Dalton Trumbo, the Oscar-winning screenwriter, arguably the most talented, most famous of the blacklisted film professionals known to history as the Hollywood 10, was born in Montrose, Colorado to Orus Trumbo and his wife, the former Maud Tillery.
Dalton Trumbo was raised at 1124 Gunnison Ave. in Grand Junction, Colorado, where his parents moved in 1908. His father, Orus, worked in a shoe store. Dalton, the first child and only son, was later joined by sisters Catharine and Elizabeth. The young Dalton peddled the produce from his father’s vegetable garden around town and had a paper route. While attending Grand Junction High School (Class of 1924), he worked at The Daily Sentinel as a cub reporter. Of his early politics, a much older Dalton Trumbo told how he asked his father for five dollars so he could join the Ku Klux Klan, a mass organization after the First World War. He didn’t get the five dollars.
While at university, he realized that his calling was as a writer. He worked on the school’s newspaper, humor magazine and yearbook, while also toiling for the Boulder Daily Camera. He left school his first year to follow his family to Los Angeles. The family moved due to financial difficulties after his father had been terminated by the shoe company. In L.A., Dalton enrolled at the University of Southern California but was unable to complete enough credits for a degree. Orus Trumbo died of pernicious anemia in 1926, and Dalton had to take a job to become the breadwinner for his widowed mother and two younger sisters. Dalton Trumbo took on whatever jobs were available, including repossessing motorcycles and bootlegging, which he quit because it was too dangerous. Eventually, Trumbo took a job at the Davis Perfection Bakery on the night shift and remained for nearly a decade. Trumbo continued to write, mostly short stories, becoming more and more anxious and eventually desperate to leave the bakery, fearing that he would never achieve his destiny of becoming an important writer. During this time, he sold several short stories, written his first novel and worked for the “Hollywood Spectator” as a writer, critic and editor. His work also appeared in “Vanity Fair” and “Vogue” magazines. Trumbo’s first novel, “Eclipse” (1934), was set in fictional Shale City, Colorado (a thinly veiled Grand Junction) during the 1920s and 1930s, with characters who resembled notable community members. One of its main characters, John Abbott, is modeled after Trumbo’s father. Dalton had tried, perhaps unfairly he admitted later, to avenge his father on the town where he had failed.
In 1934, Warner Bros. hired Trumbo as a reader, a job that entailed reading and summarizing plays and novels and advising whether they might be adapted into movies. It lead to a contract as a junior screenwriter at its B-pictures unit. In 1936, the same year he of his first screen credit for the B-move Road Gang (1936), Trumbo met his future soulmate Cleo Fincher and they married two years later. Daughter Nikola was born in 1939 and son Christopher in 1940. A daughter was added, Mitzi, the baby of the family.
He wrote the story for Columbia’s Canadian-made Tugboat Princess (1936), clearly influenced by Captain January (1936), which had been made into a silent in 1924 before being remade with superstar Shirley Temple, substituting a tugboat in the original with a lighthouse. His screenplays for such films as Devil’s Playground (1937) showed some concern for the plight of the disenfranchised, but the Great Depression still existed, and social commentary was inevitable in all but fantasies and musicals.
After leaving Warners, he worked for Columbia, Paramount, 20th Century-Fox, and beginning in 1937, M.G.M., the studio for which he would do some of his best work in the 1940s. By the late 1930s, he had worked himself up to better assignments, primarily for RKO (though he returned to Warners for The Kid from Kokomo (1939)), and was working on A-list pictures by the turn of the decade. He won his first Oscar nod for RKO’s Kitty Foyle (1940), for which Ginger Rogers won the Academy Award for best actress as a girl from a poor family who claws her way into the upper middle class via a failed marriage to a Main Line Philadelphia swell.
By the time of America’s entry into World War II, Trumbo was one of the most respected, highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood. He had also established a name for himself as a left-wing political activist whose sympathies coincided with those of the American Communist Party (CPUSA), which hewed to the line set by Moscow.
