Dalton Trumbo

Dalton Trumbo

James Dalton Trumbo was born in Montrose, Colorado on 5th December, 1905. Educated at the University of Colorado. Trumbo wanted to be a writer and by the early 1930s his articles and stories appeared in Saturday Evening Post, McCall's Magazine, Vanity Fair and the film magazine, the Hollywood Spectator .

In 1935 Trumbo published his first novel, Eclipse, a satire about a self-made businessman. Trumbo's most popular novel, Johnny Got His Gun, about a disfigured British officer in the First World War, won a National Book Award in 1939.

In the 1930s Trumbo worked on several movies including Love Begins at Twenty (1936), Road Gang (1936), Tugboat Princess (1936), That Man's Here Again (1937), Devil's Playground (1937), Fugitives For a Night (1938), A Man to Remember (1938) and Career (1939). Trumbo, who joined the Communist Party in 1943, was also active in the Screen Writers Guild.

Other films written by Trumbo included Five Came Back (1939), Curtain Call (1940) and Kitty Foyle (1940), a film for which he was nominated for an Academy Award Oscar, A Guy Named Joe (1943), Tender Comrade (1943) and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944).

After the Second World War the House of Un-American Activities Committee began an investigation into the Hollywood Motion Picture Industry. In September 1947, the HUAC interviewed 41 people who were working in Hollywood. These people attended voluntarily and became known as "friendly witnesses". During their interviews they named several people who they accused of holding left-wing views.

In 1947 nineteen members of the film industry who were suspected of being communists were called to appear before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. This included Trumbo, Ring Lardner Jr, Herbert Biberman, Alvah Bessie, Lester Cole, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, Edward Dmytryk, Samuel Ornitz, John Howard Lawson, Larry Parks, Waldo Salt, Bertolt Brecht, Richard Collins, Gordon Kahn, Robert Rossen, Lewis Milestone and Irving Pichel.

Dalton and Cleo Trumbo at the HUAC in October 1947.
Dalton and Cleo Trumbo at the HUAC in October 1947.

Trumbo appeared before the HUAC on 28th October, 1947. He was denied the right to make an opening statement. In it he wanted to make the point that the HUAC was having a damaging impact on world opinion: "As indicated by news dispatches from foreign countries during the past week, the eyes of the world are focused today upon the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In every capital city these hearings will be reported. From what happens during the proceedings, the peoples of the earth will learn by precept and example precisely what America means when her strong voice calls out to the community of nations for freedom of the press, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, the civil rights of men standing accused before government agencies, the vitality and strength of private enterprise, the inviolable right of every American to think as he wishes, to organize and assemble as he pleases, to vote in secret as he chooses."

Trumbo was asked by Robert E. Stripling if he was a member of the Screen Writers Guild. He refused to answer the question: "Mr. Stripling, the rights of American labor to inviolably secret membership have been won in this country by a great cost of blood and a great cost in terms of hunger. These rights have become an American tradition. Over the Voice of America we have broadcast to the entire world the freedom of our labor... You asked me a question which would permit you to haul every union member in the United States up here to identify himself as a union member, to subject him to future intimidation and coercion. This, I believe is an unconstitutional question."

Trumbo also refused to admit he was a member of the American Communist Party. Trumbo was removed from the room and HUAC investigator, Louis Russell, now read out a nine page report on his Communist Party affiliations. John Parnell Thomas now stated: "The evidence presented before this Committee concerning Dalton Trumbo clearly indicates that he is an active Communist Party member. Also the fact that he followed the usual Communist line of not responding to questions of the Committee is definite proof that he is a member of the Communist Party. Therefore, by unanimous vote of the members present, the subcommittee recommends to the full committee that Dalton Trumbo be cited for contempt of Congress." Trumbo was found guilty of contempt of Congress and was sentenced to ten months in prison.

Blacklisted by the Hollywood studios, Trumbo and his wife decided to go and live in Mexico City. They were joined by their friends, Ring Lardner Jr, Ian McLellan Hunter, Dalton Trumbo, Hugo Butler, Jean Rouverol and Albert Maltz. On Saturday mornings this group and their children used to have picnic lunches and play baseball together. The FBI were spying on them in Mexico and according to declassified reports, the agents believed that these picnics were cover for "Communist meetings." They were later joined by Martha Dodd and Frederick Vanderbilt Field.

