Twelve Things to Know About Dalton Trumbo: CU Dropout and Red Scare Victim

Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo in Trumbo.
Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo in Trumbo.

The Oscar-winning screenwriter whose exploits are the subject of the upcoming biopic Trumbo, opening November 20, would be the first to snort at the thought of his life becoming Hollywood fodder. Then he would take the money and write the script himself.

In recent years, Dalton Trumbo has been depicted by popular culture as a kind of secular saint — a salty, no-nonsense Free Speech martyr. But Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976) was in fact an insolent, unrepentant and articulate leftist at precisely the wrong time in American history. Fortunately, he was also talented, prolific and principled. A member of the noted Hollywood Ten of blacklisted film-industry members, Trumbo found his career publicly screeching to a halt in 1947, right after he said in front of Congress, God and everybody, “This is the beginning of an American concentration camp.”

But there's much more to Trumbo's story. Here are just twelve chapters:

1) Dalton Trumbo was born in Montrose, Colorado, but his family moved to Grand Junction when he was three. 

2) He enjoyed his boyhood there, but after he left for college, he never returned. His first published novel, 1935's Eclipse, was seen as a thinly-veiled sendup of most of its citizens. Many in town never forgave him.

3) A statue of him was unveiled in front of the Avalon Theater on Main Street in Grand Junction in 2007. He’s sitting naked in a bathtub, a place from whence he did most of his writing.

Dalton Trumbo statue in Grand Junction.
Dalton Trumbo statue in Grand Junction.

4) Like another CU-Boulder great, Glenn Miller, Trumbo only went to school there for one year. In 1993, the efforts of CU grad student Kristina Baumli resulted in the re-dedication of a fountain on campus as the Dalton Trumbo Free Speech Fountain Court.

5) Trumbo’s father died young, and he supported his mother and sisters for eight years by working the night shift in an L.A. bakery. Meanwhile, he trained himself to write, composing six unpublished novels before scoring with magazine pieces and film criticism. This led to scriptwriting work for many of the major movie studios.

6)Columbia Pictures tried to team up Trumbo and William Saroyan, but it didn’t work out. However, Trumbo did once help Saroyan dispose of a dead alligator by helping him to bury it behind a billboard off the Hollywood Freeway. 

7) Trumbo’s 1939 anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun is considered a classic, and is now required reading in many schools. In 1971, Trumbo directed his own film adaptation of the book; it won two awards at Cannes and remains a cult favorite. Oddly, Metallica owns the rights to the film; the band used so much footage from it in its 1989 “One” video that buying the film was more cost-effective than paying usage fees.

8) Trumbo wrote some great screenplays, including Kitty Foyle (1940), which won Ginger Rogers a Best Actress Oscar; A Guy Named Joe (1943) and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944). He was an uncredited script doctor on many films, solving problem scripts quickly and with style. He won both his Oscars while he was blacklisted: for Roman Holiday (1953) and The Brave One (1956). He also wrote the innovative noir Gun Crazy (1950). Trumbo was arguably more successful during the blacklist than at any other time in his career.

9) Trumbo’s name was erased from the blacklist through the one-two punch of being openly credited for his screenplays for 1960’s Exodus and Spartacus, two big-budget hits. Though Spartacus producer and star Kirk Douglas is credited with ending the blacklist by announcing Trumbo’s work, Exodus director Otto Preminger always contended that he did it first.

10) Despite the so-called “end” of the blacklist in 1960, many writers, directors, actors and others came back slowly to the profession; some never did. Trumbo’s outcome was the happiest.

11) Trumbo racked up more impressive credits, including Lonely Are the Brave (1962) and Papillon (1973). In the latter, he plays the callous commandant who at film’s opening recommends to the prisoners: “Forget France!”

12) The Trumbo boom really began when Trumbo’s son Christopher wrote the award-winning play Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted, based on Dalton’s voluminous and quotable correspondence, in 2003, which became a cause celebre featuring many prominent actors. Christopher also wrote the successful 2007 documentary film Trumbo, which further popularized his father and his work.

There may be some grumbling as to the authenticity of the new film – it’s based on Bruce Cook’s 1977 biography, not the just-published definitive behemoth by Larry Ceplair, incorporating material from Christopher Trumbo. But distortion is something that Trumbo himself might say couldn’t be helped for the sake of a stronger story.

At any rate, there’s never a bad time to hear sentiments such as these:  “Democracy means that people can say what they want to. All the people.” – Dalton Trumbo

Dalton Trumbo Free Speech Fountain, CU-Boulder campus.
Dalton Trumbo Free Speech Fountain, CU-Boulder campus.

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