Dalton Trumbo: An Introduction

Explore his most significant screenwriting achievements

Written by Peter Bowen

Dalton Trumbo: American Screenwriter

In Jay Roach’s TRUMBO, Bryan Cranston embodies the spirit of Dalton Trumbo, the celebrated Hollywood screenwriter whose principled refusal to name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) earned him 13 years in purgatory as a blacklisted writer. For years, his name was literally erased from the scripts he wrote. Even today scores of screenplays he wrote (or rewrote) under various pseudonyms during this dark period remain unaccredited to him. But if the blacklist obscured his career, his later exoneration had in some ways a very similar effect by emphasizing his status as a political victim over that of serious screenwriter. Despite winning two Oscars, Trumbo acknowledged, “The blacklist has done more to make my name known than any work I ever did.” Starting in 1935 with Warner Brothers, Trumbo wrote movies in nearly every shape, form, and genre for the next forty years. And he wrote them quickly. In one self-deprecating aside, Trumbo joked, "I may not be the best screenwriter in Hollywood, but I am incomparably the fastest." Although Trumbo isn’t associated with any specific cinematic style, the one thread that weaves itself through his work is the dignity and nobility with which he imbues his characters. From Five Came Back toSpartacus to Papillon, his characters more often than not dramatize the struggle of trying to live up to one’s principles, a pursuit certainly not unfamiliar to their author. To more fully appreciate the depth and breadth of this great American screenwriter’s legacy, we look at 11 of his better-known films.


Five Came Back (1939)
A Thriller with a Conscience

In Five Came Back, Dalton Trumbo’s first film for RKO, the young screenwriter proved his talent for punching up material to provide maximum entertainment with just a touch of social commentary. For RKO, best known for its B-movie flicks, the plot of Five Came Back offered a cornucopia of adventure tropes: an airplane crash, stranded passengers, convicts on the run, and a jungle full of “savages” out for blood. The film starts as the plane, the Silver Queen, veers off course after departing from Los Angeles and crashes in the Panamanian jungle. The nine survivors––which include a wealthy couple, a professor, a gangster’s son, and an anarchist being extradited for having killed a corrupt politician––band together, first to get the plane fixed, and then to escape a tribe of head-hunters. But their toughest challenge occurs when they realize the repaired plane can only hold five passengers. Vasquez, the condemned radical, is elected to decide who will return and who will stay behind to face certain death. While Nathanael West (the novelist famous for The Day of the Locust) and Jerry Cady were the first writers to adapt Richard Carroll’s story, Trumbo spiced up the script to give it a bit more of political edge. Vasquez, who was much more a villain in earlier drafts, emerges as a more romantic and philosophical figure in Trumbo’s version. At one point, he even points out the political Eden created by the plane crash, even if no one appreciates it. “By all theories ours is an ideal community,” Vasquez states. “And yet everyone here except myself is living for the day when all this will come to an end. That is how tightly modern living has become wrapped up in non-essentials.” Directed by John Farrow, Five Came Back became both a critical and box office success, as well as a launching pad for Lucille Ball. The New York Times film critic Frank S. Nugent went out of his way to salute “Dalton Trumbo and his fellow-scriptists” for “writing punching dialogue to fit the occasion” of a story that is “a thriller to be seen.”


