Dalton Trumbo

Dalton Trumbo

Born James Dalton Trumbo
(1905-12-09)December 9, 1905
Montrose, Colorado, U.S.
Died September 10, 1976(1976-09-10) (aged 70)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Occupation Screenwriter
Spouse Cleo Beth Fincher
(1938–1976; his death)

James Dalton Trumbo (December 9, 1905 – September 10, 1976) was an American screenwriter and novelist, who scripted films including Roman Holiday, Exodus, Spartacus, and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. 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. He was subsequently blacklisted by that industry. He continued working clandestinely, producing work under other authors' names. His uncredited work won two Academy Awards; the one for Roman Holiday (1953) was given to a front writer, and the one for The Brave One (1956) was awarded to a pseudonym.[1][2] The public crediting of him as the writer of both Exodus and Spartacus in 1960 marked the end of the Hollywood Blacklist.[3] His earlier achievements were eventually credited to him by the Writers Guild, 60 years after the fact.[4][5]

Early life

Trumbo was born in Montrose, Colorado, the son of Maud (née Tillery) and Orus Bonham Trumbo. His family moved to Grand Junction in 1908.[6] He was proud of his paternal immigrant ancestor, a Protestant Swiss man named Jacob Trumbo, who settled in the colony of Virginia in 1736.[7] 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, Trumbo worked the night shift wrapping bread at a Los Angeles bakery, and attended the University of Southern California. At the same time, he wrote movie reviews, 88 short stories and six novels, all of which were rejected for publication.[8]


Early career

Trumbo began his professional writing career in the early 1930s, when several of his articles and stories were published in mainstream magazines, including the Saturday Evening Post, McCall's Magazine, Vanity Fair, and the Hollywood Spectator.[9] In 1934 Trumbo was hired as managing editor of the Hollywood Spectator. Later he left the magazine to become a reader in the story department at Warner Bros. studio.[8]

His first published novel was Eclipse (1935), released during the Great Depression. Writing in the social realist style, Trumbo drew on his years in Grand Junction to portray a town and its people. The book was controversial in his home town, where many people took issue with his fictional portrayal. But years after his death, Trumbo was honored by installation of a statue of him in front of the Avalon Theater on Main Street, where he was depicted writing a screenplay in a bathtub.[10] Trumbo started working in movies in 1937 but continued writing prose. His anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun won one of the early National Book Awards: the Most Original Book of 1939.[11] It was inspired by an article Trumbo had read several years earlier, an account of a hospital visit by the Prince of Wales to a Canadian soldier who had lost all his limbs in World War I.[12]

During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Trumbo became one of Hollywood's highest-paid screenwriters, at about $4000 per week while on assignment,[13] and earning as much as $80,000 in one year.[8] 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.

Political advocacy and blacklisting

Main article: Hollywood blacklist

Trumbo aligned with the Communist Party in the United States before the 1940s, although he did not join the party until 1943.[14][13][15] He was an isolationist. His novel The Remarkable Andrew, featured the ghost of President Andrew Jackson appearing in order to caution the United States against getting involved in World War II. In a review of the book, Time Magazine wise-cracked, "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 German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Trumbo and his publisher decided to suspend reprinting 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]

In a 1946 article titled "The Russian Menace" published in Rob Wagner's Script Magazine, Trumbo wrote from the perspective of a post-World War II Russian citizen.[18] He argued that Russians were likely fearful of the mass of U.S. military power that surrounded them, at a time when any sympathetic view toward communist countries was viewed with suspicion.[18] He ended the article by stating, "If I were a Russian...I would be alarmed, and I would petition my government to take measures at once against what would seem an almost certain blow aimed at my existence. This is how it must appear in Russia today".[18] He argued that the U.S. was a "menace" to Russia, rather than the more popular American view of Russia as the "red menace". According to anti-communist author Kenneth Billingsley in 2000, Trumbo had written in The Daily Worker that communist influence in Hollywood had prevented films from being made from anti-communist books, such as Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon and The Yogi and the Commissar.[19]

On July 29, 1946, William R. Wilkerson, publisher and founder of The Hollywood Reporter published a "TradeView" column entitled "A Vote For Joe Stalin". It named Trumbo and several others as Communist sympathizers, the first persons identified on what became known as "Billy's Blacklist".[20][21] In October 1947, drawing upon these names, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) summoned Trumbo and nine others to testify for their investigation as to whether Communist agents and sympathizers had surreptitiously planted propaganda in U.S. films. The writers refused to give information about their own or any other person's involvement and were convicted for contempt of Congress. They appealed the conviction to the Supreme Court on First Amendment grounds and lost. In 1950, Trumbo served eleven months in the federal penitentiary in Ashland, Kentucky. In the 1976 documentary Hollywood On Trial, Trumbo said "As far as I was concerned, it was a completely just verdict. I had contempt for that Congress and have had contempt for several since. And on the basis of guilt or innocence, I could never really complain very much. That this was a crime or misdemeanor was the complaint, my complaint."[22]

