Dalton Trumbo: Rare tribute to blacklisted screenwriter


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Dalton Trumbo, who’s one of the most fascinating figures from mid-20th century Hollywood, is getting a new moment in the spotlight, thanks to a three-day tribute from the American Cinematheque that begins Thursday at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. A Colorado-born Westerner who got his start in the 1930s as a studio reader and B-movie screenwriter, Trumbo emerged after World World II as an ardent Communist and the highest-paid screenwriter of his day, making $3,000 a week at MGM. A free spender, Trumbo was almost always in debt, so when he was blacklisted as part of the Hollywood Ten, he quickly became adept at writing under-the-table scripts as fast as anyone could read them, often churning out a screenplay every two or three weeks.

After refusing to inform on any of his old Communist friends and associates, he was convicted for contempt of Congress and spent 11 months in the federal penitentiary. After emerging from prison, he spent much of the early 1950s in Mexico, writing more scripts under various pseudonyms. Even knocked out at a whirlwind pace, some of the scripts were superb--witty, bright and fast-paced. In fact, Trumbo got his revenge when his script for ‘The Brave One’--written under the alias of Robert Rich--won a 1956 Oscar for best motion picture story.


There have been innumerable accounts of what unfolded at the Oscar ceremony, but my favorite comes from ‘What Happens Next,’ Marc Norman’s wonderful history of screenwriters in Hollywood. Since no one wanted to admit that Rich didn’t actually write the script, Jesse Lasky Jr,. a WGA executive, accepted the award, claiming that Mr. Rich was unavoidably detained at the local maternity hospital, where he was at his pregnant wife’s bedside. But Trumbo didn’t waste much time, giving interviews that exposed the whole charade. It was Trumbo who was the first of the blacklisted writers to get his name on a picture, in 1960, for two films that are screening at the tribute, the Kirk Douglas-starring ‘Spartacus,’ which screens on Friday night, and Otto Preminger’s ‘Exodus,’ which screens on Saturday.

The tribute kicks off Thursday with ‘Johnny Got His Gun,’ the only film Trumbo directed, and ‘Lonely Are the Brave,’ an absorbing 1962 drama (still not available on DVD) that stars Douglas, Walter Matthau and Gena Rowlands. Trumbo’s son, Christopher Trumbo, who wrote ‘Trumbo,’ the 2007 documentary about his father, will be on hand each night, often accompanied by other family members. If you can only see one film, I’d suggest the Stanley Kubrick-directed ‘Spartacus,’ which has been much parodied over the years but has a true Trumbo-esque pulp energy to it (even at a 190-minute-plus running time). But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what Pauline Kael had to say about it in her original review:

‘This may be the best-paced and most slyly entertaining of all the decadent-ancient-Rome spectacular films. It’s a big cartoon drama, with Kirk Douglas at his most muscular as the slave gladiator Spartacus.... Laurence Olivier is Spartacus’s antagonist, Crassus, a devious patrician who wants to rule Rome in the name of order--he’s designed as a super-subtle fascist.... Peter Ustinov is superb as a slave dealer, who along with his groveling sycophancy and his merchant’s greed has his resentments; and Charles Laughton, amusingly wide in his toga, is a wily old Roman senator. (The two of them have a chat about the beneficial effects of corpulence.) The large cast seems to be having a high good time.’ And hey, check out that cleft chin! Los Angeles Times file photo of Dalton Trumbo