Kitty Foyle (1940)
Keeping Things Decent

For Kitty Foyle, Dalton Trumbo was given the tough order of turning a scandalous social exposé into an entertaining Hollywood blockbuster. RKO bought the rights to Christopher Morley’s novel Kitty Foylebecause its unvarnished depiction of sex, women’s working conditions, and abortion had made it an eye-opening bestseller. Unfortunately those same elements made it nearly impossible to film. In the novel, Kitty not only has an affair with a local playboy, but also has an abortion when she becomes pregnant. Joseph Breen, the head of the Production Code Administration (PCA), sternly reminded RKO that the novel had illicit sex, an unwedded pregnancy, and an abortion, any one of which was “a clear-cut violation of the Production Code.” To address the PCA’s complaints Trumbo deftly rewrote the details while keeping the emotions in place. The film starts with Kitty (Ginger Rogers) facing a difficult choice, whether to marry the dependable Mark Eisen (James Craig) or run away with Wyn Stafford (Dennis Morgan), the rich playboy who’d previously ruined her life. To make her decision, she reviews the events of her life in a series of flashbacks. Instead of having an affair (as she does in the novel), the young Kitty rushes into marriage with Wyn. When it becomes clear she does not fit into his snooty social circle, she runs away, only to discover later that she is pregnant, a complication that is tragically resolved when she miscarries. Trumbo’s new version was able to appease both the fans of the novel and the PCA, as the movie went on to become a critical and commercial success. Come award season, both Trumbo and director Sam Wood got an Oscar nomination, and Rogers won for Best Actress. Thrilled with Trumbo’s script, Rogers expressed that “it was the best dramatic part that ever came my way.” But this post-production happiness was short lived. Within a few years, Wood, the newly appointed president of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, denounced Trumbo to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). And Lela Rogers, Ginger’s mother and manager, blamed Trumbo for forcing her daughter to spout communist propaganda by writing lines, such as “share and share alike––that’s democracy,” for Ginger’s 1943 film Tender Comrade.


A Guy Named Joe (1943)
A Spiritual War Story

In 1943, Dalton Trumbo did his part for the war effort by adapting Chandler Sprague and David Boehm’s story “Flyers Never Die” for MGM’s big-budget flyboy fantasy A Guy Named Joe. The film also marked a high point in Trumbo’s battle to become a successful screenwriter. After being fired by MGM in 1938, he returned to the studio with several box office hits and an Oscar nomination under his belt, factors that helped raise his market value considerably. Forgoing the guns, guts, and glory of conventional war movies, A Guy Named Joeexplored the emotional and spiritual nature of patriotism with a supernatural premise. As the writer, Trumbo was confronted with the task of keeping the film’s metaphysical premise grounded in the here and now, as well as crafting a message film that the War Department would endorse. The story begins as a fighter pilot named Pete (Spencer Tracey) agrees to fly one more mission before returning to the States with his sweetheart Dorinda (Irene Dunne). Unfortunately his plane is shot down, and while he manages to save his crew, Pete perishes while performing this final heroic act. But Pete’s tour of duty isn’t quite up yet. When he awakens and the dry-ice clouds of Heaven clear, he meets the “General” who re-assigns the fighter pilot to help new and inexperienced fliers down on earth get ready for battle. The only problem is that Pete discovers that Ted (Van Johnson), the pilot he’s supposed to be looking over, is falling in love with his old sweetheart Dorinda. Before going into production, MGM sent the script to both the Production Code Administration (PCA) and the War Department; the latter’s approval being essential for gaining access to military locations and aircraft. Both Trumbo and director Victor Fleming soon found that the War Department was a hydra-headed beast with each official having a different, and often opposing, opinion. While one Army reader applauded the script’s “redeeming Toppertwist,” another condemned it, writing, “The presence of hovering ghosts of deceased pilots, and the unreal, fantastic, and slightly schizophrenic character of the scenario hardly combine to produce a sensible wartime film diet.” After several go-rounds, the War Department finally gave their stamp of approval, stating that the final screenplay presented “a morale-building motif for the benefit of air cadets.” More difficult was the film’s ending, which originally had Dorinda flying a suicide mission. But after six revisions, all parties signed off on a somewhat happy ending for the film. The final film proved to be one of the biggest hits of 1943, confirming Trumbo’s value as one of Hollywood’s most bankable writers. Steven Spielberg so loved the story’s metaphysical twist that he remade it in 1989 as Always.


Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)
A Flight to Remember

In 1944, Dalton Trumbo returned to the theme of war and fighter pilots with the hard-hitting taleThirty Seconds Over Tokyo. Based on Lt. Ted W. Lawson’s real-life account of the Doolittle Raid, the courageous first attack on Tokyo in 1942, the film tried to capitalize on the power of individual heroics, especially at a time when the war in the Pacific was suffering heavy losses. The film, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, reunited Trumbo with two of A Guy Named Joe’s stars––Van Johnson as Lawson, and Spencer Tracey as the raid’s chief architect, Lt. Col. James Doolitte. While the story illustrates how planes were snuck into Japan to drop bombs on Tokyo, the real drama occurs after the attack, when Lawson and his crew struggle to survive after their plane goes down off the Chinese coast. To get the story right, Trumbo interviewed many of the men involved in the original raid, and got permission from the War Department to fly on a B-25, the type of plane flown by Lawson. But translating the crew’s real-life experience into a Hollywood film went beyond getting the details right. Not only could Trumbo not include the fact that the Chinese who rescued Lawson and his crew were communists, but the War Department asked MGM to omit this part of the story as much as possible. “Damaging repercussions might result if the film emphasizes the part the Chinese play as a nation in assisting the flyers out of enemy-occupied territory,” warned Army officials. “This angle should be reduced to a minimum.” But Trumbo, seeking a larger perspective, not only included the Chinese, but avoided anti-Japanese jingoism as well. At one point, Lawson admits that while he doesn’t like the Japanese, he doesn’t hate them either. The final film was a triumph all around. For MGM, it was one of the highest grossing films that year. And the New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther singled out Trumbo’s restraint and precision, proclaiming, “as a drama of personal heroism, it is nigh the best yet made in Hollywood.” Newsweek later listed it as "one of the finest war movies to date."


Gun Crazy (1950)
American Pulp Classic

Gun Crazy, the first film Dalton Trumbo wrote under the table due to the blacklist, spins a high-spirited romantic adventure about two people pushed by society into a life of crime. The film’s outlaw spirit, which helped turn it into a cult classic a decade later, may have felt a little too familiar to Trumbo at the time. As Trumbo was being paraded before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings, the King Brothers came up with a brilliant and opportunistic idea––offer these top-drawer writers desperate for work bottom-of-the-barrel prices. For Gun Crazy, a pulpy noir about a crack shot (John Dall) lured into a life of crime by a femme fatale (Peggy Cummins), Trumbo was offered $3,750, a fraction of what MGM would’ve paid him. "We just had a short budget to make a picture and saw this as an opportunity to get a fine writer to work for us whom we could not otherwise afford,” Frank King explained. Trumbo’s agent George Wilner reached out to another client, Millard Kaufman, to front for the script. While Gun Crazyreceived favorable reviews, its full impact would be felt years later. The film’s taut dialogue, along with Joseph H. Lewis’ edgy direction and the actors’ raw performances, were applauded by the French New Wave as groundbreaking. Jean-Luc Godard not only paid homage to it in his 1960 masterpiece Breathless, but later, he and François Truffaut lauded it when they were asked to write the script for Bonnie and Clyde. In 1971, Paul Schrader called it "one of the best American films ever made." By 1998, Gun Crazy was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." And Time magazine’s Richard Schickel put it on the “All-Time 100 Movies.”


Roman Holiday (1953)
A Cinematic Masquerade

Presenting the Oscar for Best Story to Ian McLellan Hunter forRoman Holiday at the 26th Academy Awards, Kirk Douglas––and most of the audience––had no idea that Dalton Trumbo was the real author. "He had just emerged from ten months in jail for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee,” Trumbo’s wife Cleo remembers. “His only solution was to write." It is a testament to Trumbo’s talent as a writer that from such a dark period should come such a bright and charming fairy tale. In the film, a princess (Audrey Hepburn), wanting to escape the velvet constraints of being royalty, pretends to be a student in Rome, where she meets Gregory Peck, a reporter who claims to be a salesman in order to get her story. It is perhaps not accidental that Trumbo, who was forced to use fronts and pseudonyms to sell his scripts, should use the theme of deception to such effect. With Hunter’s name on the script, the project first went to Frank Capra’s Liberty Production Company, which acquired the property in the hopes of casting Cary Grant and Elizabeth Taylor in the leads. When Capra eventually abandoned the project––some say because he got wind Trumbo had written it––William Wyler stepped up to direct, but only if they shot the entire film in Rome. Starting with Trumbo’s script, Wyler hired British writer John Dighton to be on location in Rome to rewrite dialogue and scenes as needed. Roman Holiday became a massive hit, turning Hepburn into an international star and making Rome a new hot tourist destination. During award season, it was nominated for ten Oscars, winning three: Best Actress for Audrey Hepburn, Best Costume Design for Edith Head, and, of course, Best Writing, Motion Picture Story for Ian McLellan Hunt. In 1993, both the Academy and Writers Guild of America would change the name to be Dalton Trumbo.


