REVIEW: High Noon, a Classic Western as McCarthy-Era Political Allegory

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

By Glenn Frankel

Bloomsbury, 311 pp.

By Paul Markowitz

Arthur Miller once said that “a character is defined by the challenges he cannot walk away from.”  This is, on the surface, the story of the classic western High Noon. But with some research into the making of this iconic film, which was released at the height of the Hollywood Blacklist, something unexpected emerges: a film that speaks directly to the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s, and one that also resonates strongly with American politics today.

In taking on High Noon, Glenn Frankel is returning to familiar ground — mining the deeper meaning of a classic American western.  He did this with his previous book, The Searchers, which described the making of the John Ford epic starring John Wayne.  In that book, Frankel told the story of a young girl kidnapped by Comanches, which he situated in the larger context of the historical relationship between Native Americans and pioneers in the southwest during the late 1800s.

The story of High Noon, in Frankel’s hands, is a fascinating one.  The filmmakers began with a simple story, a meager budget, and not much confidence from the studio heads.  Yet they ended up with a certifiable hit — and a political imbroglio, when the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which was investigating alleged Communist activities in Hollywood and blacklisting people with suspect politics, set its sights on the film's mastermind.

The book includes many colorful denizens of 1950s Hollywood, but it centers on two of them — High Noon's screenwriter and co-producer, Carl Foreman, and its star, Gary Cooper. Foreman was an intellectual Jewish kid from the East with leftist leanings and a penchant for writing socially relevant movie scripts.  Cooper was not only a symbol of the West, with his tall good looks and predilection for long silences, but was in fact a native, having been born in Helena, Montana and grown up acquiring the requisite cowboy skills.  Cooper’s politics leaned as far right as Foreman’s leaned left.

What brought these disparate men together was the making of High Noon.  Foreman began the project by trying to write a pro-United Nations allegory, just when that organization was under attack from reactionary forces. With the Great Depression over, and many Americans prepared to try to make it on their own, there was a conservative backlash against the New Deal and the federal government. Conservative ideologues were joined in this reactionary crusade by embittered working-class populists who felt excluded from the general prosperity of the country — a combination that should sound familiar today.

Then, as now, there was a search for culprits — and in that era, the enemy that was settled on was the Soviet Union, the nation’s antagonist in a nuclear arms race, and its American fellow-travelers.  When the search reached Hollywood it focused on actors, writers, directors, and producers who were suspected of of secret Communist sympathies, who would no doubt try to incorporate their un-American ideas into their movie-making work.  

The first round of HUAC investigations in 1947 led to the infamous Hollywood Ten blacklist.  It also tore the Hollywood community asunder as the whole movie industry was forced to pick sides.  By the time HUAC came back for a second round of investigations in 1951, the fear of career destruction led almost all of the resisters from the first round to rescind their complaints about the committee and name names, or at least remain silent if they could.

Foreman and his partner Stanley Kramer were outspoken opponents of HUAC at first. Neither was a big enough name in 1947 to attract the committee's attention.  Foreman had been a casual member of the Communist Party but dropped his interest as his career progressed and his family grew.  Kramer was a committed leftist but an anti-Communist.  When HUAC returned in 1951, Kramer and Foreman, having found success and notoriety, were clearly in HUAC’s sights.  Kramer being more business-focused by now, and in a new relationship with a big production company, readily cut his ties with his long-time artistic partner Foreman.  They would never talk again.

During this painful era, Foreman reconceived the script of High Noon as a direct parable of Hollywood and its interaction with HUAC.  In the movie, the hero is a sheriff who faces down sinister outlaws alone, after the cowardly townspeople refuse to help him — a clear allegory for the cowardice exhibited by another well-known town.

The book does a more than admirable job of explaining Foreman’s thinking and evolution. If it has a flaw, it is that it does not explain with the same clarity the evolution of Cooper's thought processes.  Cooper was a 50- year-old man, past the peak of his career, and suffering from various infirmities.  He was still quite conservative and had been an active member of the Motion Picture Alliance, which had invited HUAC to Hollywood.  Nevertheless, Cooper readily agreed to star in the film, and even after Foreman told him of his likely blacklisting, agreed to continue.  Despite his own politics, Cooper would remain a friend and supporter of Foreman for the rest of his life.

Foreman was called to testify before HUAC, where he refused to turn over the names of other members of the Communist Party — a stance that got him named an uncooperative witness and, ultimately, blacklisted.  Foreman took a sizable buyout from Kramer for his part of their company and moved to England.  He would return a few years later and make a few successful films, but he would never regain his place at the pinnacle of Hollywood screenwriters.

An added treat of the book is the gossipy insights it offers into the true characters of Hollywood celebrities of a bygone era — people like John Wayne, Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper, Grace Kelly, Dore Schary, Fred Zinnemann, and Ronald Reagan.  It is interesting to see how these well-known figures dealt with the quandaries of morality and career that they were faced with when confronted by the potentially life-changing juggernaut that was HUAC.

In the end High Noon, was nominated for seven Academy awards and won four, including a best-actor award for Cooper.  Foreman would win several other writing awards for his screenplay, although his co-producer credit was formally dropped by Kramer in a forced concession.

High Noon is considered one of the most influential Westerns of all time.  It is a touchstone on the themes of integrity, courage, and rugged individualism -- and it paints a noble picture of those in Hollywood who had the courage to stand up to craven outsiders.  It can also serve as a cautionary tale about how we should face the political repressions yet to come.

Paul Markowitz is a California-based writer.