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Dalton Trumbo

James Dalton Trumbo (December 9, 1905 – September 10, 1976) was an American screenwriter and novelist. As one of the Hollywood Ten, he refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947 during the committee's investigation of Communist influences in the motion picture industry. Trumbo won two Academy Awards while blacklisted; one was originally given to a front writer, and one was awarded to Robert Rich, Trumbo's pseudonym.[1][2]

Blacklisting effectively ended in 1960 when it lost credibility. Trumbo was publicly given credit for two blockbuster films: Otto Preminger made public that Trumbo wrote the screenplay for the smash hit, Exodus,[3] and Kirk Douglas publicly announced that Trumbo was the screenwriter of Spartacus.[4] Further, President-elect John F. Kennedy crossed picket lines to see the movie.[5]

His son Christopher Trumbo wrote a play based on his letters during the period of the blacklist, entitled Red, White and Blacklisted (2003), produced in New York in 2003. He adapted it as a film, adding material from documentary footage, Trumbo (2007).[6][7]

On December 19, 2011, The Writers Guild of America announced that Trumbo will get full credit for his work on the screenplay of the 1953 romantic comedy Roman Holiday, sixty years after the fact.[8][9]


Early life

Trumbo was born in Montrose, Colorado, the son of Maud (n e Tillery) and Orus Bonham Trumbo, and his family moved to Grand Junction in 1908.[10] He was proud of his paternal ancestor, a Franco-Swiss immigrant Jacob Trumbo (likely anglicized spelling), who settled in the colony of Virginia in 1736.[11] Trumbo graduated from Grand Junction High School. While still in high school, he worked as a cub reporter for the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, covering courts, the high school, the mortuary and civic organizations. He attended the University of Colorado at Boulder for two years, working as a reporter for the Boulder Daily Camera and contributing to the campus humor magazine, the yearbook and the campus newspaper. He was also a member of Delta Tau Delta International Fraternity.

For nine years after his father died, he worked the night shift wrapping bread at a Los Angeles bakery, attended USC, reviewed some movies, wrote 88 short stories and six novels that were rejected for publication.[12]


Trumbo got his professional start working for Vogue magazine.

In 1934 he became a reader in the story department at Warner Brothers studio.[12]

His first published novel, Eclipse (1935), about a town and its people, was written in the social realist style and drew on his years in Grand Junction. The book was controversial in Grand Junction and many people were unhappy with his portrayal. Years after his death, he would be honored with a statue in front of the Avalon Theater on Main Street, where he was depicted writing a screenplay in a bathtub.

He started in movies in 1937 and became one of Hollywood's highest paid writers at about $4000 per week while on assignment,[13] as much as $80,000 in one year.[12] He worked on such films as Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945), and Kitty Foyle (1940), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay.

Trumbo's 1939 anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun won one of the early National Book Awards: the Most Original Book of 1939.[14] It was inspired by an article Trumbo read several years earlier, concerning the Prince of Wales hospital visit to a Canadian soldier who had lost all his limbs in World War I.[15]

Involvement with communism

Trumbo aligned himself with the Communist Party USA before the 1940s, although he did not join the party until 1943.[13] After the outbreak of World War II in 1939, American communists argued that the United States should not get involved in the war on the side of the United Kingdom, since the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of nonaggression meant that the Soviet Union was at peace with Germany.

In 1941, Trumbo wrote a novel The Remarkable Andrew, in which, in one scene, the ghost of Andrew Jackson appears in order to caution the United States not to get involved in the war. In a review of the book, Time Magazine wrote, "General Jackson's opinions need surprise no one who has observed George Washington and Abraham Lincoln zealously following the Communist Party Line in recent years."[16]

Shortly after the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union, Trumbo and his publisher decided to suspend reprinting of Johnny Got His Gun until the end of the war. During the war, Trumbo received letters from individuals "denouncing Jews" and using Johnny to support their arguments for "an immediate negotiated peace" with Nazi Germany; Trumbo reported these correspondents to the FBI.[17] Trumbo regretted this decision, which he called "foolish". After two FBI agents showed up at his home, he understood that "their interest lay not in the letters but in me."[17]

Trumbo was a member of the Communist Party USA from 1943 until 1948.[18] The scholar Kenneth Billingsley found that Trumbo wrote The Daily Worker about films which he said communist influence in Hollywood had prevented from being made: among them were proposed adaptations of Arthur Koestler's anti-totalitarian works Darkness at Noon and The Yogi and the Commissar, which described the rise of communism in Russia.[19]


During the McCarthy Era in 1947, when US Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin claimed that the federal government and other institutions were riddled with Communists, the US House began hearings about purported communist influence in Hollywood. Trumbo, along with nine other writers and directors, was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) as an unfriendly witness to testify on the presence of communist influence in Hollywood. Trumbo and the other nine refused to give information. After conviction for contempt of Congress, he and the others were blacklisted from working in Hollywood. In 1950, Dalton served 11 months in prison as punishment for the contempt conviction, in the federal penitentiary in Ashland, Kentucky.

After Trumbo and the others were blacklisted, some Hollywood actors and directors, such as Elia Kazan and Clifford Odets, agreed to testify and to provide names of fellow communist party members to Congress. Many of those who testified were immediately ostracized and shunned by their former friends and associates.