The Brave One (1956)
The Strange Case of Robert Rich

When Deborah Kerr announced at the 29th Academy Awards that Robert Rich had won the Best Story Oscar for The Brave One, more than a few heads in the audience turned around quizzically. This mysterious new talent was not present to accept the award, which was picked up by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) head Jesse Lasky, Jr. instead. And when reporters discovered that the WGA had no member named Robert Rich, rumors and speculations fueled the mystery. Some writers, like Paul Rader, stepped out of the shadows to claim credit. Life magazine reported in 1957 that documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty was the original author. And under pressure by various groups, the Academy made the ultimatum that if the real Robert Rich did not come forward, they would rescind the Oscar. The real “Robert Rich” was a relative of producer Maury King, who confessed, “I needed a name for the script, so I picked my nephew’s. He knew as much about writing as I know about fixing cars, since he was working as an assistant bookkeeper someplace.” In 1953, the real writer, Dalton Trumbo, had approached the King brothers, the B-movie studio that had been buying blacklisted scripts at cut-rate prices, with the idea. "This picture is very simple and deals with very real things,” explained Trumbo, “and will best be done if it is done in simple realism." The Kings agreed to pay $10,000 for The Brave One, with $3,500 upfront, $1,500 when they got the script, and then $5,000 if they decided to make it. The original title, The Boy and The Bull, was changed because it was too close to another film project, Emilio and the Bull. Directed by Irving Rapper, The Brave Onebecame what Trumbo dreamed of––a simple story about Leonardo Rosillo (Michel Ray) and his bull Gitano that expressed real emotions. When the bull is sent to Mexico City to fight the nation’s most renowned bullfighter, Leonardo races to get a presidential pardon to save his beloved beast. Filmed in Mexico and telling a Mexican tale, The Brave One nevertheless captured American hearts. The Hollywood Reporter wrote, "The Brave One is one of the finest, most absorbing and most thoroughly enjoyable pictures made in this or any other year." It also struck a chord with Mexican audiences. Trumbo happily noted that "the pressure of people waiting for the theatre to open broke down the glass doors” into the lobby of the Mexico City cinema where it showed. In 1959, three years after the film was released, the Academy Board of Governors repealed the blacklist bylaw, and Dalton Trumbo was finally able to step forward and solve the mystery of Robert Rich for all concerned.


Spartacus (1960)
I AM Trumbo

In August 1960, when producer/star Kirk Douglas announced that Dalton Trumbo would receive a screenwriting credit for his Roman epicSpartacus, he helped mark the beginning of the end of the Hollywood blacklist. But this outcome was not at all obvious several years earlier when Douglas’ production company, Bryna, approached Trumbo to adapt Howard Fast’s massive novel about a slave who took on the Roman Empire. Interestingly the story’s connection to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) didn’t begin with Trumbo. A decade earlier, the left-leaning Fast was sentenced to three months for refusing to name names. While confined to the Mill Point Federal Prison, Fast started writing a novel about an unexpected hero who refused to give in to injustice during the time of Christ. Fast self-published his novel Spartacus to great success, making it an exceedingly attractive property for Bryna to option. While Fast was originally contracted to adapt his own novel, his inability to rein in the sprawling saga pushed the producers to reach out to Trumbo, whose speed and dramatic style made him an obvious choice. Trumbo, who by the end of the fifties had created a cottage industry churning out under-the-table scripts, was an open secret in Hollywood. Indeed his demand was so high that Bryna’s producer Edward Lewis was able to negotiate for him a relatively good deal for a blacklisted writer in which Trumbo would receive between $50,000 and $70,000, plus some percentage of the producer’s profits. Even though his name would not be used––he signed his letter-of-agreement as Sam Jackson, and then later let Lewis front for him––Trumbo believed a project like Spartacus could change the game for banned writers. “The Blacklist will not be broken by the triumph of one organization over another organization,” argued Trumbo. “It will be broken by the sheer excellence of the work of two or three blacklisted writers.” Unfortunately his hard work was thwarted at nearly every turn. First, Fast told Douglas that “Eddie Lewis [believing the producer to be the real author] is the world’s worst writer.” Next, director Stanley Kubrick, who had no actual script control, continued to push the film in a direction different than Trumbo’s screenplay. And finally, actors, like Peter Ustinov, took it upon themselves to rewrite lines on set. Yet even if the film never became what Trumbo intended, the final product proved historic, going on to win 4 Oscars and becoming Universal’s biggest box office success to date. But more than anything, it put Trumbo’s name back on the screen where it belonged.