Trumbo asked Hunter, who had not yet been blacklisted, to approach William Wyler with an idea for a film. Ring Lardner Jr. explained in his autobiography, I'd Hate Myself in the Morning (2000): "Ian got involved only by agreeing to front for the already-blacklisted Trumbo. It was he who had come up with the idea of a movie about a reporter and a princess on the loose in Rome. Paramount paid $50,000 for what it assumed to be Ian's (but was really Trumbo's) first draft, and hired him to do a rewrite... The result, much to Ian's (and Trumbo's) surprise, was a wonderful movie, starring Gregory Peck and the unknown Audrey Hepburn." In 1953 Roman Holiday won the Academy Award for the best screenplay (Trumbo did not get credit for this work until after the blacklist was lifted).

Trumbo carried on writing screenplays by using pseudonyms such as Ben Parry, Robert Rich and Sally Stubblefield. This included Carnival Story (1954), One Man Mutiny (1955), The Boss (1956), The Brave One (1956), which won the Academy Award for best screenplay, The Brothers Rico (1957), The Deerslayer (1957), The Green-Eyed Blonde (1957), The Cowboy (1958) and Terror in a Texas Town (1958).

In 1959 Frank Sinatra announced that he proposed to break the blacklist by employing Albert Maltz as the screenwriter of his proposed film, The Execution of Private Slovik, based on the book by William Bradford Huie. Sinatra soon came under attack for his decision. He nearly came to blows with John Wayne, who called him a "Commie" when they met in the street. However, what really hurt Sinatra was the criticism he received in the press. This included claims that his friend, John F. Kennedy, also wanted an end to the blacklist. Sinatra issued a statement to the press: "I would like to comment on the attacks from certain quarters on Senator John Kennedy by connecting him with my decision on employing a screenwriter. This type of partisan politics is hitting below the belt... I make movies. I do not ask the advice of Senator Kennedy on whom I should hire. Senator Kennedy does not ask me how he should vote in the Senate."

Michael Freedland, the author of Witch-Hunt in Hollywood (2009) argues that "Kennedy didn't like the association with the name of one of the Hollywood Ten. He would soon run from President and he was worried that he could harm him." A few days later Sinatra took out another paid-for advertisement in the newspapers: "In view of the reaction of my family, friends and the American public I've instructed my lawyers to make a settlement with Albert Maltz. My conversations with Maltz indicate that he has an affirmative, pro-American approach to the story, but the American public has indicated it feels that the morality of hiring Maltz is the most crucial matter and I will accept this majority opinion."

In 1960 Trumbo became the first blacklisted writer to use his own name when he wrote the screenplay for the film Spartacus. Based on the novel by another left-wing blacklisted writer, Howard Fast, is a film that examines the spirit of revolt. Trumbo refers back to his experiences of the House of Un-American Activities Committee. At the end, when the Romans finally defeat the rebellion, the captured slaves refuse to identify Spartacus. As a result, all are crucified. Ironically, much of Spartacus was filmed on land owned by William Randolph Hearst. It was Hearst's newspapers that played such an important role in making McCarthyism possible.

As Ring Lardner Jr., another member of the Hollywood Ten, pointed out in his autobiography, I'd Hate Myself in the Morning (2000): “Sinatra caved in, paying off Maltz in cash and eventually scrubbing the project, perhaps partly out of fear of harming his friend John F. Kennedy, a candidate for President at the time. (Following the election that fall, however, the President-elect and his brother, Attorney-General-to-be Robert Kennedy, crossed a picket line to see Spartacus at a theater in Washington D.C., and pronounced it good.)”

After the blacklist was lifted, Trumbo wrote the screenplay for Lonely Are the Brave (1962), The Sandpiper (1965) and The Fixer (1968). In 1970 Trumbo's anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun, was republished. The book had been withdrawn during the Second World War, had a tremendous impact on the generation being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War.

