The Great Screenwriters: Dalton Trumbo

By Martin Keady · July 5, 2020

Dalton Trumbo is unique among screenwriters in having a biopic made of his life, Trumbo (2015), which starred Bryan Cranston in his first leading role after the end of his phenomenally successful TV series, Breaking Bad. There have been so many films about fictional screenwriters, from Sunset Boulevard (1950) to Adaptation (2002), that they virtually constitute a sub-genre of the “movies about movies” genre, but Trumbo is the only real-life screenwriter ever to have a film made about his life. That is a testament to both his extraordinarily eventful existence and his phenomenal success as a screenwriter. And the fact that the film barely broke even at the box office, thus confirming the suspicion of many in Hollywood that films about writers never make money, would not have been lost on Trumbo, had he lived to see it. He, more than any screenwriter who has ever lived, knew exactly where his own profession ranked in the film industry – somewhere between the role of first assistant director and that of the on-set cleaner – and so he would probably have enjoyed the fact that the film about his life was hardly a box-office smash. 

James Dalton Trumbo, to give him his full name, was virtually the embodiment of what was often called “The American Century” (i.e. the 20th century). He was born in the small town of Montrose in Colorado in 1905, but his family soon moved to the much larger town of Grand Junction, so named because it was at the confluence, or meeting point, of two major rivers, but with the coming of the railways in the second half of the 19th century it soon became a meeting-point of railway lines, too. In fact, it is worth remembering that, like much of Colorado, Grand Junction was only really established in the 1880s, when the “Great Move West” (the agricultural and industrial development of the western half of the United States) finally allowed for agriculture in the state to become fully established. Consequently, Dalton Trumbo was almost the son of pioneers, although it is unlikely that he felt much of the pioneer spirit as he grew up in small-town America in the early 1900s. 

Where Trumbo was undoubtedly a pioneer, however, was in his early dedication to writing and becoming a professional writer. Even before he graduated from high school, he was working as a reporter on his local newspaper, covering everything from court cases (including the occasional courtroom drama) to the arrival of fresh cadavers in the town morgue. Although he did not know it, he was one of a host of great screenwriters, including the great Ben Hecht, who would begin their writing careers by working as a newspaper reporter in the late 1910s and 1920s. Rather like Charles Dickens, who before he became a successful novelist reported both Parliamentary debates and court hearings, this “apprenticeship” as a journalist seems to have given writers like Hecht and Trumbo an unparalleled view of all the layers of American society, including the actively uncivilised layers such as the growing criminal class, and that view would go on to inform much of their best screenwriting. 

Trumbo briefly attended the University of Colorado at Boulder, but when his family moved further west to Los Angeles he left college and followed them to California. He had initially hoped to continue his studies by enrolling at the University of Southern California, but tragically his father, Orus, died soon after the family arrived in LA and Dalton had to forego his university studies to become the family’s main breadwinner, or, in his case, breadwrapper, as he spent nearly a decade working the night shift, wrapping newly baked bread at the ironically named “Davis Perfection Bakery”. It was certainly not a “perfect” existence for Trumbo, but at least it allowed him to write during the day. Nevertheless, as he entered the 1930s, a time when the whole of America (and indeed the whole Western world) was still reeling from the Great Depression, he feared that he would never become a full-time writer and would instead be stuck wrapping loaves and rolls for the rest of his life.

Fortunately for Trumbo, his latent talent finally allowed him to make some headway as a writer, when he began to sell stories (fiction and non-fiction) to some of the biggest-selling magazines and periodicals of the time, including Vanity Fair and the Saturday Evening Post. Eventually, he was offered a full-time position as an editor at the Hollywood Reporter. However, like most Americans of this era, when approximately 90% of what people spent on “entertainment” was spent on going to the movies, he was fascinated by films. Consequently, he abandoned journalism forever when he was offered a job as a script reader at Warner Brothers, the home of so many of the “gangster” movies that were so controversial but also so popular in the early 1930s. And having got a job as a script reader, eventually Trumbo became a script writer.

Before he sold any scripts, however, Trumbo wrote and sold a novel, called Eclipse (1935), which was a very thinly veiled account of his own upbringing in Grand Junction. Actually, it was so thinly veiled that the authorities and occupants of Grand Junction initially took exception to the book’s depiction of their supposedly small minds and smaller lives, and protested against it. Ironically, this small show of protest against Trumbo prefigured the far greater show of protest that would soon come to dominate his life and writing career. However, it is worth pointing out that just as he ultimately survived the attack on his livelihood that the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s represented, so he would ultimately survive the attack on his reputation by the good burghers of Grand Junction, who, many years later, would eventually erect a statue of Trumbo, the town’s most famous son.

