The Real Story Behind the Movie Trumbo

3 minute read

In the new film Trumbo, Bryan Cranston plays the title character, Dalton Trumbo, one of the “Hollywood ten” blacklisted for refusing to cooperate with Congress’ anti-Communist witch hunt during the Cold War. A look at Trumbo’s actual biography reveals that this is one of the cases where the truth of his life was crazier than anything made up by a screenwriter—even one as talented as him.

The topsy-turvy tale began in 1947, when Trumbo was summoned to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee and asked whether he had ever been a Communist. “You must have some reason,” he responded, as TIME later noted, “for asking that.” Things only got crazier from there:

Soon after Trumbo’s congressional appearance, the leading Hollywood producers blacklisted the “unfriendly ten” and all others who might refuse to talk straight to Congress. The list soon grew to about 250 names. Trumbo and others became faceless talents, selling their scripts on the black market. Actors and directors were unlucky, he wrote bitterly in 1957, but all a writer needed was “paper, a pencil, and a nice clean cell.”

Trumbo got the cell in 1950, spent ten months at the federal penitentiary in Ashland, Ky. for contempt of Congress. He took pleasure in sharing the exercise yard with ex-Congressman Andy May (defense bribes) and even more pleasure in the news that at the Danbury, Conn., pen the Hollywood Ten’s Lester Cole and Ring Lardner Jr. were fellow inmates of ex-Congressman J. Parnell Thomas (padded office payroll), chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee during those 1947 hearings. “Almost every jail in the country during that curious time,” wrote Trumbo later, “found Congressman and contemptee standing cheek by jowl in the chow line, all their old malignities dissolved in common hunger for a few more of them there beans.”

In jail and out, in Hollywood and during a self-imposed exile in Mexico, Dalton Trumbo wrote some 30 movies under assorted pseudonyms. He refuses to say what they were, but during the 1957 Academy Award ceremonies, Robert Rich was announced as the writer of the year’s best original screen play, The Brave One. No Robert Rich came forward to accept the award; eventually, Trumbo was identified as the writer. He is now so fond of the name that, for nostalgia’s sake, he plans to use it again from time to time.

In 1960, Trumbo returned triumphantly to the spotlight with the films Exodus and Spartacus. TIME joked that “The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will have to strain to avoid awarding him an Oscar next spring.”

Read the full profile of Trumbo, here in the TIME Vault: Out of the Shadows

Dalton Trumbo, 1957

Dalton Trumbo
Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo holds his finger up to lips as if to say "quiet." John Swope—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Dalton Trumbo
Trumbo holds a cigarette and purses his lips at the pet bird perched on his chest.John Swope—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Dalton Trumbo
Caption from LIFE. Happy suspect Dalton Trumbo lives quietly, is rumored to write scripts under assumed names.John Swope—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Dalton Trumbo
Trumbo sits at his desk with his pet bird. John Swope—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Dalton Trumbo
Trumbo and his bird.John Swope—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Dalton Trumbo
Trumbo gazes thoughtfully at his pet bird, perched on a lamp. John Swope—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

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