HIGH NOON: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic
Bloomsbury, 2017, 377 pages
The Hollywood western, High Noon, starring Gary Cooper, was the frontrunner for the Oscars in 1953. It picked up four awards, including Best Actor for Cooper, but there was no statuette for the screenwriter, Carl Foreman, and none of the winners’ acceptance speeches even mentioned his name. As Foreman’s son later said, ‘it was like this weird Stalinism – Foreman didn’t exist, there wasn’t a writer!’.
Foreman had become an Un-Person because he had not sufficiently repented of the political sin of his past membership of the US communist party in his recent hearing before the anti-Communist witch-hunters of the federal government’s House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Journalist, Glenn Frankel’s, book revisits the political atmosphere of the time through High Noon in which the sheriff of Hadleyville (Marshal Will Kane, played by Cooper), deserted by that town’s cowardly citizens and spineless authorities, faces down a murderous rancher and his three gun-slingers in a shoot-out in the main street as the designated hour, twelve noon, approaches.
Repurposed from its origins as a parable about the newly-established United Nations Organisation’s aim of preventing aggression, Foreman saw the possibility of a different allegory in High Noon, with HUAC’s victims represented in the figure of the vulnerable sheriff, HUAC’s political thugs symbolised by the rancher’s criminal gang, and Hadleyville standing in for a craven Hollywood.
Foreman had joined the Communist Party in the 1930s, because it was, as he told his HUAC inquisitors, ‘the organisation most dedicated to fighting poverty and racism at home and Fascism abroad’ but he had drifted away from the party because of Stalin. HUAC, however, was gunning for Hollywood Reds, and (much like Stalin), it wanted total political degradation of the accused in an elaborate Show Trial. HUAC needed to choreograph spectacular political theatrics to reveal a giant “Red Plot to destroy America” by parading a stream of self-flagellating communist penitents denouncing their political faith, dumping on the party and ratting on their comrades by naming names (even though HUAC already had all the names courtesy of FBI spying).
Snitching on their comrades (at the cost of total loss of all self-respect) was the only way to avoid jail for contempt of Congress or staying off the career-ending Hollywood blacklist. The blacklist had been adopted by the movie studios, and their Wall Street financiers, to avoid the economic loss that would result from conservative boycotts and pickets of films which employed HUAC targets. The blacklist (for those with communist affiliations) and its equally damaging partner, the ‘graylist’ (which lassoed non-communists deemed politically risky because of their support for progressive causes), drove some five hundred Hollywooders out of work.
By contrast, ‘friendly’ witnesses (including Cooper) were warmly welcomed by HUAC. Cooper, a Montana Republican, had had a stint in a paramilitary polo club which trained to bust up ‘subversive’ gatherings but the Paramount studio persuaded their star to leave the vigilante outfit because such bare-knuckled politics would damage his brand value. The FBI, which helpfully ran political screen tests for the ‘friendlies’, was subsequently pleased to report to HUAC that the newly-respectable conservative star had passed his audition – he ‘presents an excellent appearance and will testify in a smooth, even, soft-spoken, unexcitable manner’, like his on-screen persona. Cooper leant celebrity endorsement to HUAC.
In High Noon, some viewers spotted the screenwriter’s deliberate allusions to HUAC. John Wayne did - Hollywood’s chief anti-communist bully, who said he never regretted ‘having helped run Foreman out of the country’ to exile in England, hated High Noon, regarding it as ‘the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen’. The film did, after all, implicitly criticise the moral abdication of religion, commerce, the judiciary and liberals. They were all brave from a distance but melted away when their anti-blacklist principles saw HUAC’s spotlight swing towards them.
One elite group of people have always missed the political point of the film. High Noon has been “the film most requested by American presidents” (Bill Clinton tops the list with twenty private screenings) because the POTUSes see in Marshal Kane’s courageous stand a reflection of themselves as standard-bearers, often in opposition to their electorate, of moral integrity in the cause of right versus wrong. These fantasy heroes, however, are imposters, poseurs dishonouring a film which was the antithesis of their practice of governing, with violence and legal persecution, on behalf of the greedy, ruthless, criminal enterprise of American capitalism.
The real heroes are to be found in Frankel’s excellent book. Every defendant who appeared before HUAC faced their own individual high noon, vulnerable and scared, but they rose above their fear and, though wounded like the sheriff in the shoot-out, they survived and the political value of liberty triumphed, whilst it was the persecuting villains of HUAC who, in the end, bit the dust.