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Dalton Trumbo

Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical

Larry Ceplair
Christopher Trumbo
Series: Screen Classics
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 716
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  • Book Info
    Dalton Trumbo
    Book Description:

    James Dalton Trumbo (1905--1976) is widely recognized for his work as a screenwriter, playwright, and author, but he is also remembered as one of the Hollywood Ten who opposed the House Un-American Activities Committee. Refusing to answer questions about his prior involvement with the Communist Party, Trumbo sacrificed a successful career in Hollywood to stand up for his rights and defend political freedom.

    InDalton Trumbo, authors Larry Ceplair and Christopher Trumbo present thier extensive research on the famed writer, detailing his work, his membership in the Communist Party, his long campaign against censorship during the domestic cold war, his ten-month prison sentence for contempt of Congress, and his thirteen-year struggle to break the blacklist.

    The blacklist ended for Trumbo in 1960, when he received screen credits forExodusandSpartacus. Just before his death, he received a long-delayed Academy Award forThe Brave One, and in 1993, he was posthumously given an Academy Award forRoman Holiday(1953). This comprehensive biography provides insights into the many notable people with whom Trumbo worked, including Stanley Kubrick, Otto Preminger, and Kirk Douglas, and offers a fascinating look at the life of one of Hollywood's most prominent screenwriters and his battle against persecution.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4682-9
    Subjects: History, Political Science, Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)
    Larry Ceplair

    This was supposed to be Christopher Trumbo’s book. He (and his two sisters, Nikola and Mitzi) knew Dalton Trumbo best. They experienced the blacklist period—their father’s inquisition by the Committee on Un-American Activities, his imprisonment, the family’s sojourn in Mexico, and fourteen years of aliases and fronts. Christopher had studied and thought about the subject for many years and had amassed a prodigious amount of research data, but the fates did not allow him the time he needed to complete the project. In December 2010, knowing he did not have much longer to live, he asked me to finish...

  4. 1 Under Western Skies
    (pp. 11-31)

    No region of the United States is more American than the West. It is no accident that one of the most enduring movie genres in history is the western. Thus, for someone like Dalton Trumbo, who was born and raised in the West, to be labeled “un-American” was noteworthy. Indeed, in terms of family lineage and history, no family was more American than the Trumbos, or, as Trumbo described himself: “Nativeborn. One hundred percent. True blue.” His father’s family came from Switzerland, where they called themselves the Von Trummelbachs, after a local waterfall. But when their name was recorded by...

  5. 2 Baking Bread and Writing in Los Angeles
    (pp. 32-52)

    According to the 1920 census, Los Angeles had become the tenth largest city in the United States (population 576,623). (In stark contrast, the population of Grand Junction was 8,665, and the population of Boulder was 11,066.) Ten years later, Los Angeles would be the fifth-largest city in the country. It was predominantly white (almost 92 percent), but the Mexican American population was growing rapidly. This population explosion was accompanied by economic growth: oil was being discovered in many places, the movie industry was moving west from New York, the aviation industry was expanding rapidly, there were more automobiles per capita...

  6. 3 Playing the Studio Game and Organizing Guilds
    (pp. 53-70)

    On June 1, 1934, Trumbo was hired by Warner Bros. to read and analyze novels, plays, and stories, at a salary of $27.50 a week. At that time, the Warners “ran the most economical and efficient studio in Hollywood.” Not only did the studio’s profits climb steadily during the decade, but it had political cachet: it was the only major studio that refused to conduct business with Germany, and the only one whose “production program most enthusiastically reflected the New Deal.”¹

    Clearly, Trumbo intended this job to be only a way station. He was counting on a rapid promotion to...

  7. 4 Marriage and Johnny Got His Gun
    (pp. 71-96)

    Trumbo later said that 1938 “was probably the best year of my life.”¹ He could just as easily have added 1939 and called it the best two years, because it was during that time that he married Cleo Fincher; they conceived their first child, Nikola; his playWashington Jitterswas staged in Washington, DC, and New York City; he wrote his best novel,Johnny Got His Gun, for which he won an American Booksellers Association award; and he received eight screen credits, including forA Man to Remember, one of his favorites.

    But it was the first event (the marriage)...

