In Other Words
High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic
High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic by Glenn Frankel, Bloomsbury, 379 pages
High Noon is arguably the first American Western of the sound era in which the hero is scared and asks for help. He doesn’t get it.
The movie thematically parallels the real-life story of High Noon’s screenwriter, Carl Foreman, whose past participation in the Communist Party made him one of the guilty-by-suspicion during the Red Scare of the 1950s, according to Glenn Frankel’s High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic. Foreman’s friends turned against him, Hollywood blacklisted him, and the federal government put pressure on him to name names. But Foreman was a man who refused to give any moral ground and paid a price for his courage.
Frankel’s sometimes uneven account of the events leading up to the making of the iconic 1952 Western — in which Gary Cooper plays a lawman who must stand alone against a quartet of killers to save his community when his friends and colleagues won’t lend a hand — is at its best when it focuses on Foreman, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who somehow straddled the proletarian world of the Communist Party and the commercial, star-studded world of Hollywood. He could not tolerate injustice or betrayal, and as he wrote High Noon for a small company of creative minds trying to fulfill the last assignment on an old contract before moving on to bigger and better things, the story of his own search for solace and support after he was accused of being un-American wove its way into his screenplay. High Noon is the story of the blacklist.
The picture was shot by director Fred Zinnemann in about a month on a budget that would barely sustain a decent Randolph Scott oater. To the surprise of almost everyone associated with it, High Noon became a perennial American classic. People immediately responded to the story of one man, Marshal Will Kane, who maintains his integrity and self-respect by protecting his town, even if his townspeople don’t deserve him.
The biggest problem with Frankel’s book is that it delivers exactly what it promises: a history of the blacklist, which slows down the narrative to the point that you may forget Frankel is writing about High Noon. He also overpopulates his story, devoting numerous pages to personalities who had nothing — or nearly nothing — to do with the production of the film. In his effort to recapture the success of his excellent 2013 book, The Searchers: The Making of an American Classic (Bloomsbury), Frankel takes the reader off-track too often. In that case, he had a real-life story of a white woman abducted by Comanches to weave into a historical fabric that connected the real West with the reel West. Here, he’s left to retrace known territory, covered better by other writers, regarding the blacklist and the various players who inhabited it.
But once he does get to the actual production of the movie, around the midway point of the book, the results are intriguing. Everything sour about the film seemed to turn into good luck. An aging Cooper, his career and marriage shot, his body full of pain, didn’t even have to try to act the part of a played-out lawman mustering up the courage to walk down yet another dusty street for one more showdown. Los Angeles’ smog worked to cinematographer Floyd Crosby’s advantage, as it made the characters appear as if they were in a blurry historic newsreel. Producer Stanley Kramer was preoccupied with another project, which turned out to be a relief, as the rest of the crew felt a freeing sense of creativity in his absence. An embattled Foreman, finding himself blacklisted as the production played out, imbued the screenplay with his own personal pain and uncertainty. And hiring former cowboy star Tex Ritter to sing the film’s thematic ballad, “Do Not Forsake Me, My Darlin’,” was brilliant — “the only version of the title song that ever rang true,” as one observer put it.
Frankel sometimes lapses into hackneyed phrases — as when he writes that one House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) informant “gushed names like a newly drilled oil well,” for example — but he does a fine job of explaining how all the disparate personalities within the production company worked together to create a classic piece of American pop culture. He also makes it clear that the now-famous shots of clocks ticking away throughout the film had always been in the original screenplay, and were not added later to increase the tension, as the myth goes. He astutely notes the picture’s place in the development of the so-called “adult Western” cycle of the early 1950s — “a genre attempting to find itself,” according to film historian Michael Selig. Frankel paints nuanced portraits of Foreman, Kramer, Zinnemann, Cooper, and film editor Elmo Williams. He even gives shading to the likes of Ritter, actress Grace Kelly (who may or may not have been involved in an affair with Cooper during the shooting of the picture), and supporting actor Lloyd Bridges.
In the end, Frankel’s homage to High Noon remains an unofficial biography of Foreman, who survived the blacklist without naming names but lost his wife and career momentum in the process. “I discovered that I could be scared and still come through a situation,” Foreman said late in his life. “I actually was the kind of person I thought I was.” And his enduring creation — Will Kane — is the sort of person everyone wants to be. — Robert Nott