A western that was nearly shot down

How ‘High Noon’ over­came stu­dio skep­ti­cism and the Red Scare to be­come a clas­sic

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY JOHN DOMINI book­world@wash­post.com

Two-thirds of the way into “High Noon,” Glenn Frankel’s aro­matic blend of pol­i­tics, per­son­al­i­ties and show­biz, the book ar­rives at its most fas­ci­nat­ing mash-up. This comes in the fall of 1951 at the man­sion of Hol­ly­wood com­poser Dim­itri Tiomkin. The mae­stro owes his suc­cess to westerns such as “Red River,” though — as with many of the movie folk who pop­u­late this teem­ing read — his roots go back to Euro­pean Jewry. Tiomkin had his bar mitz­vah in pre-Soviet Rus­sia, and he still tends to mas­sacre English. Yet his lat­est as­sign­ment calls for a cow­boy song.

The right mu­sic, the pro­duc­ers be­lieve, might sal­vage a western that the head of Columbia Pictures re­gards as “a piece of crap.” Be­fore long, Tiomkin man­ages to come up with a fresh tune, and the song gets its first run-through in a “Rus­sian ac­cent con­torted into a tor­tured Texas Pan­han­dle drawl” that knocks ev­ery­one “out of their chairs.” Then Tex Rit­ter comes in and works up a treat­ment no less than dev­as­tat­ing. “Do Not For­sake Me, O My Dar­lin’ ” be­comes an es­sen­tial in­gre­di­ent of “High Noon,” a movie still ranked among the very best, and — more than that — a ready-to-hand metaphor for “good and evil in a show­down.”

The com­bus­tion that oc­curred in Tiomkin’s mu­sic room that day was just part of what “made ev­ery­thing fizz,” ac­cord­ing to pro­ducer Stan­ley Kramer. Kramer, too, be­longs in the Hol­ly­wood pan­theon, and he had a hand in ev­ery part of the process. In par­tic­u­lar, he risked giv­ing the mar­shal role to Gary Cooper, thought by many to be over the hill. Yet Kramer ad­mit­ted even­tu­ally that he couldn’t fig­ure out the se­cret to his 1952 hit, at once a com­pelling story and a haunt­ing vi­sion: “I can’t tell you why, and that’s as hon­est as I can be.”

For a fuller an­swer, best to pick up this lat­est ef­fort from the Pulitzer-win­ning Frankel. I doubt any­one can come closer to the heat of creative fer­ment.

Frankel’s fresh un­der­stand­ing, to be sure, owes a lot to plain old dig­ging. A for­mer Wash­ing­ton Post reporter, he un­earthed Kramer’s con­fes­sion of help­less­ness, for in­stance, in a taped con­ver­sa­tion that had lan­guished for decades. The provenance is clar­i­fied in one of the text’s many hun­dreds of end­notes — and his bib­li­og­ra­phy is equally ex­haus­tive.

The heaps of re­search, how­ever, never snuff out what’s en­ter­tain­ing about scenes such as the cul­ture clash around the émi­gré’s pi­ano. Frankel’s grasp of cin­ema’s “col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­fort” leads to a jug­gling act, switch­ing points of view among the film’s chief con­trib­u­tors. In time, screen­writer Carl Fore­man emerges as the story’s hero, but ev­ery­one en­joys sen­si­tive han­dling, while help­ing to build un­usual sus­pense.

The movie started out as “the ugli­est duck­ling of them all . . . shot on a shoe­string bud­get.” Its ne­glect dam­aged the fruit­ful part­ner­ship of Kramer and Fore­man and cre­ated risks even for its ag­ing star — the first of the ma­jor play­ers Frankel ex­am­ines. That is, he starts with the fun stuff: the Holly- wood gos­sip. He drops so many names that they even in­clude a cou­ple of women who never bed­ded the hand­some “Coop.”

Be­fore long, how­ever, gloomier busi­ness looms — the worst threat to “High Noon” or any creative fusion. In 1947, the House Un-Amer­i­can Ac­tiv­i­ties Com­mit­tee (HUAC) de­camps in Los An­ge­les, in­tent on root­ing out “com­mies” in the film in­dus­try. Although the Red Scare’s trail of be­trayal and ruin looks as heart­break­ing as ever, the story can’t help but feel a tad re­hashed. Frankel’s chap­ters on the hear­ings and their con­se­quences rely on the same in­tense re­search as the rest (in­clud­ing ma­te­rial never pub­lished be­fore), but they lack the warmth of the bi­o­graph­i­cal pas­sages.

Still, Fore­man makes a fas­ci­nat­ing case study. Sum­moned be­fore the com­mit­tee in the mid­dle of the film shoot, he in­vites not just pity but also re­spect. He earns the right to claim, years later, “I be­came the Gary Cooper char­ac­ter.”

Even in re­run, the sheer wicked­ness of HUAC’s witch hunt gen­er­ates ter­rific drama — and of­fers re­as­sur­ance. 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 of in­tegrity came to­gether to do ex­em­plary work.

John Domini’s book is “Movieola!”

On Feb. 25 at 6 p.m., Glenn Frankel will be at Pol­i­tics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.


Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly in “High Noon” (1952). The cast­ing of Cooper as Mar­shal Will Kane was a risk, as many thought the actor was past his prime.

HIGH NOON The Hol­ly­wood Black­list and the Mak­ing of an Amer­i­can Clas­sic By Glenn Frankel Blooms­bury. 377 pp. $28

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