Biography of Dalton Trumbo
Bith Date: December 5, 1905
Death Date: September 10, 1976
Place of Birth: Montrose, Colorado, United States
Occupations: screenwriter, writer
Though he experienced success as a novelist and a screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976) is best known as a member of a group he would have preferred never existed-the "Hollywood Ten." After refusing to cooperate during the House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings in the late 1940s, Trumbo and nine other screenwriters and directors were sent to jail and later blacklisted in Hollywood.
Dalton Trumbo was born in Montrose, Colorado on December 5, 1905. His family moved to Grand Junction, Colorado when he was seven years old. As a boy, Trumbo was indifferent to all sports, and had no interest riding horses, a popular past time in his home state. His passions, reading and writing, were considered more intellectual. During his high school years, he secured a job as a cub reporter for the Grand Junction Sentinel, and covered everything from school and athletic news, to crime and obituaries.
Trumbo went on to study at the University of Colorado (1924-25) where he wrote for the school newspaper as well as the Boulder Daily Camera. During Trumbo's freshman year, his father lost his job and the family moved to Los Angeles. Realizing there would be no money coming for his education, Trumbo decided to join the family in California. Soon after, his father died.
Despite the tragedy and the family's poverty, Trumbo announced his plan to study at the University of Southern California. But since he needed money for college as well as the family, he took a job at a bakery in downtown Los Angeles. Although he did not plan to work there long, he stayed on at the bakery from 1925 until 1932, by which time he was beginning to establish himself as a writer. He also attended USC during those years.
In the early years of the Great Depression, continual poverty forced Trumbo to embark upon a brief criminal career. He was involved with check kiting and bootlegging for a short time. Writing was what he had wanted to do. While still working at the bakery (and doing some illegal activity) he wrote a piece about bootlegging, which was accepted by Vanity Fair.
When Trumbo quit the bakery, he went to work as the associate editor of The Hollywood Spectator, for which he was already a contributor. Trumbo's first article for The Film Spectator was titled "An Appeal to George Jean," a rebuttal of a Vanity Fair piece about the showiness and wealth of Hollywood, written by George Jean Nathan. Eventually Trumbo was promoted to managing editor of The Hollywood Spectator, but quit when his irregular pay became nearly nonexistent. The magazine folded soon after.
Trumbo's first published short story, "The Wolcott Case," appeared in International Detective Magazine in 1933. He then worked as a ghostwriter on a biography of Metternich-Metternich in Love and War-that was published in England. By 1934, he was sketching out an outline for a novel, set in Colorado. That novel, published in 1935, became Eclipse, the Depression-era story of a young businessman who loses everything, eventually his life. It was also Trumbo's first published attack on the capitalist system.
Became a Screenwriter
In 1934, while working on the novel, Trumbo was hired as a reader in the Warner Brothers story department. In October of 1935, he became a Warner Brothers screenwriter-something he only expected to tide him over until he had established himself as a novelist. Trumbo, of course, would rise from the Warner's B-picture unit to become one of Hollywood's most successful screenwriters, with more than fifty screenplays and adapted stories to his credit.
With the 1936 release of Road Gang, Trumbo was on his way as a screenwriter. That same year he also wrote the screenplay for Love Begins at 20. In 1936, the busy Trumbo also published a satirical novel, Washington Jitters. The novel was nearly adapted into a play. Eventually it did run on Broadway, but lasted only 24 performances. Later in 1936, Trumbo got his first taste of politics Hollywood style when he was forced to leave Warner Brothers for Columbia Pictures.
Trumbo had joined the Screen Writers Guild as soon as he was eligible. The Guild had been the bargaining agent for screenwriters, but its president, John Howard Lawson (later another member of the Hollywood Ten), was perceived as using it for political purposes. An opposing union, the Screen Playwrights, was formed which the studios quickly embraced. When Warner Brothers tried to force Trumbo to resign from the guild and join the new, company union, he refused and his contract was voided. Later the Screen Writers Guild, which had lost approximately 80 percent of its membership, affiliated with the Authors Guild of America.
Trumbo found that he was now blacklisted, though it lasted for only about six months. In the end, he signed with Columbia, where he co-wrote the story for Tugboat Princess (1936), and wrote the screenplay for The Devil's Playground in 1937. Columbia also attempted to team up Trumbo with William Saroyan. Their collaboration proved less than fruitful, but the two became friends.
Trumbo's next stop was with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) where he worked for two years but produced nothing. The reason being that during that time he was obsessed with a carhop at a local drive-in, Cleo Fincher. Soon after meeting her, Trumbo began their courtship, which culminated in their marriage.
Although he had lost his job at MGM, Trumbo did manage to sell a story to Warners that became 1939's The Kid from Kokomo. He then hooked on with RKO for whom he wrote more B-pictures. At this time Trumbo had a new novel in the works. It was a manuscript that he worked on as Europe edged closer to war, and it would become Trumbo's definitive statement on the subject.
Johnny Got His Gun is one of the great antiwar novels of world literature. Ironically the novel, about a severely wounded war veteran-he has lost his limbs and his face-was published in 1939, two days after the World War II began. The book was awarded the American Booksellers Award.
