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Remembering Dalton Trumbo

I met Dalton Trumbo only once, five years ago, but he made an impression I've not forgotten. The meeting was for lunch, long and leisurely, on the occasion of the opening of his film, "Johnny Got His Gun." Trumbo had directed the film at the age of 66, from a novel he wrote when he was 33. In the lifetime between those two ages he had been the highest-paid writer in Hollywood, had spent 10 months in prison and had won an Academy Award under a false name.

He sat at a table in the Playboy Club and smoked one cigaret after another. There was a white wine on the list he rather liked, and he ordered two bottles so the second would also be chilled. He wore a luxuriant white moustache and an expensively tailored suit, and his voice was cultured beneath the cigaret rasp. There was a word for him, and after 10 minutes it occurred to me: Trumbo was courtly.

He was not going to be hurried into an interview, as if this were only business. The occasion was lunch, and the occasion would be observed. He would have the eggs benedict. He would recall previous visits to Chicago, he would inquire what movies I'd liked recently, he would regard our Playboy bunny with grave attention.

"I feel a bit shy," he confessed, after she had leaned forward in her brief costume to fill his wineglass. "I've never been in one of these places before. You know, I was born in Colorado, and I remember the first self-starting automobile that drove into town. And I flew here today on a 747. That's too damned much for one lifetime."

And that was leaving out all the things that had happened in between. When his father grew ill, the family moved to California, and Trumbo worked for eight years in a bakery, working all night and then trying to keep his eyes open the next day at UCLA. After several false starts, he'd gotten a $75-a-week job in one of the screenplay factories all the studios maintained in the 1930s. Most of the writers sank; some swam. By the 1940s, after movies like "Kitty Foyle" and "30 Seconds Over Tokyo," Trumbo was earning $75,600 a script. He liked to write all night, with his typewriter on a board across the bathtub.

By the war's end, Trumbo and Ben Hecht were the two best-known screenwriters in America. But then the McCarthy era began, and the House Un-American Activities Committee initiated its witch-hunt for Communists in the film industry. Trumbo, who had once been a member of the Communist Party, refused to answer the committee's questions on the constitutional grounds that his answers were none of its business. He was courageous and witty, and before long he was unemployed, and the best-known member of the Hollywood Ten.

After a prison sentence for contempt, Trumbo went into exile and turned out dozens of scripts under pseudonyms: "I wrote under Irish names, Jewish names, whatever they needed." His price per screenplay fell to $3,000, and he was kept very busy, because at that price he was a bargain. In 1956 he wrote a script called "The Brave Ones" under the name of Robert Rich, and in 1957 "Rich" won an Oscar for it. No one walked up to the podium to claim the award, but in a way it foretold the end of the blacklist.

"You know. I've still never picked up that Oscar," Trumbo said. "It weighs 18 pounds, and it doesn't pack flat, and you're in a lot of trouble if you have to leave town in a hurry." He lit another cigaret, "Besides," he said, "it doesn't have my name on it."

Otto Preminger brought Trumbo out of exile in 1960, to write the screenplay for "Exodus." Trumbo chuckled at the memory. "The book weighed 14 pounds and had 390 characters, and Otto needed a screenplay in three weeks. We started on Dec. 16. I remember Christmas Eve, Otto impatiently watching my family unwrap gifts. I believe he had to restrain himself front opening the gifts for them, to speed along the process, you know."

Then came the screenplays for "Spartacus," "Hawaii," and one of Trumbo's favorites, "Lonely are the Brave"" in which Kirk Douglas played a modern American cowboy holding out against progress. Opinion on Trumbo was divided. He was accused of morals that were too obvious, of preaching, of scripts with tough skins and soft centers. His best scenes, one critic charged, were not in his movies but before HUAC.

There were good reviews, though, for "Additional Dialogue," his collected correspondence, published in 1970. And the next year there was finally his film version of "Johnny Got His Gun," the classic antiwar novel he'd written in 1939. It had a horrifying premise: That a soldier who'd lost his arms and legs and half his face in World War I could survive for years in a hospital with a mind still fully capable of thought.

Dalton Trumbo died of a heart attack Friday in Los Angeles. He was 70 years old. When I heard the news I remembered one of the last things he'd said during our lunch. His movie had won three awards at Cannes, and he'd admitted he was proud of that: "I finally had to direct the damned thing myself," he said, "because I was old enough to have been there, to remember what it was like. I'm older than everybody. I'm even older than Preminger." He poured himself another glass of wine. "I wanted the movie to be good," he said, "because the novel is obviously the best thing I've ever done. Maybe the one good thing I've done."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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