‘Commie’ writer turned ‘High Noon’ into subversive Hollywood hit


In the 1952 classic “High Noon,” Gary Cooper’s desperate sheriff, Will Kane, is minutes away from confronting a man who wants to kill him. He turns to everyone he knows for help — all the people he’s protected as sheriff. Only one man, a local named Herb, has stood up for him, and even Herb is about to let him down at the last possible minute.

“I got nothing personal against nobody. I got no stake in this,” Herb tells Kane. “There’s a limit [to] how much you can ask a man. I got a wife and kids. What about my kids?”

Screenwriter Carl Foreman in 1961Courtesy Everett Collection

The cowardice of the townspeople and their betrayal of Kane wasn’t just a figment of screenwriter Carl Foreman’s imagination. It was a very real and frightening depiction of his personal experience getting caught up in the film industry’s communist witch hunt of the late ’40s and early ’50s, writes Glenn Frankel in his book “High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic.”

But the movie started out as something a lot simpler.

In 1948, Foreman and his producing partner, Stanley Kramer, were approached by a United Nations representative about making a film about the organization. The writer was intrigued. “Carl believed in the UN and wanted to help,” writes Frankel, “but rather than turn out a propaganda film, he started playing with the idea of setting it in the Old West in a town under threat from outside forces.”

The Cold War, the war in Korea, and the evolution of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) cast a bleak pall over the nation in the years to follow. Foreman brought that widespread fear into his screenplay, gradually turning it into an allegory for the era, when Hollywood writers, actors, producers and directors faced possible prison time and the loss of their careers if they didn’t rat on their friends’ allegiances to the Communist Party.

In 1951, when Foreman was drafting “High Noon,” he had as much to fear as anyone.

His mother and father, Fanny and Isidore, were Russian Jewish immigrants whose business was destroyed by the Great Depression. The fall in the couple’s fortunes “affirmed their radical politics,” according to Frankel. “Isidore Foreman was a Zionist, socialist and trade-union activist,” Frankel writes, “while Fanny and her older brother Joe both belonged to a Young Communists group.”

In 1938, when Foreman tried to make it in Hollywood as a writer, the only training program for screenwriters was the League of American Writers, “a professional writers organization founded by the Communist Party in 1935.”

At the same time, Adolf Hitler was beginning to devour Europe. Foreman and his wife, Estelle, were Democrats and FDR voters, but “they saw the Communist Party as the only political organization wholeheartedly committed to supporting the cause of anti-fascism and the rights of blacks, Jews, immigrants and trade unionists, and they saw the Great Depression as the ultimate indictment of capitalism.

For them, the party was “the most courageous political organization in the country.”
But in 1939, when the Soviets signed a non-aggression pact with Berlin, allowing the Nazi party to rise unabated, it “shattered any sense of trust between liberals and Communists.” Thousands of Americans dropped out of the party.

The Foremans reluctantly kept their Communist Party membership both as an act of “wishful thinking,” and because the party had become central to their social and professional lives. But their passion for it had been lost.

Foreman later said that the party “committed suicide” by supporting the pact.
In June 1951, Foreman, who now had a young daughter, received a subpoena to testify before HUAC. His options were limited.

The last people to invoke the First Amendment right to association wound up in prison, but pleading the Fifth would make him look guilty. His only real option was to name names, but he decided early on he’d refuse on principle.

Meanwhile, he kept evolving his “High Noon” screenplay. “Carl’s script became sharper as the climate of fear and loathing worsened around him,” Frankel writes. “Old friends were no longer talking and people were crossing the street to avoid each other. FBI agents were paying visits to people’s homes. Party members . . . knew their phones were being tapped. This gathering sense of dread became the emotional core of Carl’s story.”

His film unfolded in real time, with images of clocks flashing periodically, which furthered the sense of doom closing in on Kane and created a tale that was “not just between good guys and bad guys but between courage and fear.”

Foreman’s anger at the disloyalty of Hollywood is embroidered throughout: As Cooper’s Will Kane moves from friend to friend, group to group, being denied assistance from the very people whose lives he’s saved over the years, we see his mood darken, his optimism fade, his fury rise to the surface.

Gary Cooper in ‘High Noon’Courtesy Everett Collection

At the beginning of the film, Kane marries a young Quaker woman, played by Grace Kelly, and then resigns as the town’s sheriff, handing in his badge. But suddenly the news arrives that Frank Miller, a man Kane helped put in prison for life years earlier, has just been paroled and is set to arrive into town on the noon train. Initially, Kane feels confident he’ll be able to find 10 to 12 men to beat back the return of Miller and his accomplices. Until he realizes how wrong he is.

First, his new bride abandons him. When Kane asks her to wait at a local hotel until the gunfight is over, she says, “I won’t be here when it’s over. You’re asking me to wait an hour to find out if I’ll be a wife or a widow. I say it’s too long to wait. I won’t do it.” She decides to leave town on the same noon train that will deliver Miller.

When Kane interrupts a church service to ask the townspeople for help — in a scene hilariously parodied in the 1974 Mel Brooks classic “Blazing Saddles” — the townspeople find every possible excuse to refuse him.

They point out that Kane just resigned as sheriff, that Kane and Miller’s beef is personal, that a shootout on the streets would ruin the town’s burgeoning image and that, simply, “this ain’t our job.”

Foreman later admitted that much of the film’s dialogue was “almost the dialogue that I was hearing from people [about the blacklist].”

None of the cast knew the story had been influenced by politics, but Foreman did tell the team about his subpoena before shooting started, so they had the option to abandon the project.

The film’s star, Cooper, was a Republican, and a member of the executive board of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, the right-wing group dedicated to rooting out communists. (John Wayne and the founder of the Hollywood Reporter, Billy Wilkerson, were also prominent members.)

