That’s democracy

Theo Tait

  • Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo
    Prion, 222 pp, £5.99, May 1999, ISBN 1 85375 324 6

In the mid-1940s, Dalton Trumbo was a screenwriter near the top of his lucrative but precarious line of work: fast, prolific and a consummate professional, he usually wrote at night, often in the bath, fuelled by large doses of Benzedrine. He was also a prominent and outspoken member of the Hollywood Communist Party. In 1947, the House Committee for Un-American Activities began their hearings into ‘Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry’. Trumbo, with nine others, pleaded the First Amendment, ended up with a citation for contempt of Congress and spent slightly less than a year in a Kentucky jail. When he got out, he and the other members of the Hollywood Ten were blacklisted and unable to work in the industry; hundreds more followed in a second wave of hearings. For 13 years Trumbo worked on the black market, uncredited, using various pseudonyms. He wrote the original story for Roman Holiday (1953) and, under the name Robert Rich, earned an Oscar in 1956 for his screenplay The Brave One. He passed on work and encouragement to other victims of the anti-Communist purge and began a vigorous media campaign to end the blacklist. In 1960, Kirk Douglas revealed that Trumbo had written the screenplay for Spartacus; President Kennedy crossed the thinning picket lines of Catholic War Veterans to watch the film in a cinema in Washington DC. The blacklist, at least in principle, was broken.

So Trumbo entered Hollywood legend as ‘The Man who Broke the Blacklist’. As Pauline Kael put it, he became ‘the leading exponent of the dictates-of-conscience and the dignity-and-indomitable-spirit-of-man school of screenwriter’ and is probably best remembered for the series of ‘message’ epics that he scripted during this period: Spartacus and Exodus (both 1960), Hawaii (1966), and The Fixer (1968), movies that used huge budgets and lavish spectacle to prise increasingly reluctant audiences away from their new TV sets. Trumbo once again became one of the ‘best’ (i.e. best-paid) writers in the business. Throughout his life, he wrested happy endings from unpromising or disastrous scenarios – a lesson that screenwriters learn early on. In a career of extraordinary ups and downs, the HUAC saga is only the best known.

Of Trumbo’s three novels, only Johnny Got His Gun is still in print. It is based on a newspaper report about a Canadian soldier wounded in World War One, who lost his face, his limbs, and all his senses apart from touch – but who nevertheless survived well into the 1930s. After a dimly remembered explosion in a dugout on the Western Front, Joe Bonham, the soldier in Trumbo’s novel, lies in a similar condition in an unknown hospital. The nurses’ hands, the vibrations caused by people walking around the ward, the pain of the sheets against his wounds are his only contact with the outside world. He is unable to separate the present from his hallucinations of the past: work and love in Los Angeles, his upbringing in Colorado. Trumbo cleverly writes the reader into Joe’s head by using various cinematic techniques – flashbacks, montage, fade-ins and fade-outs. Filled with visceral and revolting images, it’s a novel that is easy to read but difficult to forget. The words ‘loneliness and silence and blackness’ recur frequently, along with ‘pain’ and ‘pus’. But, true to form, Trumbo manages to bring it all to an upbeat conclusion. In the visionary final section, an uneasy combination of the idealistic and the grotesque, Joe succeeds in communicating his wishes to the doctors: he taps Morse code into his pillow with his head and informs them that he wishes to be displayed to the world, like a circus freak, as a warning against war.

Johnny Got His Gun illustrates Trumbo’s determination, as he put it, to ‘use art as a weapon for the future of mankind, rather than an adornment of aesthetes and poseurs’, and its publication on 3 September 1939 indicates his appetite for controversy. The novel is tremendously fluent if not precise or subtle – Ring Lardner Jr said that Trumbo’s writing ‘was almost as facile as his speech’. His predilection for a certain kind of freewheeling bombast often led him to take up radical stances he couldn’t maintain. His opposition to war failed to survive Operation Barbarossa and Pearl Harbor; his next film, The Remarkable Andrew (1942), was a whimsical pro-war comedy (tag-line: ‘By thunderation, I’ll show America how to get tough!’).

If Johnny Got His Gun ‘is any good at all’, Trumbo wrote to his publisher, ‘it is good as an argument against war.’ The argument is effective but crude, based, as it is, on isolationism, war-is-hell platitudes and a generalised sense that global conflict is the assault of the old on the young, the system on the individual, the powers that be on the little people. Trumbo relies on sledgehammer irony: ‘I used to be a consumer,’ Joe explains at one point, ‘I’ve consumed more shrapnel and gunpowder than any living man.’ He prefers grandiose gestures and Biblical incantations to psychological or practical plausibility: although Joe is an amateur radio enthusiast, it takes him more than two years to hit on the idea of Morse code as a way of communicating. And when he finally breaks through, he taps out page after page, affirming the inevitable triumph of the human spirit.

