By Published: July 8, 2024

Caught up in anti-communist hysteria following World War II, former CU Boulder student Dalton Trumbo today is recognized as a fierce proponent of free speech, with a fountain outside the University Memorial Center named in his honor

This summer marks the 75th anniversary of a secret FBI file becoming public—one that named well-known Hollywood figures, including screenwriter and former University of Colorado Boulder student Dalton Trumbo (A&S ex’28), as members of the Communist Party.

Although Trumbo and several of his Hollywood colleagues had been accused of being communists and forced to testify before Congress’ House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) two years prior, the existence of the FBI file had been secret until its release during the espionage trial of Judith Coplon, an analyst with the U.S. Department of Justice. The file, based on information from confidential informants, named not only Hollywood writers, directors and actors, but also academics from universities across the United States. Its release set off a period of paranoia known as the second Red Scare.

The 1949 release of the formerly secret FBI report represented a continuation of a long-term investigation by the HUAC, which was first formed in 1938 to investigate individuals for subversive activities, particularly those related to the Communist Party. Widely publicized congressional hearings beginning in 1947 and focusing on the film industry ensnared several screenwriters and directors, the so-called Hollywood 10, which included Trumbo.

Bronson Hilliard

Bronson Hilliard, senior director, academic communications, for the Office of Strategic Relations and Communications at CU Boulder, wrote an editorial encouraging the CU regents to rename of the UMC fountain in honor of Dalton Trumbo.

Once Hollywood’s premier screenwriter, the author of such classics as “A Man to Remember,” “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” and “The Brave One,” Trumbo was forced into the shadows after being blacklisted. He continued to write scripts under pen names for years before escaping the blacklist in the early 1960s, finally able to take credit for such famous screenplays as “Exodus” and “Spartacus.”

Seeking to recognize Trumbo for his fierce defense of the First Amendment, as well as his talents as a lauded screenwriter, a group of CU students including Lewis Cardinal and Kristina Baumli petitioned the CU Board of Regents in 1993 to name the fountain in front of the UMC in honor of Trumbo.

As the entertainment editor of the Colorado Daily at the time, Bronson Hilliard wrote an editorial encouraging the regents to rename of the fountain. Hilliard, who has a 40-year association with the university, first as a student and then working in various editorial and communications roles with the university, now serves as the senior director, academic communications, for the Office of Strategic Relations and Communications at CU Boulder.

In a recent interview with Colorado Arts and Sciences Magazine, Hilliard reflected on his admiration for Trumbo, his desire to see the CU regents recognize Trumbo, his recollections of meeting actor Kirk Douglas and notable entertainment figures who attended the fountain dedication ceremony, and his thoughts on why Trumbo’s legacy remains important today. His responses were lightly edited and condensed for space.

Question: Do you think it’s fair to call Trumbo the most prominent former CU student to find big success in Hollywood?

Hilliard: It would have to be Trumbo and Robert Redford together. Trumbo was certainly the first. All through the 1940s, it’s safe to say Trumbo was not only the best screenwriter in Hollywood, but he was the highest paid and he was one of the most prolific. He was the kind of guy who could write a screenplay in a very short amount of time, which made him in high demand. He was also a great re-writer of screen scripts. He was a feisty guy, but he was a brilliant writer.

Question: In 1947, Trumbo and other members of the Hollywood 10 got called before Congress for hearings on the supposed communist infiltration of Hollywood. Others in the entertainment industry cooperated with Congress; why do you think Trumbo and his compatriots refused to do so, even when faced with going to prison?

Hilliard: Some named names, and some didn’t. Trumbo wouldn’t have it. Trumbo, his value was, he’s not going to turn his back on his friends. He was loyal to his friends. I don’t think he was loyal to the Communist Party, although he was a member at one point. But Trumbo was not going to turn his back on his friends, so he basically told the committee they could stick it. …

Dalton Trumbo Fountain at CU Boulder

The fountain court outside the CU Boulder University Memorial Center was renamed in honor of Dalton Trumbo in 1993. (Photo: Glenn Asakawa/CU Boulder)

Trumbo and the other Hollywood 10 had a code of honor with each other. They had a certain set of values they believed in as writers and as creative people. That’s what I admired him for, even though I didn’t agree with them (the Hollywood 10) about everything.

One of my other heroes is (actor and director) John Huston. He formed a group called the Committee in Support of the First Amendment. In his biography, Huston talked about the fact he didn’t agree with or like all of these guys—he thought some of them were very doctrinaire—but he thought they had a right to believe what they wanted to under the First Amendment without going to prison. He believed they had the right to believe whatever they believed, even though some of them were a pain in the ass.

Question: While Congress grilled the Hollywood 10 about their supposed communist sympathies, it was actually the Hollywood studio heads who had them blacklisted, correct?

Hilliard: Yes, and there’s an interesting story there. Most of the major film studio executives in the 1940s were Jewish, and they had to go the extra mile to show that they were true Americans, because of antisemitism and anti-immigration sentiments, which were alive and well then as now.

