Post Gushes over Top Red Screenwriter
My introduction to Dalton Trumbo didn’t come until 1989 when I repeatedly saw the music video, One, on MTV performed by Metallica. The video cuts back and forth between the band and scenes from Trumbo’s 1971 anti-war movie Johnny Got His Gun, about a barely surviving World War I soldier, limbless, faceless, and without the ability to see, hear, or speak, who communicates his desire to be euthanized through head movements in Morse code. The movie, which was released while the Vietnam War was still raging, was written and directed by Trumbo, and it was based upon his 1939 novel by the same name.
Although I had heard nothing of the little-publicized 1971 movie, as a founding member of the North Carolina Veterans for Peace on the campus of the University of North Carolina at the time, I’m sure that I would have been favorably disposed toward it. Discovering some time after 1989 that Trumbo had been one of the Hollywood Ten, imprisoned and then blacklisted for refusing in 1947 to name fellow Communists before the House Un-American Activities Committee, did nothing to diminish my generally positive feeling toward Trumbo, on account of his anti-war efforts. My real education was to come later.
Had I confined my education to the reading of mainstream information organs like The Washington Post my misapprehension of Trumbo would have continued. Last week one of their movie reviewers, Michael Dirda, wrote what might be called an unpaid advertisement* for an upcoming movie about Trumbo’s life. Here’s a sample of Dirda’s gushing prose, as he talks about Trumbo, the 1977 biography by the late Bruce Cook upon which the movie is based:
In the late 1940s, screenwriters (as well as other movie professionals) who were or had been members of the Communist Party became the targets of the House Un-American Activities Committee. While insisting on their First Amendment right to free speech, Trumbo, Ring Lardner Jr. and others refused to answer questions about their politics or to incriminate friends. Consequently, the Hollywood Ten were sentenced to six months to a year in prison for contempt of Congress. Their bosses then fired them and pledged to keep these pinkos out of the motion picture industry.
…by the time of his death from lung cancer in 1976, Trumbo already seemed half-legend, half-saint: To Cook, he wasn’t just the Oscar-winner who broke the blacklist, he was a man who, no matter what, kept faith with himself, his friends and his ideals.
Let me end by again stressing how wonderful this book is. If you have any interest in Hollywood history, the postwar communist witch hunts, screenwriting or the art of biography, you should grab this new paperback of “Trumbo.” Or, if you prefer, listen to the fine Highbridge audiobook read by Luke Daniels. You might even want to see the movie.
Dirda tells us that screenwriter John McNamara says he read Cook’s book ten times while putting the script together. I confess that I have not read it even once, but from what I know about Trumbo from other reading, McNamara would have written a screenplay that was closer to the truth had be broadened his own reading a bit. See what the customer, T. Berner, had to say about Cook’s book at Amazon.com:
As a biographer, Mr. Cook is far too gullible. He relies too heavily on Trumbo's own version of events, instead of on the facts. For instance, he states improbably that it was just a coincidence that Trumbo's anti-war, isolationist classic Johnny Got His Gun was published during the Nazi-Soviet Pact and even more improbably that it was his publisher, J B Lippincott, who arranged for the book to be published in The Daily Worker. There is also no mention that when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, Trumbo tried to suppress his own book. Nor were the Communist screenwriters without sin themselves. It has been well documented, but not here, that Communists in the screenwriters guilds blacklisted non-Communist screenwriters throughout the 30's and the 40's. And, although [Matt?] Hanson, who thinks more highly of Trumbo than most film critics, documents that the goal of Trumbo, along with other Communist screenwriters, was to insert pro-Communist lines of dialogue in the movies they wrote, you won't find a discussion of that in here either.
That said, if you treat this book as an autobiography, instead of a biography, where the standards of truth are less rigid, there is much on offer here. It is within the bounds of autobiography for the author to defend his life. Nixon's version of Watergate is a far cry from Woodstein's and Bill Clinton didn't mention the charges of the FBI, well reported by The New York Times, that he sold military secrets to China in exchange for campaign funds. As autobiography, this book succeeds admirably. Trumbo makes the case for himself as a fearless true believer and a likable one at that.
Don't read this book if you're looking for an honest account of the Hollywood Ten, but do read it as a defense of a fairly good screenwriter (even if Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and Exodus are hardly Citizen Kane or Vertigo in the pantheon of Hollywood cinema).
