Dalton Trumbo, novelist and prolific screenwriter for nearly forty years from the 1930s, is to return to the public consciousness as a biopic of his life hits UK screens. Despite being an Oscar winner and the man behind such Hollywood classics as Roman Holiday and The Brave One, Trumbo is perhaps most interesting – and notorious – for his refusal to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee when they were investigating Communist influences in the motion picture industry in 1947. Convicted for contempt of Congress as one of the infamous ‘Hollywood Ten’ (all screenwriters, directors and/or producers guilty of the same ‘crime’), Trumbo served time in prison and was blocked from working in Hollywood again due to his position on the Motion Picture Association of America’s Blacklist. Trumbo, however, refused to be crushed by the weight of Hollywood’s – and America’s – communist paranoia and would go on to spend a decade writing screenplays under pseudonyms and using ‘front’ writers, before effectively ending the Blacklist and its grasp on Hollywood with his first public credits in 15 years in 1960.
Trumbo was born in Colorado in 1905. Whilst in high school, Trumbo discovered his flair for writing and worked as a cub reporter for the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. He was then forced to leave the University of Colorado Boulder after his father lost his job and the family moved to Los Angeles. Enrolling at the University of Southern California, Trumbo was unable to gain enough credits to graduate after his father died and he was forced to become the family’s main breadwinner. For the next nine years, Trumbo worked the night shift at a bakery, after an alleged spell of time spent bootlegging, all the while writing dozens of short stories, articles and even novels. Despite not joining the Communist Party in America until 1943, Trumbo supported many of its views for several years before then, which can be seen in the topics and viewpoints of his writing.
After some success, with pieces appearing in magazines such as Vanity Fair, Trumbo became Managing Editor of the Hollywood Spectator in 1934, and then left shortly afterwards to become a reader in the story department at Warner Bros. Trumbo’s first novel, Eclipse, was published in 1935 and his anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun received an early version of the US National Book Award – it was named ‘Most Original Book of 1939’. He also began writing and contributing to well-received screenplays such as A Bill of Divorcement, Kitty Foyle (for which he received his first Oscar nomination), A Guy Named Joe, Tender Comrade and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.
It was his other output in these years, however, which aroused the unwanted suspicions of the FBI. His 1941 novel The Remarkable Andrew, in which the ghost of a former US President warns the US to not involve itself in World War Two, received unwelcome interest from anti-Semitic Americans, keen to make peace with Nazi Germany. Trumbo reported letters he received in this vein to the FBI, but when they appeared at his house he realised that they were rather more interested in him. In 1946, Dalton Trumbo’s article ‘The Russian Menace’ argued that it was America which posed far more of a threat to Russia than the other way around. Later that year, William R. Wilkerson, founder/publisher of The Hollywood Reporter, wrote an article called ‘A Vote For Joe Stalin’, in which he named Trumbo and others as Communist sympathizers, and which became known as ‘Billy’s Blacklist’.
It was upon these names that the HUAC drew for their 1947 investigation. Trumbo and the rest of the Hollywood Ten declined to say whether or not they were (or ever had been) members of the Communist Party, and also to name any other members. As being a member of the Communist Party was not, in fact, illegal, the Hollywood Ten relied on the First Amendment’s right to privacy, freedom of speech and freedom of thought for their failed defence. An Appeal to the Supreme Court on these same grounds was also unsuccessful and so Trumbo spent 11 months in a Kentucky prison. Upon his release he had been officially placed on a blacklist by the MPAA and had his membership of the Screen Writers Guild revoked, both of which (should have) prevented him from working.
Falling from his position as one of Hollywood’s highest-paid screenwriters (up to $80,000 a year), Trumbo was persona non grata upon his release. He moved to Mexico City and started working for the King Brothers studio, among others, churning out B-movie scripts. He earned vastly-cut rates and, of course, no public credit. During his Hollywood exile, however, Trumbo also kept writing quality screenplays, writing The Brave One (1956) for King Brothers Productions. It was ‘Robert Rich’ who won the Best Story Oscar for it in 1957, however. At that time, little did people know that this was in fact Dalton Trumbo’s second Oscar, too: in 1953 Ian McLellan Hunter had ‘won’ an Academy Award for writing Roman Holiday – he was in fact a ‘front’ writer for Trumbo.
Rumours began to circulate that Trumbo, or certainly a blacklisted writer, had written The Brave One when the mysterious Rich did not attend the ceremony, and his only available background was that he was “the son of a producer”. The next year, in 1958, a further mockery of the blacklist was made when Pierre Boulle won the Oscar for Adapted Screenplay from his book The Bridge on the River Kwai, despite the fact that he could not speak or write a word of English. It transpired later that it had been worked on by two blacklisted writers, Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman, whose widows received Oscars on their husbands’ behalf in 1985.
The Blacklist was down but not out, and it took until 1960 for the death blow to be dealt: Otto Preminger, who had directed a previous film written by an uncredited Trumbo (1955’s The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell), publically credited Trumbo as screenwriter (adapting) for his new movie Exodus. Hot on his heels, Kirk Douglas truly killed it with his revelation that Trumbo had written the screenplay for his and Stanley Kubrick’s upcoming film Spartacus (a condition of Douglas’ employment). The Blacklist was finished. Trumbo was reinstated by the Writers Guild of America and credited on all scripts thereafter, including Lonely Are the Brave (1962) and The Fixer (1968). He also snagged a WGA nomination almost immediately for Spartacus in 1961, as well as a Laurel Award for Achievement from the organisation in 1970. In 1971, Trumbo turned his hand to direction, with a screen adaptation of his own novel Johnny Got His Gun, which enjoyed great success at Cannes. In 1975, the Academy officially recognized Trumbo as the writer of The Brave One and presented him with a statuette. He was posthumously awarded with his own Oscar for Roman Holiday in 1993.
Charlie Chaplin, Paul Robeson, Richard Attenborough, Orson Welles, Judy Holliday, Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte: industry luminaries such as these were keeping Trumbo company on the Blacklist, as well as around 350 further individuals who were ‘greylisted’ from 1950 for suspected ‘subversive’ activities. Careers were stalled, ended, or at the very least re-routed by the stifling mindset of the US government during this period, and Dalton Trumbo was far from the only writer cheated of the credit he deserved. Films including Lawrence of Arabia, An Affair to Remember and The Day of the Triffids all had uncredited, blacklisted co-writers. In 1986, the WGA began correcting the credits on these films, and a complete list (although last updated way back in 2000) can be found here. In 2012, William R. Wilkerson’s son published an apology in The Hollywood Reporter on behalf of his father and the incendiary article that had kicked off the Blacklist in earnest. He went as far as to call it ‘Hollywood’s Holocaust’ – but 65 years after the event, and many years after the majority of those affected most severely by it would have been around to hear and, maybe, appreciate it.