Exodus (1960)
History in the Making

On December 12, 1959, Dalton Trumbo received a telegram from Otto Preminger that read: “BuyExodus. Read at once. You must help me. I will arrive Dec 16.” In 1958, Preminger and United Artists bought the film rights to Leon Uris’ monumental novel about the founding of Israel months before it was published. When the novel became the biggest bestseller since Gone With The Wind, Preminger rushed forward to make the movie with Uris writing the script. But when neither Uris, nor his replacement, Albert Maltz, could deliver a workable screenplay, Preminger telegrammed Trumbo. Working at breakneck speed, Trumbo pounded out a script in 40 days. While the two men could not have been more different, Trumbo cherished the experience, noting, “I had more pleasure working with Otto than with anyone in my life. More fun, more amusement, more tact, and, of course, more hard work.” Interestingly, Exodus started as a screenplay, not a novel. Uris was contracted by MGM in 1956 to develop the story as a film project, and only when it was abandoned did Uris turn his years of research into a novel. To bring the book’s vast historical reach into focus, Trumbo dramatized the fate of the passengers of Exodus 1947, a ship that the British violently turned back from bringing Jewish immigrants to Palestine after World War II. The passengers, led by the activist Ari Ben Canaan (Paul Newman), force the British army’s hand through hunger strikes and militant attacks, until they are finally allowed to settle in the area that would become Israel. But their arrival is only half the story, as the newly emigrated Jews now find themselves in an ongoing battle with both the British military and Arab nationalists. Despite the novel’s popularity, a range of groups, from the Israeli government to Arab nations, were wary of the film’s politics, leading Preminger to announce before it opened that Exodus is “an American picture, after all, that tries to tell the story, giving both sides a chance to plead their case." The director attempted to be equally fair minded by crediting Trumbo as the film’s screenwriter, a gesture that opened up a whole new can of worms. Right wing groups denounced the film and the American Legion mounted a nationwide protest against the producers and the screenwriter. In the end, the convergence of political controversy, a best-selling novel, and a star-studded cast (featuring Newman, Ralph Richardson, Eve St. Marie, Lee J. Cobb, and Sal Mineo) turnedExodus into a major media event. Even before it opened, Exodus had racked up $1.6 million in advance sales, an unheard of number for a practice that film companies were just starting to engage in. And while critics were mixed about the film’s historical veracity, most were complimentary about Trumbo’s contribution. The Hollywood Reporter wrote, “Trumbo’s screenplay is superior to the book as a dramatic structure, and if the film fails, it is not the fault of the writing.”