It sounds like a good title for a proper review of Cook’s book would be similar to mine for David Roll’s about another one of Joseph Stalin’s minions in America, “A Lawyer’s Case for Harry Hopkins,” or perhaps “Trumbo’s Case for Trumbo.”
The Post’s agenda is obvious from Dirda’s characterization of the House investigations as “witch hunts” and the likes of Trumbo as just “pinkos,” implying that Soviet Communist infiltration of the government and key organizations like labor unions was harmless or imaginary and that committed Communists like Trumbo were merely left of center in their politics.
Hollywood’s Red Propaganda Factory
Make no mistake about it; Trumbo was no minor misguided liberal. He was at the heart of Communist subversion in Hollywood that strongly influenced American public opinion toward the Soviet Union. This long passage from pp. 88-89 of Diana West’s American Betrayal explains well how it worked:
How did our process of literary selection, which certainly wasn’t always natural, take shape? [Hollywood Party author Kenneth Lloyd] Billingsley points, for example, to the efforts of one John Weber, a Marxist labor organizer whose party work in Hollywood included the organizing of the Screen Story Analysts Guild, a Communist-dominated group that read—i.e., vetted or nixed—movie scripts. Just for good measure the vice president of the guild was another Communist Party member, Lillian Bergquist, who also served as the chief script analyst for the Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP), the Hollywood branch of the Communist-dominated Office of War Information (OWI).
Incredibly, disastrously, Weber went on to head the literary department of the William Morris Agency, then the preeminent talent agency in town, another choke point from which to monitor the flow of work and workers (writers). Such control was a point of strategy, but it was also a point of pride, prompting the odd indiscreet revelation—and thank goodness. One prize gaffe came from Oscar-winning screenwriter and Communist Dalton Trumbo, later a poster boy for Hollywood martyrdom during what we think of as the Hollywood Blacklist days, the period in the 1950s during which studios and producers officially “blacklisted” Hollywood Communists conspiring with Moscow to overthrow the U.S. government.
But…isn’t that treason?
Trumbo’s statement, made in 1946 in The Worker (petted Hollywood screenwriters are “workers,” too!), brags about a de facto anti-Communist blacklist that effectively prevented stories told from the anti-Communist perspective from getting to the silver screen. There might be a dearth of “progressive” movies on screen, Trumbo admits, “but neither has Hollywood produced anything so untrue or reactionary as The Yogi and the Commissar, Out of the Night, Report on the Russians, There Shall Be No Night, or Adventures of a Young Man.” He goes on to tick off a few more significant anti-Communist manifestos, gloating over their never-to-be-exploited commercial value. “Nor does Hollywood’s forthcoming schedule include such tempting items as James T. Farrell’s Bernard Clare, Victor Kravchenko’s I Chose Freedom, or the so-called biography of Stalin by Leon Trotsky.”
Clearly there existed a Hollywood blacklist before there existed the Hollywood Blacklist. Trumbo’s statement breaks down to a basic message: Even if “progressive” (read: Stalinist) movies are tough to put over, take heart, comrade; every “untrue,” “reactionary,” “Trotskyist” hot property that comes along and gets rejected is a victory for Mother Russia. Some of those titles, it’s important to note, preceded the U.S. wartime alliance with the USSR (1941-1945), coming along during the time of the Nazi-Soviet Pact (1939-41). This is something to keep in mind the next time tears are ordered up for a Hollywood Blacklist pity party. The fact is, Dalton Trumbo, martyr of the 1950s “Red Scare,” hero to the 1960s Berkeley Free Speech Movement, was himself “a blacklister before he was himself blacklisted.”
Heavy Hitter Trumbo
An important lesson we get from Billingsley is that before the political winds changed in the late 1940s it was actually a career asset in Hollywood to be a Communist and many joined the Party for just that reason—not out of idealism—but then got caught up in the Moscow-controlled tentacles of the organization. Who knows what his ultimate motivations were, but Trumbo was very much a part of the sinister team promoting the goals of the Soviet Union. This is from pp. 117-119 of Billingsley:
When Party leader William Z. Foster came to Hollywood, the locals threw a party for him at Trumbo’s mansion on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. The elite of the studio section had been expecting some enlightenment from the new Party boss, who, it turned out, was a great fan of cowboy movies and was hoping to meet some western stars at the Trumbo gala. He was disappointed to find that none showed up.
