Authors: Dalton Trumbo

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and screenwriter


Born in Montrose, Colorado, in 1905, James Dalton Trumbo was the son of Orus Trumbo and Maud Tillery Trumbo, parents with limited financial resources who nevertheless were ambitious for their son. The family moved from Montrose to Grand Junction, Colorado, the site of most of Trumbo’s fiction, where they lived until 1924. When he was in the fourth grade, his mother became a Christian Scientist, and the whole family attended her church. According to Trumbo, Christian Science was responsible for his lack of fear. From his father, an unsuccessful businessman, he acquired the inability to lie, a characteristic that later would lead to his imprisonment. In his youth Trumbo had a variety of jobs, but the most influential one was as a cub reporter for the Grand Junction Sentinel, an afternoon daily owned and edited by Walter Walker, who befriended him. In addition to being a good writer, Trumbo was also an excellent speaker who won prizes for debating and oratory in high school. Although his family was poor, he attended the University of Colorado in Boulder, but when his father lost his job in Grand Junction, Trumbo had to leave school. During his one year in college he wrote for the Silver and Gold, the school newspaper; helped edit the college yearbook; was invited to write for the Colorado Dodo, the campus humor magazine; and was invited to join Sigma Delta Chi, the national honorary society for journalism.{$I[A]Trumbo, Dalton}{$S[A]Kaufman, Millard;Trumbo, Dalton}{$S[A]Hunter, Ian McLellan;Trumbo, Dalton}{$S[A]Perry, Ben;Trumbo, Dalton}{$S[A]Rich, Robert;Trumbo, Dalton}{$S[A]Stubblefield, Sally;Trumbo, Dalton}{$S[A]Jackson, Sam;Trumbo, Dalton}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Trumbo, Dalton}{$I[tim]1905;Trumbo, Dalton}

In 1925 Trumbo joined his family in Los Angeles, where he worked for eight years at the Davis Perfection Bakery, which also provided him with pro-labor material that he later used in his novels. After his father’s death, Trumbo became the family breadwinner and supplemented his salary with bootlegging, which became the source for a story he wrote for Vanity Fair in 1932. He began to take writing courses at the University of Southern California and wrote several unpublished novels that concerned the bakery and Grand Junction. Soon he was working for The Film Spectator (later The Hollywood Spectator), which led to a position in the story department at Warner Bros. Studio, where in 1934 Trumbo became a junior writer specializing in scripts for “B” films. A year later he published his first novel, Eclipse, in England. A thinly veiled account of life in Grand Junction, it chronicled the rise and fall of a small-town capitalist and angered many people in Grand Junction.

Although Washington Jitters, his second novel, appeared in 1936, his writing was primarily for film. He worked for Columbia Studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and RKO in the next two years, and he married Cleo March in 1938. He began work on Johnny Got His Gun, his most critically acclaimed novel, in 1937; when it was serialized in The Daily Worker, a Communist newspaper, he was criticized for his leftist views. The novel won the American Booksellers Award in 1940, the same year he published The Remarkable Andrew and was nominated for an Oscar for his script for Kitty Foyle. In the 1940’s he was the best-paid screenwriter in Hollywood (three thousand dollars per week or seventy-five thousand dollars per picture), but the Communist scare resulted in his being blacklisted.

One of the Unfriendly Nineteen called to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947, Trumbo, who had joined the Communist Party in 1943, was cited for contempt of court when he refused to cooperate with the committee. In 1948 he was sentenced to a year in jail and, after appeals failed, served his time in a federal penitentiary in Ashland, Kentucky, 1950-1951. From the time he was subpoenaed until 1961, he was a victim of the Waldorf Agreement, which denied suspected communists work in the entertainment industry. Trumbo continued to work writing stories and scripts but had to use other people’s names. During this period he wrote many scripts, usually at reduced pay because studio executives exploited him and other blacklisted writers. Using the name Robert Rich, he won an Academy Award for his script of The Brave One but did not receive the Oscar for it with his own name on it until 1975. Because the studios frequently used several writers, some of them blacklisted, on a project, it is difficult to know how many scripts Trumbo actually wrote. When Otto Preminger announced that he was hiring Trumbo to script his film Exodus, the blacklist was over for Trumbo, who actually wrote few screenplays after 1960.

Trumbo’s literary and cinematic reputation rests mainly on Johnny Got His Gun, which he adapted to film and directed, besides raising money to produce it. Based on many of Trumbo’s experiences (Joe Bonham, the protagonist, is Trumbo’s alter ego), the film won the 1971 Prix special du Jury at Cannes, and Trumbo won the International Critics Award. He was also the recipient of the 1970 Laurel Prize given by the Writers Guild, an organization Trumbo remained loyal to despite studio efforts to break it up. He died in Los Angeles in 1976.

BibliographyCook, Bruce. Dalton Trumbo. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977. Though he covers Trumbo’s fiction, Cook’s emphasis is on Trumbo’s screenplays, and when he does discuss the novels, he tends to stress their filmic qualities. Conversations with many of Trumbo’s associates and friends are sprinkled throughout the book, providing the political and intellectual context.French, Warren. The Social Novel at the End of an Era. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1966. French faults Trumbo’s fiction for its obtrusive political harangues, which reduce the novels to tracts, and believes that Johnny Got His Gun is a revolutionary story rather than a cautionary tale.Kriegel, Leonard. “Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun.” In Proletarian Writers of the Thirties, edited by David Madden. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968. Kriegel discusses the Communist myth involving Johnny Got His Gun and finds the second part of the novel propagandistic.Norden, Martin E. “Johnny Got His Gun: The Evolution of an Antiwar Statement.” In Hollywood’s World War I Motion Picture Images, edited by Peter Rollins. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1997. Concerns the political context in which the novel was written.
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