The history of the book’s reception is more interesting than the book itself. Because it was serialised in the New York Daily Worker, Trumbo was wrongly accused of writing it at the prompting of his Stalinist comrades – as a justification for the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Trumbo was dismayed that the novel also attracted support and a great deal of fan-mail from the pro-Fascist American Right. As the Second World War dragged on, it disappeared from view. However, it came back into fashion (and print) during the Korean War and again at the time of Vietnam, when it had a considerable impact. It has been an influential cult novel: the Beats imitated its breathless style; Bob Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’ (1963) is clearly based on the tub-thumping final chapter. It was turned down by Hollywood studios 17 times, on the grounds that it was ‘too depressing’; Buñuel was set to direct it in 1965 but the funding collapsed. When Trumbo himself directed and financed a sluggish screen version five years later, it was mugged by the critics and bankrupted him – this despite a Cannes award and a distinguished cast, including Donald Sutherland as Jesus Christ. Trumbo’s career recovered and he paid off his debts by working on big-budget projects like Papillon (1973).

Dalton Trumbo (1977), Bruce Cook’s genial and thorough biography, suggests that the life he designed for himself ‘rivals, and really surpasses any literary work he has undertaken’. He was born in Grand Junction, Colorado in 1905. His father was a gentle, bookish, bee-keeping shop clerk who suffered from pernicious anaemia – a sympathetic colleague at Benge’s Shoe Store described him as ‘a loser, a real loser’. (Both Colorado and his unsuccessful father feature regularly in Trumbo’s fiction.) His mother was a strong-minded Christian Scientist, the daughter of a famous sheriff and tracker. Trumbo Snr lost his job at Benge’s and fell terminally ill in 1925; the family moved to Los Angeles and young Dalton – neighbours remembered a ‘busy-assed guy, wound up like an eight-day clock … always noisy and talkative’ – was pulled out of college to support his family. For eight years he worked nights at the Davis Perfection Bakery, bootlegging and kiting cheques: a ‘period of horror’. His writing career began with journalism, a detective story and ghosting for an expatriate Austrian baron and his friends (‘a real nest of Nazis’). He broke into film as a reader at Warner Bros in 1936, where he confused his superiors with extravagant suggestions for adaptations – Ulysses, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Rabelais. From there his progress was meteoric. When he decided to get married, he fixed on Cleo, a pretty waitress at an all-night restaurant, and courted her every night for about a year; he also hired private detectives to discredit and remove her troublesome husband. ‘He is just not an ordinary man,’ Cleo later explained.

Frustrated Hollywood screenwriters – as Richard Corliss points out in his excellent study, Talking Pictures (1975) – expressed much of their creativity in ephemeral forms: angry memos, practical jokes, one-liners, gossip and bitching at the writers’ tables. Additional Dialogue (Trumbo’s letters from the blacklist period, now out of print), is his best work: an appropriate monument to his acerbic wit, his gaudy prose style, his momentary enthusiasms and his long-term allegiances; a bizarre collection which he himself described as ‘obsessed with money, filled with endlessly reiterated objects, lost clauses, metaphors not merely mixed but macerated, trivial grievances, contradictions, false prophecies, unkept resolutions, high purposes brought low, and low ones here and there brought high’.

The range of styles and themes is bewildering. There are simple notes and poems to his wife, from prison or on her birthday; warm, supportive letters to friends and colleagues; cajoling, hectoring and bullying pieces aimed at his enemies, demanding cash or the public retraction of slurs. He can be flippant, vitriolic and moving, often rude, and frequently very funny (both intentionally and unintentionally). Like another neglected and idiosyncratic work by one of the Ten – Alvah Bessie’s Inquisition in EdenAdditional Dialogue depends on tough-minded irony. For example, Trumbo’s replies to red-baiting hate mail: ‘I grant you the right to demand my hanging if you wish’; ‘I have always been interested in the morbid aberrations which drive persons like yourself so pompously to seek correspondence with strangers.’ Trumbo’s soundbites about the witch hunts are snappy if not always precise: ‘the ugly business of compulsory revelation’; ‘yield up your principles and you shall be rich.’ It’s clear, however, that he was too unfocused to make it as a polemicist. Among the many subjects and questions that interest him, he lists: ‘the American fear of death’; ‘a local TV show which … involves jousting with cars’; Rome as the ‘via media between atheism and the God of the Jews’; ‘does one fall in love, or does one learn to love?’

