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Friday, May 25, 2018

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

"Shot in thirty-two days on a shoestring budget, with its famous star working for a fraction of his normal wage, High Noon was something of an afterthought for those who made it, a rush job to fulfill the tail end of an old contract. Yet it vaulted almost immediately to critical acclaim and box-office success. Its taut narrative, powerful performances, evocative theme song, and climactic shootout made it an instant classic." So writes Glenn Frankel in his book, High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic.

I love reading about the movie business, especially the vicissitudes involved in how they come together. It is almost impossible to predict what movies will be successful based on their creative team or even what happens during production. High Noon is one of those films that had a certain alchemy involved--nobody expected much of it, but people are still watching it and talking about it today.

Frankel also gives us two books in one: the story of High Noon came to be, and what was swirling around it: the investigation by congress into communist infiltration of the movie business. These two subjects are not randomly thrown together. Many people notice, and indeed the writer meant to convey, that High Noon is an allegory about the blacklist--namely, how one man can make a difference, even while he is betrayed by his friends.

Frankel centers the movie stuff around four men: The star (Gary Cooper), the writer (Carl Foreman), the producer (Stanley Kramer), and the director (Fred Zinneman). He gives brief but sharply etched biographies of each. Cooper is tough to get to know, because he didn't reveal much of himself. Frankel does sprinkle some salacious gossip in: "His fling with Clara Bow was the first of many in Cooper’s early days in Hollywood, with a list of actresses that included Evelyn Brent, Marlene Dietrich, and Tallulah Bankhead (who once famously told reporters, “I’ve come to Hollywood to fuck Gary Cooper.” Asked later how it had gone, she replied: “Mission accomplished.”)."

The original idea was Foreman's. He wrote a script about a lone man standing up for duty in the face of cowardice by others. But then he realized a short story called "The Tin Star" was very similar. Just in case, he bought the rights. He was working with Kramer's production company. Kramer, who is today remembered for making "message" pictures, hired Fred Zinneman, who had also made a picture for Kramer--The Men, which was also Marlon Brando's first film.

Cooper very much wanted to do it. His star had been on the wane. At first everyone thought he might be too long in the tooth to do it, and stars like Kirk Douglas, Brando, William Holden, and Charlton Heston were considered. But Cooper offered to take a pay cut (he ended up doing better by trading a paycheck for points). Frankel discusses the others in the film, but not nearly as much as Cooper. This was Grace Kelly's first major role, and Katy Jurado was a big star in Mexico. Character actors like Thomas Mitchell, Otto Krueger, and Harry Morgan (then credited as Henry) appeared, as did Lee Van Cleef in his first film role, as one of the Frank Miller gang. He had no lines.

A lot of infighting erupted when Foreman was called before the HUAC committee. He was named by a minor screenwriter named Martin Berkeley, who ended up naming a record 189 names. Careers had been completely ruined by this committee, and Frankel does a nice job of covering the whole story. Actor Larry Parks crumbled before the committee, and those who refused to cooperate became known as the Hollywood Ten, who all went to jail. Those who took the Fifth Amendment ended up not working again.

Foreman and Kramer fell out, and Foreman left the film before it was completed. He fled to England to work, and ended up working on the script for The Bridge on the River Kwai under a pseudonym. The script won an Oscar, but it was credited to the author of the novel, Pierre Boule, who spoke no English. The Oscar was restored to Foreman and his co-writer Michael Wilson just before Foreman died.

There was also a great deal of dispute over who was responsible for the film's greatness. Zinneman diplomatically said that it was a team effort, but reminded people he directed every frame. Kramer, who thought the film wasn't working out, ended up taking a lot of credit, perhaps more than he deserved, some think. Elmo Williams, the editor, claimed he saved it in the cutting room.

Frankel is not entirely objective: he creates heroes and villains. Cooper comes off very well. He was a Republican, and a member of the odious Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation for American Ideals. But when Foreman told him that he was called to testify, and offered Cooper a chance to leave the picture, he refused, telling him he loved the script and that Foreman was a good American. Less savory are Berkeley, who eventually became a full-time FBI informant, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, and John Wayne, who boasted of forcing Foreman to leave the country (the two reconciled years later). "Wayne was especially dismayed that the movie portrayed churchgoers and public officials as cowards and hypocrites. He interpreted this as an attack on American values, which in many ways it is." But when Cooper won the Oscar for the role, Wayne accepted on his behalf, and said: "I’m going to go back and find my business manager and agent, producer, and three-name writers and find out why I didn’t get High Noon instead of Cooper." He didn't get it because he turned it down.

Every time I read about the communist witch hunts of the 1950s I get sick to my stomach. What a horrible time to live through--anyone who was to the left was suspect. Today almost everyone condemns what happened then, and despite the troglodytes who now run Washington it's hard to imagine something like this happening again (witness the huge outcry when Donald Trump said that football players who don't stand for the National Anthem should "leave the country." We still have idiots, but there are those who call them out). I was amused to read that the loyalty oath that members of the Screen Actors Guild were required to sign faded away in 1967 when the members of the Grateful Dead refused to sign it.

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