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Dalton Got His Gun

books and culture

Dalton Got His Gun

The lodestar of the Hollywood blacklist was all that his fans said he was—and less. February 27, 2015
Dalton Trumbo and wife Cleo at the 1947 House Un-American Activities Committee hearings.

Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical, by Larry Ceplair and Christopher Trumbo (University Press of Kentucky, 703 pp., $40.00)

Hollywood Traitors: Blacklisted Screenwriters, Agents of Stalin, Allies of Hitler, by Allan H. Ryskind (Regnery History, 538 pp., $29.99)

Filial devotion is admirable but unreliable, and the late Christopher Trumbo’s doting biography of his father, Dalton, is a case in point. Completed by cinema historian Larry Ceplair after Christopher died in 2011, Trumbo charts the rise, descent, and apotheosis of one of Hollywood’s most prolific—and devious—scenarists.

James Dalton Trumbo (1905–1976) was born, raised, and educated in Colorado. A college dropout, he supported himself by working in a bakery, editing local newspapers, and writing commercial short stories. In 1935, he talked himself into a magazine job with the Hollywood Spectator; three years later, he began turning out scenarios. Trumbo never knew the meaning of writer’s block. By the late 1930s, the high-energy author was creating scripts for MGM and RKO. In 1940, he received an Oscar nomination for his work on the Ginger Rogers melodrama, Kitty Foyle.

Between film assignments, Trumbo found time to write Johnny Got His Gun. The novel’s protagonist is a limbless, faceless veteran of World War I, whose brain narrates what he cannot speak. At first glance, Johnny could pass for the tract of a conscientious objector, ruing the results of Woodrow Wilson’s call to “make the world safe for democracy.” But the book had a hidden agenda: Trumbo had fallen under the spell of Communism and now marched in lockstep with the Party line: Germany and Britain, preparing for all-out war, should duke it out themselves. Never mind the reports of Nazi atrocities; America must not get involved in this European squabble.

The Communist Daily Worker was delighted to serialize Johnny in its pages, and with good reason: the U.S.S.R. had recently signed a nonaggression pact with the Third Reich. But in June 1941, Hitler’s armies invaded Russia. Overnight, Johnny was excised from the Worker’s pages. Now, combat was not only moral but mandatory. When Trumbo’s publishers chose not to keep his novel in print, he went along with their decision. Trumbo sees no inconsistency in the writer’s position. “By 1941,” the book straight-facedly reports, “Hitler had become a menace to the whole world, and when the United States entered the war against Germany in December of that year Trumbo saw ‘no other way than to support it.’”

Journalist Allan Ryskind has a different take on Trumbo’s about-face. In Hollywood Traitors, an exposé of the Communist film colony from the 1930s onward, he asserts that Trumbo’s “fanatical cries for an isolationist foreign policy” were “nothing more than a shrewd tactic solely designed to please Moscow. . . . It’s a pretty good bet that Trumbo and his ‘anti-fascist’ comrades would never have turned against the Fuehrer if he hadn’t betrayed his friend in the Kremlin.”

And then came 1947, the year the House Un-American Activities Committee visited Hollywood. The congressmen said that they were in pursuit of show business “subversives.” Trumbo argues that the committee members were more interested in hunting headlines than in tracking down Reds. In any case, the leftist actors, directors, and writers turned out to have been pseudo-revolutionaries, singing “Arise, Ye Prisoners of Starvation” around their swimming pools. That hardly mattered to HUAC. It issued scores of subpoenas, demanding that each witness name the names of his comrades and fellow travelers. When ten men—among them Dalton Trumbo—refused, they were cited for contempt, sent to jail, and blacklisted from the business. That list soon expanded to include those whose crimes varied from Party membership to the signing of a petition or attendance at meetings that met with the congressmen’s disapproval.

At this point, Trumbo portrays its subject as a martyr to Cold War hysteria. In fact, the scenarist remained loyal to the Kremlin and subservient to its world view throughout his investigation and imprisonment, and afterward. After V-E Day, Joseph Stalin renewed hostilities with the West. Earl Browder, who as head of the American Communist Party during the 1940s had encouraged a rapprochement between socialism and democracy, was deposed. Ryskind reports Trumbo’s response: “It comes down to this, if Lenin was right, then Browder was wrong and vice versa. I prefer to believe that Lenin was right.” Trumbo didn’t leave the Party until 1956, when Nikita Khrushchev’s speech stated what honest historians had known for decades: Stalin was a mass murderer, responsible for the death of some 20 million of his own people through deportation, mock trials and executions, and mass starvation—not to mention those who died because he had strengthened Hitler’s hand.

No longer a Communist—but ever a capitalist—Trumbo retailed scripts under various pseudonyms. One, written by “Robert Rich,” won an Oscar for Best Motion Picture Story. When the political winds shifted in the early 1960s, director Otto Preminger went public with the information that Trumbo had also written Exodus. Kirk Douglas chimed in: he had hired the proscribed author to write Spartacus. The era of the blacklist was over.

As Trumbo justly points out, the blacklist afflicted the innocent as well as the guilty. Some never worked again, while others, like Trumbo, returned to their jobs. Trumbo got more assignments than he could handle, in fact, all under his own name. The academy began a process of rehabilitation. By the time of Trumbo’s death in 1976, Johnny Got His Gun had been turned from a forgotten novel into a mainstream movie, and its author had been elevated from Party hack to liberal icon.

There was more to come. Except for grocery lists, Trumbo had kept copies of just about everything he had written, including notes, letters, and memos. Some were splenetic, others comical. Collected by Christopher Trumbo, they were dramatized in a worshipful stage play entitled Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted. In a 2002 Off-Broadway production featuring a rotating cast of actors, the title character was played by Chris Cooper, Brian Dennehy, Ed Harris, Nathan Lane, Tim Robbins, Alec Baldwin, and Gore Vidal. None came close to capturing the real Dalton Trumbo.

Years ago, researching a book on the blacklist, I spent a long day with the mustachioed monologist. He proved to be everything his friends described—and less. Dalton was indeed a charming raconteur, devoted husband, doting father, and good provider even in the worst of times. He was also a mendacious editor of history. “Left, right, we were all victims,” he proclaimed. I thought his appraisal was exaggerated at the time; it seems even more so today. The Hollywood investigators were small-minded men who exaggerated the Red propaganda shoehorned into films. As columnist Murray Kempton observed, “By himself, Dudley Nichols (Grapes of Wrath), who was never a Communist, contributed a larger number of socially conscious scripts than all the revolutionary cadre put together.”

Ryskind’s research led him to Trumbo’s papers at the Wisconsin Historical Society. There he unearthed Dalton’s unpublished poem censuring the U.S. for attacking North Korea:

The Christian ethic was at stake
And Western culture and the American way
And so in the midst of pure and holy strife
We had to take your little eastern life.

Concludes Ryskind: “Trumbo frequently suggests in his writings that he is fighting for individual freedom, anti-colonialism and civil rights. But the only nations and movements that he tips his hat to are brutal, totalitarian and Communist. . . . And this is the man the Hollywood left will always consider an authentic American hero.”

Always is a long time. But for now, that group has succeeded in making the world safe for hypocrisy.

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