Inspiring ‘Trumbo’ exposes anti-Semitism of Hollywood blacklist

Bryan Cranston stars in ‘Trumbo.’

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

The Hollywood blacklist marked a dark period in American history. Cold War fear of communists gripped the nation, and a Washington-based witch hunt sought to find anyone with even an imagined link to communism. 

Suspicion fell on Jewish movie stars, writers and directors in particular. In this climate of fear, movie studio heads, mostly Jewish themselves, created a “blacklist” of people who would be barred for 13 years from working in movies due to suspected communist sympathies.

“Are you now, or have you ever been, a Communist?” was the question asked by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). But in many cases, the question could have been, “Are you now, or have you ever been … a liberal, a supporter of labor unions or civil rights, or a Jew?” 

The latter is an idea explored by writer Michael Freedland in his essay for the Jewish Chronicle Online, “Hunting communists? They were really after Jews.” 

Six of the “Hollywood 10” targeted by HUAC and later blacklisted — Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz and Samuel Ornitz – were Jewish. But the list also included successful screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. 


While Trumbo is the central character in the film “Trumbo,” the movie is less biopic than a story about the Hollywood blacklist, and one that reveals a startling undercurrent of anti-Semitism. Trumbo was not Jewish, but many of the other people featured in the film were, such as Edward G. Robinson, Louis B. Mayer, Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas.

Director Jay Roach’s film opens in 1947, when HUAC subpoenaed Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) and nine other Hollywood writers to testify. The Hollywood 10 refused to answer the congressmen’s questions on First Amendment grounds, which eventually landed them in federal prison. 

Under this atmosphere of fear, powerful gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), supported by the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals headed by John Wayne (David James Elliott), pressured Hollywood studio heads such as Mayer (Richard Portnow) to purge the movies of anyone suspected of Communist sympathies. Worried that the committee would target them next, the major Hollywood studio heads created the blacklist. 

Working for low pay under other names mostly at B-movie studios like the one led by Frank King (John Goodman), Trumbo and other blacklisted writers eeked out a living. 

Louis C.K. plays Arlen Hird, a composite of five of the six Jewish members of the Hollywood 10, who wrote under assumed names. While these writers continued to secretly work, Jewish actors such as Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) did not have that option. 

While blacklisted, Trumbo wrote the screenplay for “Roman Holiday” and “The Brave One.” Ultimately, star   Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) and director Preminger (Christian Berkel) stood up to the blacklist and credited Trumbo under his real name for his scripts for “Spartacus” and “Exodus,” respectively.

The anti-Semitic undercurrent is illustrated particularly during a scene in which Hedda Hopper threatens MGM head Mayer, calling him by an anti-Semitic epithet and hinting she will use his Jewish heritage as a weapon against him. 

The story takes place at a time when many neighborhoods and clubs were “restricted,” barring Jews from buying properties or becoming members. And it wasn’t long after World War II, during which Soviet Russia had been allied with the U.S. against Nazi Germany, which meant it was not hard to find some link to some organization with communist ties if one looked at people who supported labor unions, rights for African-Americans or other liberal ideals — or who supported Zionism.

Those interested in Trumbo, in particular, and getting into the intellectual underpinnings of his work and character, should seek out the excellent documentary of the same name. In this film, Trumbo is more a focal point, a character around which a larger story is told, although we do get views of his family life.   

The acting is superb, with Cranston (“Breaking Bad”)  crafting a complex but principled character as Trumbo, and the rest of the cast turning in strong work. 

C.K.’s performance as writer Hird is among the film’s best. The five actual blacklisted writers Hird is based on wrote some memorable films, including “The House of the Seven Gables,” “Cry, the Beloved Country” and “Imitation of Life.” Drawing on their personalities and work, C.K. creates a loveable, cranky character with high ideals and biting wit, who keeps up the fight even while facing cancer, as Ornitz did. 

Stuhlbarg as Robinson delivers a moving performance, and O’Gorman as Douglas brings an inspiring defiance to bullying.

 “Trumbo” is an inspirational drama about a still-relevant period in America’s past, topped off with a real world Hollywood ending.