How Dalton Trumbo and other blacklisted writers quietly racked up '50s Oscar wins

Mitzi Trumbo still remembers sitting with her family in front of their TV set watching the 1954 Academy Awards ceremony as her father's screenplay for "Roman Holiday" captured the Oscar for writing, motion picture story.

"It was kind of a wondrous thing," said Mitzi Trumbo. "But we couldn't tell anybody."

In fact, it wasn't Dalton Trumbo's name that was announced from the stage of the Pantages Theatre, but rather screenwriter Ian McLellan Hunter.

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As related in the November release "Trumbo," Dalton Trumbo was the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood in his day and was Oscar nominated for 1940's "Kitty Foyle." But as one of the Hollywood Ten — a group of writers, producers and directors who refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee's investigation into alleged communist influence in Hollywood, he'd been blacklisted from working at the major studios.

Still, many of the blacklisted writers such as Trumbo, who died in 1976, found a way to earn a living by writing under a pseudonym or enlisting a front — someone who would publicly take the writing credit, such as Hunter, who would later himself be blacklisted.

Three years after Trumbo's "Roman Holiday" Oscar win, the family gathered once again to watch his screenplay for "The Brave One" win. This time around, Trumbo wrote under the pseudonym of Robert Rich.

"I remember saying, 'Daddy, let's go pick this up,'" Mitzi Trumbo recalled. "And he said, no we can't go."

Like Trumbo, many blacklisted writers earned awards, if not the recognition and glory that should have accompanied them.

Michael Wilson found himself blacklisted the same year he won the Oscar in 1952 with Harry Brown for the screenplay of "A Place in the Sun" after he invoked his 5th Amendment right not to incriminate himself when he appeared in front of HUAC.

Because he had not cleared himself of communist accusations before Congress, he did not receive screen credit for the 1956 drama "Friendly Persuasion" — and so wasn't listed in the film's adapted screenplay Oscar nomination. Before the year's nominations were announced, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' board of governors had voted for a new bylaw stating that in such cases, the work would be eligible for an award, but the writer wouldn't. The Writers Guild, though, gave Wilson the award for best written American drama.

The controversy served as topical fodder at the WGA's awards show, where Groucho Marx quipped: "Take, for example, 'The Ten Commandments,' original story by Moses. The producers were forced to keep Moses' name off the writing credits because they found out he had once crossed the Red Sea."

Pierre Boulle, who wrote the book "The Bridge on the River Kwai" was based on, was awarded the Oscar for adapted screenplay for the 1957 classic film, though he hadn't written a word of the film treatment. Boulle, who couldn't even speak English, was a front for Wilson and fellow blacklisted writer Carl Foreman.

Nedrick Young, who was blacklisted in 1953, won an Oscar with Harold Jacob Smith for the story and screenplay of the 1958 drama "The Defiant Ones" under the pseudonym Nathan E. Douglas.

Two years later, the pair's work was nominated again — they wrote the "Inherit the Wind" screenplay with Young using the same pseudonym.

These writers eventually had their screen credits reinstated and received — often posthumously — their Academy Awards.

Trumbo received his Oscar for "The Brave One" in 1975 shortly before his death, though the screen credit wasn't changed until later.

In 1992, he received credit for writing "Roman Holiday" and his widow, Cleo, accepted his posthumous Oscar in 1993.

Wilson and Foreman were awarded their Oscars posthumously for "Bridge" in 1984; Wilson's nomination for "Friendly Persuasion" was reinstated in 2002.

And Young, who died in 1968, was reinstated on the credits of "The Defiant Ones" at the request of his widow in 1993.

susan.king@latimes.com

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