  8. 5 From B Films to A Films
    (pp. 97-109)

    Happily married, busy renovating the ranch, awaiting the birth of a second child (Christopher, born in 1940), and the recipient of a prestigious literary prize, Trumbo became exceedingly prolific and successful as a screenwriter. Although he seemed to be doing nothing but writing scripts, much of what he wrote in these years did not resonate strongly with him. He was still under contract to RKO and had to write on whatever subject the studio assigned him, and he was becoming increasingly restive under those constraints. When he freelanced, however, he gravitated toward stories he thought would be immediately salable—The...

  9. 6 Money, Politics, and War
    (pp. 110-131)

    By the spring of 1940, Trumbo had become very active politically. On April 6 he spoke at a Peace Crusade meeting at the Olympic Auditorium, where he accused the current administration of following the same path as its predecessor in 1916–1917, using loans and material aid to friendly countries to prepare for US entry into a world war. “What assurances have we,” Trumbo asked, “that the American dead of 1919 will not be multiplied vastly by the American dead of 1940?” In the past three years, the US government had done nothing while six nations (China, Spain, Ethiopia, Austria,...

  10. 7 Into the Communist Party
    (pp. 132-158)

    Of course, Trumbo did not think of communism as a religion, but he was regularly derisive about the party’s church-like aspects. Albert Maltz once heard Trumbo say, during an interview, that belonging to the Communist Party was like belonging to the PTA. An appalled Maltz exclaimed: “Well, that’s bull shit! And he should have been ashamed of himself for saying a thing like that. Because if it was like being a member of the PTA, why was he a member?”¹

    Trumbo joined the Communist Party twice. He was a member from 1943 to 1948 and again for a few months...

  11. 8 Trumbo’s Antifascist Persuasion
    (pp. 159-184)

    Between 1944 and 1946, Trumbo was more politically engaged than he had been at any time in the past. Fearing that his hoped-for democratic peace was being swamped by a wave of neofascist activity and deafened by a chorus of war talk, he spoke and wrote in a wide variety of forums. To make sense of Trumbo’s political thinking and activity during those years, one must understand the role antifascism played in his thought process. To many leftists of the 1930s, antifascism offered the most appropriate means to preserve democracy and strengthen freedom via a series of progressive reforms. Though...

  12. 9 The 1947 Hearings of the Committee on Un-American Activities
    (pp. 185-210)

    One of the great mysteries that confronts anyone who studies the history of the early domestic cold war is how the small-and narrow-minded members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (1947– 1951) succeeded in imposing their rigid and humiliating version of Americanism (nationalism cum patriotism) on the political culture of the United States.¹ These men, not Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.), set the stage for official Cold War anticommunism. They did so by craftily melding together the power of a long-standing bogey (the Communist menace) and the virtually unchallengeable power of a congressional investigation (complete with subpoenas, the chairman’s gavel,...

  13. 10 Blacklisted, Indicted, Convicted
    (pp. 211-232)

    The Hollywood Ten constituted a group of relatively unknown men who had achieved notoriety in an unanticipated and unwanted manner. For three years, they shared an interest that was strong enough to overcome their differences, but each man dealt with the aftermath of the hearings in a distinctive manner. After his return to Hollywood, Trumbo had three goals: to carry on the fight against the committee, to continue his screenwriting career, and to pay bills totaling $27,000 for work on the ranch. Faced with foreclosure if the bills were not paid, Trumbo wrote a letter to Edward G. Robinson, his...

  14. 11 The Time of the Toad
    (pp. 233-253)

    Shortly after his trial, Trumbo turned down, perhaps “rashly,” he wrote to Charles Katz, “another black market venture.” He explained, “I see no profit in putting in time and whatever talent I have on such projects, when I feel that my big gamble and my main chance lie in the play, which simply must be finished by the end of June.”¹ The play, titledThe Emerald Staircase, was based on Trumbo’s experience as a cub reporter for theDaily Sentinelcovering the mortuary beat. Corruption loomed large, and he used the practices of the undertaking industry to dramatize “the absurdity...

  15. 12 Incarceration and Drift
    (pp. 254-269)

    On June 7, 1950, Trumbo and Lawson flew to New York City. They attended several farewell parties and a rally at Madison Square Garden sponsored by the New York Civil Rights Congress. More than a thousand people came to Penn Station to watch them board a night train to Washington, DC. There, Trumbo wrote, “Jack and I had the rather grotesque experience of being carried aloft through the crowd like a pair of startled, sacrificial bullocks on the way to the altar.” (Ten days later, seven other members of the Ten spoke in New York City at a meeting sponsored...

