Trumbo, Dalton

Trumbo, Dalton
   Dalton Trumbo was one of Hollywood’s highest-paid screenwriters in the 1940s, with such films as A Guy Named Joe (1943) and Tender Comrade (1944) to his credit. He was born in Montrose, Colorado, on December 9, 1905. He attended the University of Colorado at Boulder (1924–25), and the University of California at Los Angeles (1925–27), and finally the University of Southern California at Los Angeles (1927–29). He married Cleo Fincher in 1939. He began his professional career as a writer as a newspaper reporter in 1930, then became a script reader at Warner Bros. in 1935. In 1936 he wrote his first screenplay, Love Begins at Twenty. He became a prominent screenwriter; then, in 1947, in a tense period of uncertainty known as the cold war, came the anticommunist witch-hunt, encouraged by Senator Joseph McCarthy and carried on by the hearings conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The committee, which attempted to target communist elements in the film industry, was chaired by J. Parnell Thomas, a notorious Redbaiter. The hearings began in Washington, D. C. , on October 22.
   Some “friendly witnesses” were self-proclaimed patriots such as actor Ronald Reagan and movie mogul Louis B. Mayer, who fulminated against the Red Menace. Others, who were suspected of having communist affiliations, were granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for informing on friends in the film industry, most of whom had long since abandoned any interest in leftist politics. Indeed, the testimony of these witnesses about the individuals in Hollywood whom they fingered as suspected communists was usually unsubstantiated and often amounted to little more than character assassination, founded on hearsay and malice.
   “Unfriendly witnesses” were those accused of alleged communist activities who steadfastly refused to reveal their political past or the political connections of their associates. Ten such witnesses, including screenwriters Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner Jr. , and director Edward Dmytryk, declined to cooperate with HUAC. They either invoked the First Amendment of the Constitution or challenged the authority of HUAC. Lardner (Woman of the Year, 1942) recalls in his autobiography that, when Thomas asked him if he was committed to the Communist Party, he replied, “I could answer, but I would hate myself in the morning. ”
   They were all charged with contempt of Congress and were subject to imprisonment. The group was dubbed the “Hollywood Ten,” or “the Unfriendly Ten,” whereupon director Billy Wilder quipped that a few of them had talent; the rest were just unfriendly. Trumbo had written Kitty Foyle (1940), for which Ginger Rogers won an Academy Award. Ironically, according to John Howard, the actress’s mother, Lela Rogers, testified against Trumbo during the hearings. Mrs. Rogers claimed that in another Trumbo film, Tender Comrade, Ginger had refused to speak the line,“Share and share alike—that’s democracy,” declaring it smacked of communist ideology. Moreover, Mrs. Rogers maintained that the picture, which was directed by Edward Dmytryk (Murder, My Sweet, 1944), contained other “anti-American speeches” which other members of the cast were made to say.
   The Hollywood Ten futilely appealed their cases; in May 1950, the Supreme Court refused to review the case, and the (by now) infamous group were given jail sentences in various prisons around the country. Dalton Trumbo spent 10 months at the federal penitentiary in Ashland, Kentucky. Parnell Thomas, ironically,was also sent to prison around this time for putting nonexistent employees on his Congressional payroll. Ring Lardner remembered encountering him in the federal correctional institution in Danbury, Connecticut.
   After their release from prison, they were blacklisted by the film industry. In fact, they were advised by the Motion Picture Association of America that suspected communists and other subversives thought to have communist sympathies would not knowingly be employed in Hollywood. The year Trumbo spent in the federal prison, he told Judy Stone, “changed my life. ” In his salad days in Hollywood, Trumbo’s salary had risen to $4,000 a week; in the wake of his jail sentence he could command only $2,500 a week—and then only for screenplays that he ground out under various aliases, including such pseudonyms as “Les Crutchfield” and even “Sally Stubblefield. ” (The phenomenon of blacklisted writers composing scripts was known in Hollywood as “the black market. ”)
   Trumbo won an Academy Award in 1953 for Roman Holiday, which he wrote under the pseudonym of Ian McLellan Hunter, and copped another Oscar in 1957 for The Brave One, which he wrote with the pen name of Robert Rich. Neither “Hunter” nor “Rich” appeared at the Oscar ceremonies to pick up their awards, but it was an open secret in Hollywood that both Hunter and Rich were in fact Dalton Trumbo.
