'High Noon' of the Red Scare


"High Noon'

By Glenn Frankel (Bloomsbury, 400 pages, $28)

Shortly after World War II, Chicago-born screenwriter Carl Foreman, a member of the Communist Party for a time, conceived a story of a marshal, a town and a band of killers in need of elimination. The writer thought of it as a symbolic 19th century Old West parable, inspired by the United Nations and the need for a collective effort in the fight against dark societal forces.

But as author Glenn Frankel writes in his compelling new book "High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic," a few years' time made one hell of a difference in both America and in the film that eventually won four Academy Awards in early 1953.

In June 1951, Foreman received a pink slip (speaking of symbolism) requiring his appearance and testimony before the Committee on Un-American Activities. The screenwriter already had been called up, in 1947. But now the Red Scare was nearing its zenith, and the committee wanted names named, along with culpas mea'd.

Foreman, Frankel writes, "began to rethink his screenplay for 'High Noon' and turn it into an allegory about the Red Scare and the blacklist." He began also to see himself in the role of Will Kane, the lone defender of a complacent, lily-livered populace.

Frankel's book takes a good while to get to the actual filming and the reception of "High Noon," but the side roads en route are worth it. We learn, for example, a great deal about Gary Cooper, the Montana native who relocated to Hollywood in 1924 and won an Oscar for "High Noon," and for whom the film arrived in the nick of time, saving him from a slow fade into mediocre projects.

We learn about Foreman's life and career prior to meeting producer Stanley Kramer, his friend, ally and eventual political ... well, "foe" isn't quite right, but neither is "protector." The real strength of Frankel's account lies in its illustration, in many shades of gray, of the Hollywood blacklist and what it did, in practical terms, as it ruined or derailed many, many careers.

The Red Scare Hollywood era is familiar nonfiction territory, but Frankel makes it vital and gets down to the roots. As early as 1943, informal meetings of various conservative Hollywood power brokers (a lot of them blatant anti-Semites) led to the formation of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideas. Director Sam Wood ran it; Walt Disney served as vice president, and Cooper was a charter member. If Hollywood studio product was beginning to smell of left-wing propaganda, these folks would be there to squeal, or to squelch it.

Like many films made in politically repressive times, director Fred Zinnemann's "High Noon" spoke in code to various audience factions, telling one moviegoer one thing, and another moviegoer something else. It could be read as a story of bravery in the face of improbable odds. It could be read as a man who marries a Quaker wife (Grace Kelly in an early screen role) and who learns the hard way that his town, Hadleyville, wasn't worth much in human terms.

"High Noon" may have come from Foreman's brain, but it bore a resemblance to a 1947 Collier's short story called "The Tin Star." The screenwriter completed a 15-page treatment in early 1951. On the verge of a lucrative new deal with Columbia Pictures, producer Kramer still owed United Artists a movie. "High Noon" seemed like the right one to do quickly. Besides, it would give Foreman an associate producer credit as well as the writing credit.

But Foreman was subpoenaed just as he finished the "High Noon" script for Kramer and director Zinnemann. He refused to name names of fellow former Communists within the film industry. The movie in development took on the aura of a sinister lefty tract, not a Western good Americans could take in comfortably. "If you want to leave the picture," Foreman told Cooper early in the filming, "now's the time to do it."

Cooper did not, as we know. Zinnemann's film, a Western made by people who'd never made a Western, contained "no beautiful vistas, no cattle drives or stampedes, no gun violence until its final showdown, a morally corrupt community, a frightened, vulnerable hero, and a political message that quietly defied the reactionary spirit of the times," as Frankel writes in his introduction. According to the on-screen credits of the official 1952 release print, however, the film was produced by nobody. Foreman retained screenwriting credit, but the studio and Kramer couldn't survive the political attacks with an unfriendly HUAC witness' name on the finished product.

What happened to Foreman after the film — his exile in London, his work on "The Bridge on the River Kwai" for David Lean, for which he finally received Writers Guild of America credit in 1984, the day before Foreman died — is one of many tales told here by Frankel. Foreman was hardly the only blacklist casualty of "High Noon," despite the film's commercial and critical popularity. (Actors Lloyd Bridges, Howland Chamberlin, Virginia Farmer and Jeff Corey ran afoul of the Red-baiters, as did "High Noon" cinematographer Floyd Crosby.) Cooper's standing in Hollywood was never higher than on the night of the 1953 Academy Awards; away on a film shoot, Cooper couldn't pick up his statuette, but John Wayne (an arch-conservative, to the right of Cooper) offered his services and made a little joke about firing his management for not giving him a shot at the Cooper role in "High Noon."

Privately, Wayne hated the picture. Marshal Will Kane's fruitless deadline search for townsfolk to join him in a posse smelled, to Wayne, like collectivism and cowardice. In a 1971 Playboy interview quoted by Frankel, Wayne saw no reason to rethink "having helped run Foreman out of the country." "High Noon," he contended, was "the most un-American thing I've ever seen in my whole life." Director Howard Hawks didn't like it, either and together Hawks and Wayne made "Rio Bravo" (1959) as a beguiling, vigilante-friendly rebuttal to "High Noon."

Frankel's previous books include "The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend," and temperamentally his writing, and his movie taste, tends to favor the serious, 10-ton Important Westerns, a category including "High Noon," "The Searchers," "Shane" and a handful of others. The book reiterates a few points needlessly, and Frankel uses the adjective "ambitious" four or five too many times. These are not large flaws. Without turning his book into a screed against Donald Trump's America and current political ideologies that aim to take the country back to 1952, Frankel keeps both eyes on the lessons of the past, as well as the movies that got made, despite opposition.

Michael Phillips

Chicago tribune