Trumbo was part of the anti-fascist Popular Front coalition of communists and liberals in the late 1930s, at the time of the Spanish Civil War. The Popular Front against Nazism and Fascism was been torn asunder in August 1939 when the USSR signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. Many party members quit the CPUSA in disgust, but the true believers parroted the party line, which was now pro-peace and against US involvement in WWII.
Trumbo reportedly did not join the Party until 1943 and harbored personal reservations about its policies as regards enforcing ideological conformity. However, the publication of his anti-war novel “Johnny Got His Gun” in 1939 coincided with the shift of the CPUSA’s stance from anti-Hitler to pro-peace, and his novel was embraced by the Party as the type of literature needed to keep the US out of the war. Trumbo agreed with the Party’s pro-peace platform. The book, about a wounded World War One vet who has lost his limbs, won the American Book Sellers Award (the precursor to the National Book Award) in 1939. In a speech made in February 1940, four months before the Nazi blitzkrieg knocked France out of the war, Trumbo said, “If they say to us, ‘We must fight this war to preserve democracy,’ let us say to them, ‘There is no such thing as democracy in time of war. It is a lie, a deliberate deception to lead us to our own destruction. We will not die in order that our children may inherit a permanent military dictatorship.'”
His speech was a rebuke to New Deal liberals. The Party began demonizing President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who hated Hitler and was pro-British, as a war-monger. The Party ordered its members to henceforth be pro-peace and anti-FDR in their work and statements. In June 1941, after Nazi Germany invaded the USSR, the CPUSA shifted gears to become pro-war, supportive of FDR’s aggressive behavior towards Nazi Germany.
Shortly after the German invasion, Trumbo instructed his publisher to recall all copies of “Johnny Got His Gun” and to cease publication of the book. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the German declaration of war against the U.S. catapulted the U.S. into both the Asian and European theaters of World War II, the book – always popular with peace-lovers and isolationists who opposed America’s involvement in foreign wars – suddenly became popular among native fascists, too. However, it proved hard to get a copy of the book during the war years.
Trumbo joined the CPUSA in 1943, the same year Victor Fleming’s great patriotic war movie A Guy Named Joe (1943), with a Trumbo screenplay, appeared on screens. In 1944, Original Story was a separate Oscar category and David Boehm and Chandler Sprague were nominated in that category for an Academy Award. Trumbo’s screenplay was overlooked. Like other communist screenwriters, he proved to be an enthusiastic writer of pro-war propaganda, though except for the notorious pro-Stalin Mission to Moscow (1943), few films displayed any overt communist ideas or propaganda. One that did was Tender Comrade (1943) , which Trumbo wrote as a Ginger Rogers vehicle for RKO. Directed by his future Hollywood 10 comrade Edward Dmytryk, it depicted a mild form of socialism and collectivization among women working in the defense industry. He also wrote the patriotic classic Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) for M.G.M., which was based on the Doolittle Raid of 1942.
Trumbo voluntarily invited FBI agents to his house in 1944 and showed them letters he had received from what he perceived were pro-fascist peaceniks who had requested copies of “Johnny Got His Gun”, then out-of-print due to Trumbo’s orders to his publisher. He turned those letters over to the FBI and later kept in contact with the Bureau, a fact that would later haunt blacklisted leftists, urging that the F.B.I. deal with them. His actions conformed to the CPUSA policy of denouncing anyone who opposed the war.
In 1945, the last year of the war, MGM released the Margaret O’Brien / Edward G. Robinson vehicle, Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945), penned by Trumbo. Robinson was a future member of the Hollywood “gray-list” with those, like Henry Fonda who were suspected of leftist sympathies or for being Fellow Travelers, but who could not be officially blacklisted. Drawing on his own rural childhood, it was a picture of a young girl’s life on a farm in rural Wisconsin. The year 1945 was crucial for Trumbo and other Hollywood party members in terms of the CPUSA’s desire to have their work reflect the party’s ideological agenda.