The host, who never slandered wealth in his personal life, found himself taking a more active role under the new Party line. Trumbo said that films such as Sahara and Action in the North Atlantic were examples of films that “went over to the offensive,” as opposed to simply keeping anti-Communist material out. In 1946 Trumbo wrote that these “offensive” films had occurred “under the impact of one historical phase of the war against fascism” and “there is no reason to believe that it cannot develop and deepen in the succeeding phase of the same war.” (Billingsley emphases added) Thus, the United States, in the Communist mind-set, was a fascist regime and the successor to Nazi Germany. About this time, the creative Trumbo had pulled duty outside of Hollywood.
When the United Nations was being formed, Stalin’s foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, suggested Alger Hiss as the organization’s first Secretary General, the first and only time a Soviet official has suggested an American for an international post. French intelligence had warned the United States of Hiss’s Communist ties, and he had even been fingered by a Czech official. Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, who had been under the wing of Alger Hiss and Harry Hopkins, delivered a speech to the U.N. written by Dalton Trumbo. It has been reported that Hiss was responsible for bringing Trumbo to the opening U.N. conference in May and June of 1945. Trumbo admitted that he “ghosted” Stettinius’s speech, and on October 26, 1959, he explained to the leftist historian Carey McWilliams that during the course of the events, he had stayed at the Fairmont Hotel “unregistered on the blotter” in a room between those of Harold Stassen and Foster Dulles. Not only did he write the speech for Stettinius, but he said he “worked most closely with Thomas Finletter,” Truman’s secretary of the air force and later ambassador to NATO.
Interestingly, when Trumbo’s biographer, Bruce Cook, interviewed Finletter during the 1970s, he refused to talk about Trumbo. In fact, Finletter acted as if he had never met the famous writer, which was clearly false. Cook was baffled by the silence and was certain that Finletter was being deliberately evasive. As for Stettinius, he as so pleased with Trumbo’s script that he presented the writer with an autographed picture of himself. But later Stettinius also denied that he had ever known Trumbo.
Speaking of that new Party boss Foster, he had recently replaced longtime American Communist Party head Earl Browder after Browder had been denounced in April of 1945 by French Communist Party official Jacques Duclos for his “belief in post-war Soviet-American cooperation as ‘erroneous conclusions in no wise flowing from a Marxist analysis of the situation’ and a ‘notorious revision of Marxism.’ Duclos also quoted a secret anti-Browder letter Party rivals sent only to Moscow, and the American Party concluded that the charge was a message to them direct from Stalin. They were right.” (Billingsley, p. 116)
Many Communists in Hollywood had regarded Browder as a hero, “particularly those who had joined during the heyday of American-Soviet cooperation, which they thought would outlast the war and bring in a happy ending. When Browder was ousted, some Party members wept.”
A certain important screenwriter, though, didn’t allow such sentiments to get the best of him. “In one argument over the Duclos letter, Dalton Trumbo said: ‘It comes down to this, if Lenin was right, then Browder was wrong—and vice versa. I prefer to believe that Lenin was right.’ ” (Billingsley, p. 117)
The art of lying is the art of the practical. It ought never be indulged in for the pure pleasure of the thing, since over-usage dulls the instrument, corrodes the character and despoils the spirit. The important thing about a lie is not that it be interesting, fanciful, graceful or even pleasant but that it be believed. Curb, therefore, your imagination. Let the lie be delivered full-face, eye to eye, and without scratching of the scalp. Let it be blunt and forthright and so simple that you can repeat it in detail and under oath ten years hence. But let it, for all its simplicity, contain one fantastical element of creative ingenuity - one and no more - designed to capture the attention of the listener and to convince him that, since no one would dare to invent the improbability you have inserted, its mere existence places the stamp of truth upon everything that you have said. If you cannot tell a believable lie, cling then to truth which is always our secret succor in times of need, and manfully accept the consequences.
There we see the “ideals” on full display with which the “half-legend, half-saint” of Post writer Dirda’s imagination, Dalton Trumbo, “kept faith.”
Touted as it is by The Washington Post, one can expect the upcoming movie to adhere more closely to Trumbo’s prescription for lying than it does to the truth about his life. Hollywood, after all, still uses its opinion molding power to attack the anti-Communists of the era and, like The Post, to wax romantic about the Communists.
* I can’t say for sure that it was unpaid. Maybe this is how Jeff Bezos plans to turn around the newspaper’s bottom line. Otherwise, the only change that I can see at The Post since he removed this money-losing albatross from around the Graham family neck is that they now continue to charge me for home delivery when I go traveling and suspend delivery, reminding me on their telephone recording that I will still have online access to their rare and wonderful product on the road.
October 8, 2015