   A few years later, director Otto Preminger hired Trumbo to write the screenplay for Exodus (1960); and on January 19, 1960, he held a press conference to announce that Dalton Trumbo would receive an official screen credit for his script. Lardner writes in his autobiography that the American Legion protested Preminger’s action; but the director told the legionnaires that they had a right to their opinion, just as he had a right to hire anyone he pleased. In openly supporting Trumbo, Preminger staunchly maintained that in a democracy a person’s political views are his personal concern. As a result of his stand, Gerald Mast and Bruce Kawin comment, “Preminger was instrumental in vanquishing the blacklist. ” Preminger no doubt took this position because he vividly remembered the suppression of freedom of expression in his native Austria, while it was under Nazi domination. KIRK DOUGLAS, who was executive producer as well as star of SPARTACUS (1960), had also commissioned Trumbo to write that film, derived from the novel by HOWARD FAST, who had himself served time for admitting his membership in the American Communist Party. But when Douglas had hired Trumbo, more than a year before Preminger’s public stance about Trumbo, he initially utilized Edward Lewis, the film’s producer, as a “front” for Trumbo, claiming that Lewis was the author of the script. (The practice of fronting was common during the blacklisting era, and was the subject of the Woody Allen vehicle The Front (1976), a movie which was directed by Martin Ritt and written by Walter Bernstein-both of whom had been blacklisted in the McCarthy era. )
   VINCENT LOBRUTTO, in his biography of Kubrick, reports that, at a meeting of Kubrick, Douglas, Trumbo, Dalton n 373 and Lewis, Edward Lewis expressed misgivings about being named author of the script. LoBrutto states that Kubrick suggested that if they were unwilling to credit the real author of the screenplay, Dalton Trumbo, they might just as well attribute both the script and the direction of the film to him—much to the consternation of Douglas and Lewis.
   Kubrick’s suggestion was not as self-serving as it might at first appear. As long as Trumbo was not to receive an official screen credit for the screenplay, it made more sense for the director, rather than the producer, to be listed as author. As Kubrick told Gene Phillips, “I directed the actors, I composed the shots, and I edited the movie. ” Kubrick was, after all, on the creative side of the production, while Lewis was strictly on the business end of the project.
   As filming proceeded, Douglas officially stated that “Sam Jackson” (Trumbo’s favorite alias) was the screenwriter. Spartacus was still at the editing stage, and Douglas and Lewis were still bickering about Trumbo’s screen credit, when Preminger publicly named Trumbo as author of the Exodus script. Exodus was released some months before Spartacus, with Trumbo listed as author of the screenplay. Douglas opted to follow suit and award the screen credit for Spartacus to the script’s rightful author. Nevertheless, Douglas contended ever after that he had broken the blacklist by crediting Trumbo with the script for Spartacus. As a matter of fact, the record shows that Exodus was released on March 27, 1960, with Trumbo’s name in the credits, whereas Spartacus was released October 19, 1960. Exodus was Trumbo’s first screen credit after the blacklisting era, not Spartacus. Consequently, Preminger, more than Douglas, was instrumental in vanquishing the iniquitous blacklist.
