Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical
By Larry Ceplair and Christopher Trumbo.
(University of Kentucky Press, 640 pages, $36)
One of the dangers for a biographer, particularly when his subject shares the same ideology, is to display his love for him. This temptation is never more true for the Cold War Left and New Left than with regard to Dalton Trumbo — the author of the anti-war classic, Johnny Got His Gun, and the screenwriter who singlehandedly broke the blacklist.
This is not surprising for an Old Left buffeted by declassified documentation that revealed their cause célèbres Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs to be Soviet spies. Since Trumbo was not a spy, they can freely celebrate him without looking over their shoulders for damning revelations. He fulfills their needs in a way Hiss and company never did. For the Left, he was both a victim (of the House Un-American Activities Committee and a Hollywood that blacklisted him) and a hero by breaking the blacklist. Moreover, they have bought into his role as an avatar of free speech. This has required careful editing, for Trumbo was indeed a Communist Party member, whose Stalinism was in need of airbrushing.
Surprisingly, Larry Ceplair, a historian whose biases fall into what was once during the Cold War known as “anti-anti-communism,” avoids airbrushing and qualifiers. Except for a few instances, Ceplair and, amazingly enough, the late Christopher Trumbo, Dalton’s son, present Trumbo warts and all.
This doesn’t mean that Ceplair doesn’t follow the familiar leftist trick of rigging the game in his subject’s favor. Ceplair makes three easily refutable assertions that (a) one shouldn’t view Trumbo through a political lens and (b) that he never publicly, and certainly not privately, defended the Soviet Union; and (c) that Trumbo applied the same complexity to the Right as he did with the Left.
The first slights Trumbo, for he was very much a political animal. As Trumbo says in one passage in the book, writers should marry their literary efforts to their politics (“politics is life”). A simple look at the historical record—which to his credit Ceplair supplies—shows that Trumbo spent enormous amounts of time as an unpaid political activist. In the 1930s, he helped found the Screen Writers’ Guild, an open shop union, which forced by the animus of studio heads met in the same kind of secrecy that the Party engaged in. Disturbed by the “growing pro-war fervor” among liberals and leftists, Trumbo wrote the anti-war Johnny Got His Gun (1939). In the forties, he wrote pamphlets defending labor leader Harry Bridges; the opening of a Second Front in Europe to aid the Soviet Union; a defense of those Mexicans accused of and imprisoned for killing a fellow gang leader, in what was known as the Sleepy Lagoon case; campaigning for FDR during the 1944 election; and defending a particularly vicious strike against the studios in 1945 (ironically the behavior of Trumbo’s side, particularly with the leg-breaking tactics of a pro-Soviet labor leader named Herbert Sorrell, pushed the self-described “bleeding heart liberal” Ronald Reagan into the anticommunist camp). Trumbo also edited the industry magazine The Screen Writer. While he awaited the decision of the Supreme Court regarding whether he would be imprisoned for refusing to answer political questions from HUAC, Trumbo wrote a pamphlet, The Time of the Toad (1949), defending the right of free speech for his fellow defendants, known as the Hollywood Ten. Even while obsessed by the blacklist, he still managed some political work. He wrote a pamphlet to exonerate eleven members of the American Communist Party imprisoned for their supposed support of overthrowing the government. In the sixties and seventies, he moved beyond attacking the blacklist to attacking the U.S. effort in Vietnam.
Quite the political life, and as such it does provide an entry into understanding Trumbo, a complex and contradictory figure.
Ceplair is on equally shaky ground regarding Trumbo’s supposed refusal to defend the Soviet Union, publicly or privately. The record says otherwise. Trumbo attacked and bragged of (in the privacy of letters — in and of itself proof of his support) preventing Trotsky’s reactionary and “so-called” biography of Stalin from being filmed. In the postwar era, he amazingly, in light of what Stalin was doing to the citizens of Poland, said that the Soviet Union “had no colonies.”
To his credit, Ceplair does list these two, although he condemns only the latter.
But other, equally damning, defenses of the Soviet Union are left out. While analyzing Trumbo’s anti-blacklist polemic, The Time of the Toad, Ceplair neglects to mention that the screenwriter assured readers that there was no anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union because its constitution forbids it — an example of the blind faith Trumbo later condemned the CPUSA for exhibiting. Up until 1956, he was still calling Stalin one of the democratic leaders of the Soviet Union.
Ceplair tries to argue that Trumbo was not a blind follower of every zig and zag of the Soviet Union — he cites Ring Lardner Jr. who said that Trumbo’s stance toward American participation in World War II did not change with the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, but with the attack on Pearl Harbor. These stances, Ceplair asserts, were Trumbo’s own. This is more damning of Trumbo than the historian realizes. However independent his thoughts, they were in conjunction with the needs of Soviet policy. Rather than supporting the more moderate and inclusive approaches of ousted (on orders from Stalin) CPUSA leader Earl Browder, Trumbo stated that he preferred the more hardline no-accommodation-with-capitalism policies of Lenin. This in and of itself shows that Trumbo’s support of Stalin was based on sincerity and he did not, as some Party members did, bury his doubts and support the Party line; he and the Soviet Union found and completed each other.
Trumbo’s view of free speech was problematic as well. Ceplair includes Trumbo’s rejection of an anticommunist contributor while he was editor of The Screen Writer on the following grounds:
It is difficult to support your belief in the “inalienable right of man’s mind to be exposed to any thought whatsoever, however intolerable that thought might be to anyone else.” Frequently such a right encroaches upon the right of others to their lives. It was this “inalienable” right in Fascist countries which directly resulted in the slaughter of five million Jews.
Having established free speech as fascist, Trumbo then inserted such sentiments into scripts. In Tender Comrade (1943), a preachy wartime tearjerker in which wives whose husbands serve overseas pool their resources and share an apartment — “share and share alike, that’s democracy” — Trumbo portrays one of the roommates as fascist because she complains about rationing.
Ceplair portrays the editorial rejection — but not the above film — as an anomaly. But the reality is that Trumbo kept at least some semblance of selective civil liberties throughout his life. Even after experiencing the blacklist, Trumbo in 1956, bemoaned that the Smith Act (1940), which deemed it criminal to advocate the violent overthrow of the government, was used against communists and not fascists. Three years later in an introduction to Johnny Got His Gun, he supported the novel’s being banned during World War II on the grounds that individual rights had to be curtailed for “the public good.”
For an anti-anti-communist, Ceplair does condemn Trumbo playing fast and loose with the fascist label. He asserts that being an anti-communist did not necessarily translate into “an antilabor, anti-Semitic, anti-Negro, antidemocratic stance.”
In other instances, Ceplair wanders back to anti-anti-communism. He supports Trumbo’s stance in calling the anti-communist movement a “fraud.” Like Trumbo, he engages in blanket generalizations about the movement, which was peopled with McCarthyites but also with liberals who were as anti-McCarthyite as Trumbo while still retaining a respectable anti-communism.
By and large, though, this is a good and surprising biography. When he has a handle on his bias, Ceplair soars. He is particularly good on Trumbo’s guerrilla warfare against the blacklist. Ceplair’s attempts at fair-mindedness and condemnation of Trumbo’s blinkered political thinking suggest that a form of perestroika is occurring on the Left.