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Dalton Trumbo, ‘The Brave One’ and the Greatest Mystery in Oscar History

How Robert Rich's 1957 story win for the film (despite the fact that he didn't write a word) kicked off one of Hollywood's most intriguing credit battles — and why it remains unsolved.

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On May 15, 1975, Dalton Trumbo was vindicated. One of Hollywood’s top screenwriters — a committed leftist whose career had cratered under the blacklist before his back-channel maneuvering helped defeat it — lay in ill health at his West Hollywood home when there was a knock on his door. It was the producer Walter Mirisch, then the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Oscar in hand.

The two had worked together years earlier, and Mirisch was aware that Trumbo had written under assumed names. “I also knew that one of those scripts had gotten an Academy Award for writing and nobody had picked it up,” says Mirisch, now 99, referring to The Brave One, released 65 years ago and the last film to receive the best story Oscar, at the 1957 ceremony, before the award was discontinued.

A scene from the 1956 bullfighting saga.

Trumbo, who would die the next year of a heart attack after having had a lung removed because of cancer, received Mirisch while seated in a chair next to his bed. “I told him the Academy wanted to straighten out the wrong that had been done,” Mirisch recalls. “He was just thrilled. He said, ‘I can’t describe how much this means to me.'”

In the following days, Trumbo, who’d long cultivated a sardonic public persona, held forth to the media on his recognition, musing that it was “like being presented with a 19-year-old bastard child — you’re supposed to love it but the emotion isn’t there.” He added, “My inclination is to make jokes, and yet this is callous because so many people were hurt at the time and so many careers were stolen.”

THR was captivated by the search for “Robert Rich,” the credited writer of the film who never claimed his prize.

The saga of Trumbo’s Brave One Oscar, now a forgotten footnote of the blacklist era, is more complicated than a neat story arc of final-act redemption. An examination of the historical record, including previously unreported documentation, reveals that other writers might also have deserved their due — and Oscar — for the film but never received it. It’s a fable of good deeds, bad politics, motives high and low — and, not incidentally, the perennial creative-business hazard of getting screwed.

***

In the mid-20th century, Dalton Trumbo was shorthand for “Hollywood screenwriter.” As captured by Bryan Cranston’s starring role in Trumbo (2015), he was brilliant, witty and eccentric, famous for polishing off screenplays during all-night sessions in his bathtub.

By the time Trumbo ended up in the crosshairs of the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee and right-wing forces within the motion picture industry (including W.R. Wilkerson, the crusading anti-Communist publisher of The Hollywood Reporter), he had already penned such classics as Kitty Foyle (1940), A Guy Named Joe (1943) and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) and was earning $4,000 a week (about $65,000 today) — by his accounting, the highest salary ever paid to that date for writing services alone on a long-term basis.

Bryan Cranston as the writer in 2015’s Trumbo. Trumbo before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947.

Nevertheless, Trumbo’s refusal in 1947, alongside 10 other “unfriendly” witnesses, to answer questions about his association with the Communist Party, which he had joined in 1943, resulted in a congressional contempt citation, blacklisting from the studios and, after a three-year legal battle, 11 months in jail. Upon release in 1951, he moved, with his wife and their three young children, to Mexico and, for a time, “almost starved to death,” he recalled in a missive included in Additional Dialogue, a 1970 collection of his letters. He was ultimately able to cobble together a living by writing scripts under more than a dozen pseudonyms, for far less money than he had been paid before and “by working three times as hard.”

One of his major lifelines was King Bros. Productions, an operation run by Frank, Maurice and Herman King, cigar-chomping hustlers from Chicago who dumped their Kozinsky surname, moved to Hollywood, cashed in selling jukeboxes and got into the movie business. They started at Monogram Pictures, known for its B movies, before going independent on the back of the success of their 1945 crime picture Dillinger. According to Victor S. Navasky’s 1980 book Naming Names, a history of the blacklist, the Kings subsequently “made it a regular practice to employ blacklisted personnel under pseudonyms — not as a protest against repression but as a calculated risk, a shrewd economy, getting top talent for minimal money.” Their golden goose was Trumbo.

Trumbo served time for congressional contempt.

On April 10, 1953, Trumbo wrote to the Kings in a financially desperate state, asking for an overdue payment and suggesting that his situation had become so bleak that he was suicidal: “It is, really, enough to make a man think of cashing in on his insurance by a well-placed bullet, rather than to see his family, through no fault of his own, steadily descend into bankruptcy. They’d be better off.” He added, “I enclose herewith The Boy and the Bull. It consists now, as you can see, of 133 pages instead of the former 172 pages. However, within these 133 pages there are many further cuts, which bring the whole down to 121 pages. In doing this I have ruthlessly cut all extraneous material and scenes.”

