Books Chapter & Verse

An author explains how classic film 'High Noon' illustrated a tense moment in US history

Hollywood historian Glenn Frankel uncovers the links between the blacklist and the classic film.

Author and film historian Glenn Frankel says the Hollywood blacklist marked a uniquely grim time in American history, one with special resonance today.
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  • Randy Dotinga

Throughout the classic movie "High Noon," the clock ticks toward the time in the title. And time itself plays a role in the making of the film, with many of the major players facing a defining moment in their lives.

Former Hollywood superstar Gary Cooper, a right-winger with a libertine lifestyle, looks to give his sagging career a boost. Actress Grace Kelly, a no-name rookie who brings up the rear in the credits, seeks a bigger profile.

And then there's the screenwriter Carl Foreman, whose membership in the Communist Party turns him into a target of an investigation and a victim of the Hollywood blacklist. As a result, he'll transform the movie into an allegory for the ongoing witch hunt of the early 1950s.

Film historian Glenn Frankel profiles the times, the movie and its message in his fascinating and revealing new book High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic.

In a Monitor Q&A, Frankel – who previously uncovered the backstory of the classic John Wayne movie "The Searchers" – says the blacklist marked a uniquely grim time in American history, one with special resonance today.

"We're in another era of toxic, vicious political rhetoric and repression," he says. "Things feel a little fragile in the same way."

Q. What prompts the blacklist?

The Red Scare comes along after World War II when there's a backlash fueled by populists and conservatives who think our country is being sold out to outsiders and traitors within.

This movement gets stronger and stronger as the Cold War begins to take hold and anxieties develop around the atomic age.

The House Un-American Activities Committee decides to go to Hollywood. It's a great platform, and the studio system is vulnerable and really worried about its future.

Q: What does the committee discover?

Friendly witnesses say Communists have influence over movies, and the committee goes after the Hollywood Ten, who cite their First Amendment rights, not the Fifth Amendment, to decline to say whether they've been Communist Party members.

That backfires as they are found in contempt of court and face legal action. The studio disowns and fires them and establishes a policy that they'll not allow members of the Communist Party to work in movies.

The committee comes back for a sequel in 1951. That's when the blacklist becomes a rage, and hundreds of people lose their jobs.

Q: During its creation, how obvious is it that "High Noon" is about the blacklist?

I don't think Foreman began writing the movie as an allegory about the blacklist. He wanted to write a western, and it was a Good vs. Evil kind of movie.

But he gets a subpoena in 1951 right when he was writing the screenplay, and he increasingly sees himself as this beleaguered figure. His former friend and business partners are looking at him differently and shunning him.

While he doesn't tell anyone, the blacklist begins to take on resonance in the screenplay. The movie gradually takes on this meaning.

Q: How does the plot stand in for the blacklist?

It's a movie about courage and standing up for what you think is right even though the community is fading away from you.

There's corruption at the heart of Hadleyville in the movie, and the citizens back down and don't support the lawman when the bad guys come to town. It's a stand-in for Hollywood.

Q: Who are the heroes in the film and in real life?

In the movie, Gary Cooper is the hero. He has great courage, but you always see the vulnerability and the fear in the character.

He's heroic but it stems from the circumstances. He doesn't want it, he's not trying to prove anything, but he just doesn't have any choice. In the end, he has to be the person he is.

During the blacklist, there are some people who stand firm, stand by their principles, refuse to knuckle under. They pay a big price for it.

Carl Foreman is not the perfect hero. He's a very successful Hollywood screenwriter, and he doesn't want to lose his career. Others who stood fast never quite trusted him. But I'm interested in real people facing real crises.

Q: What is the legacy of your story?

A bunch of very talented people all come together to make this excellent movie, and here comes this crushing moment in American history.

The blacklist doesn't destroy the film but it wrecks the collaboration. Some never work together again or never work for many years because of this repressive moment. They get crushed.

It's a sad story that warns us that our creative instincts, the powerful voices we're allowed to have in a free country, are fragile. Something can come along and bust them up.

Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is immediate past president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.