Trumbo’s letters, like his recollections in Cook’s biography, are evasive about his time as a Communist. He gave Cook two reasons for his Party membership. First, that he had worked with other members, especially during the period when the talent guilds were set up in the 1930s. Second, that the rise of anti-Communist feeling convinced him that there was going to be trouble – ‘and I thought I wanted to be part of it if there was.’ Like most of the Reds and fellow-travellers Trumbo was never far outside the mainstream of traditional American radicalism. Given the absence of democratic left-wing alternatives, the Party was the most efficient passport to activism: it offered camaraderie and organised political engagement, it made itself synonymous with anti-Fascism and it was involved in labour and civil liberties issues. While wartime alliances held, and under the moderate leadership of Earl Browder, patriotism and Communism were not irreconcilable.

The Party was particularly appealing to writers, who arrived in Los Angeles with the advent of sound, after most of the control, the glory and the money had been shared out between producers, actors and directors. Well-educated and politically active, they found that they were fairly lowly if well-paid employees, ruled over by autocratic studio heads. The Parry offered outlets for their frustration. It was active in the Screen Writers’ Guild, launched in 1933, and helped to secure union recognition, fairer hiring practices and a systematic process for allocating screen credits; it also tried (unsuccessfully) to promote a greater measure of writers’ control over movie output.

Communism sometimes seems to have been almost incidental to Trumbo’s desire for political combat. He left the CPUSA in 1948, on the grounds that his case against HUAC had made him too busy, and that Party meetings ‘were dull beyond description and about as revolutionary in purpose as Wednesday-evening testimonial services in the Christian Science Church’. He then rejoined in 1954, in protest at the conviction of Party leaders under the draconian Smith Act – before leaving for a second time when the convictions were reversed. In his later accounts he suggests that the HUAC affair didn’t have ‘anything at all to do with the Communist Party’, that it was really about ‘the USA and its traditions and its Constitution’ (a half-truth, which he would later contradict).

The Hollywood Reds were dubbed the ‘Swimming-Pool Communists’ and have been laughed at, often with good reason. Critics had some easy targets: the imbalance between their colossal earnings and their aims (John dos Passos was amused to find screenwriters putting aside tithes for the Party from their poker winnings); their tendency to confuse the studio system with the System; and, most important, their obliviousness to inconsistencies in the rigid Party line, to the Moscow trials and other excesses of Stalinism. They were organised within a hierarchical system based, surprisingly, on industry earnings: high-salaried writers were in one ‘cell’, less successful writers in others. Trumbo’s elevated position in both the industry and the Party attracted scorn from the press. But it is important not to forget the seriousness of the Communists’ efforts, particularly in the fraught and often brutal industrial disputes of the period. Trumbo was prepared to stand up for his views, even if it isn’t always clear what they were. And, like many other Hollywood Communists, he had considerably more to lose than his chains – a huge salary and a ranch, for a start.

Nineteen ‘unfriendly’ witnesses received HUAC subpoenas in September 1947. Their selection was based on the FBI’s often inaccurate files and the evidence of ‘friendly’ witnesses who had formed pressure groups. The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals – fronted by Gary Cooper, Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan (the last perhaps still smarting from his failed attempt to join the Party in 1938) – presented the acceptable face of red-baiting. The HUAC targeted screenwriters; only one of the initial ‘Unfriendly Nineteen’ had never worked as a writer. Otherwise, the list seems to have been compiled with equal measures of cynicism and randomness. Some of those on it were prominent Communist activists; none of them were war veterans; some had been involved in films on liberal themes; ten were Jewish.

The aim, as one right-wing screenwriter put it, was to ‘turn off the faucets which dripped red water into filmscripts’. As the HUAC hearings revealed, this was based on a misconception about the power of writers in the production process. The only authentically pro-Soviet film discussed, Mission to Moscow (1943), seems to have received the Government’s imprimatur as a piece of wartime propaganda. Otherwise, producers scoured films on topical themes, removing anything that might be construed as inflammatory. MGM not only insisted on removing the unacceptable term ‘collectivised farm’ from Song of Russia (1944); the words ‘community’ and ‘communal’ were also regarded as too controversial. Accusations were unsubstantiated and often ridiculous: Ginger Rogers’s mother memorably complained that Trumbo had infected her daughter with the red contagion by writing a script in which Ginger had to say ‘share and share alike, that’s democracy’; Ayn Rand felt that Song of Russia was Communist because it depicted happy Russian children, smiling and laughing. Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund suggest in The Inquisition in Hollywood (1983), their exhaustive history of the period, that all the Communist scriptwriters really achieved during their heyday was a slight bias towards films that valued group action rather than individual heroism, and the avoidance of overt jingoism and racism.

