THE BLOG
11/25/2015 10:27 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Bruce Cook's Trumbo: A Brilliant Light Shining Into Dark Times

The blacklist was a time of evil and...no one on either side who survived it came through evil untouched - Dalton Trumbo at his acceptance speech for the Screen Writer's Guild Laurel Award, March 13, 1970; Trumbo, pp. 313-14.

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Sunday nights and holidays at our house were a free-for-all salon where my family and our guests had rousing (sometimes very loud) discussions about films, books, politics, and ideas. No topic or viewpoint was off limits and, as a young girl, I'd listen with wide-eyed interest - until they realized I was there and sent me off to my room. Nevertheless, the discussions kept going, and I often eavesdropped by lying on the floor next to the heater vent.

And that's how, one night, I learned about the "Hollywood Ten", the heinous studio blacklist, and the HUAC (House Committee on Un-American Activities). I heard quite intense arguments concerning the high handedness of movie studios, and a belligerent, narrow-minded Congress during this dark and disgraceful time in American history.

I also heard the name Dalton Trumbo.

Bruce Cook's Trumbo, reissued as a tie-in to a major motion picture starring Bryan Cranston and Helen Mirren, delves into the life, jail-time and, most importantly, the "blacklisting" of James Dalton Trumbo.

One of the great strengths of this biography is its sense of immediacy. Originally published in 1977, Dalton Trumbo, along with some of his contemporaries, contributed lengthy interviews to the author. Bruce Cook (1932-2003) captured the voices - positive and negative - that influenced Trumbo and led to his essential breaking of the blacklist. What is most fascinating is that Mr. Cook not only captures the tumultuous times that led to Mr. Trumbo defying Congress and serving 10 months in prison for his beliefs, but he also provides an interesting interplay of interviews and narrative. The book weaves the historical aspects of Trumbo's early writing career with the studio bureaucracy, and the fear invoked by someone who refused to bow down to the dictates of an unfair and unjust system.

Trumbo is energetic and tightly written. The flow of the book follows the path of the writer's life from Colorado to Hollywood, interspersing his time in prison with narratives that place Trumbo and his activities well within context of his times. Cook explains how, from an early age, Dalton Trumbo was radicalized. He hated how his father, Orus, was summarily dismissed from a job he'd held for years and became emotionally broken and eventually died. Forced by circumstance to leave Grand Junction, Colorado, and move to California, Trumbo never forgot nor forgave the town for deserting his father. In his first novel Eclipse, he eviscerated Grand Junction (under the guise of Shale City) so much that even when Cook went there to interview anyone who knew Trumbo as a boy, he met with uncomfortable silence.

Cook also spent considerable time discussing the relationship between Trumbo and his wife Cleo Fincher. One of the nicest interludes between his growing radicalism and his career is his pursuit and eventual winning of Cleo. According to Cook, this section was the only part of the book vetted by the Trumbos, as Dalton wanted to be sure Cleo was all right with his rendition of their unusual courtship. This interlude, and the devotion and dedication of Trumbo as a family man, permeate the entire book.

While Trumbo aspired to being a 'serious' writer, a novelist, he took the well-paying screenwriting jobs he had as stop-gap measures to keep his family fed, support his wife and children, and give him the leisure to write his novels. As Cook demonstrates though, the novel-writing was almost a pipedream, since his talent and drive to creating screenplays far outweighed the three novels and few plays he completed. Even his most successful novel, Johnny Got Your Gun, was cinematic in its internal scope. Eventually it became a film in 1970, with Trumbo at the helm.

Cook expertly takes the reader through history as well. He writes about the infamous "Hollywood Ten", and how Dalton Trumbo and his cohorts stood upon their First Amendment rights of free expression and freedom of association, instead of invoking their Fifth Amendment rights and refusing to incriminate themselves. He describes how an already predisposed HUAC in a 1947 hearing held Trumbo and the others in contempt of Congress, and sent them to federal prison from 1950 to 1951 (after their appeals failed) for their misdemeanor.

Trumbo also enlightens the reader about how and why the major Hollywood studios - for whom Trumbo had earned millions by his writing - created a blacklist of writers, actors, directors and other talent that prohibited them from obtaining work because of their political beliefs or their associations. Cook also writes about how studios even supplied HUAC with "friendly" witnesses, whose sole purpose was to name names. As the studios could no longer be monopolies after 1938, they tried to mold everyone who worked for them into their own narrow worldview.

Somehow though, Dalton Trumbo was able to work the system and continue writing. Earlier in the book, Cook revealed how Trumbo had circumvented contracts that required him to turn over all his work written during a certain period to whatever studio he was writing for at the time. He cleverly made a list of empty titles and revealed that these were already written and not subject to the stipulations of the contract. There is even an amusing anecdote in an interview with one of Trumbo's ex-girlfriends. She describes how she helped the entire family "age" a brand new manuscript by ironing it, sitting on it, and other outlandish methods, so he could sell it. Using the same savvy instincts and an almost Machiavellian sense of purpose, Trumbo faced the blacklist with a solid survival plan.

Cook follows Trumbo's path through the paranoid '50's in detail. For over a dozen years, writing under various pseudonyms or using a "front" - an individual willing to use his or her name to disguise the real writer - Trumbo produced some of the best film scripts of the decade. He even helped others procure work and often supported them when they could not find it. With interviews and anecdotes, Cook elicits statements from the many he helped that were still grateful. Of course, others were less laudatory, and Cook includes many of their less-than-flattering assessments as well.

Finally, Cook writes about how in 1960 Trumbo, as writer for both Kirk Douglas/Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus and Otto Preminger's Exodus, broke the blacklist - when his name appeared as screenwriter for both films. Those credits led to the end of the blacklist for some, while others never recovered. Trumbo went on to help many still shut out of the system, even as his own career resumed successfully for the remaining years of his life.

One of the most compelling aspects of Cook's biography is that he provides an intimate glimpse into what this world was like for Trumbo and the others. Admittedly, written and published a year after Trumbo's death from complications of lung cancer, its bias is towards his subject; however, Cook manages to convey a fair portrait of the screenwriter. Since the book was also published in the late 1970's, there is an added component of viewing Trumbo through the mores and impetuses of that decade as well, so you actually appreciate the vignettes and anecdotes in context from both the raconteur standpoint and the sensibilities of the biographer.

I highly recommend this book to anyone wanting to shine a light onto a dark period of American history. Cook shows how heroic individuals like Dalton Trumbo refused to bow down to tyranny and continue the good fight, no matter what the cost.

Back then, Congress had no problem with disavowing the Constitution when it wanted to find scapegoats.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.