In 1970 Trumbo argued that all screenwriters were victims during McCarthyism. "Some suffered less than others, some grew and some diminished, but in the final tally we were all victims because almost without exception each of us felt compelled to say things he did not want to say, to do things that he did not want to do, to deliver and receive wounds he truly did not want to exchange. That is why none of us - right, left, or centre - emerged from that long nightmare without sin."

Albert Maltz diagreed with this view of the situation. In an interview he gave to the New York Times in 1972 he compared the experiences of Adrian Scott and Edward Dmytryk: "There is currently in vogue a thesis pronounced by Dalton Trumbo which declares that everyone during the years of blacklist was equally a victim. This is factual nonsense and represents a bewildering moral position.... Adrian Scott was the producer of the notable film Crossfire in 1947 and Edward Dmytryk was its director. Crossfire won wide critical acclaim, many awards and commercial success. Both of these men refused to co-operate with the HCUA. Both were held in contempt of the HCUA and went to jail. When Dmytryk emerged from his prison term he did so with a new set of principles. He suddenly saw the heavenly light, testified as a friend of the HCUA, praised its purposes and practices and denounced all who opposed it. Dmytryk immediately found work as a director, and has worked all down the years since. Adrian Scott, who came out of prison with his principles intact, could not produce a film for a studio again until 1970. He was blacklisted for 21 years. To assert that he and Dmytryk were equally victims is beyond my comprehension."

In 1973 Trumbo joined forces with Donald Freed and Mark Lane to write the political thriller, Executive Action, which dealt with an alleged conspiracy to murder John F. Kennedy. The film opened to a storm of controversy with the suggestion that Kennedy had been a victim of the Military-Industrial Complex and was removed totally from the movie theaters by early December 1973.

Dalton Trumbo died of a heart attack in Los Angeles, California, on 10th September, 1976.

Primary Sources

(1) Dalton Trumbo, statement (27th October 1947)

As indicated by news dispatches from foreign countries during the past week, the eyes of the world are focused today upon the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In every capital city these hearings will be reported. From what happens during the proceedings, the peoples of the earth will learn by precept and example precisely what America means when her strong voice calls out to the community of nations for freedom of the press, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, the civil rights of men standing accused before government agencies, the vitality and strength of private enterprise, the inviolable right of every American to think as he wishes, to organize and assemble as he pleases, to vote in secret as he chooses.

The quality of our devotion to these principles will be weighed most thoughtfully by all who have been urged to emulate the American way of life. Whether we wish it or not, the Committee and its witnesses appear here before the world as a living test of American democracy in action. By reason of this we have all been committed to a very heavy responsibility.

I shall therefore pass quickly over the hearsay and slander of witnesses classified as friendly to this Committee, as well as over other evidence already established as perjury. I call your attention only briefly to political coincidence that nearly all friendly witnesses summoned by the Committee have violently opposed the ideals of Wendell Wilkie and Franklin Roosevelt, while without exception the unfriendly witnesses have supported such ideals. I shall make no comment at all on the petty professional jealousies, the private feuds, the intra-studio conflicts which here have been elevated to the dignity of the record. And only with reluctance and shame do I find it necessary to recall how fulsomely this Committee has complimented witnesses -who have proposed that all who disagree with them be deprived of citizenship and handed over to the mercy of mobs.

There are three principal points which i wish to stress in my statement to this Committee:

First: In the course of these hearings your Committee has launched a direct attack upon the constitutional rights of property and of management and of that system which we call private enterprise. You have attempted to compel juggernaut to hire and fire at your own dictation, without any regard for rights and agreements already established between management and labor within the motion picture industry. But even beyond this, you have attempted to dictate to industry what kind of product it shall make and what kind it shall not make.

Let every business man in America clearly understand that if this Committee can usurp the rights of management in one industry, it has established the precedent by which it can usurp the rights of management in all industries. Modern history reveals many instances abroad where workers in private industry have resolutely defended the rights of management against the encroachments of a corporate state. I am certain they will make such a defense in this country against the attempt with which this Committee is presently engaged.