   Neither Spartacus nor Exodus suffered appreciably at the box office because of Trumbo’s screen credit for both films. There were minor skirmishes surrounding the release of both movies, with picketing by the American Legion and the American Nazi Party in Chicago, Los Angeles, and other major cities. In addition, the American Legion sent out a mailing of 17,000 letters, denouncing Spartacus because the “communist” Dalton Trumbo was involved in the picture. But the protests were short-circuited by a lack of public support and because both pictures were major spectacles that were well publicized and featured superstars with considerable marquee value. Spartacus, for example, boasted not only Kirk Douglas but LAURENCE OLIVIER and JEAN SIMMONS. When the name of a blacklisted writer appeared on the American screen for two Hollywood epics, it was obvious that the blacklisting period was for all practical purposes over. (Senator Joseph McCarthy was ultimately censured by the Senate and died in disgrace. ) Helen Manfull, the editor of Trumbo’s published correspondence, Additional Dialogue, writes that Preminger “cannily made himself the herald of the end of the blacklist” and essentially outmaneuvered Kirk Douglas, who at long last had finally agreed to give Trumbo credit for the Spartacus script. But Douglas never ceased to maintain that he, and not Preminger, had broken the blacklist. In Dean Mitchell’s television documentary, Otto Preminger (2000), Preminger’s daughter Victoria has this to say: “There was an organization [which she declines to name] that was going to give an award to Kirk Douglas for breaking the blacklist after Dalton Trumbo’s death in 1976. His widow, Mrs. Dalton Trumbo, called the organization and said, ‘That’s not true—the man who broke the blacklist was Otto Preminger. ’ But the organization said that Douglas was a big movie star and was very popular, so they went ahead and gave the award to Douglas. ”
   When Douglas brought in Kubrick to direct Spartacus, Kubrick had no problems with Trumbo’s politics. Thus he did not question Trumbo’s slipping contemporary political references into the script. The film concerns a rebellious slave who foments a slave revolt against the forces of the Roman Empire, led by General Crassus (Laurence Olivier). Shortly before Crassus’s troops are to meet Spartacus’s slave army in the film’s climatic battle sequence, Crassus lays plans with his general staff at his battlefield headquarters. “ I’m not out for glory,” he says. “I’m out to kill the legend of Spartacus. ” Batiatus, the slave trader (PETER USTINOV), is then summoned to the general’s presence and asked for a physical description of Spartacus. Batiatus surprises the commander-inchief by telling him that he has seen Spartacus before: “He once trained under your auspices. You and your friends saw him when you visited my gladiatorial school. If it isn’t subversive of me to say it, I made him what he is today. ” This quip about subversion is undoubtedly a reference by Trumbo to the investigations of HUAC during the Red Scare, only a few years before. Batiatus, however, agrees to finger Spartacus for Crassus, which recalls the treachery of the “friendly witnesses” at the HUAC hearings.
   After Crassus’s overwhelming victory against Spartacus, Gracchus (CHARLES LAUGHTON), an old political enemy of Crassus in the Senate, knows that Crassus’s victory spells his defeat. Summoned to the Senate, Gracchus sits sullenly in the darkened, almost empty chamber as Crassus snarls at him, “If your political followers falter in loyalty to the State, they will be imprisoned. Lists of the disloyal have been compiled. ” There is little doubt that this statement too was inspired by Trumbo’s bitter personal experiences with HUAC. “Is my name on such a list?”
   Gracchus inquires, already sure of the answer. Crassus grandly responds that he intends to let Gracchus live as long as he is willing to help acclimate his former followers to the new regime.
   Edith Lee comments that Trumbo’s scripts for films like Spartacus lack sophistication. His screenplays, she continues,“tended to be preachy and ‘more liberal than thou. ’” Still, Kubrick’s reservations with the script were not aimed at Trumbo’s politics, but at the overall quality of the screenplay. Spartacus, Kubrick told JOSEPH GELMIS, “had everything but a good story. ” The script, he continued, could have been improved in the course of shooting, but it was not.
   Both Douglas, the executive producer, and Lewis, the producer, were in Trumbo’s corner; and hence they by and large ignored any suggestions that Kubrick made about the screenplay. Trumbo’s correspondence with Lewis, as published in Additional Dialogue, makes it abundantly clear that he and Lewis in particular had a close professional association, which endured through the many scripts which Lewis commissioned Trumbo to write for films which Lewis produced over the years. Therefore, Lewis, and Douglas with him, sided against Kubrick when the latter suggested that Trumbo make script revisions.
