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.

There's Paul Giamatti reading a letter to an official at the phone company, with whom Trumbo developed a lively correspondence: "When we Reds come into power, we are going to shoot merchants in the following order: (1) those who are greedy, and (2) those who are witty. Since you fall into both categories, it will be a sad story when we finally lay hands on you."

Others are what Askin calls "passionate cri de coeurs." David Strathairn reads a letter Trumbo wrote when his daughter's schoolmates tormented her: "Small, childish conspiracies are directed against her, patterned in secret after the conspiracies of the parents. And she is quietly and incessantly persecuted and boycotted and shunned as long as the school day lasts. This slow murder of the mind and heart and spirit of a young child is the proud outcome of the patriotic meetings held by a few parents under the sponsorship of the PTA and the Bluebirds."

"By using different actors," said Askin, it creates a "universality to Trumbo as an American citizen." Although the Hollywood blacklist was specific to a certain era, "dealing with Constitutional issues and freedom of speech is always relevant."

For Strathairn (who played Edward R. Murrow in "Good Night and Good Luck") battles to preserve liberties such as freedom of speech are "constantly being fought," he said.

From Trumbo, "we can learn that there were those before us who had the courage and the rage and the insight and the spirit to confront the injustices and the greed and the fear," he told "It's a never-ending song."

Strathairn recalled reading Trumbo's 1939 novel "Johnny Got His Gun" about a man whose body is shattered during World War I but whose mind remains lucid. Strathairn read it during the Vietnam War era, and "the style of 'Johnny' sort of dovetailed with the way people were starting to think," he said.

The book "was an awakening for me to a state of mind and to the causes of that state of mind," the actor added.


In early 1957, along with millions of other Americans, the Trumbo family watched the Academy Awards ceremony, comfortably seated in their living room. To the surprise of many, the Oscar for best original story went to "The Brave One," written by one Robert Rich -- who was not in the audience and had not sent an emissary.

"Winning that award was a tremendous break for my father," recalled Chris Trumbo. "What he's got now is a mystery and he's able to in effect control it."

There are those who suspected that Rich was in fact Trumbo, and he used that to his advantage in the press. "He's charismatic, charming, funny, and he'll write the story for you," his son said. "It was part of his arsenal, rather than a statue."

Even so, it would be another four years before the name Trumbo would emerge from the shadows. In early 1960, Otto Preminger announced that Dalton Trumbo would receive credit for "Exodus," and later that summer, Kirk Douglas followed suit with "Spartacus."

Trumbo, at long last, had triumphed.