Johnny Got His Gun (1971)
A Long Personal Journey

The 42-year journey that Dalton Trumbo’s novel Johnny Got His Gun took to become a motion picture provides an illuminating look at the shifting landscape of American politics. In 1933, Dalton Trumbo first stumbled upon the idea for his novel while reading an article about a wounded British major in World War I whose injuries proved so horrific that the army told his family he was missing in action rather than allow them to view the injured soldier. The story and the image of the man’s tormented body stuck with Trumbo, morphing in his imagination to become the novel’s hero, Joe Bonham, an American soldier in WWI who awakens to the terrifying realization that his war injuries (the loss of his legs and arms, as well as his senses) had trapped him fully conscious in the prison of his own body. The novel moves back and forth in time, as well as between memory and fantasy, to consider what brought him to this state. After 14 months of hard work, often writing on weekends while working on film projects, Trumbo finished Johnny Got His Gun in 1938. But despite praise from friends and colleagues, the book was continually rejected for publication, eventually being serialized by the Marxist periodical the Daily Worker. Finding its horror too real to make it readable, let alone publishable, an Atlantic Monthly editor nevertheless wrote, “as a passionate anti-war statement it seems to me one of the best jobs I have ever seen.” The American Booksellers Association voted it the most original book of 1939. Indeed for a brief moment the book became a Hollywood cause célèbre. Carole Lombard and Clark Gable bought up dozens of copies to send to US politicians before the studio talked them out of it. Even Hedda Hopper, who later became Trumbo’s nemesis, lauded the novel as “a book everyone should read––at least everyone who wants to keep America out of war.” In 1940, the novel was adapted for the NBC radio series “Arch Oboler's Plays" with James Cagney voicing the character of Jon Bonham. But the profound pacifist message of the book kept it out of circulation during World War II, and Trumbo’s blacklisted status buried it through the 1950s. By 1959, the political climate had changed enough for publishers to reconsider it. The Realist editor Paul Krassner exclaimed, “there is a whole new generation––a whole new audience––for Johnny Got His Gun. It is more than an anti-war document; it is a treatise for the times if only in terms of putting basic values into perspective in an era when traditional beliefs are becoming more and more unacceptable.” In the 60s, when the book’s anti-war message spoke to a generation facing the prospect of being shipped to Vietnam, Trumbo received several inquiries about adapting it into a film. But the only one he took seriously was from the celebrated Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, for whom he wrote a screenplay. When that project fell apart, Trumbo decided to take on the job of directing the film using his own screenplay. Casting Timothy Bottoms as Bonham, Trumbo created a nearly experimental work that moved between black-and-white and color with cameos from Jason Robards and Donald Sutherland. Johnny Got His Gun won several awards at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, including Grand Prize of the Jury, even though it never really found an audience when it was released theatrically. The film also nearly bankrupted Trumbo who found himself once again in need of taking whatever work he could find to pay off his debts.


Papillon (1973)
Last Words

In October 1972, Dalton Trumbo received a very familiar phone call––a film that was scheduled to shoot immediately needed an emergency rewrite. The film wasPapillon, based on Henri Charrière’s real-life autobiography of being imprisoned on, and then escaping from, Devil’s Island, the prison camp in French Guiana. Published in 1970, Charrière’s harrowing tale of struggle and survival became an international bestseller. Wanting to capitalize on its popularity, producers Ted Richmond and Robert Dorfmann quickly optioned Lorenzo Semple, Jr.’s screenplay of the adventure. But as they pieced together the financing, budgetary concerns altered the nature of the story. Although the producers had locked in Steve McQueen as the star of the big-budget project, Allied Artists, the company financing the film, insisted on a co-star to balance the risk. The producers were lucky enough to get Dustin Hoffman to sign on, but unfortunately the original script didn’t include a role big enough for a co-star of Hoffman’s stature––and shooting was to begin in months. Enter Dalton Trumbo. To expand the part of Hoffman’s character, Dega, a convicted forger who has a minor part in Charrière’s memoir, Trumbo worked personally with the actor, discussing the story and reminiscing about his own life as a blacklisted writer. Their discussions not only provided Trumbo with enough material to rewrite the screenplay, but gave Hoffman a model on which to base his character––Trumbo himself. For Hoffman, “Trumbo’s sophistication overlays a dynamic strength and integrity which I felt was applicable to Dega.” But Trumbo was also willing to have fun with the character. When a prisoner tells Hoffman’s character, “I know you, you're Dega. You're a very intelligent man,” the prisoner responds, “Thank you. I seem to be known in all the wrong places.” Within a few weeks, Trumbo was able to tap out 60 pages before the film started shooting in Spain. The producers not only brought Trumbo along to Spain and Jamaica to continue rewriting scenes on set, but cast him as the prison’s commandant. During the production, which was plagued with everything from heavy rain to bad ganja in Jamaica, Trumbo’s worst news came in the form of a personal phone call from his doctor’s office in Beverly Hills. Tests he’d taken before production started revealed that the screenwriter had lung cancer. Forced to get an operation immediately, Trumbo worked out a deal with the Writers Guild of America to let his son Christopher finish the production for him. While the operation was successful, Papillon would be Trumbo’s last film before he died in 1976 of a heart attack.

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