Were the changes edits of Trumbo’s own previous work, or of someone else’s? And was that script based on an original story by Trumbo or someone else? These are points of contention.

What is certain is that the resulting film, The Brave One, directed by Irving Rapper and starring 12-year-old Michel Ray, is a sentimental story about a Mexican boy from a poor family who bonds with a bull gifted to his family by a wealthy landowner. When the landowner dies, leaving an estate in debt, the boy’s bull is seized, sold and sent to the ring in the nation’s capital. Thus begins the boy’s odyssey to save his bull from the spear.

***

RKO began rolling out The Brave One in fall 1956, and entering awards season a few months later, nobody had much reason to expect recognition for it. It was a King Bros. production. It boasted no “name” stars. And it had been neither critically nor commercially successful. But when the Oscar nominations were announced Feb. 18, it garnered three: best film editing, best sound and best story, a category that recognized a scenario on which a screenplay was based.

On Oscar night, March 27, Deborah Kerr stepped up to the podium at the Pantages in Hollywood and announced that The Brave One, credited to writer Robert Rich, had won best story.

Trumbo, watching at home, was gobsmacked. His son, Christopher, who died in 2011, recalled his father staring at the TV screen and saying, “Well, I’ll be …” Jesse Lasky Jr., then the vice president of the screen branch of the Writers Guild, had been asked to accept the Oscar if an absent writer won. “Word had reached the guild that Robert Rich would not be present, since his wife was having a baby and he had to be at the hospital,” Lasky recalled in his 1975 memoir. When Kerr named Rich, Lasky accepted on his behalf and, as he recalled, “I locked the precious statuette in the trunk of my car until I could deliver it to the guild the following day for Rich to collect. Next morning, I was awakened by a phone call from the guild office. They had checked for Robert Rich’s address — and found, to their consternation, that his name didn’t appear in any of our membership lists!” He added, “We checked the hospitals, but none had any record of a Mrs. Robert Rich.”

The mystery was kept quiet until the following Sunday, when Robert Rich of North Hollywood entered the picture. He walked into the Academy’s offices and said he had not written the story, an Academy spokesperson told the International News Service, declining to share additional details because it was “a ticklish situation.” The next day, The New York Times received a call, reporting, “A man who identified himself as ‘Robert Rich, the nephew of Mr. King,’ said on the telephone today that he had posed as the author of the screenplay in an effort to get two tickets to the ceremony.” (He’d been unsuccessful.) The caller said he’d promised his employer he’d “clear this thing up before I lose my job,” adding, “I want to do everything I can to get out of this mess.”

Frank King, contacted by The Associated Press, insisted it was a misunderstanding: “My nephew, just as sort of a gag, because he had the same name, told some people he was the Robert Rich who wrote the script. But he’s not a writer. He works for an accounting firm. The Robert Rich who wrote the movie is now someplace in Europe. I’m trying to cable him this morning to come back and get this thing [resolved].”

Publicly, Frank King spun a tale about Rich, describing him as an artistic American residing in Europe whom Frank had befriended in Munich years earlier while serving in the Army and from whom he had purchased a short story — but whom he could no longer locate.

TRUMBO, John Goodman, 2015

Life magazine ran what it termed a “reconstructed Robert Rich.” The illustration, sketched with the Kings’ guidance, featured among its clues straight hair parted to the left, a small goatee and an aquiline nose. The missing man was listed as about 31 years old, 6 feet tall and 175 pounds. “I’d recognize him anywhere,” King assured.

Younger brother Herman tag-teamed the press, labeling speculation that Rich was a pseudonym for a blacklisted writer as “absolutely ridiculous” and “pretty damned silly.” He mused of Rich’s decision not to pick up his Oscar, “I figure he’s a writer who doesn’t care for glory.”

A wave of hysteria ensued that stretched from days to years and well beyond Hollywood as people the world over tried to figure out why a person who won an Oscar wouldn’t want to claim it. Come mid-May, Groucho Marx cracked, “Isn’t it about time the Writers Guild built a monument to the Unknown Writer?”

The brouhaha meant that what United Press called “Hollywood’s ‘Homeless’ Oscar” was up for grabs, and every yahoo wanted to lay claim. Even Orson Welles had an opinion, contending that “there’s no mystery.” The Brave One, he believed, was based on an original story by the late documentarian Robert Flaherty that Welles had started to film shortly after Citizen Kane but never completed. “The King Bros. made the film for RKO, which owns my film,” Welles said. “I hope Flaherty’s widow gets the Oscar.”