  16. 13 Oh, Oh, Mexico
    (pp. 270-298)

    According to Jean Butler, the decision to leave the United States emanated from fear: Hugo feared he was about to be subpoenaed by the Committee on Un-American Activities, and Trumbo feared he might be subpoenaed again, asked the same questions, and indicted on a brandnew charge of contempt.¹ Trumbo had received letters from Gordon Kahn and Albert Maltz, both of whom were currently living in Mexico, telling him how secure they felt there. “In short,” Christopher recalled, “Mexico offered a modicum of safety from government interference with our lives.” In addition, they did not need passports to enter Mexico, the...

  17. 14 Negotiating the Black Market, Working with the King Brothers
    (pp. 299-313)

    Trumbo returned from Mexico an angry man, his anger stoked by the effect the blacklist was having on him and his friends. For the most part, he effectively and productively channeled that anger: he wrote pamphlets and articles and delivered speeches criticizing the domestic cold war, he wrote dozens of scripts for the black market, and he devised and implemented a grand strategy for breaking through the blacklist. From time to time, however, his anger erupted, and he lashed out at black-listees and attorneys whose actions he deemed inimical to his strategy to fully exploit the black market in scripts...

  18. 15 From the Communist Party to the New Left
    (pp. 314-326)

    While he was hard at work on the black market, Trumbo had little time to participate in political activities. He later said he had a “fear of activism” because every time he spoke, the sponsoring organization was attacked by anti-Communists.¹ Nevertheless, he made a few speeches, kept himself fully informed about events, wrote letters to periodicals (especially in opposition to the testing of nuclear devices), and, on several occasions, agreed to write pamphlets defending people who were being persecuted by state or federal government agencies. As a result of the confluence of his research and writing, the conversations he had...

  19. 16 Blacklist and Black-Market Politics
    (pp. 327-336)

    Trumbo’s reflections on communism coincided with his efforts to closely supervise the blacklist and the black market. As a result, his thoughts evolved about the nature of informants and the role of informing in the maintenance of the blacklist. He went to great lengths to instruct other blacklistees how to work on the black market as well as how to resume work on the white market. In terms of the latter, he explicitly rejected making a deal with the Committee on Un-American Activities and pursuing legal action. However, not all members of the blacklisted community accepted Trumbo’s self-appointed position as...

  20. 17 Using and Revealing Robert Rich
    (pp. 337-366)

    The burden of his black-market work and his feeling of frustration that the blacklist showed no signs of ending led Trumbo to, in his words, “totally revolt against the sense of martyrdom that lay so heavily over all of us. Nobody likes a martyr. They’re a living reproach to have around the house. And we were falling into that. There’s nothing so destructive to a person.” He realized that if he did not “get out of that trough of martyrdom” immediately, he never would.¹ With that thought in mind, Trumbo began a new anti-blacklist campaign at the end of January...

  21. 18 Spartacus
    (pp. 367-394)

    The “Spartacus” project was Trumbo’s finest hour as a screenwriter and as an agent of historical change. But, Christopher said, “it was an awful push and pull, a tremendous struggle, and it was not just because of the personal antagonisms. It was simply a whole bunch of things getting shoved into place. It is amazing that a picture came out the other end.” “My father was,” Mitzi recalled, “completely obsessed” with it in 1959—driven to write a great script, procure screen credit for it, and thereby deliver a fatal blow to the blacklist. For reasons discussed later, the quality...

  22. 19 Exodus and the Credit Announcements
    (pp. 395-412)

    Trumbo met producer-director Otto Preminger in November 1958, and they agreed that Trumbo would adapt two novels for the screen: Pierre Boulle’sThe Other Side of the Coinand Ugo Pierro’sThe Camp Followers.A contract for the first project was signed on May 1, 1959, between “Peter Flint,” as author, and Carlyle-Alpina, S.A., as purchaser. (The contract stated that the producer would not be required to divulge the writer’s name on the screenplay or in any advertising or publicity.)¹ Before Trumbo signed the contract, he informed Preminger that his first obligation was to the Spartacus script. But, Trumbo being...

  23. 20 Back on the Screen
    (pp. 413-434)

    Trumbo did not feel triumphant, and he had no time for bitter reflections. He remained starkly realistic about what lay ahead, and he continued to tread very carefully through the minefield of the blacklist and the black market. After all,SpartacusandExodus(and the actions of Douglas and Preminger) might have resulted from a unique alignment of the fates, or he might have been an exception. Three problems in particular concerned him: (1) the box-office success ofSpartacusandExodus, (2) the possibility that frustrated blacklistees might write recantation letters for the studios, and (3) new legal actions by...