But Cooper wasn’t fully on board with the blacklist and supported Foreman as long as he could.

‘The career he had worked so hard to build was unraveling and there was nothing he could do to stop it. It was as if ‘High Noon’ were truly happening to him.’

The fear around Hollywood was so pervasive that the two couldn’t discuss the subject in public, or even on set. They had to meet in “Cooper’s most discrete rendezvous spot — his silver Jaguar convertible,” where Foreman told him about the subpoena.

“If you want to leave the picture, now’s the time to do it,” Carl told him. “No hard feelings.”

But Cooper refused. “You know how I feel about communism,” he said, “but you’re not a communist now, and anyway I like you. I think you’re an honest man, and I think you should do what you think is right.”

As the cast filmed his paranoid vision, Foreman made his way to the Federal Building in downtown LA, ready to face his inquisition.

“With the project he had worked on so intensely removed from his sight, and the hearings bearing down on him, Carl suddenly felt alone and afraid,” Frankel writes. “The career he had worked so hard to build was unraveling and there was nothing he could do to stop it. It was as if ‘High Noon’ were truly happening to him.”

Wearing “a dark blue suit and what he called ‘a very sincere tie,’ ” Foreman faced the five-member committee. After answering basic questions about his life, his past and his profession, as well as throwing in a plug for “High Noon,” describing the film as “the story of a town that died because it lacked the moral fiber to withstand aggression” in “a backward swipe at the committee,” Foreman refused to answer whether he was a member of the Communist Party, invoking both the First and Fifth amendments. Foreman’s hour-long testimony walked a fine line.

Gary Cooper in ‘High Noon’Courtesy Everett Collection

“He had not uttered one word of criticism of communism,” Frankel writes. “All he would concede for the record was that he wasn’t a communist now, and hadn’t been one in 1950 when he signed the Screen Writers Guild loyalty oath.”

The committee decided against prosecution, but the movie business did not.

Two days after his testimony, the Motion Picture Industry Council blacklisted 28 people, including Foreman, for inadequate cooperation with HUAC. Foreman negotiated an exit from his company and the film, including the loss of his associate producer credit on “High Noon.” (He kept his screenwriting credit.)

Not long after, Foreman met with John Wayne to see if they could negotiate a peace. When Foreman mentioned he might just move to Europe, Wayne replied, “What makes you think you’ll be able to leave?”

“Carl took this as a threat,” Frankel wrote.

Foreman did leave, moving to England in the summer of 1952 and finding projects there, despite continued pressure from the US government including the revocation of his passport.

“High Noon” opened in July 1952 and was an instant critical and commercial hit, although few recognized its references to events of the time

“High Noon” opened in July 1952 and was an instant critical and commercial hit, although few recognized its references to events of the time (including Fred Zinnemann, the film’s director, who later said he saw “no parallel with any political upheaval,” and “[didn’t] believe there are any”).

Some, though, did notice the political content. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther praised “High Noon” for its “clear relation to things that are happening in the world today, where people are being terrorized by bullies and surrendering their freedom out of senselessness and fear.”

“High Noon” was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Cooper, and Best Screenplay for Foreman.

Conservative Hollywood immediately began a vicious campaign against the film.

Still, “High Noon” won four Oscars, including two for music, one for editing and Cooper’s prize for Best Actor. Cooper was on location and couldn’t attend the ceremony, so he asked his friend Wayne to accept the Best Actor award on his behalf. Wayne, who despised “High Noon” and considered it un-American, put friendship ahead of politics for one night.

“Looking svelte and dashing in his evening wear,” Frankel writes, “[Wayne] gave a gracious but rueful acceptance speech: ‘I’m glad to see that they’re giving this to a man who is not only most deserving,’ Wayne said, ‘but has conducted himself throughout the years in a manner we can all be proud of.’ ”

After a Columbia Pictures executive indicated they’d still love to work with Foreman in the US, the screenwriter told his lawyer that he’d be willing to speak more forcefully against communism to the committee without naming names.

It was arranged for him to testify again, and he returned to the US in 1956.

While some were still unsatisfied with his new testimony, it was good enough for Columbia, which signed him to a four-movie deal.

Shortly after returning to the US, Foreman ran into Wayne at the popular LA restaurant Dan Tana’s.

“After a wary greeting, the two men embraced as if they were old friends,” Frankel writes. Later, Foreman explained to restaurateur Tana “why he had been so conciliatory with Wayne. ‘You know, he was a patriot. He didn’t do it to hurt me.’ ”

John Wayne, who accepted Cooper’s award in his absence, at the 25th Annual Academy Awards.Getty Images

By the end of the 1950s, Americans had grown tired of the witch hunt, and blacklist activity faded. HUAC was rechristened the House Committee on Internal Security in 1969 and was abandoned altogether by 1975.

Since blacklisted screenwriters had been forced to write under assumed names, the Writers Guild has worked to restore lost writing credits from the era, fixing over 80 to date, with more under review.

In December 1983, Foreman was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The following year, on June 25, the Writers Guild announced that the screenwriting credits for the 1957 film “The Bridge on the River Kwai” were being restored to the film’s blacklisted writers — Michael Wilson and Foreman.

Foreman learned about it that evening and died the following morning. His widow and second wife, Eve, accepted the award on his behalf at a special ceremony in 1985, alongside Wilson’s widow, Zelma.

In a stinging speech rebuking Hollywood for its ugly past, Zelma Wilson borrowed her remarks from her late husband, stating: “I trust that you younger men and women will shelter the mavericks and dissenters in your ranks and protect their right to work. The nation will have need of them if it is to survive as an open society.”



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