In a few weeks “Trumbo,” a film directed by Jay Roach and starring Bryan Cranston (of “Breaking Bad”), will open, and I wish it every success. A biopic about Dalton Trumbo, the best known of the screenwriters blacklisted in Hollywood during the ’50s, it is based on this biography, originally published in 1977, by Bruce Cook, for many years one of Washington’s most beloved journalists and authors.
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.
At the time, Trumbo was the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood. But after serving his 10 months in jail, he found himself desperate for ways to support his wife and three children. So during the 1950s he began to churn out scripts, often for small, independent production companies, using pseudonyms or borrowed names. Thus, “Robert Rich” received a 1956 Academy Award for “The Brave One,” and Ian McLellan Hunter, fronting for his friend, received another for the ever-charming “Roman Holiday.” Over time, though, Trumbo’s moral authority, a growing sense of injustice and, not least, his financial usefulness to the industry finally led director Otto Preminger to identify him as the screenwriter for the blockbuster “Exodus.” Trumbo thus became, as Cook writes, “the first of a couple of hundred writers, directors, producers, and actors, who had been deprived of the opportunity to work in the motion picture industry from 1947 to 1960, to see his name back up on the screen.” Most of the others weren’t so fortunate.
Grand Central publishing has brought out two editions of “Trumbo” — one reproducing the family pictures and news photographs of the 1977 text, the other substituting scenes from the film and its making. In a foreword to the movie tie-in version, screenwriter John McNamara says that even before he started work on the film, he had read Cook’s biography 10 times. I believe him. Not only is Trumbo colorful and outrageous, he’s also gruffly irresistible: When brought in at the last minute to rework the prison-escape film “Papillon,” he declares, “I may not be the best screenwriter in Hollywood but I am incomparably the fastest.” Of course, he may well have been the best, too.
Still, Trumbo’s isn’t the only endearing personality in these pages. Cook’s amiable, shrewdly observant presence adds immeasurably to the biography, as he raises the questions we ourselves would ask, makes clear his own views, and quickly wins our confidence through his common sense and decency. Appropriately enough, then, Cook admires Trumbo “as an exemplar of a certain set of American virtues — toughness, independence, persistence.” As much as possible, too, he structures his book around the screenwriter’s own words and those of people who knew him. Like any skilled reporter, though, Cook can be gentle or probing during interviews; a couple of sources actually lose their temper. “Trumbo,” as a result, never flags, maintaining a present-tense immediacy and dynamism throughout. This is a biography in which there’s nothing you want to skip.
To speak more personally, while reading “Trumbo” I couldn’t help but see Cook’s face, hear his voice, recall the slouchy way he moved. In the book, Cook comes across as low-keyed, easygoing and, toward Trumbo, a bit worshipful, but in the late 1970s he also gave off a slight hipster vibe. That’s not surprising, considering that he’d written “The Beat Generation” and “Listen to the Blues.” He was, moreover, a terrific book reviewer (and onetime book editor of USA Today), but drawn to the movies, he eventually moved to California, hoping to sell screenplays and discovering instead a new vocation as the author, under the name Bruce Alexander, of the Sir John Fielding mysteries. Cook died of a stroke in 2003 at the too-young age of 71.
The subject of his riveting biography was born in 1905 as John Dalton Trumbo and grew up in Grand Junction, Colo. After losing his job in a shoe store, Trumbo’s father moved his wife and children to Los Angeles. There he promptly died, leaving his only son as the family breadwinner. Quite literally. For most of his 20s, Trumbo worked in low-paying jobs at the Davis Perfection Bakery. But he wanted to write.
Eventually, he sold some stories, was hired part time by a magazine called the Hollywood Spectator, and finally landed work as a script reader for Warner Bros., though he soon advanced to B-movie screenwriter. This was 1935, the same year Trumbo brought out his first novel, “Eclipse,” a satirical portrait of a town much like his Colorado birthplace. In 1939, he published his harrowing, anti-war masterpiece, “Johnny Got His Gun.” Its entire action takes place inside the mind of a young World War I soldier who has been left a blind, deaf and limbless torso. Years later, at the height of the Vietnam conflict, Trumbo made the novel into a film.
Trumbo’s work in the B-movies taught him what creative writing courses call “craft.” Of those cheapie flicks, Cook observes that “a screenwriter had to work within all sorts of limitations. The one that governed all the rest, of course, was budget.” To save money, “you got into a scene just as quickly as possible, got through it, and got out of it. As a result, there was a kind of quick, nervous energy to most B-films. . . . Looked at today, there is a ‘modern’ quality that emerges from the way the old B’s were shot and edited, a quality that was created almost wholly out of financial necessity.”
Whatever the project, Trumbo went at it with relentless focus and energy. He conducted his courtship of carhop Cleo Fincher in the same way. The first time they met at McDonnell’s Drive-In, he asked her to marry him — and he kept asking her, day after day after day, for more than a year. Luckily, Cleo didn’t call the cops about this crazy guy, and eventually she simply gave in. Their marriage proved very happy.
No matter how straitened his finances, Trumbo always enjoyed living in grand style. Yet he never wavered in his professionalism, going so far as to guarantee his work: He would revise a screenplay for free until everyone was satisfied. Little surprise, then, that 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.
Michael Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style. At 4 p.m. on Saturday, he will be speaking at the Chevy Chase Library’s 50th anniversary celebration.
Grand Central. 352 pp. Paperback; $15.99