HCUA was originally created in 1934 as the Special Committee on Un-American Activities to look into the activities of fascist and pro-Nazi organizations. Then popularly known as the McCormack-Dickstein Committee, the Special Committee on Un-American Activities exposed fascist organizations, including a planned coup d’etat against President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the so-called Business Plot. Later on, it became known as the House Un-American Activities Committee or the Dies Committee after the new chairman, Martin Dies. HCUA originally was tasked with investigating the involvement of German Americans with the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.
HCUA became a standing committee in 1946, still tasked with investigating suspected threats of subversion or propaganda that attacked “the form of government guaranteed by our Constitution.” The focus was solely on the communists and their allies, so-called Fellow Travelers who made common cause with communists during the War Years. Fellow Travelers was a loose term that seemed to embrace many liberal FDR New Deal Democrats.
HCUA subpoenaed suspected communists in the entertainment industry. Trumbo’s screenplay for Tender Comrade (1943), which concerned three Army wives who pool their resources while their husbands are away fighting was denounced as communist propaganda. However, writer-producer James Kevin McGuinness, a conservative who was a friendly witness before HCUA, testified that left-wing screenwriters did not inject propaganda into their movie scripts during World War II. McGuiness testified “[The movie industry] profited from reverse lend-lease because during the [war] the Communist and Communist-inclined writers in the motion picture industry were given leave of absence to be patriotic. During that time…under my general supervision Dalton Trumbo wrote two magnificent patriotic scripts, A Guy Named Joe (1943) and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944).”
Appearing before HCUA in October 1947 with Alvah Bessie, Herbert J. Biberman, Lester Cole, John Howard Lawson, ‘Ring Lardner Jr’ , Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, and Samuel Ornitz, Trumbo – like the others – refused to answer any questions. In a defense strategy crafted by CPUSA lawyers, the soon-to-be-known-as “Hollywood 10” claimed that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave them the right to refuse to answer inquiries into their political beliefs as well as their professional associations. One line of questioning of HCUA was to ask if the subpoenaed witnesses were members of the Screen Writers Guild in order to smear the SWG. It was a gambit played by the Committee as it knew that which of the 10 were in the unions, and it knew which were communist. As Arthur Miller has pointed out, HCUA left the Broadway theater alone, despite the fact that there were communists working in it, because no one outside of the Northeastern U.S. really cared about theater or knew who theatrical professionals were, and thus, it could not generate the publicity that HCUA members craved and courted through their hearings.
HCUA cited them for contempt of Congress, and the Hollywood 10 were tried and convicted on the charge. All were fined and jailed, with Trumbo being sentenced to a year in federal prison and a fine of $1,000. He served 10 months of the sentence. The Hollywood 10 were blacklisted by the Hollywood studios, a blacklist enforced by the very guilds they helped create. Trumbo and the other Hollywood 10 screenwriters were kicked out of the Screen Writers Guild (John Howard Lawson had been one of the founders of the SWG and its first president), which meant, even if they weren’t blacklisted, they could not obtain work in Hollywood. Those who continued to write for the American cinema had to do so under assumed names or by using a “front”, a screenwriter who would take credit for their work and pass on all or some of the fee to the blacklisted writer. Later, as one of the Hollywood Ten, Trumbo claimed for himself the mantle of “Martyr for Freedom of Speech” and attacked, as rats, those who became informers for HCUA by naming names. In 1949, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., wrote in The Saturday Review of Books, that Trumbo was in fact NOT a free speech martyr since he would not fight for freedom of speech for ALL the people, such as right-wing conservatives, but only for the freedom of speech of CPUSA members. The anti-communist Schlesinger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard historian, thought Trumbo and others like him were doctrinaire communists and hypocrites. In response, Trumbo wrote a scathing letter to The Saturday Review to defend himself, characterizing himself as a paladin championing free speech for all Americans under the aegis of the First Amendment, which the Hollywood 10 claimed gave them the right to refuse to cooperate with HCUA.
