This is one in a series of interviews with Colorado journalists.
By Ed Otte
“It’s always enjoyable to talk about the irascible Trumbo,” Laurena Mayne Davis said.
Irascible. Academy Award winner. Controversial. National Book Award winner. Blacklisted screenwriter. Free speech champion.
All of these adjectives describe the author and more people are talking about him now with the November release of “Trumbo” starring Bryan Cranston. The film received critical praise and not just because it features the Emmy-winning “Breaking Bad” actor.
“Trumbo” is about one of the Hollywood Ten who was convicted of contempt of Congress after he refused in 1947 to reveal to the House Un-American Activities Committee the names of people alleged to have American Communist Party influence in the movie industry.
Blacklisted during the 1950s, Dalton Trumbo won Academy Awards under pen names for “Roman Holiday” (1953) and “The Brave One” (1956). Those were just two in a long – and impressive – list of screenplays he wrote from 1936-1973.
Trumbo first earned national attention when he won the 1939 National Book Award for “Johnny Got His Gun,” an anti-war novel about a young American soldier in World War 1.
The writer gained local attention in Western Colorado with the 1935 publication of his first novel, “Shale City.” Born in 1905 in Montrose, Trumbo grew up in Grand Junction. He attended the University of Colorado-Boulder in the 1920s and in 1993 CU dedicated a campus fountain court to him in recognition of his free-speech celebrity status.
The portrayal of Grand Junction residents in “Shale City” sparked a hostile reaction. And that’s why Davis, former managing editor of The Daily Sentinel, is involved in the Trumbo story. Today, she is an instructor at Colorado Mesa University teaching Media Theory, Writing and Reporting for Media, and Mass Media: Impact and History.
Question: In your 2007 book “125 People/125 Years: Grand Junction’s Story” you wrote: “(Trumbo) is the city’s most accomplished artistic export by far, but the supportive warmth from his hometown chilled with his 1935 publication of ‘Eclipse,’ a novel in the vein of social satire that angered townspeople who recognized, or thought they recognized, themselves in it.” How long did their animosity last?
Davis: Decades, I’ve heard, although those with long-term grudges likely were a vociferous few. Additional hometown animosity later was heaped on Trumbo during the Cold War, due to his affiliation with communism. For people predisposed to not like him following “Eclipse,” that was a one-two punch. For many people — in Grand Junction and elsewhere — during that period of hyper-nationalism, the Hollywood 10 were not viewed as defenders of the First Amendment, but as traitors.
Question: You also state in your book that Trumbo wrote for The Daily Sentinel while he was a student at Grand Junction High School. Were you able to find any of his stories in the newspaper’s archives?
Davis: My students have found them. In 2005 I taught a class titled “Dalton Trumbo’s Legacy” at Mesa State College, now Colorado Mesa University. We read four books, watched 10 of Trumbo’s films, did a read-through of his play “The Biggest Thief in Town” and went on a tour of significant sites, including his boyhood home. Students also had to complete a final project. For that project, some students pored over microfilm of The Daily Sentinel during Trumbo’s tenure as a cub reporter and printed off everything with his byline. It was standard beginner fare: high school news, service club meeting reports, etc., but it’s fascinating to read that early boilerplate and realize the same writer went on to win a National Book Award and two Academy Awards.
Question: When “Eclipse” was reprinted in 2005, it included a “Who’s Who in Shale City” list of the book’s characters with their real-life inspirations. What was the community reaction to the list?
Davis: The old-timers got out their own lists and compared them! There was a lot of overlap. It fostered some good-natured discussion.
Question: In October 2007 a bronze antique bathtub with the naked 62-year-old Trumbo was installed in front of the Avalon Theatre in downtown Grand Junction. The downtown has many impressive sculptures but why was the bathtub — from an old black-and-white photo of the writer — selected?
Davis: Trumbo was an outsized personality. A traditional bust hardly would have been appropriate. The photo, which shows Trumbo writing in his bathtub, was taken by his daughter Mitzi. Trumbo family members were consulted to make sure they would not be offended by a whimsical selection. They loved it. Legends Committee members, who first united for the Trumbo statue, have gone on to raise money for the installation of eight more bronzes of historical figures. All include storytelling elements. The Trumbo statue is a draw for impromptu seasonal decorating, whether it’s a Broncos beanie or a Santa hat. During the local special showing of the biopic “Trumbo,” the statue had a top hat.
Question: What was the public reaction to the sculpture?
Davis: Probably divided along the same lines of those who either admire or dislike Trumbo and what he stood for. Some appreciate the humor; some don’t. One thing’s for sure, though, even if people don’t know Trumbo from history, they know about “the guy in the bathtub downtown.” It’s a conversation-starter.
Question: In earlier interviews you said you included Trumbo in your Colorado Mesa University class discussions. What were the discussions? Do you do that now in your classes?
Davis: I always teach a section on Trumbo in my Mass 110 gen-ed course, “Mass Media: Impact and History.” Because Trumbo was a journalist, author, playwright, screenwriter and member of the Hollywood 10, we can cite his career as a touchstone in many areas of mass media. Every semester, students are struck by the fact that someone so famous came from western Colorado. I recently solicited student comments about Trumbo. Jayde wrote: “To learn about someone who had such a huge impact in the development of the nation and helped to recognize the rights given by the First Amendment is inspiring. To learn that they were born in my hometown and grew up in the place that I went to seek higher education gives me hope that I might be able to amount to something great, even if I grew up in a town off the radar to most of the country.”
Question: With free speech being unfiltered today in social media, do students appreciate Trumbo’s defiance and courage in the 1940s?
Davis: We watch the 2007 documentary “Trumbo,” which is a reading by multiple actors of Trumbo’s personal letters — some belligerent, some hilarious and some heartbreaking. Students do gain an understanding of the principled stand he and others took and the personal losses they suffered. From the same group of solicited student comments, Sarah wrote: “I wish I had lived at the time of the Hollywood 10, just to follow what was happening. He is very inspiring for never giving in to the pressures upon him.”
Question: Have you seen the Bryan Cranston movie? What do you think the community reaction will be to the film?
Davis: Members of the Legends Committee arranged for a special showing of the biopic “Trumbo” at the Avalon Theatre, on Nov. 13. It sold out. Trumbo’s daughter-in-law, Nancy Escher, spoke before the movie, as did a handful of people from the Legends Committee. As if witnessing a live performance, the audience clapped when the film was over. It really was a special, and perhaps a redemptive, moment. Larry Ceplair, who earlier this year published a fantastic new biography, was there to sign copies of “Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical.” Trumbo’s son, Christopher, had planned to write the book, but he died from cancer before he could. He knew and liked Ceplair from his previous books and handed over his notes and family memorabilia to him. It’s amazingly well-researched. Anyone curious about Trumbo will learn much about him from Ceplair’s book.