The award and his numerous screenplays helped Trumbo move up the Hollywood ladder, but the turning point in his Hollywood career came when RKO assigned him to work on Kitty Foyle in 1940. He'd already written eight B-pictures for the studio, and the success of this film would make or break him. Trumbo had enough confidence in his talent to agree to work on Kitty Foyle. His condition was that RKO would cancel his contract. They did and he worked on the movie.
The upshot was that Trumbo received an Academy Award nomination and was more sought after then ever before. Unfortunately he followed this up by agreeing to write a novel for Paramount, which the studio would then produce. The result, The Remarkable Andrew, has been considered by many, including Trumbo himself, to be the worst thing he ever wrote.
In 1943 Trumbo joined the Communist Party. He had more or less been a fellow traveler for years and saw no reason not to join. As he explained to Bruce Cook in Dalton Trumbo: "Some of my best friends were Communists. And no one pressed me to join. There was really no reason to. I came to trust them, to like them. And when the war came, I worked with the Communists during the war-Communists and others-until it seemed to me that I was traveling under false colors. I hope this doesn't sound as some might interpret it, but the growing reaction against communism-and in Hollywood the formation of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals-convinced me that there was going to be trouble. And I thought I wanted to be a part of it if there were."
Trumbo's political allegiance was not yet an impediment to his career. Over the next couple of years he wrote the screenplays for such films as A Guy Named Joe (1943), Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1944), and Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945), as well as various stories that became screenplays. It wasn't until after the war that the bottom dropped out of Trumbo's career.
The Hollywood Ten
The hearings of the House Committee of Un-American Activities (HUAC), began with Alger Hiss, a U.S. government official accused of being a communist. It gained even more notoriety through its attempt to politically "clean up" Hollywood. In October of 1947, Trumbo was called to testify before the Committee. He proved to be an unfriendly and hostile witness of the HUAC. Along with nine other screenwriters and directors--"the Hollywood Ten"--Trumbo was sentenced to federal prison for contempt. Ironically, Trumbo resigned from the Communist Party in 1948 (his own problems were overwhelming his activities), though he continued to support them whenever he could.
The activities of the Hollywood Ten consumed Trumbo's energy over the next couple of years, but in the end he went to prison. Trumbo served time in the Federal Correctional Institute in Ashland, Kentucky from June 1950 to April 1951. Upon his release, he found he was on the new Hollywood blacklist. He sold his California home and moved to Mexico, where he and other blacklist members formed a small, tight-knit community.
The only way he could get work-which now paid a good deal less than he had been earning-was through pseudonyms or by having others act as a front for him. Many times, he simply was not credited as a film's screenwriter. Under these conditions, Trumbo produced some of his best work at far lower wages. Trumbo at this time also earned extra money writing for women's magazines using his wife's name.
Blacklist and Awards
In 1953, he wrote the story for Roman Holiday. It was fronted by his friend, screenwriter Ian McClellan Hunter, who was himself later blacklisted. The film won many Academy Awards, including best screenplay. However, it would be many years until he was formally acknowledged as the writer of this film.
Trumbo's blacklist work included the screenplays for Carnival Story (1954) and The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955). In 1956, using the pseudonym of Robert Rich, he wrote the story and screenplay for The Brave One, for which he won another Academy Award. Trumbo worked on seven more films before he wrote the screenplay for Spartacus (1960). With this film, his name was finally listed in the credits, at the insistence of producer and star Kirk Douglas, thus ending the blacklist.
Trumbo's next project was Exodus (1960). He also wrote the screenplays for The Sandpiper (1965), Hawaii (1966), The Fixer (1968), Johnny Got His Gun (1971), Papillon and Executive Action (both 1973). He directed Johnny Got His Gun and appeared in Papillon.
As a writer, Trumbo published Chronicle of a Literal Man in 1941, the play The Biggest Thief in Town in 1949, and the posthumous Night of the Aurochs in 1979. His nonfiction work included Harry Bridges, published in 1941, Time of the Toad, 1949, and The Devil in the Book, 1956. In 1970, Additional Dialogue: Letters of Dalton Trumbo, 1942-62, edited by Helen Manfull, was published.
In 1970, Trumbo gave a speech to the Screen Writers Guild. As noted on the Spartacus Internet Encyclopedia, website, Trumbo reflected, "The blacklist was a time of evil. Caught in a situation that had passed beyond the control of mere individuals, each person reacted as his nature, his needs, his convictions, and his particular circumstances compelled him to."
A few years later, in 1975, another barrier was broken. It was long after the time of the blacklist, and Hollywood was making up for its past injustices by acknowledging the uncredited writers and directors. In a formal ceremony, Trumbo received his 1956 Academy Award for best screenplay.
- Additional Dialogue: Letters of Dalton Trumbo, 1942-1962, edited by Helen Manfull, M. Evans and Company, 1970.
- Cook, Bruce, Dalton Trumbo, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1977.
- Navasky, Victor S. Naming Names, The Viking Press, 1980.
- Los Angeles Times, March 25, 1992.
- Time, May 24, 1993.
- "Dalton Trumbo," Books and Writers website, http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/trumbo.htm (March 11, 2001).
- "Dalton Trumbo," The Internet Movie Database (IMDb), http://www.imdb.com (March 25, 2001).
- "Dalton Trumbo," Spartacus Internet Encyclopedia, http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAtrumbo.htm (December 11, 2000).
- "Dalton Trumbo," Suite101.com website, http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/directors_corner/25828 (March 11, 2001).