Second: The Committee in its hearings has consistently attacked the constitutional guarantees of a free press, which encompass the guarantee of a free screen. The American film, as a medium of communication, as a purveyor of ideas, is completely beyond the investigatory powers of this Committee. No committee of the Congress can dictate to the motion picture industry what ideas it shall and shall not incorporate into films, nor can it dictate to the American people what ideas they may and may not see upon the screens of their neighborhood theaters.

But you have not exclusively attacked the principle of a free screen. In the past, you have sought to intimidate workers in the radio industry. And during these hearings you have thanked witnesses who have testified against the theater, the publishing business, and the press itself. This constant attempt to interfere with the rights of every medium of free expression provides the consistent brown thread which binds together all testimony thus far presented by friendly witnesses. It clearly reveals your intention to establish a slave screen, subservient to the cultural standards of J. Parnell Thomas and the humanitarian precepts of John E. Rankin,

Third: The Committee throughout its hearing has approved even the grossest attacks upon the right of the artist to express his ideas freely and honestly in his work. Similarly, you have sought testimony attacking his right to function in craft organizations and trade unions for thc advancement of his interests. You are now attacking his right to think, and seeking by public inquisition to ferret out his innermost ideas and his most private and personal convictions. No institution on earth possesses this power over American citizens. You violate the most elementary principles of constitutional guarantees when you require anyone to parade for your approval his opinions upon race, religion, politics, or any other matter.

We must furthermore remember always that the defense of constitutional rights is not simply a convenience to be invoked in time of need, but a clear and continuous obligation imposed equally upon all of us at all times. We are, as citizens, literally commanded by its implications to defend the Constitution against even the slightest encroachment upon the protective barrier it interposes between the private citizen on one hand and the inquisitors of government on the other.

Already the gentlemen of this Committee and others of like disposition have produced in this capital city a political atmosphere which is acrid with fear and repression; a community in which anti-Semitism finds safe refuge behind secret tests of loyalty; a city in which no union leader can trust his telephone; a city in which old friends hesitate to recognize one another in public places: a city in which men and women who dissent even slightly from the orthodoxy you seek to impose, speak with confidence only in moving cars and in the open air. You have produced a capital city on the eve of its Reichstag fire. For those who remember German history in the autumn of 1932 there a the smell of smoke in this very room.

(2) Dalton Trumbo refusing to answer whether he was a member of the Screen Writers Guild (27th October, 1947)

Mr. Stripling, the rights of American labor to inviolably secret membership have been won in this country by a great cost of blood and a great cost in terms of hunger. These rights have become an American tradition. Over the Voice of America we have broadcast to the entire world the freedom of our labor... You asked me a question which would permit you to haul every union member in the United States up here to identify himself as a union member, to subject him to future intimidation and coercion. This, I believe is an unconstitutional question.

(3) John Parnell Thomas, statement (27th October, 1947)

The evidence presented before this Committee concerning Dalton Trumbo clearly indicates that he is an active Communist Party member. Also the fact that he followed the usual Communist line of not responding to questions of the Committee is definite proof that he is a member of the Communist Party. Therefore, by unanimous vote of the members present, the subcommittee recommends to the full committee that Dalton Trumbo be cited for contempt of Congress, and that for his refusal to answer the pertinent question "Are you a member of the Communist Party?" and his refusal to answer other questions, the Committee recommends appropriate action be taken by the full committee without delay.

(4) Ring Lardner Jr., I'd Hate Myself in the Morning (2000)

In 1953, Ian had won an Oscar for Roman Holiday, the last picture he worked on before the blacklist got him. Winning that award was far from an unalloyed pleasure. Ian got involved only by agreeing to front for the already-blacklisted Trumbo. It was he who had come up with the idea of a movie about a reporter and a princess on the loose in Rome. Paramount paid $50,000 for what it assumed to be Ian's (but was really Trumbo's) first draft, and hired him to do a rewrite... The result, much to Ian's (and Trumbo's) surprise, was a wonderful movie, starring Gregory Peck and the unknown Audrey Hepburn.

(5) Dalton Trumbo, letter to Albert Maltz (12th January, 1972)

Whatever else may be said of Communists and the goals they pursued. I think you and I can agree that those who joined the Party were animated by a sincere desire to change the world and make it better, even at the cost of affiliating with an organization that had, from its beginnings, been subject to constant federal harassment, popular hatred, and sometimes physical violence. The impulses which caused them to affiliate with the Communist Party were good impulses, and the men and women who acted on them were good people.

