High Noon (1952), now celebrating its 65th anniversary, was produced during the high tide of McCarthyism and the Korean War, and has been deemed a courageous allegory about the dangers of McCarthyism. But behind the scenes, the participants were anything but courageous, save for the lone conservative involved.
The plot bears out an anti-McCarthy subtext. A retired marshal played by Gary Cooper, upon learning that the man he jailed years before and three sidekicks are returning to his town, is refused help from the citizens. After dispensing with the criminals on his own, Cooper, in disgust with the cowardly behavior of the town, throws his badge away.
But the initial script did not promote this theme; it was only after cameras rolled that the screenwriter, Carl Foreman, inserted his own situation into the Cooper character. Foreman, a former Communist Party member, who left the Party ten years before because of his disillusionment with Stalin, was subpoenaed to testify before Congress in the middle of the shoot about not only his past as a communist but also to name names of those he knew in the Party.
Pressured to either inform or lose his job, Foreman became the abandoned sheriff he wrote about. As Glenn Frankel in his new book, High-Noon-Hollywood-Blacklist-American/dp/1620409488">High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic, puts it, “High Noon’s protagonist — marshal Will Kane — was now Foreman himself. The gunmen coming to kill him were the members of H.U.A.C., and the hypocritical townspeople of fictional Hadleyville were the denizens of Hollywood who stood by passively as the forces of repression bore down.”
Or as Foreman recalled, “As I was writing I became that guy. I became the Gary Cooper character.” It happened after the film’s supposedly-liberal producer, Stanley Kramer, turned on him. Just as the Cooper character walked down the street alone as citizens hid behind their curtains, so was Foreman all but abandoned when Kramer tried to have the screenwriter removed from the picture.
“A lot of the dialogue was almost the dialogue that I was hearing from people and even in the company,” Foreman said. “You could walk down the street and see friends of yours recognize you, turn, and walk the other way.”
As recounted by Frankel in his excellent treatment of the behind-the-set infighting, Kramer, upon learning that Foreman was about to take the Fifth Amendment before Congress, did not want his five-year, 30-picture deal with Columbia jeopardized. According to Foreman, he obtained a promise from Kramer to delay taking any action against the screenwriter for 60 days.
But Kramer didn’t even wait the 60 days. After Foreman refused to name names, and was deemed by Congress “an uncooperative witness” — hence eligible for blacklisting — Kramer dissolved his partnership with Foreman in sharing the film’s profits. In Foreman’s words, Kramer “threw him to the wolves.”
After High Noon wrapped, Foreman was blacklisted and forced to leave the country, eking out a living writing television shows in Britain. Meanwhile, Kramer went on to a profitable career making “message” movies.
Kramer’s cover story for Foreman’s ouster was that the screenwriter was about to falsely claim that Kramer was a communist — a story those on the production stated was false.
But Kramer was not the only “liberal” during the production of the movie who turned on their friends. As recounted in their excellent book on the blacklist, Red Star Over Hollywood, Historians Ron and Allis Radosh revealed that co-star Lloyd Bridges, who had been a member of the CPUSA during the war, betrayed a friend who had shielded Bridges during secret testimony to HUAC in 1951. Days before Bridge’s testimony, actor Larry Parks, who was denounced by fellow CP members as a pariah for naming names but was nevertheless blacklisted, omitted naming Bridges.
Unknown to Parks, Bridges had alerted HUAC about his willingness to name names (“I have worked with these people as directors and as actors and I felt pretty sure in my mind who most of the Communists were”) and did so, naming his friend Parks as a communist to HUAC.
By contrast, those who exhibited courage while making the film were the supposed “reactionaries” like star Gary Cooper. Despite his friend and fellow conservative John Wayne turning down the role because he considered it “the most un-American thing I’d ever seen,” Cooper took the role, winning the Academy Award in the process.
When Kramer, in addition to forcing Foreman to dissolve the partnership tried to get Foreman kicked off the picture, Cooper went to bat for Foreman. As a result, Foreman stayed on the set and on salary until the picture wrapped.
This intervention is all the more remarkable when one realizes that Cooper was a staunch anti-communist, who helped form an anti-communist group, the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals to battle communism in Hollywood, as well as testifying as a “friendly witness” in 1947 during the same period Foreman did.
But, aside from politics, Cooper and Foreman shared a commonality in their behavior before HUAC by refusing to name names. Almost alone among the major stars who testified (excepting Ronald Reagan, if one considers him a major star back then), Cooper did not volunteer any names. The closet he came was his statement that he rejected scripts in the past because they were “tinged with communist ideas.”
That would not be the extent of conservative support for Foreman. Conservative director and screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd, who was a protégé of Foreman, highlighted the unfair treatment Foreman received from Stanley Kramer in the 2002 documentary Darkness at High Noon. In the documentary, Chetwynd proved that Kramer had downplayed Foreman’s contribution to the film by showing how the blacklisted screenwriter had created the story as well as helped produce it.
And, as during the production of the film, liberals would downplay Foreman’s contribution as did Kramer. Anti-anti-communist Victor Navasky denounced the documentary as “one-sided” in making “a villain out of Stanley Kramer.”
Leftists today denounce anticommunists in 1950s Hollywood for exploiting the Red Scare for their own gain. But, in at least one instance, a conservative star showed more courage in the face of unfair treatment than the supposed “progressives.