   Kubrick’s chief complaint about working on Spartacus, as mentioned, was that the screenplay was saddled with a weak story line. Since the known facts about Spartacus’s slave revolt are few, Trumbo invented a number of subplots in order to create the script for a king-size film of more than three hours’ running time, leaving the film overlong and topheavy with plot details.
   Film historian Edith Lee asserts that Trumbo concentrated too much on multiplying additional plot complications and not enough on inventing incidents calculated to reveal character, in order to examine motivation more deeply and to make it more easy for the filmgoer to identify with the key characters.
   Among Trumbo’s later screenplays are Lonely are the Brave (1962) and Hawaii (1966). In the early 1970s Trumbo was finally able to bring to the screen his 1939 anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun (1971), directing the film himself; it won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival. He belatedly received an Academy Award in 1975 for his screenplay for The Brave One (1956), which he had written under the pseudonym of Robert Rich. He died of a heart attack at age seventy on September 10, 1976.
   Trumbo’s scripts, says Edith Lee, deal with important issues like freedom versus tyranny, but they are painted with broad, melodramatic strokes:Thus Spartacus is a “message picture” about human rights as much as it is a historical epic. This is not to say the film does not have some memorable moments; Lee perhaps best sums up Trumbo’s achievement as a screenwriter when she concludes, referring to his being blacklisted, “Unfortunately for the history of cinema,Trumbo’s life was more gripping” than any of his screenplays, Spartacus included.
   ■ Bernstein, Walter, “Remembering the Blacklist,” New York Times, October 27, 1996, sec. 2, p. 18;
   ■ Dick, Bernard, Radical Innocence: The Hollywood Ten (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988;
   ■ Dmytryk, Edward, Odd Man Out:A Memoir of the Hollywood Ten (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996);
   ■ Gelmis, Joseph, “The Director as Superstar: Stanley Kubrick,” in Stanley Kubrick: Interviews, ed. Gene Phillips (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001), pp. 80–104;
   ■ Giannetti, Louis, and Scott Eyman, “The Red Scare,” in Flashback:A Brief History of Film, rev. ed. (Upper Saddle River, N. J. : Prentice Hall, 2001), pp. 262–264;
   ■ Goodman,Walter,“How to Learn from the Blacklist,” New York Times, February 25, 1996, sec. 2, pp. 32–33;
   ■ Howard, James, Stanley Kubrick Companion (London: Batsford, 1999), pp. 63–72;
   ■ Lardner, Ring, Jr. , I’d Hate Myself in the Morning: A Memoir (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2000);
   ■ Lee, Edith, “Dalton Trumbo,” in International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Writers and Production, vol. 4, rev. ed. , ed. Grace Jeromski (Detroit: St. James Press, 1996), pp. 835–836;
   ■ LoBrutto,Vincent, Stanley Kubrick: A Biography (New York: Da Capo, 1999), pp. 182–183;
   ■ Mast, Gerald and Bruce Kawin, “The Hollywood Ten, Preminger, and the Blacklist,” in A Short History of the Movies, rev. ed. , ed. Gerald Mast (Boston:Allyn and Bacon, 2000), pp. 275–277;
   ■ Stone, Judy, “Dalton Trumbo: An Interview,” in Eye on the World: Conversations with Filmmakers (Los Angeles: Silman-James, 1997), pp. 783–786;
   ■ Trumbo, Dalton, Additional Dialogue: Letters, 1942–62, ed. Helen Manfull (New York: Lippincott, 1970), pp. 486–526, passim.

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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  • Trumbo, Dalton — ▪ American author born Dec. 9, 1905, Montrose, Colo., U.S. died Sept. 10, 1976, Los Angeles       screenwriter and novelist who was probably the most talented member of the Hollywood Ten, one of a group who refused to testify before the 1947 U.S …   Universalium

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