Dalton Trumbo

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Dalton Trumbo
Dalton and Cleo Trumbo (1947 HUAC hearings).png
Trumbo with wife Cleo (and Bertolt Brecht in the background) at House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, 1947
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.
Pen name Robert Rich
Occupation Screenwriter, Writer
Spouse Cleo Beth Fincher
(1938–1976; his death)

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, and Kirk Douglas publicly announced that Trumbo was the screenwriter of Spartacus.[3][4] Further, President John F. Kennedy crossed American Legion picket lines to see the film.[5][6]

On December 19, 2011, the Writers Guild of America announced that Trumbo was given full credit for his work on the screenplay of the 1953 romantic comedy Roman Holiday, almost sixty years after the fact.[7][8]

Early life[edit]

Trumbo was born in Montrose, Colorado, the son of Maud (née Tillery) and Orus Bonham Trumbo. His family moved to Grand Junction in 1908.[9] He was proud of his paternal ancestor, a Franco-Swiss immigrant named Jacob Trumbo (possibly anglicized spelling), who settled in the colony of Virginia in 1736.[10] 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 University of Southern California, reviewed some movies, and wrote 88 short stories and six novels that were rejected for publication.[11]


Trumbo began his writing career in the early 1930s when several of his articles and stories appeared in magazines including the Saturday Evening Post, McCall's Magazine, Vanity Fair, and the Hollywood Spectator.[12] In 1934 he became managing editor of the Hollywood Spectator and subsequently left to become a reader in the story department at Warner Bros. studio.[11]

He wrote his first published novel, Eclipse (1935), about a town and its people, in the social realist style, drawing 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.[11] 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[edit]

Dalton Trumbo aligned himself with the Communist Party in the United States before the 1940s,[16] although he did not join the party until 1943.[13] Membership in the Communist Party was not illegal in the United States. In the 1930s, Communists were among the groups opposed to the rise of Fascism and National Socialism in Europe. This was perhaps most notable in the Spanish Civil War which became a proxy war: fascist Germany and Italy supported the Nationalists against both communists aligned to Stalin as well as international socialist groups not affiliated with Moscow who backed the Republicans.

The enmity between fascism and communism came to a sudden stop when the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact established a non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union. As Hitler invaded Poland to start World War II, Britain and France declared war on Germany, while Stalin split up Poland with Hitler. Moscow-backed communist parties told American communists to remain neutral, and not to urge the United States involvement in the widening war on the side of the United Kingdom.[17] This split American communists between those who held to the long-time antagonism against fascism who still desired to stop Hitler, and those who agreed with the isolationist stance. Trumbo was an isolationist; he 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 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."[18]

Shortly after the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union, Trumbo and his publisher decided to suspend reprinting of the pacifist 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.[19] 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."[19]

In a 1946 article titled "The Russian Menace" published in Rob Wagner's Script Magazine, Trumbo writes from the perspective of a post-World War II Russian Citizen.[20] He argued that Russians were likely fearful of the mass of US military power that surrounded them on all sides at a time when any sympathetic view towards communist countries was viewed with suspicion.[21] He ends the articles 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."[20] His argument that the US was a "menace" to Russia, rather than the more popular American view of Russia as the "red menace", did little to help Trumbo eleven months later when he would be called to explain himself to the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Trumbo was a member of the Communist Party from 1943 until 1948.[22] The scholar Kenneth Billingsley found that Trumbo wrote in 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.[23]


Main article: Hollywood blacklist

In October 1947, drawing upon a list of names that had appeared in the Hollywood Reporter, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) summoned a number of persons working in the Hollywood film industry to testify. The committee had declared its intention to investigate whether Communist agents and sympathizers had been surreptitiously planting propaganda in U.S. films. Trumbo was one of ten people called. He and the other nine refused to give information. After conviction for contempt of Congress, Trumbo and the others were blacklisted from working in Hollywood by the heads of the major studios. In 1950, Trumbo served eleven 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 Communist party members to Congress.

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.[24]

Later life[edit]

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 eighteen screenplays in two years and said, "None was very good."[13] In Mexico he wrote thirty scripts under pseudonyms. In the case of Gun Crazy (1950), based on a short story by MacKinlay Kantor, the author was the front for Trumbo's screenplay. It was not until 1992 that Trumbo's role was revealed.[25]

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),[26] 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, including assigning full credit in 2011 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 Trumbo's last films, Executive Action (1973), was based on the facts surrounding the Kennedy assassination.[27]

The Devil in the Book (1956) was Trumbo's analysis about the conviction of fourteen California Smith Act defendants;[28] 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.

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, Trumbo (2007),[24][29] adding material from documentary footage.

