Down and Out in Hollywood, Trumbo Prevails

If you ask Chris Trumbo -- the son of Dalton Trumbo, screenwriter of such movie classics as "Spartacus," "Exodus" and "Papillon" -- about what it was like growing up with a father who was blacklisted in the 1950s anti-communist furor, the answer may surprise you.

"When people talk about the dark times, and that's the phrase that comes up a lot, it seems to me none of it was dark," said Chris Trumbo, who wrote the screenplay for the new documentary called "Trumbo" and the off-Broadway play on which the film is based. "The way you experience things as a child is not the way you experience them as an adult."

His father, one of the writers known as the Hollywood Ten, was blacklisted from 1947, when Chris was seven, until 1960. During those years, the elder Trumbo was called to testify before Congress, held in contempt when he refused to answer their questions, and served a year in federal prison.

Trumbo fought off the scaremongering tactics of McCarthyism, staved off bankruptcy, moved his family (besides Chris, he had two daughters) to Mexico briefly, wrote under pseudonyms for a fraction of his original fees -- and remained a character larger than life, who loved life.

Life with his dad was like "a carnival," Chris Trumbo told "There was something always happening. He was consistently involved in life. He had, for instance, his own little obsession with gimmicks that might work to clean the swimming pool. We had a wide variety of friends, who would come over on Sunday afternoons, and everybody was in trouble with the government in one way or another."

For many, it was a very dark time. First came the news that you were under suspicion, and the next thing you knew, your career lay in tatters. More than 15,000 people were affected directly. Some committed suicide after appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

For Trumbo, who died in 1976 at age 70, adversity was not new. "His family had gone through the Depression, World War I, and his father died at an early age," Peter Askin, the director of "Trumbo," told Trumbo "started at either USC or UCLA and had to quit. He worked at a bakery and wrote at night; he worked for a moonshiner running booze."

During the blacklist, continued Askin, "he really was a field general. One of the reasons he was successful is that he enjoyed a good fight. He enjoyed arguments with people who could give as well as he could take. Even though he was victimized, he never played the victim."

Life With Father

Trumbo had, at one count, 13 pseudonyms. The phone in the Trumbo home would ring, the voice on the other end of the line would ask for "Sally Stubblefield" or "Robert Rich," and the receiver would automatically be handed over to Dad.

Elegantly directed, "Trumbo" is now playing in New York and Los Angeles and will be rolled out nationally in August and September. The documentary features wonderful archival footage of the man himself. ("He's wry, laconic, and his speech rhythms are so idiosyncratic," said Askin.) Adding to the footage are interviews with his family, experts and actors who starred in his films (Kirk Douglas, Douglas Hoffman); clips from his films; and younger actors talking directly to the camera reciting Trumbo's own words. He was, it turns out, a prolific letter writer.

Some are hilarious:

There's Nathan Lane describing the joys of masturbation, from a letter to son Chris.

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