That statue in Grand Junction typically depicted Trumbo in what became his trademark pose – writing (or more accurately typing, at a typewriter) in a bathtub. Of course many writers, including many screenwriters, have claimed to find inspiration in the bath, or shower, but Trumbo seems to have found the bathroom to be the ideal place for perspiration, too, especially when he became a screenwriter in the late 1930s. Like most new screenwriters at that time, his first screenplays were for relatively undistinguished studio fare, such as Road Gang and Love Begins at 20 (both 1936), but he soon began to leave B-movies behind as he wrote a succession of stunning novels and, eventually, screenplays. 

Trumbo’s biggest success, both critically and commercially, at this time was his second novel, Johnny Got His Gun (1939), which told the story of a World War One survivor who had lost all his limbs. It won one of the earliest National Book Awards and was especially praised for its originality. It would be another five years before he achieved such success as a screenwriter, but once he did he repeated the trick almost immediately. 

1944 was Trumbo’s breakthrough year as a screenwriter, nearly a decade on from his first screenwriting credit, as he wrote two extremely successful and – somewhat ironically, given what would happen to him less than five years later – patriotic films. The first was A Guy Named Joe, which is almost an American equivalent (and forerunner) of Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946), in its depiction of a pilot who is killed in action but whose spirit sufficiently “survives” to allow him to oversee, and even guide, the actions of both his successor in the cockpit and the girl who he loves. It was a huge hit and the memory of it in American popular culture was such that Steven Spielberg made a far less successful remake, Always, in 1989. Then, Trumbo topped Joe with an even more successful script for Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, an account of the first retaliatory air raid on Japanese soil by US forces after Pearl Harbor. Both Joe and Tokyo starred Spencer Tracy, who at the time was the screen embodiment of American derring-do, and it seemed that Trumbo himself was almost a “Spencer Tracy of Screenwriting”, as he too was thought to represent the very best values and ideals of America in his writing. However, that was all to change after the end of World War Two. 

Trumbo’s involvement with US Communism, which predated World War Two, was largely the subject of Trumbo, the movie, and it has also been examined in numerous books (both fiction and non-fiction). His own experience of working the nightshift in a bakery for nearly 10 years had made him receptive to the ideology of communism, even if the subsequent involvement of Soviet Russia in World War Two and the events afterwards – first, Russia allying itself with Hitler’s Germany, then its invasion by the Germans, which made it an ally of the West, before it finally replaced Nazi Germany as Public Enemy No.1 during the Cold War that swiftly followed the end of WW2 – made him question whether communism could ever really work in practice. 

Nevertheless, despite these personal doubts, Trumbo became the most celebrated and successful member of “The Hollywood 10”, the group of writers, directors and actors who were effectively “blacklisted” (or forbidden from working) in Hollywood after being called to testify by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. “The Ten”, as they were known, were just the public face of a much wider backlash against anyone who was thought to have Communist sympathies, or, worse still, who was thought to have been a member of the American Communist Party, as Trumbo himself was between 1943 and 1948. The result was that, almost at the very moment that he was becoming the most sought-after screenwriter in Hollywood, Trumbo was unable to sell anything (script or novel) bearing his own name. And when he refused in 1947 to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he received a prison sentence and a spot on the blacklist for his silence. 

It is what followed next that made Dalton Trumbo such a legendary screenwriter and a subject deserving of his own biopic. Having fought his way from small-town America, via a Los Angeles bakery where he worked the nightshift for nearly 10 years, Trumbo was not about to give up his immensely lucrative writing career without another fight. Consequently, like many other members of the Hollywood 10, especially the writers, he began to work under pseudonyms, or what came to be known as “fronts”. The practice was so widespread that it was later the subject of a Woody Allen movie, simply called The Front (1976), in which Allen starred (even if he did not direct) as the titular “front” for a far more gifted but blacklisted writer. 

As both The Front and Trumbo showed, Trumbo wrote probably his greatest work while he was effectively banned from writing under his own name. It is almost certainly a classic example of the old idea that art often thrives under conditions of censorship, or even suppression, as the artist is forced to find new and increasingly imaginative ways to continue making his art that do not alert or upset the authorities. It is a tradition as old as writing itself, from the Ancient Greek playwrights (including Sophocles and Euripides) who wrote about their Persian enemies or imaginary “sex strikes” rather than writing directly about their own principal concerns in Athens, and it even encompasses Shakespeare, who wrote about Ancient Rome rather than writing directly about his own time and place – Elizabethan England. And Dalton Trumbo is undoubtedly the most spectacular example of this tradition in the entire history of screenwriting. 