Academy Awards[edit]

Trumbo won an Oscar for The Brave One (1956), written under the name Robert Rich. The source of this pseudonym was revealed by his son, in his documentary film Trumbo, as a nephew of the producers of The Brave One - the King brothers. 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.[30] This was actually the second Oscar made for this category win as Hunter’s son refused to hand over his father’s Oscar.[31]

Personal life[edit]

In 1938, 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.[32]

They had three children: the filmmaker and screenwriter Christopher Trumbo, who became an expert on the Hollywood blacklist;[29] Melissa, known as Mitzi, a photographer; and Nikola Trumbo, a psychotherapist.[33]

His daughter Mitzi dated comedian Steve Martin when they were both in their early 20s, which is recounted in Steve Martin's 2007 book Born Standing Up. Many of Martin's early promotional photographs were taken by Trumbo.[clarification needed][citation needed]


Trumbo died in Los Angeles of a heart attack at the age of 70 on September 10, 1976. He donated his body to science.[3]


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.[34]

The film Trumbo, based on his life, was released in November 2015. It starred Bryan Cranston as Trumbo and was directed by Jay Roach.[35]


Selected film works
Novels, plays and essays
  • 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[edit]

  • 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


  1. ^ AMPAS Press Release at the Wayback Machine (archived October 8, 2007)
  2. ^ AMPAS Oscar Trivia
  3. ^ a b 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 ... 
  4. ^ Harvey, Steve (September 10, 1976). "Dalton Trumbo Dies at 70, One of the 'Hollywood 10'". Los Angeles Times. p. 1. He recalled how his name returned to the screen in 1960 with the help of Spartacus star Kirk Douglas: 'I had been working on Spartacus for about a year ... 
  5. ^ Schwartz, Richard A. "How the Film and Television Blacklists Worked". Florida International University. Retrieved December 15, 2011. 
  6. ^ "Kennedy Attends Movie in Capital". New York Times. 1961-02-04. Retrieved January 20, 2012. 
  7. ^ 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. 
  8. ^ Verrier, Richard (December 19, 2011). "Writers Guild restores screenplay credit to Trumbo for 'Roman Holiday'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 20, 2011. 
  9. ^ Peter Hanson, Dalton Trumbo, Hollywood Rebel: A Critical Survey and Filmography, McFarland, 2007, p. 12
  10. ^ Additional Dialogue; Letters of Dalton Trumbo, 1942-1962, edited by M. Evans, Lippincott, 1970, footnote #10, p. 26
  11. ^ a b c Well, Martin (September 9, 1976). "Dalton Trumbo, 70, Dies: Blacklisted Screenwriter". Washington Post.  .
  12. ^ "Dalton Trumbo". Spartacus Educational. Spartacus Educational. Retrieved November 16, 2013. 
  13. ^ a b c d Nordheimer 1976.
  14. ^ "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).
  15. ^ Sparknotes.com. Retrieved December 4, 2010.
  16. ^ "Coulter and Her Critics | Human Events". humanevents.com. Retrieved September 29, 2015. 
  17. ^ Fraser Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States from the Depression to World War II, Rutgers University Press, 1991, p.135.
  18. ^ Counsel from Hollywood, Time Magazine, February 3, 1941
  19. ^ a b Dalton Trumbo. Johnny Got His Gun. Citadel Press, 2000, pg 5, introduction
  20. ^ a b Trumbo, Dalton (May 26, 1946). "The Russia Menace". OldMagazineArticles. Com. Script Magazine. Retrieved November 16, 2013. 
  21. ^ Trumbo, Dalton (May 26, 1946). "The Russia Menace". OldMagazineArticles.com. Script Magazine. Retrieved November 16, 2013. 
  22. ^ Victor Navasky, Naming Names, New York: Viking, 2003
  23. ^ Kenneth Billingsley, "Hollywood's Missing Movies: Why American films have ignored life under communism", Reason Magazine, June 2000
  24. ^ a b Cieply, Michael (September 11, 2007). "A Voice From the Blacklist: Documentary Lets Dalton Trumbo Speak (Through Surrogates)". New York Times. Retrieved December 15, 2011. 
  25. ^ John Apostolou, "MacKinlay Kantor", The Armchair Detective, Spring 1997, republished on Mystery File, accessed October 17, 2010.
  26. ^ Trumbo (2007) at the Internet Movie Database Retrieved April 25, 2010.
  27. ^ Steve Jaffe, technical adviser|Warner Bros. publications |"Executive Action" (1973)
  28. ^ Liukkonen, Petri. "Dalton Trumbo". Books and Writers (kirjasto.sci.fi). Finland: Kuusankoski Public Library. Archived from the original on February 10, 2015. 
  29. ^ a b 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. ^ "Great To Be Nominated" Enjoys a "Roman Holiday" AMPAS
  31. ^ "Ian McLellan Hunter"
  32. ^ McLellan, Dennis (October 18, 2009). "Cleo Trumbo dies at 93; wife of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo". Los Angeles Times. 
  33. ^ Michael Cieply (2007-09-11). "A Voice From the Blacklist: Documentary Lets Dalton Trumbo Speak". The New York Times (New York). Retrieved January 4, 2008. 
  34. ^ "Son Of Blacklisted Hollywood Writer Trumbo Dies" (Jan. 12, 2011) KTVU.com. Retrieved December 1, 2011.
  35. ^ "'Trumbo's' Dean O'Gorman plays Kirk Douglas and earns praise from the legend", Los Angeles Times, Oct. 30, 2015

Further reading[edit]

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