Review of Glenn Frankel’s "High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic"

tags: book review, Glenn Frankel, High Noon

Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

In High Noon, journalist Glenn Frankel, the author of an outstanding book on John Ford’s The Searchers, examines the making of a classic Western film within the historical and cultural context of the Red Scare that divided America and Hollywood during the 1950s. While Hollywood is often perceived as a bastion of liberalism, Frankel documents how conservatives in the film capitol, such as Walt Disney, John Wayne, Cecil B. DeMille, and Hedda Hopper, formed the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals and invited the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) to Hollywood following the Second World War. The result of the HUAC hearings was the imprisonment of the Hollywood Ten for contempt of Congress after they challenged the right of the committee to question their political beliefs and associations. The film industry responded to the accusations of communist propaganda by instituting a blacklist of writers, directors, and performers whose politics were suspect. Seeking to avoid controversial social problem films, Hollywood retreated to the escapist entertainment of romantic comedies and Biblical epics. An exception to such innocuous fare was High Noon (1952); an adult Western that John Wayne once described as un-American.

Frankel primarily credits four men with the making of High Noon: writer Carl Foreman, producer Stanley Kramer, director Fred Zinnemann, and actor Gary Cooper. The book concentrates upon Foreman, whose script provided the essential vision for High Noon. Frankel accepts Foreman’s assertion that the film became a commentary on the plight of Foreman and other Hollywood leftists during the Red Scare. In this allegory, the outlaws led by Frank Miller represent the disruptive force of HUAC entering the Hollywood community, while courageous Marshal Will Kane, portrayed by Cooper, may be viewed as the Hollywood Ten and individuals such as Foreman who refused to capitulate to the demands of the committee to denounce their associates by naming names. The cowardly townspeople who refuse to help Kane may be equated to the Hollywood liberals who deserted the Hollywood Ten in order to salvage their careers.

Foreman, a former member of the Communist Party, adhered to his principles and refused to cooperate with HUAC. At the zenith of his career, he was forced out of Hollywood and sought refuge in London. Although he received a lucrative severance package from Kramer’s production company, Foreman went through a period of depression before resuming a film career in London. In 1956, Foreman returned to the United States after an agreement with HUAC in which he would denounce communism but not inform on his associates. Some believed that he sold out, but Foreman was able to renew his Hollywood filmmaking, producing such films as The Guns of Navarone (1961).

The other major figures associated with High Noon managed to elude the clutches of the blacklist. Frankel is more critical of the compromises made by Kramer whose independent films include such socially conscious films as Champion (1949), Home of the Brave (1949), The Defiant Ones (1958), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). In 1952, however, Kramer was making a deal with Columbia Pictures and was afraid that Foreman’s politics might thwart the agreement, and the former friends never spoke again after Foreman was removed from the production company. Director Zinnemann, whose cinematic works includes such films as From Here to Eternity (1953), A Man for All Seasons (1966), and Julia (1997), did not perceive High Noon as the allegory envisioned by Foreman. Instead, Zinnemann focused upon the broader theme of the individual who would not surrender to political pressures and conformity—a common subject for a number of the director’s films. Cooper comes in for special praise from Frankel for his superb low key performance as a man who, even though afraid for his life, would not abandon his principles, and Cooper was rewarded with an Oscar for Best Actor. Cooper was a conservative and a board member for the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, but, as Frankel observes, he was a man of principles rather than an ideologue. Cooper liked Foreman and attempted to honor their friendship despite criticism from other members of the Hollywood conservative community.

Others to whom Frankel assigns responsibility for making High Noon a classic of American cinema include composer Dimitri Tiomkin, singer Tex Ritter for his rendition of “Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darlin’,” and character actors such as Lon Chaney Jr. and Thomas Mitchell. Although the film concentrates upon its male protagonist, Frankel also acknowledges the performances of Grace Kelly, appearing in her first major film role, and Mexican actress Katy Juardo, whom Frankel describes as dominating her scenes with Cooper and a young Lloyd Bridges. Frankel also commends the work of cinematographer Fred Crosby and film editor Elmo Williams, although he finds the claim by Williams that he saved the film to be somewhat of an exaggeration.

Frankel’s writing is clear and direct, free from jargon, and accessible to general readers. The author makes good use of film studio archives, personal papers, oral histories, available FBI files, and Congressional testimony in documenting his study. He also includes interesting perspectives from surviving family members of the major influences upon the film. Frankel also does a good job of maintaining his focus upon the film and its political context and does not digress too often into Hollywood gossip, although he could not resist some titillating material on Cooper’s love life. In general, Frankel attempts to maintain somewhat of an objective approach to the controversies of the era, but there is little doubt that his sympathies lie with those who were victimized by the blacklist. In the final analysis, nevertheless, he seems to adopt the position of Hollywood Ten blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo that those who cooperated with HUAC were also victims. No one should have been placed in the position of choosing between a career and informing. In addition, Frankel argues that the Hollywood communists hardly constituted a threat to national security and were rarely able to insert political messages due to the collaborative nature of filmmaking, although in the church scene from High Noon, Foreman did include a critique of capitalism as the parishioners refuse to help Kane because a violent gunfight in the streets would be bad for business investment in the town.

Frankel’s tale of Hollywood politics in the 1950s reminds us that the vehement passions of the contemporary political scene are not necessarily new, and somehow we survived the anticommunist crusade. This survival, however, cost many individuals their life, liberty, and career during the repressive blacklist. In addition, the reactionary politics of the 1950s included demagogues such as Joseph McCarthy, but men such as McCarthy lacked the charisma and media savvy of a Donald Trump. Thus, an examination of the post-World War II Red Scare may not provide reassurance, but the examples of Carl Foreman and his alter ego Will Kane suggest that even in the most troubled of times we need individuals who evoke moral courage. High Noon is an exceptional film and atypical Western, but in its embracing of the individual conscience willing to confront seemingly impossible odds, it is hardly, with apologies to John Wayne, un-American.   

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