Some of the Hollywood studio heads held out for as long as they could to try to persuade Congress to back down a little bit. And then finally it was, ‘OK, let us handle this.’ And they handled it by creating the blacklist. …

This debate is an essential American debate, and it rises up at different times. And the rise of digital media culture has resurrected a whole new set of discussions about what are the limits of free speech. What are the limits of free expression? When does expression become conduct or does expression become conduct?

The blacklist raised the question for the first time on a large scale in American history.

Question: How did Trumbo overcome being blacklisted?

Hilliard: Kirk Douglas always said he broke the blacklist by crediting “Spartacus” to Trumbo. I actually think that’s not true; I think (director) Otto Preminger did it first with “Exodus.”

But a lot of Hollywood careers never recovered. And that’s also true of academics. A lot of academics were purged at that same time and were not able to return to academia. It was tragic. And none of these people represented a threat to the United States.

Blacklist history
Former CU Boulder Department of Physics faculty member Frank Oppenheimer was called before the HUAC in 1949 and eventually forced to resign his position at the University of Minnesota. Learn more about how CU Boulder supported him in joining the physics faculty.

Trumbo was luckier than others. He took his family to Mexico and worked there, and he ghost wrote low-budget films and was able to eke out a living during the blacklist.

Question: When the CU regents officially dedicated the fountain to Trumbo in 1993, you were there?

Hilliard: I was. On the day of the event, I met Kirk Douglas in the basement of the UMC over by the bowling alley. He was coming out of the bathroom, and some people were escorting him. I had been off doing some little task, and I literally just sort of bumped into him in the UMC.

I was introduced to him by one of the organizers of the event, and he actually called me by my first name—someone had apparently mentioned me to him. He said, ‘Bronson, it’s such a pleasure to meet you.’ He looked me right in the eye and he said, ‘Thank you so much for your efforts in advocating for this.’

Dalton Trumbo writing in bathtub

Dalton Trumbo was renowned for writing in the bathtub. (Photo: Mitzi Trumbo)

And he said something very funny about Trumbo. A reporter asked him what Trumbo would think about all this. And he said, ‘Well, Trumbo would completely love this. He would be holding court with reporters, and he would immediately refer to it as ‘my fountain.’ …

And incidentally, Dalton Trumbo’s widow, Cleo, was there, and his son, Christopher, and one of his daughters. So was Ring Lardner Jr., who wrote the screenplay for “M.A.S.H.” the movie and also was blacklisted, and Jean Rouverol Butler, who was a screenwriter and who was married to (screenwriter) Hugo Butler—the couple were close friends and associates with members of the Hollywood 10.

But it was a magical day. Everybody got up and made speeches about Trumbo, about the importance of free speech, about the need to be vigilant about free speech and about the role Trumbo had played, along with the Hollywood 10, in defying congressional inquisitors.

I was greatly moved by the whole thing.

Question: Hollywood recognized Trumbo in 2015 with the film “Trumbo,” which examined his life and the sacrifices he made for his beliefs. What did you think of the film?

Hilliard: I loved it. I thought (actor) Bryan Cranston did a great job, based upon the two biographies of Trumbo that I’ve read. Cranston really captured both the idealism of Trumbo and the idea of Trumbo as a businessman. He was a wheeler dealer. He knew the Hollywood system and how to make money. The film captured the way he was hustling to write screenplays for the low-budget film company (after he was blacklisted).

Trumbo was this great coming together of the practical and the ideal. He knew the ins and outs of the business of Hollywood … but he also had a tremendous set of principles and ideals that undergirded it all. It was great to see those two qualities embodied in a single person.

Dalton Trumbo prison mugshot

Dalton Trumbo, seen here in his mugshot, served 10 months in the federal correctional institution in Ashland, Kentucky, in 1950; he was convicted of contempt of Congress. (Photo: Federal Bureau of Prisons)

Trumbo is truly one of my heroes. In fact, in my office, I have a picture of him on my bookshelf, so he’s with me every day.

What are your thoughts on how Trumbo is viewed today, in retrospect?

Hilliard: He’s a reminder that it takes a really tough and resilient person to carry forward your beliefs to the point of profound personal disadvantage. … I think today we have a lot of people who are keyboard warriors, and they want to get on social media and get outraged, but they don’t put any personal principles on the line to do that.

Trumbo was willing to go to jail and to endure not only personal sacrifice for himself, but his entire family. That was an ordeal for the Trumbo family to support him while he was in jail and to make ends meet. And then he had to rebuild his career.

But that’s what’s to love about the people who are willing to put their lives and their careers on the line for what they believe in and who are not willing to sell out their friends. Those are people worth admiring.

And the sad thing is, I don’t think people think about Dalton Trumbo today. I think they should. I think every activist, of any persuasion, ought to know the life of Dalton Trumbo.

And I think we could all, as Americans, use a dose of the fortitude that Trumbo had, and the combining of the practical and the ideal the way he did to me is just amazing. We could use more of that practical mindedness. Trumbo accepted the consequences of his politics and his idealism—and he set about trying to have a great life anyway. And he did it. That’s more than admirable.

Top image: Dalton Trumbo speaks before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in Washington, D.C. Oct. 28, 1947. (Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)