Monday, November 23, 2015

Trumbo by Bruce Cook

by Bruce Cook
Grand Central Publishing
originally published 1977
ISBN: 97814555564972
352 pages

Barnes and Noble

Dalton Trumbo changed my life. The year was 1997. I was a junior in high school and up until that point English was my worst subject. My English teacher assigned us to read Trumbo’s novel Johnny Got His Gun. I didn’t fully realize the power of a good story until I read that book. Put into the hands of a master story teller, a reader can be transported into a completely different world and expose them to thoughts, feelings and ideas that would have normally been outside of their realm of understanding. Reading Trumbo’s novel set me on the path for my present career in book publishing for a lifelong love of literature and film.

“The writer is the ship’s architect and the director is the captain.” – Dalton Trumbo
Trumbo mastered the craft of writing whether it was with novels, screenplays, political speeches, essays or short stories. He had a proficiency in the technical aspects of writing that made him a mainstay in Hollywood. Trumbo found his biggest success working as a screenwriter for various studios during the 1940s and into the 1970s. He continued to write even when he was blacklisted by Hollywood and had to use fake names or the names of other writers as a cover.

Biographer Bruce Cook spent the summer of 1973 interviewing Dalton Trumbo at his home. He also spoke extensively with Trumbo’s family and industry peers. At the time, Trumbo was suffering from the effects of the cancer that would eventually kill him and the biography starts with his time writing for Papillon (1973) and his cancer diagnosis. The reader is then transported back to Trumbo's hometown of Grand Junction, Colorado where we learn about his family and upbringing, the influence his father had on him as well as the circumstances that brought the family to Los Angeles.

Trumbo would never have become a screenwriter if he hadn’t made that move to LA. He found himself at the right place and the right time to start a career in Hollywood. Trumbo began as a reader for Warner Bros. then established himself as a screenwriter working on movies for Columbia Pictures, MGM, RKO as well as independent producers such as the King brothers. Films discussed in the book include Tender Comrades (1943), A Guy Named Joe (1943), Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), Gun Crazy (1950), Roman Holiday (1953), Spartacus (1960), Exodus (1960), Johnny Got His Gun (1971) and Papillon (1973).
“It was a campaign, brilliantly planned and daringly executed, and Trumbo was the general.”
It was inevitable that Trumbo’s political views would get him in trouble. He joined the Communist party in 1943 and four years later he would be facing the House of Un-American Activities Committee. His defiance landed him in jail for 10 months when he was found in contempt of Congress. It was during the Waldorf Agreement of 1947 that the movie moguls named Dalton Trumbo as one of the Hollywood Ten and he would be blacklisted from Hollywood for over a decade. What’s remarkable about Trumbo is that he fought against the blacklist before it even began and chipped away at it until it finally broke down. Trumbo kept writing and his movies kept getting made even if his name didn’t appear in the credits. While some sources point to Kirk Douglas’ credit of Trumbo for Spartacus (1960) as the beginning of the end of the blacklist, this biography points to Otto Preminger naming Trumbo as the writer for his screenplay of Exodus (1960), an announcement that made the front page of The New York Times.

Dalton Trumbo facing down the HUAC
“Breaking the blacklist became a kind of monomania with him. He saw to it that as much movie work as possible was directed to writers who were, like himself, working on the black market. Trumbo did an enormous amount of work during this period, but he passed nearly as much of it on to others. He was determined that so many scripts be written by those on the blacklist under pseudonyms, behind front names, or however, that the blacklist itself would become a kind of joke. And that, of course, was exactly what happened.”

The focus of this biography is Trumbo’s amazing career as a screenwriter. We learn some things about his family, a bit about his wife Cleo and less about his children. This isn’t a profile of a man; this is a profile of a screenwriter. Readers do get some insight into Trumbo’s personality but what more we could have learned was set aside to make room for some of the extraordinary events in his career. This is an authorized biography of Trumbo but the man himself had very little input and the final product was left to biographer Cook’s capable hands.

Trumbo by Bruce Cook was brought back into print with a new package just in time for the release of the Trumbo (2015), a film based on Cook’s biography. This new edition includes a foreword by filmmaker John McNamara chronicling the life of his copy of the original book as well as an insert featuring behind the scenes photographs from the movie. Both of these add-ons seemed unnecessary and while they make this a true movie tie-in edition, they don’t really add anything of value to the book.
“Trumbo was that, certainly: a prodigy of the will. He hung in there—survived, prevailed, even triumphed on a couple of occasions. Ultimately, that is why he is worth our attention.”
Not without its problems, Trumbo by Bruce Cook does stand as a definitive biography of the legendary writer Dalton Trumbo given his involvement as well as in-depth interviews with sources who are no longer with us. There is some bias from Cook’s point of view but not as much as there would be had Trumbo written it himself. This biography stands up many years later where others would have quickly become outdated or irrelevant. The true value of the book to modern day readers is its extensive chronicling of the history of the Hollywood blacklist and Trumbo’s role in breaking it down. It’s a period of history of interest to many film buffs and there is a wealth of information about it in this book.

At the time of writing this review I have not yet seen Trumbo (2015) and I’m curious to see how this biography was used in the making of the film. I think it’s important for classic film fans to go beyond actors, actresses and directors and to learn about the other important people who were responsible for making their favorite movies.

Thank you to Grand Central Publishing for sending me a copy of this book to review.

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