Eleven of the 19 made it into court. They were often prevented from making their prepared statements, and were not allowed to cross-examine the investigators who reeled off lists of their subversive actions and associations, whereas ‘friendly’ witnesses, benefiting from Congressional immunity, smeared and slandered at will. The atmosphere was hostile and often abusive. Transcripts are peppered with insults; there was much applause, booing and laughter in court, as well as gavelling and calling for order. Most of the unfriendly testimonies end with the removal of the witness by armed guards. The majority of the Hollywood Ten later acknowledged that their performance had not been a public relations triumph: pleading the First Amendment when vital questions were asked often made them appear secretive or arrogant. Trumbo, like the others, was keen to deliver his big lines. ‘Very many questions can be answered “Yes” or “No” only by a moron or a slave,’ he declared, sounding – I imagine – like Kirk Douglas in Spartacus. He was led away, shouting, from the witness chair:

Mr Trumbo: This is the beginning –

The Chairman (pounding gavel): Just a minute –

Mr Trumbo: Of an American concentration camp.

The Chairman: This is typical Communists’ tactics.

These grandiose gestures failed to impress. Public support evaporated soon after the trial, and the motion-picture companies, fearing boycotts, declared that the industry would not employ Communists. William Wyler, John Huston and Phillip Dunne marshalled prominent liberals into a ‘Committee for the First Amendment’ to support the blacklisted; it promptly collapsed. (One member, Humphrey Bogart, went so far as to appear over the banner ‘I’m no Communist’ on the front of a film magazine.) When the Supreme Court declined to review their appeal against the contempt citation, the Ten went to jail (the 11th, Berthold Brecht, ran rings around the HUAC with his testimony, then skipped the country). The way forward was sketched out by the director Edward Dmytryk. He renounced his Communism, and testified to the HUAC during the second wave of film hearings, beginning in 1951. After naming names, and making various speeches for right-wing organisations, he started work again. The situation for those who received subpoenas was clear: either follow the ‘clearance’ procedure – recant, inform on ex-comrades, and hob-nob with the American Legion to clear your name – or lose your job. Like Dmytryk, many prominent ex-radicals became ‘artist stool-pigeons’: Elia Kazan, Clifford Odets, Budd Schulberg, Sterling Hayden, Lee J. Cobb. ‘That’s the problem: choice,’ Trumbo explained in a letter. ‘Not compulsion: choice’.

In the Hollywood community, 250 people were blacklisted – disrupting or destroying careers, and often lives. This was a large enough number to wipe out organised radicalism in Hollywood for the next twenty years; but it is tiny in comparison with the thousands of factory workers, miners, academics and teachers who lost their jobs during the purges of the Truman-Eisenhower era. However, the symbolic humbling of the Hollywood Ten – which began three years before Senator McCarthy became a household name – sent a clear message to the American people: membership (and ex-membership) of the Communist Party wasn’t a legitimate political affiliation, but an act of terrorism; and the judiciary could be expected to clamp down on it. The cinema-going public’s habits and feelings were nevertheless almost entirely unaffected by the threat of Communist infiltration in the industry, and it also failed to show much interest in the flood of anti-Communist pictures that followed at Richard Nixon’s behest.

To point out, as many scornful critics have done, that the blacklisted artists have been given too much importance is to miss the real point: what might have been. It’s not a coincidence that there was no social-realist tradition in this most brilliant, fertile and influential period of American cinema, that film-makers in the late 1940s and 1950s preferred to deal with notable non-issues, like middle-class delinquency and biker gangs. While politically committed realist traditions flourished in Italy, France and Britain, the trail goes dead in the USA, after a few promising efforts in the 1930s and early 1940s. Arthur Miller’s screenplay about a rank-and-file revolt by the Brooklyn longshoremen is a case in point. He wrote it as it happened: a protest organised by the American Labor Party against their corrupt union. After Columbia Pictures and the FBI had looked at it, it was shelved, before reappearing in 1954 as On the Waterfront. Scripted by Schulberg and directed by Kazan, it uses naturalistic acting, melodrama and messianic imagery to glorify Joe Doyle’s decision to testify to the ‘Crime Commission’.