Meanwhile, the MPAA had issued a statement that Trumbo and his compatriots would not be permitted to work in the industry, unless they disavowed Communism under oath. After completing his sentence, Trumbo sold his ranch and moved with his family to Mexico City with Hugo Butler and his wife Jean Rouverol, who had also been blacklisted.[13] In Mexico Trumbo wrote thirty scripts under pseudonyms, for B-movie studios such as King Brothers Productions. In the case of Gun Crazy (1950), adapted from a short story by MacKinlay Kantor, Kantor agreed to be the front for Trumbo's screenplay. Trumbo's role in the screenplay was not revealed until 1992.[23]

During this blacklist period, Trumbo also wrote The Brave One (1956) for King Brothers; it received an Academy Award for Best Story credited to Robert Rich, a name borrowed from a nephew of the producers. Trumbo recalled earning an average fee of $1,750 per film for a total of eighteen screenplays written in two years and said, "None was very good".[13]

In 1956 he published The Devil in the Book, an analysis of the conviction of fourteen California Smith Act defendants.[24] The statute set criminal penalties for advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government and required all non-citizen adult residents to register with the government.

Later career

Gradually the blacklist weakened; with the support of director Otto Preminger, Trumbo was credited for his screenplay for the 1960 film Exodus, which he adapted from the novel of the same name by Leon Uris. Shortly thereafter, actor Kirk Douglas announced that Trumbo had written the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick's film Spartacus (1960) starring Douglas.[25] With this action, Douglas helped end the power of the blacklist. Trumbo was reinstated into the Writers Guild of America, West and was credited on all subsequent scripts. Eventually in 2011, the Guild gave him full credit for the script of Roman Holiday. 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 the last films Trumbo wrote, Executive Action (1973), was based on the Kennedy assassination.[26] In 1975, the Academy officially recognized Trumbo as the winner of the Oscar for The Brave One and presented him with a statuette.

Personal life

In 1938, Trumbo married Cleo Fincher. She was born in Fresno on July 17, 1916, and 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 Los Altos. At the time she was living with her younger daughter Mitzi.[27][28] The Trumbos had three children: the filmmaker and screenwriter Christopher Trumbo, who became an expert on the Hollywood blacklist; Melissa, known as Mitzi, a photographer; and Nikola Trumbo, a psychotherapist.[29][30] His daughter Mitzi dated comedian Steve Martin when they were both in their early 20s, which is recounted in Martin's 2007 book Born Standing Up. Many of Martin's early promotional photographs were taken by Trumbo.

Death and legacy

Trumbo died in Los Angeles of a heart attack at the age of 70 on September 10, 1976. He donated his body to scientific research.[31]

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.[32] A new statue was made for this award because Hunter's son refused to hand over the one his father had received.[33]

In 2003, Christopher Trumbo mounted an Off-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. He adapted it as the film Trumbo (2007),[29][34] which added documentary footage and new interviews.[35]

A dramatization of Trumbo's life, also called Trumbo, was released in November 2015.[36] It starred Bryan Cranston as the screenwriter and was directed by Jay Roach.[37] For his portrayal of Trumbo, Cranston was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor at the 88th Academy Awards, but lost to Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant.

The moving image collection of Trumbo is held at the Academy Film Archive and consists primarily of extensive 35mm production materials relating to the 1971 anti-war film Johnny Got His Gun.[38]


