satisfied, Trumbo would do the re-write gratis.

"He did believe in freedom, he did understand the principles of this country and how they were being trampled in the name of patriotism by the behavior of people such as that HUAC committee." Hunt explained, "A good many, I think, of the blacklisted people were in fact idealists. They were people who cared so much about what happened to the whole nation in the depression. And they were wondering, well, capitalism doesn’t work, that’s just collapsed, what could save the people, what is the way that would work. And they were groping because they cared to find answers and for a while at least they thought that communism might hold something. It was not a disloyal act—it was a caring search for better answers."

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Ben Terrall is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Counterpunch, and other publications.