As for the statuette in question: “The Academy had accepted in good faith the credits as shown on the main title of The Brave One,” the organization’s board announced following a special meeting several weeks after the ceremony. “To date, no clear proof of authorship has been established. Until such time as the writer presents and identifies himself as the true author of the story, and is qualified to receive the award, the Oscar will remain in the hands of the Academy.”

***

According to a heretofore unpublicized FBI report dated May 14, 1957, and released in 2012 in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, Robert Rich told one of the bureau’s agents two days after the Oscars that Trumbo was the true author of The Brave One. Rich knew this because his actual involvement with the film was as a go-between. A relation by marriage to the Kings, he acted as a trusted back channel to Trumbo, exchanging cash for drafts.

For his part, Trumbo played coy with the media when asked right after the Oscars if he was Rich. “They want me to write a play about it,” he ventured early on. “Naturally, it would be a farce.” A few days later he declared: “I modestly refuse either to confirm or deny. That way I can steal a little bit of credit from every good picture that’s ever been made.” Months later, he told the AP that if he had written the script, “there’s no crime involved. It’s totally legal. A man has something to sell, and somebody buys it. The real question is: Is the blacklist a good, red-blooded, patriotic American institution? In my opinion, it will soon be over.”

Trumbo, who had given up on seeing his name ever credited onscreen again, decided the Rich mystery was good for business, believing it could be marketed as part of the rollout of future films. He wrote to his lawyer in December 1957: “I think that I shall ultimately appropriate the name Robert Rich for myself for all work that I do for motion pictures when the blacklist is over. It is, after all, the best publicized writer’s name in the world motion picture industry; and since I made it, I should reap such benefits as may accrue from it.”

Yet on Jan. 16, 1959, two days after the Academy rescinded its bylaw preventing blacklisted writers from being eligible for Oscars — ahead of an almost-certain writing nomination for The Defiant Ones, which was widely known to have been co-written by a blacklisted writer, Nedrick Young, under a pseudonym — Trumbo outed himself as Rich on a local CBS News program, Special Assignment. “I will never again write anything without using my own name,” he announced. “Or, of course, Robert Rich.”

The next year, thanks to director Otto Preminger and producer Kirk Douglas, Trumbo’s name would be credited again on Exodus and Spartacus, respectively.

***

Juan Duval, born in Barcelona in 1897, was an entertainer who sang, danced, wrote, choreographed, acted and directed for decades, though he existed on the periphery of the Hollywood studio system, able to secure work in Mexico and Spain but nothing big in America.

An exception found Duval in charge of Rudolph Valentino’s fight choreography on the 1922 silent bullfighting drama Blood and Sand. Later, Duval objected to the 1941 remake starring Tyrone Power, noting in a letter to the Hollywood Citizen-News that flaws in the bullfighting scenes had resulted in “corruptions of their original Iberian character.”

Duval died of cancer in April 1954 at just 56. When The Brave One came along a couple of years later, it rang a bell for his widow, Carmen, a soft-spoken L.A. secretary. She filed a $300,000 lawsuit against King Bros. Productions in 1958, charging that her late husband had told a very similar story in his screenplay Corrida de Toros (set in Spain, bullfighting’s country of origin, unlike the Mexico-based The Brave One), which had been submitted to Maurice King in 1952 through Eugene Gould, a stockholder in the brothers’ enterprise.

“That’s true,” Gould later attested to Paul Coates, host of the investigative syndicated TV series Confidential File, on Jan. 21, 1959, adding that when he went back to pick up the script a week later, Maurice King said that he’d personally read it and didn’t care for the story. “Sometime later,” Gould continued, “I ran into Frank King and asked what their next production would be. He said ‘The Boy and the Bull‘ and started to tell me the story. I stopped him after he related part of it and said, ‘That sounds like the story I gave Morry.’ He said to me, ‘What are you talking about?’ Then he turned around and walked away.” Trumbo repeatedly wrote Frank King, pleading with him to settle Carmen Duval’s lawsuit, which he thought unwinnable. (Trumbo felt that a jury would probably feel sympathetic to the claims of the widow, and not to the Kings or himself, and that the reputational and professional damage he would suffer would be devastating.) “Everyone wants to get into the act,” King vented to the Los Angeles Times when asked about the litigation. “This is the 21st letter or filing we have had on The Brave One.”

Another party, the Nassour Studio, had sued the Kings even before The Brave One won at the Oscars — and received a “very substantial” settlement, in the words of their attorney. The Nassour suit had contended that Paul Rader, a young Boston television producer, had written a similar script, Ring Around Saturn (itself adapted from a short story by Willis O’Brien, an effects artist on films like King Kong), which the Nassour Studio submitted to RKO in 1951. After the Oscar telecast on which The Brave One was recognized, Rader’s co-workers gifted him a wooden statuette bearing the inscription, ‘To Paul Rader, for the best story borrowed in 1956.'”

