High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic
By Glenn Frankel
$28, 400 pages
Many an Oscar aficionado considers 1952’s "The Greatest Show on Earth," Cecil B. DeMille’s three-ring soap-operatic salute to big-top entertainment, as the worst pick ever for best picture among the 88 titles that have been so honored.
The general consensus of what alternate nominee should have claimed the trophy? "High Noon," an introspective re-invention of the Western that has only grown in stature through the years. It helped that it provided 50-something Gary Cooper with a career-capping gem of a role (along with his second best-actor win following his statuette for 1941’s (set reg) "Sergeant York" as a retiring small-town sheriff who, having been deserted by gutless friends and colleagues, must singlehandedly take a stand against a quartet of vengeful gunslingers.
Most modern-day moviegoers probably are barely aware of silent-era pioneer DeMille’s lone Academy Award triumph. But "High Noon" not only has become cultural shorthand to describe a moment of destiny that demands moral fortitude. It also ranks as the most- requested movie to be shown at the White House by presidents. Bill Clinton is said to have screened it as many as 20 times. He liked to be reminded of its message: “Courage is not the absence of fear, it is perseverance in the face of fear.”
Yes, DeMille was long overdue for his Oscar close-up. But as Glenn Frankel compellingly describes in " High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic," there were deeper, more disturbing reasons why this enduring classic came away with four trophies total yet failed to be recognized for best picture, script and direction.
Those oversights were tied to the fact that one of the film’s primary creative forces – screenwriter and producer Stanley Kramer’s business partner Carl Foreman – was entangled in the witch hunt against suspected Communist sympathizers during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the late '40s and '50s would regularly interrogate those in the Hollywood community who were pegged as possible party members. They also were coerced into calling out other so-called traitors and risked jail time if they kept silent.
Many would see their careers collapse after undergoing such a torturous public process. In his intro chapter, Frankel makes the case that the intense fear and paranoia surrounding such supposed subversives infiltrating the U.S. was even greater than our current concerns over Islamic extremism. As for DeMille, the political climate only enhanced his Oscar chances since he was an ultra-conservative Republican and a founding members of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals.
However, it was the studio bigwigs – wanting to protect their profits that were already being diminished by the advent of TV and a Supreme Court ruling that required them divest themselves from theater ownership -- that put into place a blacklist that blocked such tainted individuals from continuing to work. At least two recent movies, "Trumbo" and "Hail, Caesar!" take place against this totalitarian backdrop.
But what is often overlooked in such discussions is why showbiz types with their liberal leanings were attracted to a socialist agenda. History buffs will appreciate Frankel’s cogent, well-researched accounts of how the seeds of Communism were initially sown during Hollywood’s infancy as unions were born as protection from the all-controlling studio system with its multi-year contracts filled with strict clauses. Also, initially, Russia was our ally during World War II, a relationship that would quickly dissolve into a covert clash between two world-dominating powers with opposing ideologies.
Foreman’s situation was typical. When the son of Russian Jewish immigrants moved from Chicago to Hollywood in 1938, he and his wife joined the Communist Party when its main purpose was to fight racism and poverty. But even though they both resigned shortly after the war ended, that did not stop HCUA from forcing him to testify in 1951.
However, being a sucker for cinematic lore, I was more fascinated by the way that Frankel (who did an equally deep behind-the-scenes account of another beloved Western with his "The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend " examines how the paths of the four men most responsible for "High Noon’s" success came together. There was Kramer, a specialist in message movies; Fred Zinnemann, who was attracted to tales of a lone man confronting a crisis of conscience; Foreman, who turned his script into an allegory for the blacklist once his own allies including Kramer turned their backs on him; and Cooper, a family man and relentless womanizer, who comes across as humble, professional and dedicated to his work despite coping with various health ailments during the shoot.
Their eventual collaboration seems almost as ordained as the showdown in "High Noon" – and equally volatile. If anyone is a stand-in for Cooper’s sheriff, it is Foreman after he was fired by Kramer – who was also his business partner -- after he refused to name names. Meanwhile, Cooper comes off as a true mensch. When Foreman said he would understand if the conservative Republican actor wanted to drop out of the film, the actor basically said, “Nope,” and he stood by the writer who originally came up with the idea for the film.
Also, Frankel doesn’t shy away from juicier Tinseltown matters, such as Cooper’s torrid affair with his "Fountainhead" co-star Patricia Neal or the rumors of "High Noon’s" leading lady Grace Kelly's relationships with her many male leads (though, he says, not Cooper). The author also does some sleuthing, aided by his voluminous research of who exactly was responsible for certain signature elements found in "High Noon," such as the famous use of clocks to denote the passage of time. Here is a book about a tumultuous period from our past that both informs and entertains – just as the best movies do.
Susan Wloszczyna is a former film writer for USA Today and a contributing critic to the Roger Ebert website.