When trouble comes, many run. A brave few stand and face it, no matter the personal cost.
In a nutshell, that’s the message of “High Noon,” a film that was rushed through production on a tight budget and unexpectedly became a huge hit and an enduring classic.
What many film buffs may not realize is the extent to which “High Noon” was influenced by — and, indeed, is an allegory for — the Red Scare of the McCarthy era.
That’s the story of Glenn Frankel’s “High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic.” In this absorbing volume, Frankel traces the unlikely cast of characters who pulled off the improbable at a time when Hollywood was under attack from the triple threat of rabid congressional investigators, disruptive technology (television) and the death of the studio system that sustained and defined the golden age of movies.
Carl Foreman, the screenwriter, was a former Communist who was dodging prison as the movie was shot. Stanley Kramer, one of the first great independent producers, just wanted to get the film done so he could move on to what he saw as more important and prestigious projects.
Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, the stars, are now remembered as giants of the screen — and they were. But in 1952, when “High Noon” was made, Cooper’s career was in serious decline and Kelly was a virtual unknown.
Frankel introduces a host of extras who were part of the scene, including staunch Commie foe John Wayne and a B-list actor named Ronald Reagan, who at the time was the liberal president of the Screen Actors Guild but was heading down the path that would take him to the White House as a conservative some 30 years later.
As the House Un-American Activities Committee closed in on Foreman, and as his friends and colleagues abandoned him, he wrote his experience into the “High Noon” script. At times, Foreman used events and dialogue from his own life to shape his portrayal of the cowardly abandonment of Cooper’s brave but conflicted sheriff by the townspeople he was sworn to protect.
Questioned by the committee, Foreman avoided giving the names of former Communists, as some witnesses did. He also avoided going to prison for contempt, the fate of the “Hollywood Ten.” But his past doomed him to the Hollywood blacklist, and he moved to Europe — where he found wealth and success.
In a time that’s shaping up to be a tumultuous era in U.S. history, this story of politics, art, loyalty and conscience is more relevant than ever. And a nice bonus: Although it may impart a civics lesson, it doesn’t read like one.
John Reinan is a Star Tribune reporter.
By: Glenn Frankel.
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 377 pages, $28.