(6) Dalton Trumbo was interviewed by was interviewed by Victor Navasky when he was writing his book, Naming Names (1982)

Kazan is one of those for whom I feel contempt, because he carried down people much less capable of defending themselves than he. And he could have at a minimum continued in the theatre, perhaps with somewhat diminished activity, but his reputation would have withstood this blow. But he brought down people in the theatrical and film world who had much more to lose than he and much less ability to function than he. And that is not nice. I just say that that's not a nice thing. That's the way I feel about him.

(7) Dalton Trumbo, speech to the Screen Writers Guild when accepting the Laurel Award in 1970.

The blacklist was a time of evil, and that no one on either side who survived it came through untouched by 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. There was bad faith and good, honesty and dishonesty, courage and cowardice, selflessness and opportunism, wisdom and stupidity, good and bad on both sides.

When you who are in your forties or younger look back with curiosity on that dark time, as I think occasionally you should, it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims. Some suffered less than others, some grew and some diminished, but in the final tally we were all victims because almost without exception each of us felt compelled to say things he did not want to say, to do things that he did not want to do, to deliver and receive wounds he truly did not want to exchange. That is why none of us - right, left, or centre - emerged from that long nightmare without sin.

Dalton Trumbo receiving his 1956 Oscar for The Brave One from Walter Mirisch in 1975.
Dalton Trumbo receiving his 1956 Oscar
for The Brave One from Walter Mirisch in 1975.

(8) Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood Ten, was interviewed by the New York Times in 1972.

There is currently in vogue a thesis pronounced by Dalton Trumbo which declares that everyone during the years of blacklist was equally a victim. This is factual nonsense and represents a bewildering moral position.

To put the point sharply: If an informer in the French underground who sent a friend to the torture chambers of the Gestapo was equally a victim, then there can be no right or wrong in life that I understand.

Adrian Scott was the producer of the notable film Crossfire in 1947 and Edward Dmytryk was its director. Crossfire won wide critical acclaim, many awards and commercial success. Both of these men refused to co-operate with the HCUA. Both were held in contempt of the HUAC and went to jail.

When Dmytryk emerged from his prison term he did so with a new set of principles. He suddenly saw the heavenly light, testified as a friend of the HUAC, praised its purposes and practices and denounced all who opposed it. Dmytryk immediately found work as a director, and has worked all down the years since. Adrian Scott, who came out of prison with his principles intact, could not produce a film for a studio again until 1970. He was blacklisted for 21 years. To assert that he and Dmytryk were equally victims is beyond my comprehension.

(9) Dalton Trumbo, letter to Albert Maltz (29th December, 1972)

I confess that among those who turned informer there are two or three whose deaths I once actually fantasized, and whom I still view with nothing short of horror. As for the others, I do not associate with them and cannot bring myself to trust them.

In a country which, after a reasonable period of punishment, returns murders and rapists to society on the humane theory that it is still possible for them to become decent and even valuable citizens. I have no intention of fanning the embers of justifiable hatred which burned so brightly twenty-five years ago.

(10) Dalton Trumbo, introduction to Johnny Got His Gun, when it was republished in 1970.

Numbers have dehumanized us. Over breakfast coffee we read of 40,000 American dead in Vietnam. Instead of vomiting, we reach for the toast. Our morning rush through crowded streets is not to cry murder but to hit that trough before somebody else gobbles our share.

An equation: 40,000 dead young men = 3,000 tons of bone and flesh, 124,000 pounds of brain matter, 50,000 gallons of blood, 1,840,000 years of life that will never be lived, 100,000 children who will never be born.

Let us use his same arithmetic for World War I; 9,000,000 dead young men equal 1,350,000,000 pounds of bone and flesh, 27,900,000 pounds of brain matter, 11,250,000 gallons of blood, 414,000,000 years of life that will never be lived, and 22,500,000 children who will never be born. The dry if imposing figure "9,000,000 dead" seems a little less statistical when we view it from this perspective.