HIGH NOON is one of the most famous and popular western movies ever made. Despite the fact that westerns had never been held in high esteem by the Motion Picture Academy, it was nominated for seven Oscars, and won four.
Practically everybody, even non-western movie fans (surely a small number), is familiar with the plot of a retiring marshal, Will Kane (Gary Cooper), who is deserted by his town in his hour of need. Even his Quaker bride (Grace Kelly), who is of course a pacifist and therefore abhors violence, threatens to leave him on their wedding day if he refuses to leave town with her.
But because he is a man of courage and integrity, he single-handedly, not by choice, takes on a gang of four murderous gunmen who plan to kill him.
Glenn Frankel combines his love of classic films and American history in a fascinating study of HIGH NOON and its rocky backstory, one that almost prevented the film from even getting off the ground.
It didn't start out that way. In fact, the project appeared in its early stages to be one that would have been characterized by little, if any, controversy. Screenwriter Carl Foreman's initial vision was that the film would be an allegory about the necessity of peaceful nations acting multilaterally through the infant United Nations organization to combat the aggressive actions of rogue nations.
Instead of Marshal Kane finding himself in isolated circumstances when the four gunmen come after him, he would be able to count on the people of the town to come to his aid -- just as the UN ideally would come to the aid of a peaceful nation threatened by an aggressor. As it turned out, Foreman's screenplay did become an allegory, but not the one that was originally intended.
During the film's early stages of production, and while the screenplay was still being developed, Foreman was summoned to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) which was investigating communist influence in the film industry.
Foreman and his wife, like many other Americans, had joined the Communist Party during the '30's. The Great Depression had thrown the nation -- and the world -- into a state of economic chaos and capitalism, in its perceived inability to solve the twin problems of unemployment and poverty, was viewed by activists on the right and the left as being part of the problem rather than the solution.
While some Americans flirted with fascism, some on the left joined the Communist Party because they saw it as a solution to not only getting a handle on poverty, but also as the best defense against the spread of fascism at home and abroad.
Like many Americans who joined the party, Foreman became disillusioned after World War II with the onset of the Cold War and also when the brutal excesses of the Stalin regime became publicly known. It was then that the party's membership began to evaporate in the United States. Among those dropping their membership were Mr. and Mrs. Foreman.
|A happier Carl Foreman, 1961|
At least five hundred people were blacklisted for a decade or more. There were even several suicides as a result of the blacklist.
It also meant that because of the fear of association that few people, if any, were going to come to the "accused" person's defense. In fact, producer Stanley Kramer wanted Foreman to be more forthcoming with the committee and when he wasn't, Kramer feared Foreman's association with the film would doom it at the box office. Although Foreman did receive credit for the screenplay, Kramer stripped him of his associate producer credit.
This is why Foreman began to visualize the film as an allegory for the evils of the witch hunt and the blacklist and why he began to reshape the screenplay to reflect his vision. His life had become exhibit no. 1. As far as he was concerned, he was Will Kane trying to do what was right, but having to do it alone, because the fears of guilt by association that others felt had the effect of isolating him, just as it did Will Kane.
Ironically, Foreman received an Oscar nomination, his third, for best screenplay, but it is no surprise that he did not win. By the time the awards were announced he had left the country. He had gone into self-exile in England where he continued his career with notable success. As for Stanley Kramer, his treatment of Foreman would forever be a blot on the record of a producer who was noted for movies with a "social message."
By the end of the '50's, the blacklist activity had faded. HUAC was re-named the House Committee on Internal Security, but was eventually abandoned by 1975.
Frankel's High Noon book is his second in which he skillfully interweaves film-making and American history.
The first was The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend. That classic Western, starring John Wayne in his greatest performance, was inspired by the real-life kidnapping of young Cynthia Ann Parker from her Texas frontier home by Comanche raiders.
As he does in High Noon, Frankel provides the readers with insights into both the making of the film and the history upon which it is based. Both books are well-written and thoroughly researched, but then that is what one would expect from a Pulitzer winning journalist.
"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 political terms, as it ruined or derailed many, many careers." -- Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
"Though Frankel began this sumptuous history long before the latest election, he ends up reminding us that 2016 was far from the first time politicians trafficked in lies and fear, and showing us how, nonetheless, people came together to do exemplary work." -- John Domini, The Washington Post