Of Carmen Duval, Trumbo observed to King, “I am told she made an excellent appearance on Paul Coates’ TV show; that she is a pleasant, modest, intelligent, straightforward and obviously sincere woman who clearly believes that she has been defrauded and has (unfortunately) objective reason for such belief,” citing poor record-keeping by King Bros. Productions. Trumbo also noted that when he spoke with Coates about potentially appearing on Confidential File to defend himself, Coates had informed him “that the two scripts were almost scene-by-scene similar.” The widow soon received a $15,000 settlement ($130,000 today), spending a portion of it on the only car she’d ever buy: a Ford Fairlane 500.

***

Lesley Mackey McCambridge, the senior director of credits and creative rights for the WGA West, reviewed The Brave One‘s crediting in 2011, more than 35 years after Trumbo belatedly received his “Rich” statuette. She found that there were at least nine people who’d claimed to be the author of the underlying story that became the film.

The roster included not just Duval and Rader but Tom Terris, a British actor who said he based his own telling, The Bravest of the Bulls, on a real-life incident he witnessed at the arena of the Plaza des Toros in Mexico City, and Norman Foster, a director who contended that he and Ask the Dust author John Fante had adapted Flaherty’s story into the treatment My Friend Bonito for Welles’ abandoned RKO film.

Now, 55 years after the release of The Brave One, all the original stories and scripts associated with this matter have been lost to time — or at least to the Writers Guild — except Trumbo’s, making side-by-side analysis impossible.

McCambridge wrote to Duval’s son John, who’d requested the review, that she’d found nothing in her search “that would warrant the Guild revisiting either the investigation or the determination made by the Guild more than half a century ago.” She also noted that the WGA wasn’t the appropriate venue to arbitrate questions of plagiarism and copyright — reiterating a stance her administrative forebear, Lewis Meltzer, expressed in 1959 to John Duval’s stepmother, Carmen, in his own letter, noting that the organization “does not and cannot enter into the area of plagiarism, piracy or infringement. Such matters belong in a court of law.”

Ric Robertson, a onetime Academy COO who is now an awards strategist, believes that if his former employer ventured into the Brave One dispute, it “would definitely be in consultation with the Writers Guild,” which clearly seems unlikely.

John Duval, who believes his father should be awarded a posthumous Oscar, is unsatisfied. (He obtained Rich’s FBI file and presented his case to then-Academy executive director Bruce Davis, who replied in a letter sent shortly before his retirement in 2011: “Somewhat to my surprise, you’ve persuaded me that there might just be some validity to your contention that a story written by your father was the basis for The Brave One.”) Duval thinks his father’s case was dismissed because it was easy to do so as the marginal claim of a dead artist whose ethnic background had never allowed him to fully breach Hollywood’s gates. “When one considers how loosely the Academy decided to hand the Oscar to Trumbo … because the powers that be in Hollywood felt guilty about the blacklist, well, that’s not enough to continue to deny my father, the author of the original story, the deserved recognition of his work,” he says.

The Caballer from Catalonia - A biography of Juan Duval, whose son claims he wrote The Brave One.

Juan Duval’s stepson, Joseph A. Bonelli, has his own view. At the end of The Caballero From Catalonia, a 2018 biography he wrote about his stepfather, Bonelli contended that bullfighting had, by the time of The Brave One, become a Hollywood subgenre, and that he is not convinced of malfeasance. “It’s possible for people to do things they are consciously unaware of, such as borrowing an ‘idea’ which you can consider a piece of a plot,” he wrote. “The Kings could have consciously disliked Juan’s script but unconsciously liked and maybe borrowed an idea from it.” Bonelli went on: “When Dalton Trumbo said he wrote the original story and the final script for The Brave One, I believe him. I believe he acted in good faith — and I believe he deserved the Oscar he won for The Brave One.”

Brandeis professor Tom Doherty, author of the blacklist history Show Trial, says, “Judging by the evidence, Trumbo deserved his Oscar and Carmen Duval deserved her Ford Fairlane 500.”

In life and art, business and politics, Trumbo knew as well as anyone that truth is elusive. When he accepted the WGA’s Laurel Award in 1970, he sermonized on the blacklist’s toll. “It will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none,” he said. “There were only victims.”

The Hollywood Reporter Issue 15 Cover- Illustration By Olimpia Zagnoli

This story first appeared in the April 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.