Indeed, in retrospect Trumbo’s 1950s represent one of the greatest ever “Imperial Phases” (the phrase coined by Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys to describe those rare, and usually short-lived, periods when an artist can seemingly do no wrong) of any screenwriter, and it is all the more impressive given that he was continually and often publicly forced to deny that he was writing anything at all. It began with Gun Crazy (1950), a supposed B-movie that Trumbo rewrote as a classic film noir, and encompassed two Oscar-winners, Roman Holiday (1953) and The Brave One (1956), although on both occasions Trumbo had to watch on TV as other, less gifted writers who he had hired as his “front” accepted the Oscar, not on his behalf but supposedly for themselves. 

What is also fascinating about Trumbo’s finest work of the fifties, particularly in those two Oscar-winners, is how it all depicts perhaps the ultimate subject of cinema (and, to a lesser extent, all of art), which is the story of the little guy (or gal) against the big guy (or system, corporate structure or even Government). In Roman Holiday, Audrey Hepburn plays an unhappy European princess who longs for a life of her own, so much so that she embarks on the titular trip around Rome with Gregory Peck’s reporter so that she can taste ordinary life in all its fullness. Of course, Trumbo himself was permanently on a kind of “Roman Holiday” (although “Mexican Holiday” or “California Holiday” would be more precise, as they were the two places where he spent most of the 1950s), pretending to be something he wasn’t, namely a successful and working screenwriter. And in The Brave One, he told the story of a young Mexican boy who tries to prevent his beloved bull from being killed in the bullring. Again, it does not require much imagination to consider how Trumbo would have seen something of his own story in this ostensibly very different tale, as he too was trying to protect something incredibly valuable to him (his screenwriting career) even though it appeared almost impossible for him to do so.

The Brave One was a particularly influential film for Trumbo, because when it won him his second Academy Award for writing (after Roman Holiday), the fact that the film’s supposed screenwriter was named “Robert Rich” prompted huge speculation about the film’s true author. “Robert Rich” was not only a jokey pseudonym invented by Trumbo to disguise his own involvement with the film; it was also the name of one of the film’s producer’s nephews, who initially claimed to have written the screenplay but then denied it. So, the same forces that were at work in driving Trumbo out of the movies nearly a decade earlier, notably the legendary (and legendarily vile) Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper, set out to find the true story behind the screenwriter of The Brave One, in the hope of exposing Trumbo (who was widely thought to have written the script) out of Hollywood for good. 

Fortunately for Trumbo, the end of the 1950s was a very different period, politically and culturally, to the end of the 1940s, and Hopper and all her other anti-Communist cronies, were unable to extend, or even continue, his ban. In fact, at the very end of the decade the veil, or “front”, was finally lifted when the producers of both Spartacus and Exodus (both 1960) publicly announced from the start that Trumbo would be writing the screenplays for both movies. Finally, Trumbo’s own period of exile from Hollywood was over, and once again he was able to employ all his gifts as a brilliant writer and all his experiences as a terribly badly treated man, first in his depiction of a slave who tries to overthrow the whole Roman Empire, and then in his portrayal of the foundation of the state of Israel, after the Jewish people had spent so long in “exile” themselves. 

Trumbo continued to write film scripts for more than another decade, but almost inevitably nothing that he wrote in that period could quite match up to the grandeur and complexity of Roman Holiday or Spartacus, with one exception. His final credit as a screenwriter was for his work on Papillon (1973), the extraordinary account of another wronged man who is forced into exile (or, more precisely, incarceration in a disease-ridden French colony in the Caribbean) but never, ever gives up his dream that one day he will escape and finally clear his name. 

Trumbo was not the sole writer of Papillon (he shared the writing credit with Lorenzo Semple Jr.), but there is still no doubt that he must have personally responded to the story, which could almost have been the story of his own life. Perhaps that is why Papillon is not only the last great script that he wrote or co-wrote before his death in 1976, but also the only film in which he appeared very briefly in a cameo role, as if to reinforce the point that, despite the best efforts of the blacklisters of the 1950s, he, like Papillon, had survived, and would now tell the truth, shaming his oppressors and completely clearing his name. 

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Martin Keady is an award-winning scriptwriter whose work has been produced for film, television, stage and radio. His major credits include: The Final, a short film about the famous ending of the 1979 FA Cup Final, which was shown on Channel Four; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon, which was premiered at The Edinburgh Festival; and a collection of love poetry, Shards, extracts from which have been broadcast on Radio Four.”

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