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Part of Our Time, Too | The Nation

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Part of Our Time, Too

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Given the late Dalton Trumbo's various claims to verbal fame--highest-paid screenwriter of his day, most vocal member of the Hollywood Ten, polemicist extraordinaire, winner under the pseudonym "Robert Rich" of the 1957 Academy Award for best screenplay (The Brave One), blacklist-buster, world-class letter writer--it's not surprising that his words should float back into the news at Oscar time.

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But it is poetic injustice that it was Arthur Schlesinger Jr. who should quote them, in a New York Times Op-Ed piece attacking those protesting the Motion Picture Academy's Lifetime Achievement Award to Elia Kazan, the director known both for the power of his films and for having named names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Trumbo's gracious words, uttered in 1970 on the occasion of his belatedly receiving a Laurel Award (the highest honor bestowed by the Screen Writers Guild) were, as quoted by Schlesinger:

"When you who are in your 40s or under look back with curiosity on that dark time, as I think occasionally you should, it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none: there were only victims."

There is a minor problem with Schlesinger's invocation of Trumbo's words--namely, that the only exception Trumbo seemed to make to his generous admonition was for Kazan himself, of whom he told an interviewer a few years later, "Kazan is one of those for whom I feel contempt, because he carried down men less capable of defending themselves than he."

Be that as it may, the mail just recently brought Trumbo back to us again, in the form of a letter with enclosures from Trumbo's son, Christopher, prompted by the republication of Murray Kempton's classic Part of Our Time: Some Ruins and Monuments of the Thirties, with a new introduction by David Remnick. Kempton, who had called Dalton Trumbo to discuss the "Robert Rich" award, had some cruel things to say about Hollywood Communists in Part of Our Time, and Trumbo took the occasion to set him straight. (Trumbo wrote about it in this magazine, too, on May 4, 1957.) When Christopher Trumbo saw Remnick's introduction reprinted in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, he combed his father's files and found the exchange, from spring 1957, that follows:

Dear Murray Kempton:

I'm so extremely sorry I didn't catch your name at the beginning of our telephone conversation instead of the end, for I'd have warmed up much sooner and perhaps given you more to go on. I know your work well, and was especially moved by your piece on the Wellman children. I was alert for Part of Our Time, and received probably the first local copy.

Being classified a ruin before I have finished the course troubled me somewhat; but my wounds were soothed, if such is possible, by the quality of prose that inflicted them. I'd rather be stilettoed than rasped to death, and you handle the sharper instrument with disconcerting skill.

Sometime when we see each other, as I hope we shall, I'll explain certain accounts which I think were given inaccurately. By that I don't mean the sources were dishonest, but that memory itself marvelously parallels necessity. At least I've found mine does, and as I grow older my sense of personal uniqueness diminishes steadily.

Another objection might reasonably stem from the contempt you feel for those who write motion pictures. Such contempt, of course, isn't uncommon among intellectuals. Indeed, it's often seemed to me that Hollywood is as necessary to the intellectuals as the nigrah to his cracker neighbors. We're going down, boys, but look at him.

Having spent long hours, at their request, with such disparate characters as Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Scott Fitzgerald and John McNulty (how fortunate for my story they're all dead!), attempting to explain a writing technique they wanted very much to learn, I can assure you consistent performance of my job requires a high order of skill. The four men I mention didn't fail because their intellects were too lofty, nor because they were too pure of heart, nor because they held the medium in contempt. Successful in other fields of writing, they failed as screenwriters because they had no talent for that particular and difficult form.

All of this is by way of getting around to a second instance in which I think your informants served you badly. I worked in motion pictures from 1936 to 1947. During the eleven-year period I had a hand in over twenty-five films. The first three or four years I count my apprenticeship, for I am a slow and stubborn learner. Your research man credited me with five obscure pictures written in 1938 and 1939 as "a representative list" of the films by which my merit was to be judged. Life Magazine did the same thing.

To speak of credits and money is a dull business, but your Hollywood chapter mentions both to the disparagement of blacklisted persons. I speak here only of myself, for that's a subject I know a great deal about. I assume that others could make similar complaints on their own behalf. In 1947, when the hearings were held, I held a straight five-year contract at $3,000 per week--the highest salary ever paid to that date for writing services alone on a long term basis.

The contract had other interesting features. It was the second in Hollywood history to have no morals clause, the first having been signed by me three years previously. The studio had no option clauses and no power of suspension. There was no limit to the amount of time I could spend writing each script, although I had the option to switch the deal from the weekly salary to a flat $75,000 for the script whenever, in my judgment, it seemed profitable for me to do so. I was guaranteed choice of assignments, and could read and reject stories indefinitely at full salary. I had the right to take such vacations as I chose for as long as I chose at the end of each assignment, the contract being extended by the length of my vacation period, but the studio having no reciprocal rights to impose vacations upon me. I could work wherever I chose, in California or out of it, and the terms under which the studio could summon me for consultation were carefully stipulated.

I can only add that the proprietors of M-G-M were never deceived about my political affiliations, and that so long as I worked there I informed each producer of those affiliations before I accepted an assignment from him. There were no objections. The point is this: without sighing for past glories (to which I wouldn't return if I could), how does one account for such a contract on the basis of my representative work as given in Part of Our Time?

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