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    The Dalton see

    Based on a stage play, "Trumbo" presents the best known of the Hollywood Ten black-listed writers as a flawed hero, remembered by his family, his friends and admirers and his own words as read by a panoply of famous actors.


    With heroes few and far between, one has to look back — sometimes decades — to find men and women of integrity. The name Trumbo — no first name necessary — has been a rallying cry for First Amendment Freedom of Speech issues ever since its bearer, Dalton, went to prison in 1947. His crime? Refusing to name fellow members of the Communist Party to the HUAC (House UnAmerican Activities Committee) during its initial Hollywood witchhunts in the late 1940s.

    Directed by: Peter Askin.
    Produced by: Will Battersby, Al Klingenstein, Tory Tunnell, David Viola.
    Written by: Christopher Trumbo.
    Adapted from Trumbo by: Christopher Trumbo.
    Cast: Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, Nathan Lane, Josh Lucas, Liam Neeson, David Strathairn, Donald Sutherland.
    Cinematography: Frank Prinzi.
    Edited by: Kurt Engfehr.
    Music by: Robert Miller.
    In its zeal to weed out "Commies" from among Hollywood's more liberal actors, writers and directors, Trumbo and nine other writers were called up before the HUAC and ordered to give names. For their silence, Trumbo — who became a member of the Communist Party in 1943 — and his nine colleagues including Ring Lardner Jr. ("MASH," 1970) and John Howard Lawson ("Cry the Beloved Country," 1951) were sentenced to at least a year in prison, as a warning to others to co-operate.

    Now comes a new doc adapted from a play by Trumbo's son Christopher, based on a selection of the myriad letters his father wrote between 1947 and 1960, in part because he couldn't write anything else under his own name. Trumbo, as remembered by his son, his daughter, his friends and admirers and reflected by his own words, is a flawed hero. His words are sometimes humorous as in a letter to the phone company read by Paul Giamatti that includes the sarcastic phrase "When we Reds come into power," or another to his son on ritual masturbation read by Nathan Lane.

    But most are serious like the one David Strathairn reads that was written to the principal of Trumbo's daughter's school after they blacklisted the ten year old as well. (Giamatti, Lane and Strathairn also appeared in the play.) While the letters are read by a host of well-known actors including Michael Douglas, Liam Neeson, Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy and Josh Lucas, no one ever tries to imitate Trumbo, which gives their readings both a timeless and universal quality.

    Writer Christopher Trumbo and director Peter Askin ("Hedwig and the Angry Inch") have brought a loving warts-and-all-screen appreciation of Trumbo senior as a prickly man of talent and conviction.  

    For Trumbo, the real villains of the Blacklist were the producers who caved in to the HUAC and refused to hire not only the Ten, but hundreds more actors, writers and directors. Some like Lee Grant, Zero Mostel and even Will Geer (yes Virginia, Grandpa Walton was a Commie!) were lucky enough to get work on Broadway, where the Blacklist never took hold. Others, Trumbo included, took to writing under various pseudonyms — he had no fewer than 13 aliases or fronts, including the silly sounding Sally Stubblefield on a 1957 B-movie about unwed mothers called "The Green Eyed Blonde."

    By 1953, Trumbo had gone from being one of Hollywood's highest paid scripters for movies like the Oscar nominated "Kitty Foyle (1940) and "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" (1944), to hiding his name behind front Ian MacLellan Hunter on "Roman Holiday" who then received the OscarĘ for Trumbo's screenplay. (Trumbo's name was digitally edited into the film's credits on the 2003 DVD release.)

    His Oscar winning screenplay for "The Brave One" (1956) was credited to the non-existent Robert Rich, a not very well kept Hollywood secret. Trumbo's professional star continued to fall until 1960, when both actor Kirk Douglas and director Otto Preminger bravely insisted that he be credited with his own screenplays for "Spartacus" and "Exodus."

    Writer Christopher Trumbo and director Peter Askin ("Hedwig and the Angry Inch") have brought a loving warts-and-all screen appreciation of Trumbo senior as a prickly man of talent and conviction. The doc is well-balanced by much excellent archival footage of Trumbo as a father and husband as well as a blacklisted writer.

    His strength and courage are summed up when Strathairn delivers a speech about the Blacklist that Trumbo actually made in 1970 in which the writer concluded, "There was bad faith and good, honesty and dishonesty, courage and cowardice, selflessness and opportunism, wisdom and stupidity, good and bad on both sides; and almost every individual involved, no matter where he stood, combined some or all of these antithetical qualities in his own person, in his own acts."

    JUNE 30, 2008

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