Tuesday, February 21, 2017

High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic

You know the film. Sheriff Kane has married a Quaker beauty and is hanging up his gun and turning in his badge to run a shop. Then Kane learns that a gang is out to get even--Kane's life to pay for his arrest of their leader, now out of jail.

Get out of town, everyone advises. This two-bit town wasn't worth dying for.

Kane knows you can't escape the past. He had to face the danger and end it once and for all. As he tries to form a posse Kane discovers he is alone; everyone else in town justifies retreating into their protective shells.

Clocks tick off the minutes until noon when the train carrying his nemesis arrives. Kane is left alone on the empty street of a town without moral conviction, friendless; even his pacifist wife is leaving town without him. It is Kane alone against four armed men bent on murder.

The simple song with the hoofbeat rhythm tells the story, and its melody morphs and evolves, becoming menacing and persistent, until it is High Noon.

Stanley Kramer owed United Artists one more film to fulfill his contract, then he could get on making movies under his own studio. Screenwriter Carl Foreman had been working on an idea for several years, High Noon. They secured the over-the-hill but still box worthy actor Gary Cooper to play the lead, and newbie Grace Kelly to be his wife.

No one thought the film would amount to much. Cooper's acting lacked oopmh, Kelly was too young, and, used to emoting to the back row in the theater, over-acted. The early film version was deemed awful and needed cutting and remaking.

I was thrilled to read Glenn Frankel's book High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic. High Noon is a favorite film in my household. I know it scene by scene. Frankel's account of how the film was made was fascinating and exciting. Frankel portrays Gary Cooper as a handsome Lothario, also described as one of the nicest, greatest guys; Carl adores Coop.  Frank Cooper was the son of a Montana lawyer who wanted to be an artist but could not afford art school. He went to Hollywood after learning they needed stunt artists. He was a quick study. His handsome good looks caught the eye of Clara Bow for her famous movie It. Gary Cooper was born.

What really makes this book relevant and important is learning how the Cold War fostered an era of fear that allowed wholesale persecution.

Before High Noon was complete Carl Foreman's name was given to the House Un-American Committee as a member of the Communist Party. Carl had been a member, drawn to its Anti-Fascism and promotion of the rights of minorities, Jews, immigrants, and unions. Carl had signed an oath in 1950 saying he was not (then) a member of the Communist Party.

The Communist Party of the early 20th c attracted progressive liberals and intellectuals who supported such 'un-American' ideals as unionizing and workers rights; their agenda did not include the overthrow of the United States. The Communist Party was seen as a social club, a place for making connections. When Russia became an ally against Hitler, Hollywood was called upon to portray positive images in films like Song of Russia and Mission to Moscow.

The House Un-American Committee 'quizzed' accused Communists, rewarding those who cooperated with reprieve, but not always forgiveness. Milton Berkeley gave the Committee 150 names and was their darling; yet when his son graduated from Yale he was denied acceptance into the Navy's Officer Training Program, blacklisted because his father had once been a Communist!

Carl could have played their game, admit his sins and name several Communist party members they already knew about. He'd be off the hook, perhaps with his career damaged, but not over. Carl would not bend his convictions; he'd rather go to jail. Alone and afraid he faced the tribunal. They were not pleased.

Carl was a liability. Kramer fired Carl; no studio could afford to be associated with Communism. Cooper, a Republican anti-Communist, believed in and supported Carl and wanted to help him start his own company; the deal fell through. Even Cooper couldn't defeat the HUAC and stand up to the threat of blacklisting. Foreman went to England and went on to write The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Guns of Navarone, The Mouse that Roared, Born Free, and Young Winston.

The HUAC's abuse of power was finally addressed by the Supreme Court in an a1957 ruling, stating that "There is no general authority to expose the private affairs of individuals without justification in terms of the functions of Congress. Nor is the Congress a law enforcement or trial agency." Senator Joseph McCarthy's fall also damaged the HAUC's credibility.

Carl Foreman had lost his job; his name was expunged in the credits of High Noon and The Bridge on the River Kwai; his passport had been revoked; and his marriage damaged. And yet years later, back in America, he ran into John Wayne, an ardent anti-communist. They embraced as old friends. When Carl asked how he could accept an old enemy so nicely he replied that Wayne was a patriot and had only been doing what he thought was right.

In times of national stress fear manifests in attacks against perceived threats, which in hindsight are seen as ill-advised, unconstitutional, and morally suspect. The red-baiting witch hunts of the 1950s were such a time. Frankel's book reminds us of the cost of allowing our fear to negate the rights guaranteed by our laws and warns against the misuse of power.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

High Noon
Glenn Frankel
Bloomsbury
Publication February 21, 2017
$28 hard cover
ISBN: 9781620409480