  24. 21 Hawaii and The Sandpiper
    (pp. 435-453)

    After getting out from underBunny Lake, Trumbo looked to the future with some optimism. He wrote to Michael Wilson that, at age fifty-five, he was probably in the midst of his “last big whirl” as a screenwriter, and he intended to reap as much money as he could from it. His contract with Frenke would terminate in early 1964, and he expected to receive substantial deferred salary payments for five years thereafter. He and Frenke were making what Trumbo thought were good investments, and for the first time in his life, Trumbo was convinced he had a “good setup”;...

  25. 22 The Fixer and the Laurel Award
    (pp. 454-485)

    When Trumbo returned from Rome, he and Cleo moved to a house on St. Ives Drive, a very narrow street off Sunset Plaza, in West Hollywood. The exterior of the house, as seen from the street, looked plain. “It is hard to get a grip on it from the outside,” Mitzi said, “but it went down three stories, and my father took the lowest floor for his office—a big room, a bathroom, a sauna (never used) and a room for a secretary and his enormous copy machine.” Nikola recalled that Trumbo “never went to the stationery store, the hardware...

  26. 23 Johnny Got His Gun—The Movie: Preproduction
    (pp. 486-504)

    Trumbo had never lost interest inJohnny.It was his master work, and he delighted in the reprints and the recurring interest shown by new generations of young people. His efforts to make a movie based on the book and his ideas about both the book and the film provide glimpses into Trumbo’s thoughts on several subjects, among them philosophy, aesthetics, finances, and the art of moviemaking. It is also another demonstration of his determination to succeed and his work ethic.

    Trumbo waited fourteen years before trying to getJohnnyrepublished. In March 1954 he wrote to Cameron and Kahn,...

  27. 24 Johnny Got His Gun—The Movie: Principal Photography and Editing
    (pp. 505-516)

    Shooting began on July 2, 1970, a few days sooner than anyone wanted, because Donald Sutherland had only two days off between two other films (Alex in Wonderlandhad just wrapped, and he was leaving for New York to shootKlute). “We shot for a week,” Campbell remembered, “filming all of his [Sutherland’s] scenes and some others that didn’t involve him. Then we shut down for a week, with everyone on salary, in order to complete our preparation. That seemed like an unfortunate waste of the time, but it worked out so well for us that we intend to do...

  28. 25 Johnny Got His Gun—The Movie: Distribution and Exhibition
    (pp. 517-531)

    The distribution decision proved to be a contentious one, mainly because the Investors wanted to sign with a distributor that would pay enough money up front to allow them to recoup their investment immediately, while Trumbo and Campbell were more concerned with finding a distributor that would nurture the movie until it found its audience. Trumbo had outlined an approach in December 1970 and prepared a list of questions he wanted to discuss with the Investors: Should he take a copy of the print to Mexico City, show it to Luis Buñuel, and secure his endorsement? Should separate release agreements...

  29. 26 The Final Years
    (pp. 532-562)

    Trumbo emerged from theJohnnyproduction in dire financial straits. In August 1971 he turned to the King brothers for help. They arranged a $5,000 loan from Union Bank, for which Trumbo pledged 2,400 shares of King International Corporation.¹ Three months later he wrote to Frank King: “Right now, I can’t even pay off the note you arranged for me at the Union Bank. I have sold off all but 250 shares of my King Brothers International stock, with the exception of four thousand shares which are in hock on a note at the Security Bank.” Trumbo still had 3,000...

  30. 27 Postmortem
    (pp. 563-582)

    Mitzi and her daughter, Samantha, had moved back to the St. Ives house in the spring of 1973. During the next three years, she recalled:

    My father talked to me about his assets, detailing them and reassuring himself and me that, after his death, Cleo would be financially secure. I knew he was fooling himself. No matter how hard he tried, there was simply no way for him to achieve financial stability at this point. When he died, there was no money and a great deal of debt. Cleo needed to take immediate action to pay the bills he left...

  31. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 583-584)
  32. Appendix Black-Market Work
    (pp. 585-588)
  33. Chronology
    (pp. 589-594)
  34. Notes
    (pp. 595-676)
  35. Index
    (pp. 677-704)
  36. Back Matter
    (pp. 705-708)