Book Review--Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical


Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical
Larry Ceplair and Christopher Trumbo
University Press of Kentucky, 2015

Screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo is most famous for the eleven years he spent on an unofficial Hollywood blacklist, as one of the notorious Hollywood Ten, a group of movie industry professionals who refused to answer questions about their political affiliations before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the late forties. Even without that life-changing scandal, this sharp-witted, tart-tongued master of the screenplay would have made his mark in the movie industry. In Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical, biographer Larry Ceplair draws heavily on the notes and memories of the writer's son Christopher to craft an epic take on one of Hollywood's greatest characters.

For his defiance of HUAC, Trumbo was convicted of contempt of court in 1947 and sentenced to a year in prison, after which he supported his family working through the black market. Before the committee, the writer had made his mark with successes like Kitty Foyle (1940), Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) and Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945). His best work was yet to come though. Using pseudonyms under the blacklist, he won two Academy Awards: for the script of Roman Holiday (1953) and the story for The Brave One (1956).

While journalists speculated as to who was writing these award-winning scripts, Trumbo was finally credited for his work on Exodus (1960) and Spartacus (1960), a process which the book covers in detail. It was a one man breakthrough though; the blacklist was still largely in effect. He was just too good to ignore anymore. 

The situation had gotten absurd. In one case when a studio informed him he was in competition with another writer for work, he learned that they did not realize the name of the supposed other writer was one of his many pseudonyms.

To his credit, Trumbo worked just as hard to end the blacklist for other writers as much as he did for himself. While his methods were not always appreciated by his peers, he was generous with his time, writing articles and making appearances in support of them and giving his extra work to writers in need (sometimes he would have to go back and fix a job he'd referred. He truly was the best at his craft.)

Though the blacklist years were detrimental to his own health and sanity and that of his family, Trumbo had the intelligence and strength to persevere and even thrive. After all, in his early career he had supported his mother and sister working nine years at a bakery, writing and getting volumes of rejection slips in his spare time. The man understood struggle.

Trumbo was a prickly, but fascinating character. While he had good instincts about when to play nice to better his circumstances, most of the time he spoke his mind freely and with great conviction. Often tethered his typewriter, his loyal wife Cleo and three children didn't get much of his attention. When he did focus on them, it was never dull. One son received an extensive letter from his father about masturbation upon his entry into college.

After breaking the blacklist, Trumbo nearly wrote himself to death catching up financially. He worked hard and he was passionate about his output. His dream of writing great novels was constantly put on hold, but he was not entirely unsuccessful in that regard, even writing the anti-war classic Johnny Got His Gun. He also seems to have gotten a certain satisfaction from creating great stories for the screen.

Aided by the notes and memories of Trumbo's son Christopher, who wanted to write the biography but became too ill to continue, Larry Ceplair has written an epic-length examination of this most colorful of writers. The writer's dust-up with HUAC and the fall-out alone provide enough material for a book, but the rest of his life was just as busy and vibrant.

Ceplair's decades of study about his subject have paid off with a fascinating tale. Christopher's insights seem to have led him to investigate the richest veins in Trumbo's life and he has supported that inside information with his own detailed research. When you feel like you can hear the subject speaking, you know you are reading a well-rounded account.

For readers looking for a juicy Hollywood read, this book has its moments, but with its often dense analysis of the politics around the HUAC years and fall-out, it is definitely not a frothy read. It is an important book though, putting the life of an important figure in the Hollywood blacklist in perspective and celebrating the unique talent of one of the best screenwriters and wits in the history of cinema.

Many thanks to University Press of Kentucky for providing a copy of the book for review.

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