Screenwriter Malvin Wald died last Thursday, March 6, in Sherman Oaks, California, at age 90. I first got to know him casually when I was a student at the University of Southern California’s Cinema Department, where he taught part time. (He is pictured at left in 1950 while visiting USC with the legendary Slavko Vorkapitch, who is seated.) I got to know him better when, in 1981, I did research for his screenplay for Hollywood Local, a documentary on the history of Hollywood trade unions, which unfortunately never got produced. (It did however form the basis of a traveling photo exhibit.)
He had gained fame for co-writing Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1949). which gained him an Oscar nomination, which spawned the whole genre of police procedurals, though most of his subsequent credits were for TV dramas; by the time I got to know him, he was heavily involved in documentaries, whose credits seem to be absent from his obituaries. As an active member of the Writers Guild of America, West, on whose board he served, Hollywood Local was right up his alley. As I was then getting involved in writing my history of early animation unions, I felt I had found a kindred spirit.
I later asked him to serve on my dissertation committee and he eagerly agreed. After I gave him a draft, he called to say that he had just finished reading the section on Dan Glass, an animation artist whose death from TB was a crucial event in leading up to the 1937 Fleischer strike. He was so taken with it that he wanted to work with me on a screenplay based on Glass’ story. I was flattered and protested that I wasn’t a scriptwriter; but after he pooh-poohed my claim, saying I was obviously a good writer and could easily write a script, I said yes.
Unfortunately, the project never went anywhere, and it turned out he was ineligible to serve on my dissertation committee, but we continued to keep in touch. Thus, when I was offered an option on a novel, I turned to him for advice; then, when script work started to dry up, he called me when he started writing magazine articles about film.
What I most remember about Malvin Wald was that he was a real mensch, whose passion for workers’ rights and whose commitment to help students like me was the real thing. I also fondly recall his good humor and lack of pretension. (An early memory was seeing him a USC banquet wearing a tux and his ubiquitous running shoes.) I’m sorry I lost touch with him later on, but his friendship is something I will always value.