In conjunction with the release of Trumbo starring Bryan Cranston as the blacklisted screenwriter, Grand Central Publishing is re-releasing Bruce Cook’s 1977 biography of him. With this as the source material, it is understandable that the film was such a whitewash.
Cook helpfully alerts the reader to his bias early on. He announces himself as an “advocate” for Trumbo.
The set-up of the book, based on interviews from those who knew Trumbo, ranging from his wife to his comrades in the Party to such fellow travelers as Nation editor Cary McWilliams, is rigged for such advocacy. There are no opposite views from those such as Ronald Reagan who went head to head with Trumbo during the fight for communist control of a Hollywood Union in 1946; Reagan recalled Trumbo defending the Soviet constitution as more democratic than the American one.
Cook tiptoes so much around Trumbo that the screenwriter has to bring up the question of his Communist membership. He accepts en masse Trumbo’s explanation for joining in 1943, not from any change in thinking but because he foresaw trouble ahead for the Party by anticommunists, and he did not want to abandon those who he fought on the barricades with. But he also defended it by parroting the Party’s own explanation for people joining: because it was the only political outfit “doing something” for workers (this slights the examples of George Orwell, Dwight MacDonald, and Sidney Hook who fought for progressive, even socialist causes without surrendering their thinking to Stalin).
To take Trumbo’s own explanation for joining first, it is evident that his thinking did change, but always in sync with needs of Moscow. When Stalin allied with Hitler in 1939 and announced as Party policy that comrades should not involve themselves in support of any military response to the Third Reich, which they billed as “an imperialist war,” Trumbo followed suit. In addition to his novel, Johnny Got His Gun (1939), which advocated this message, he so vociferously attacked Great Britain, who was almost alone in fighting Hitler, that it compelled conservative screenwriter Rupert Hughes to note that nothing was said about the evils of Nazism. When the socialist motherland was invaded two years later, Trumbo suddenly and with equal passion supported the new line promoted by Stalin by supporting the war against Hitler. When questioned as to how he could reconcile the pacifistic theme of Johnny with his new war fervor Trumbo stated that the quadriplegic, blind and deaf character would have supported the progressive nature of the war.
But this was not all. He vociferously attacked those who opposed the war as fascists. He was so dedicated to this cause that he even enlisted the FBI, once regarded as a Gestapo by the Party faithful, to arrest those who spoke out against the war (which, to be fair, did include some homegrown fascists). For those who saw fit to remind Americans, that despite the military partnership with the Soviet Union, the country remained as it was, a totalitarian government, Trumbo applied the fascist label broadly. To him, anticommunism equated into anti-labor, anti-semitic (despite such Jewish anticommunists and labor supporters like screenwriter Morrie Ryskind), and anti-Negro.
After the war’s end, Trumbo’s thinking shifted back to peace as promoted by the Soviet Union. To accomplish this, he portrayed the regime in the manner it presented to the world; as a progressive country that liberals could easily support. As Stalin swallowed up Bulgaria, Romania and the Czech republic, and repressed those, such as Poland, Trumbo amazingly penned a 1946 article asserting that the Soviet Union “had no colonies.” In 1949, he naively declared that the Soviet Union had no “anti-Semitism” because it was forbidden by their constitution.
Before defending civil liberties as enshrined by the US Constitution when his Party and comrades were being investigated by Congress in 1947, he indicated a different version when he had a modicum of power as editor of the prestigious industry journal, The Screenwriter, two years before. In response to a rejected submitter, an anticommunist, who argued that Trumbo should publish the article in the interest of “freedom of expression,” Trumbo argued the following:
“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.”
To his credit, Cook cited and criticized this. But what he left out indicates either shoddy research, or a refusal to complicate his portrait of Trumbo as civil libertarian extraordinaire. Not only is the Russia-has-no-colonies unmentioned, but also Trumbo’s bragging of keeping such “untrue and reactionary” adaptations from making it to screen such as Trotsky’s “so-called biography of Stalin.”
But what is the most horrible aspect of Trumbo left out would be that he knew about the murderous policies of Stalin all the while he publicly defended the dictator. Unearthed by Ron and Allis Radosh, was his 1956 reaction to Kruschev’s Secret Speech which revealed the Purge Trials were rigged by Stalin to murder off his opposition:
“My library contains Koester and Fischer and Orwell and Silone…and even Trotsky…I was not surprised.”
Apart from allowing himself to read what he hypocritically stopped from being adapted to the screen, Trumbo, if one can accept he didn’t know, and was merely affecting a political sophistication and thus avoid looking like a simple-minded dupe, accepted broken eggs for omelet purposes.
Cook’s book, with its obvious omissions and admitted advocacy status, could be considered a time capsule document when reds were rehabilitated in the context of anticommunism now thought by many to have led to the carnage of Vietnam. But these views are with us to this day. Left Coast Hollywood, in the words of Ron and Allis Radosh, have enshrined and guarded the myth of the blacklist as “the bedtime story” they tell themselves at night. In interviews, Cranston has accepted Trumbo at his own valuation: as a “socialist” and civil liberties’ hero. Trumbo was anything but, unless one accepts that Stalinism was both socialist and supportive of civil liberties. Instead, he supported a dictator who crafted policies anathema to socialists and liberals and civil libertarians.
Thus Cook’s book has traveled well. It is understandable for one to be seduced by the stylish Trumbo, an extremely articulate man, who for whatever reasons, did topple the undemocratic and repressive blacklist. The poster put out by the filmmakers shows him in all his glamorous glory: in front of a typewriter smoking through a cigarette holder and holding a glass of whiskey.
In addition, delusions about the Soviets to the contrary, Trumbo was clear-eyed and gallant. While his comrades were asserting that the quality of Hollywood films declined due to their absence, Trumbo refused to accept this, declaring that what did Hollywood movies in was television. When members of the blacklisted community engaged in the very Manichaeism they attributed to anticommunists (progressive heroic blacklisters vs. fascists), Trumbo transcended this, arguing that no side of the political spectrum was “without sin.” Rather than call those who named names “filth,” Trumbo befriended many of them. And unlike other members of the Hollywood Ten, who testified beside him, he refused to attach heroic status to this group. Instead, he stated that the real purpose of the group in refusing to admit their communist membership while pretending to do so was to keep out of jail.
If the filmmakers descend into a similar Manichaeism, as peddled by Bruce Cook, then the complexity of Trumbo will be lost in the mix. If so, Left Coast Hollywood will be merely honoring the tried-and-true method of promoting propaganda over truth.