After his blacklisting and failure of the Hollywood 10’s appeals, the Trumbo family exiled themselves to Mexico. In Mexico, chain-smoking in the bathtub in which he always wrote, usually with a parrot given to him by ‘Kirk Douglas’ perched on his shoulder, Trumbo wrote approximately thirty scripts under pseudonyms and using fronts who relayed the money to him. His works included the film noir classic Gun Crazy (1950) (AKA Gun Crazy), co-written under the pseudonym Millard Kaufman, Oscar-winning Roman Holiday (1953) (with screenwriter Ian McLellan Hunter as a front), and The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955) for director Otto Preminger and upon which blacklisted Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Wilson also worked).
At the 1957 Academy Awards, Robert Rich won the Oscar for best original story of 1956 for The Brave One (1956). Rich was not present to accept the award, which was accepted on his behalf by Jesse Lasky Jr. of the Screen Writers Guild. When journalists began digging in to the background of the phantom Mr. Rich, they found out he was the nephew of a producer. Suspicion then arose that Rich was a pseudonym for the blacklisted Trumbo.
Though Hollywood has always been inundated with writers, Trumbo, even while blacklisted, was prized as a good writer who was fast, reliable and could write in many genres. Despite being a communist, Trumbo’s favorite themes were more in the vein of populism than Marxism. Trumbo celebrated the individual rebelling against the powers that be.
With rumors circulating that Trumbo had written the Oscar-winning The Brave One (1956), it triggered a discussion in the industry about the propriety of the blacklist, since so many screenplays were being written by blacklisted individuals who were being denied screen credit. The blacklist only worked to suppress the prices of screenplays by these talented writers. In 1958, Pierre Boulle won the Oscar for the screenplay adapted from his novel The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), which was unusual since Boulle could not speak nor write in English, which may have been the reason he did not attend the awards ceremony to pick up the Oscar in person. It was immediately realized that the screenplay had likely been written by a blacklisted screenwriter. It was – Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman.
Kirk Douglas hired Trumbo to write the script for Spartacus in 1958. In the summer of 1959 Otto Preminger hired Trumbo to write the script for Exodus. On January 20, 1960, the New York Times carried the story that Otto Preminger had hired Dalton Trumbo to write the script for Exodus, and that he would start shooting in April. On August 8, of the same year Kirk Douglas announced in Variety that Trumbo had written the script for Spartacus. Both pictures opened in the winter of 1960.
Trumbo wrote many more screenplays for A-list films, including Lonely Are the Brave (1962), The Sandpiper (1965), Hawaii (1966) , and _Fixer, The (1968). In 1970, he was awarded the Laurel Award for lifetime achievement by the Screen Writers Guild. He made a famous speech that many saw as a reconciliation of the two sides of fight. In 1971, he wrote and directed the movie adaptation of his famous anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun (1971). His last screenwriting credit on a feature film was for Papillon (1973), in which he also had a cameo role.
A six-pack-a-day smoker, he developed lung cancer in 1973. Two years later, the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (which had supported the black list), Walter Mirisch, personally delivered a belated Oscar to Trumbo for his The Brave One (1956) script, now officially recognized by AMPAS as his creation. Eighteen years later, AMPAS would award him a posthumous Oscar for Roman Holiday (1953).
Dalton Trumbo died from a heart attack in California on September 10, 1976. At his memorial service, Ring Lardner Jr., his close friend and fellow Hollywood 10 member, delivered an amusing eulogy. “At rare intervals, there appears among us a person whose virtues are so manifest to all, who has such a capacity for relating to every sort of human being, who so subordinates his own ego drive to the concerns of others, who lives his whole life in such harmony with the surrounding community that he is revered and loved by everyone with whom he comes in contact. Such a man Dalton Trumbo was not.”