Trumbo said in a speech given in 1970 that there was blame on all sides:

There was bad faith and good, honesty and dishonesty, courage and cowardice, selflessness and opportunism, wisdom and stupidity, good and bad on both sides; and almost every individual involved, no matter where he stood, combined some or all of these antithetical qualities in his own person, in his own acts.[7]

Later life

After completing his sentence, Trumbo could not get work in California, so he sold his ranch and his family moved to Mexico City[13] with Hugo Butler and his wife Jean Rouverol, who had also been blacklisted. He recalled earning $1750 average fee for 18 screenplays in two years and said, "None was very good."[13] In Mexico he wrote 30 scripts under pseudonyms, such as Gun Crazy (1950), based on a short story by MacKinlay Kantor, who was the front for the screenplay. It was not until 1992 that Trumbo's role was revealed.[20]

Gradually the blacklist began to be weakened. With the support of Otto Preminger, Trumbo was credited for his screenplay for the 1960 film Exodus, adapted from the novel by Leon Uris. Shortly thereafter, Kirk Douglas made public Trumbo's credit for the screenplay for Spartacus (1960),[21] an event which has been cited as the beginning of the end of the blacklist. Trumbo was reinstated in the Writers Guild of America, West, and was credited on all subsequent scripts.

In 1971, Trumbo directed the film adaptation of his novel Johnny Got His Gun, which starred Timothy Bottoms, Diane Varsi, Jason Robards and Donald Sutherland.

One of Trumbo's last films, Executive Action (1973), was based on various conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination.

His account and analysis of the Smith Act trials is entitled The Devil in the Book.

Academy Awards

He won an Oscar for The Brave One (1956), written under the name Robert Rich. In 1975, the Academy officially recognized Trumbo as the winner and presented him with a statuette.

In 1993, Trumbo was posthumously awarded the Academy Award for writing Roman Holiday (1953). The screen credit and award were previously given to Ian McLellan Hunter, who had been a "front" for Trumbo.[22]

Personal life

In 1939, Trumbo married Cleo Fincher. She was born in Fresno on July 17, 1916, and later moved with her divorced mother and her brother and sister to Los Angeles. Cleo Trumbo died of natural causes at the age of 93 on October 9, 2009, in the Bay Area city of Los Altos. At the time she was living with her eldest daughter Mitzi.[23]

They had three children: the filmmaker and screenwriter Christopher Trumbo, who became an expert on the Hollywood blacklist;[6] Melissa, known as Mitzi, a photographer; and Nikola Trumbo, a psychotherapist.[24]

In 2003, Christopher Trumbo mounted a Broadway play based on his father's letters called Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted, in which a wide variety of actors played his father during the run, including Nathan Lane, Tim Robbins, Brian Dennehy, Ed Harris, Chris Cooper and Gore Vidal. A documentary about Dalton Trumbo called Trumbo was produced in 2007 incorporating elements of the play as well as footage of Dalton Trumbo and a panoply of interviews.[25]


Dalton Trumbo died in Los Angeles of a heart attack at the age of 70 on September 10, 1976. He donated his body to science.[26]


Selected film works
  • Road Gang, 1936
  • Love Begins at 20, 1936
  • Devil's Playground, 1937
  • Fugitives for a Night, 1938
  • A Man to Remember, 1938
  • Five Came Back, 1939 (with Nathanael West and J. Cody)
  • Curtain Call, 1941
  • Bill of Divorcement, 1940
  • Kitty Foyle, 1940
  • The Remarkable Andrew, 1942
  • Tender Comrade, 1944
  • A Guy Named Joe, 1944
  • Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, 1944
  • Our Vines Have Tender Grapes, 1945
  • Gun Crazy, 1950 (co-writer, front Millard Kaufman)
  • He Ran All the Way, 1951 (co-writer, front Guy Endore)
  • The Prowler, 1951 (uncredited with Hugo Butler)
  • Roman Holiday, 1953 (front Ian McLellan Hunter)
  • They Were So Young, 1954, (pseudonym: Felix Lutzkendorf)
  • The Boss, 1956 (front: Ben L. Perry)
  • The Brave One, 1956 (front Robert Rich)
  • The Green-eyed Blonde, 1957 (front: Sally Stubblefield)
  • From the Earth to the Moon, 1958 (co-writer as front: James Leicester)
  • Cowboy (1958) (front: Edmund H. North)
  • Spartacus, 1960, dir. by Stanley Kubrick
  • Exodus, 1960 (based on Leon Uris' 1958 novel of the same name)
  • The Last Sunset, 1961
  • Lonely are the Brave, 1962
  • The Sandpiper, 1965
  • Hawaii, 1966 (based on the novel by James Michener, 1959)
  • The Fixer, 1968
  • Johnny Got His Gun, 1971 (also directed)
  • The Horsemen, 1971
  • F.T.A., 1972
  • Executive Action, 1973
  • Papillon, 1973 (based on the novel by Henri Charri re, 1969)
Novels, plays and essays
  • Eclipse, 1935
  • Washington Jitters, 1936
  • Johnny Got His Gun, 1939
  • The Remarkable Andrew, 1940 (also known as Chronicle of a Literal Man)
  • The Biggest Thief in Town, 1949 (lay)
  • The Time Out of the Toad, 1972 (essays)
  • Night of the Aurochs, 1979 (unfinished, ed. R. Kirsch)
  • Harry Bridges, 1941
  • The Time of the Toad, 1949
  • The Devil in the Book, 1956
  • Additional Dialogue: Letters of Dalton Trumbo, 1942 62, 1970 (ed. by H. Manfull)

See also

  • The Hollywood Ten, documentary
  • Trumbo, a 2007 documentary by Peter Askin based on Christopher Trumbo's stage play
  • Dalton Trumbo, biography by Bruce Cook
  • Dalton Trumbo: Hollywood Rebel, biography by Peter Hanson


Further reading

External links

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