HIGH NOON, THE HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST AND THE MAKING OF AN AMERICAN CLASSIC
Subtitled The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic, High Noon is exactly that. After World War II the U.S. economy was booming but not in the film capitol. An anti-trust action by the courts forced the movie studios to sell off the chains of theaters they owned. Without automatic booking of their films, profits went down. Worse yet, postwar audiences were staying home watching television. Film production cratered, and the studios were considering mass layoffs.
During that period, communism came to be regarded as a threat to national security. Writers and directors, many of them Jewish, were named or called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. It was an unconstitutional inquisition. There was no cross-examination of friendly witnesses. The fate of those whose politics were suddenly unfashionable was blacklisting. Their services no longer welcome, many were blacklisted by association and innuendo even though they never appeared to testify.
High Noon, a classic western film starring Gary Cooper, is where these factors come together. That’s the thesis of Glenn Frankel’s thoroughly researched, beautifully written history of the era. High Noon is also the perfect title, implying a showdown where liberal and conservative values meet and shoot it out. The plot is a metaphor for much of the dirty dealing that was actually going on. A lawman is stalked through the town he is sworn to protect. Outnumbered and out-gunned, he gets no help from the frightened townspeople. Their only suggestion is that he run away.
So how does Frankel put all the pieces together? How does he connect the dots to explain how a classic film is created when the politics of fear ruled America? You start with Gary Cooper, an American icon whose parents came from England. We learn much about the man from his daughter, Maria Cooper Janis. We learn about producer Stanley Kramer, director Fred Zinnemann, and writer Carl Foreman. All were tainted by the threat of blacklisting. Foreman was forced to continue his career outside the United States. His later output included The Guns of Navarone and Born Free. Few associated with the 1952 production are living. Frankel was able to interview their children. Here we learn that cinematographer Floyd Crosby is the father of David Crosby of Crosby, Stills, and Nash.
In the wake of High Noon, the blacklist is eventually smashed. A few Oscars are won by persons who apparently didn’t exist. No one came on stage to accept them. The sham was exposed. The final blow came in 1960 when actor/producer Kirk Douglas insisted that credit for Spartacus be given to the man who wrote it: blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo.
It was a pretty shameful period for this country. The House Un-American Activities Committee was itself an un-American activity. The movie High Noon was an unanticipated benefit as Glenn Frankel’s book so eloquently points out. – Dan Erwine
Also available by Glenn Frankel: The Searchers, the Making of an American Legend; Rivonia’s Children; Beyond the Promised Land.