Selected film works
Novels, plays and essays


  1. "AMPAS Press Release". Archived from the original on October 8, 2007. Retrieved March 20, 2008.
  2. AMPAS Oscar Trivia
  3. Rapold, Nicolas (4 November 2015). "'Trumbo' Recalls the Hunters and the Hunted of Hollywood". Retrieved 22 December 2015.
  4. Cheryl Devall, Paige Osburn (December 19, 2011). "Blacklisted writer gets credit restored after 60 years for Oscar-winning film". 89.3 KPCC. Retrieved December 20, 2011.
  5. Verrier, Richard (December 19, 2011). "Writers Guild restores screenplay credit to Trumbo for 'Roman Holiday'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 20, 2011.
  6. Peter Hanson, Dalton Trumbo, Hollywood Rebel: A Critical Survey and Filmography, McFarland, 2007, p. 12
  7. Additional Dialogue; Letters of Dalton Trumbo, 1942-1962, edited by M. Evans, Lippincott, 1970, footnote #10, p. 26
  8. 1 2 3 Well, Martin (September 9, 1976). "Dalton Trumbo, 70, Dies: Blacklisted Screenwriter". Washington Post. .
  9. "Dalton Trumbo". Spartacus Educational. Spartacus Educational. Retrieved November 16, 2013.
  10. "Dalton Trumbo: Grand Junction's blacklisted hometown hero". Colorado Life Magazine. Retrieved March 14, 2016.
  11. "1939 Book Awards Given by Critics: Elgin Groseclose's 'Ararat' is Picked ...", The New York Times, 1940-02-14, page 25. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851–2007).
  12. Sparknotes.com. Retrieved December 4, 2010.
  13. 1 2 3 4 Nordheimer 1976.
  14. "Coulter and Her Critics | Human Events". humanevents.com. Retrieved September 29, 2015.
  15. Victor Navasky, Naming Names, New York: Viking, 2003
  16. Counsel from Hollywood, Time Magazine, February 3, 1941
  17. 1 2 Dalton Trumbo. Johnny Got His Gun. Citadel Press, 2000, pg 5, introduction
  18. 1 2 3 Trumbo, Dalton (May 26, 1946). "The Russian Menace". Old Magazine Articles. Script Magazine. Retrieved November 16, 2013.
  19. Kenneth Billingsley, "Hollywood's Missing Movies: Why American films have ignored life under communism", Reason Magazine, June 2000
  20. Wilkerson, William (July 29, 1946). "A Vote For Joe Stalin". The Hollywood Reporter. p. 1.
  21. Baum, Gary; Miller, Daniel (November 30, 2012). "Blacklist: THR Addresses Role After 65 Years". Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 20 November 2012.
  22. Ceplair, Larry. "Dalton Trumbo". University Press of Kentucky. p. 228. Retrieved December 15, 2015.
  23. John Apostolou, "MacKinlay Kantor", The Armchair Detective, Spring 1997, republished on Mystery File, accessed October 17, 2010.
  24. Liukkonen, Petri. "Dalton Trumbo". Books and Writers (kirjasto.sci.fi). Finland: Kuusankoski Public Library. Archived from the original on February 10, 2015.
  25. Trumbo (2007) at the Internet Movie Database Retrieved April 25, 2010.
  26. Steve Jaffe, technical adviser|Warner Bros. publications |"Executive Action" (1973)
  27. Personal friend
  28. McLellan, Dennis (October 18, 2009). "Cleo Trumbo dies at 93; wife of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo". Los Angeles Times.
  29. 1 2 McLellan, Dennis (January 12, 2011). "Christopher Trumbo dies at 70; screen and TV writer whose father was blacklisted". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 15, 2011.
  30. Michael Cieply (September 11, 2007). "A Voice From the Blacklist: Documentary Lets Dalton Trumbo Speak". The New York Times. New York. Retrieved January 4, 2008.
  31. Nordheimer, Jon (September 11, 1976). "Dalton Trumbo, Film Writer, Dies. Oscar Winner Had Been Blacklisted". New York Times. Retrieved June 18, 2008. Dalton Trumbo, the Hollywood screen writer who was perhaps the most famous member of the blacklisted film industry authors called 'the Hollywood Ten,' died of a heart attack early today at his home here. He was 70 years old. He donated his body to science. ... it was Otto Preminger, the director, who broke the blacklist months later by publicly announcing that he had hired Mr. Trumbo to do the screenplay ...
  32. "Great To Be Nominated" Enjoys a "Roman Holiday" AMPAS
  33. The Television Horrors of Dan Curtis: Dark Shadows, The Night Stalker and Other Productions, 1966-2006; Jeff Thompson; McFarland Publishing, 2009; Pg. 90
  34. Cieply, Michael (September 11, 2007). "A Voice From the Blacklist: Documentary Lets Dalton Trumbo Speak (Through Surrogates)". New York Times. Retrieved December 15, 2011.
  35. "Son Of Blacklisted Hollywood Writer Trumbo Dies" (January 12, 2011) KTVU.com. Retrieved December 1, 2011.
  36. Podgorski, Daniel (December 10, 2015). "History Less Exaggerated: The Excellent Subtlety of the Acting and History in Jay Roach's Trumbo". The Gemsbok. Retrieved November 29, 2016.
  37. "'Trumbo's' Dean O'Gorman plays Kirk Douglas and earns praise from the legend", Los Angeles Times, October 30, 2015
  38. "Dalton Trumbo Collection". Academy Film Archive.

Further reading

External links

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