We both have a right to be wrong.– Dalton Trumbo to John Wayne, HBO’s TRUMBO
Dalton Trumbo – what a name! His journey from the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood to political prisoner, to ignominy, obscurity, underground script writer, vindicated hero, and legend is chronicled in the eponymous 2015 HBO movie starring Bryan Cranston as Trumbo and in the 2008 documentary film Trumbo, which is part of PBS’ American Masters series.
Dalton Trumbo, that’s his real name and I just love it, was born to pioneer stock in Colorado in 1905. His family moved to Los Angeles in the 1920’s. When his father died in 1925, to support his mother and two sisters, Trumbo worked the night shift as a bread wrapper in a huge Los Angeles bakery for nine years, doing other odd jobs on the side, while attending UCLA. One of his odd-jobs was writing movie reviews, from this he branched out and started writing short stories. This man was hard-working from the word go, and remained so throughout his life. This commitment to support his family went into overdrive when Trumbo later married and had children of his own. I daresay it may have contributed to his demise at 71, because he just does not seem to be the kind of guy who knew how to truly relax. This is evident in both the HBO film and the American Masters doc, but then writing is a compulsion and most writers write because they have to, because they must, and to earn a living at writing…well, it’s like the ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail.
My profession is that of a writer. – Dalton Trumbo
Trumbo’s writing output while working at the bakery and his other jobs was prodigious. He managed to write two novels during this time, which happened to be right in the middle of The Great Depression. When he started to see his work published in McCall’s magazine, Vanity Fair and The Saturday Evening Post, Trumbo quit the bakery with the conviction that he could support his family with his writing, six-months later his first novel, Eclipse (a study in social realism) was published; five years later his acclaimed anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun, was published. When did he sleep? The HBO film shows him popping bennies during his most manic deadline driven writing episodes. It didn’t seem wrong, just necessary.
Trumbo’s illustrious career as a screenwriter started the year he published his first novel, when he graduated from being a reader in the story department at Warner Brothers, where I’m pretty sure he got a graduate level education in the anatomy of bad screenwriting
It seems the man was made for the medium because he began churning out scripts for films that are still highly regarded, like his adaptation (w/ David Ogden Stewart) of Christopher Morley’s novel Kitty Foyle (1940). Directed by Sam Wood, who would later denounce Dalton Trumbo as anti-American, the film Kitty Foyle was nominated for 5 Academy Awards including Best Adapted Screenplay, with only one win going to Ginger Rogers for Best Actress.
In the HBO film, Trumbo is called to Louis B. Mayer’s office at MGM Studios, where Trumbo is offered a three year deal that Louis B. Mayer says will make Trumbo the highest paid screenwriter in the world. So, there he is with a lovely, intelligent supportive wife (portrayed by Diane Lane), three very independent-minded yet well-mannered children, and they all live on a beautiful ranch with a swimming pool, where they entertain friends and family. It’s a freaking Hallmark card until Congressman J. Parnell Thomas rears his ugly head and declares Hollywood a cesspool of God-hating Commies who want to see America in the hands of the Great Unwashed union members. Why Hollywood? Because everyone knows in America the movies have the greatest influence on people– greater than reality itself.
Now, during his climb up the screenwriting ladder Dalton Trumbo has not only gained street cred by writing an anti-war novel, and supporting the striking Set Constructers union, he joined the Communist Party after The Depression, like so many creative people because he thought it was a better way to create economic parity and prevent a recurrence of the massive unemployment, foreclosures and bread lines that were so much a part of life from 1929 until the late 1930’s.
We have no empirical points of comparison to the people who lived through this era because there were no Social Security benefits, no unemployment compensation, and no federally insured bank deposits. The safety nets we take for granted were non-existent. It was like that Three Stooges sketch were they say: “It’s one for all, and all for one and every man for himself.”
It was also during this time–1938 to be exact–when the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was formed by members of the House of Representatives. The HUAC was built on the ashes of its predecessors, the Fish Committee and the McCormack/Dickstein Committee, to uncover subversive shenanigans being perpetrated by American citizens and organizations, inside and outside the government. They had a real hard-on for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration, but the HUAC’s efforts were sidetracked by World War II. The HUAC is not to be confused with the witch-hunts conducted by Senator Joseph McCarthy, who took up the fallen HUAC banner in the early 1950’s.
When the HUAC fixation on FDR ran out of steam, they utilized the climate of fear and hatred engendered by the then Soviet Union in the aftermath of World War II. The Russians who were Communists and allies of the U.S. during the war became overtly nasty, petulant and greedy denouncing the U.S. as a fountain of evil and all that was wrong with the world as they sought to annex all of Eastern Europe.
In the midst of all this we have creative geniuses, like Dalton Trumbo, in Hollywood keeping the populace from going nuts by churning out a lot of engrossing and inspiring films that still entertain and inform us today. Many of these people had joined the Communist party in their idealistic and impetuous youth only to abandon it (or not in some cases). For this, actors, actresses, directors, producers, and others who were part of the film industry in the U.S., were legally compelled to go before the HUAC and state whether or not they belonged to the Communist Party, supported the Communist Party or knew anyone in the film business that did. I couldn’t even begin to imagine being called before a Congressional Committee and asked the question: “Are you now or have you ever been a hippie?”
Many of those questioned including Dalton Trumbo asked the Committee about their due process rights, their rights to free speech, and the implied right of freedom of thought all codified in the first ten amendments of the Constitution of the United States. Apparently, these elected officials sworn to uphold the Constitution had not bothered to read it.
Watching this scenario unfold in both the HBO film and the PBS documentary left me firmly convinced that some people do not have the intellectual capacity to live in a Democratic Republic, and may — due to their inability to reason and understand abstract concepts objectively (like freedom of thought)–might prefer to live under a totalitarian, extreme right-wing regime where someone else does their thinking for them. Sound familiar?