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Johnny Got His Gun | Study Guide

Dalton Trumbo

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Dalton Trumbo | Biography


Early Life

James Dalton Trumbo was born in Montrose, Colorado, on December 9, 1905, the eldest son of Maud and Orus Trumbo. His father worked in a shoe store. When Trumbo was three years old, his family moved to Grand Junction, Colorado, where Trumbo spent most of his childhood and school years. He showed an early interest in writing, and as a high school student he got work as a reporter for a local paper, the Daily Sentinel. Trumbo decided to become a writer while attending the University of Colorado. After his family moved to Los Angeles, California, he studied briefly at the University of Southern California.

After Orus Trumbo died of anemia in 1926, Dalton had to help support his family. He got a job as a night-time bread wrapper in Los Angeles's Davis Perfection Bakery. During his nearly decade-long stint at the bakery, Trumbo worked odd jobs that included repossessing motorcycles. He went on writing during this time and sold several short stories to magazines including Vanity Fair and Vogue before being hired in 1934 as a reader for Warner Brothers. This required reading novels and plays and recommending them for possible film adaptations.

Recognition and Hollywood

After publishing his first novel, Eclipse (1934), Trumbo got his first screenwriting job with Warner Brothers. Trumbo's first on-screen credit was for the movie Road Gang (1936). He then went on to write several popular and successful movies, including Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944).

In 1939 Trumbo married Cleo Fincher, and the couple had three children. That same year he published his greatest novel, the antiwar masterpiece Johnny Got His Gun. The novel won the National Book Award and was adapted for both stage and screen.


Trumbo had been a member of the American Communist Party for years, and the 1940s and early 1950s were a time of anti-Communist panic and oppression. Suspected Communists were called up before Senator Joe McCarthy's (R-WI) House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and asked if they were "now or ever had been a member of the Communist Party." Anyone who answered "Yes" to this question was blacklisted, or placed on a list of unemployable people. Film studios, as well as other businesses, were threatened with sanctions if they hired anyone on the blacklist.

Trumbo and nine other film writers and directors were called before HUAC to testify. They became known as the "Hollywood Ten." Trumbo and others in the group refused to testify and were therefore convicted of being in contempt of Congress. All were blacklisted, and none could find work in Hollywood. One of the 10, Edward Dmytryk, eventually gave up the names of 26 other Communists. He was removed from the blacklist. However, Trumbo spent most of 1950 in prison for his firm refusal to cooperate and for his ties to the Communist Party.

To Mexico, Then Back to Hollywood

With no work to be found in Hollywood, Trumbo moved his family to Mexico City. There he continued to write screenplays, pitching them to studios either under a pseudonym or under the name of a front. One of the best-known screenplays Trumbo wrote during the period is Roman Holiday (1953), which stars Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck.

By 1957 Trumbo thought the anti-Communist hysteria had died down sufficiently for him and his family to move back to California. That year his screenplay for the movie The Brave One (1957, written under the pseudonym Robert Rich) earned Trumbo an Academy Award. Since no could find "Robert Rich," most people guessed the Oscar belonged to Dalton Trumbo.

In 1958 Trumbo was hired to adapt the novel Exodus into a film, and it opened to wide acclaim. A year later actor Kirk Douglas hired Trumbo to write the screenplay for the movie Spartacus. Trumbo's name appeared in the credits. Blacklisting had ended. Trumbo went on to write screenplays for Lonely Are the Brave (1962) and Papillon, starring Steve McQueen (1973).

Final Years

In 1973 Trumbo was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died of a heart attack in a Los Angeles hospice on September 10, 1976. Today he is remembered not just for his blockbuster screenplays and realistic fiction but for his bravery in the face of political persecution. The 2015 film Trumbo chronicled his courageous stand. In an article he once said he wanted his children to be able to say, "Good or bad, he had something to say and he said it."

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