MacCarthyism’s Effect on Hollywood: High Noon


High Noon

High Noon was released in 1952. It had been written by Carl Foreman, based on the story of John W. Cunningham, The Tin Star. Fred Zinneman directed the movie and Stanley Kramer produced the picture. Stanley Kramer and Carl Foreman had worked together in two previous movies Champion (1949) and The Men (1950), the latter was nominated to best original screenplay and Carl Foreman won an Oscar for his work. In 1951, the writer was called by the HUAC while he was finishing the script but did not mention anyone’s name before the tribunal and was declared an uncooperative witness. When the producer found out Foreman’s implication with the witch hunting, he forced him to sell his part of the company, as Foreman was the associate producer. Stanley Kramer did not want his friend’s connection to Communism to damage the movie, although Carl Foreman had not been part of the CP for over ten years. It was High Noon’s main actor, Gary Cooper, with the help of Fred Zinneman who managed to get Carl Foreman out of the country before the movie was released. When Kramer tried to fire Foreman, Gary Cooper menaced him to leave the job if the writer was treated in such a way, even thought it was not necessary as Carl Foreman had already left for England. The actor was not a leftwing as the writer was, but he considered very un-American the outrage. The screenwriter already knew he would not be able to work again in the USA. Kramer erased Foreman’s name from the final credits of the movie; after this they did not talk to each other again, on the other hand Cooper and Foreman became very close friend and that relationship lasted their whole life.

On 23rd of October 1947 Gary Cooper was called to testify. He was considered a friendly witness, but the actor did not give anybody’s name, he was as loyal to his co-workers as he could be, for he did not mention a single name. He was asked if he had found tinges of Communism in the scripts he read before deciding whether to do a movie and Cooper answered he had found some scripts with Communist parts, and had not even finished reading them. The HUAC asked for the titles of the scripts and the authors’ name and Gary Coopers commented he usually read at night in bed, as did most of the actors, and that was why he could not recall any of the names. All this made him look a bit thick, and the situation was a little bit unbelievable, an actor who cannot remember any of the scripts he reads is hard to accept. The Chairman was very furious against Cooper for not collaborating with them. It is curious that four years later the actor decided to be the lead star on a film where Communism could not be appreciated, but the metaphor at the time must have been quite clear. I think Gary Cooper must have chosen High Noon on purpose, he knew what he was doing, and that movie was the only opportunity he had to support the blacklisted and the suffocating situation that Hollywood was living. Although he was severely pressured not to help Carl Foreman, he was still loyal to the screenwriter. As Byman mentions “he showed some sense of absent morality during that period by denying to deprive some people of their jobs, not taking into account the political differences.” (Byman, 2004, pp. 90)

High Noon is the story about the sheriff Will Kane who has just got married to his young wife Amy Fowler. After the wedding Kane promised her he would leave his job and go to another city to work as a shopkeeper. While the wedding is taking place, some people see three members of Frank Miller’s band. Frank Miller, who is a killer and wants to take revenge on Kane because he had put him in jail, will arrive in the noon train with the firm purpose of killing him. Kane decides to take again his badge and not leave Hadleyville to capture Miller. He has less than an hour and a half to try and convince his friends and people from his town to help him kill Miller. The film has been filmed in real time, images of the clocks around the city are shown, so that the viewer feels oppressed by the minutes passing, just as Kane does. Not only his wife turns her back on him, but his deputy, his former lover and his friends do not want anything to do with it. There is a clear parallelism with MacCarthyism. The working people in the film industry knew that their time would arrive sooner or later, they would be called by the HUAC, and the fact that the time passed only made them even more nervous. Friends started betraying each other because they were scared of going to prison or of being fired. And as Kane in this movie, the accused comprehended that he stood by himself with little or no help from outside. The only help they received was the same Will Kane was offered: incompetent people (because of their age) or too weak to help him. Dalton Trumbo, who was one of the Hollywood 10, made an interview and tried to put himself in the place of the people who had given the names of their friends and co-workers. “If you could choose between food for your children, and a house, basic needs against your freedom of speech, you’ll choose the food. So, very few people would remain fighting for the luxury.” (Trumbo, 2007)

The easy solution would have been for sheriff Kane to leave town, to prevent Miller from killing him. Kane’s former predecessor, played by Lon Chaney Jr., settled in town after retirement. When Gary Cooper knocks on his door for help, he explains: “It’s a great life. You risk your skin catching killers and juries turn ‘em loose so they can come back and shoot at ya again. If you’re honest, you’re poor your whole life. And in the end, you wind up dying all alone on some dirty street. For what? For nothing. For a tin star.” He has arthritis which makes his hands useless and his wife is Indian, so that leaves him in a position of marginal status. The previous sheriff has understood that the town’s inhabitants want the sheriffs to risk their life for them, but when they have to return the favour so that they can live in a peaceful and safe community, they simply close their eyes or look somewhere else. It means that the people would leave a man who has defended them on his own when the problem does not attain them directly.

The soundtrack of the movie Do Not Forsake Me also underlined the tension during the film, it was the first song to win an Oscar which did not belong to a musical film. Dimitri Tiomkin composed the music and Ned Washington the lyrics. During the whole movie there are not lyrics to the music, the drum’s sound accompanies Will Kane throughout the whole movie. It is a hypnotic song, played over and over again throughout the duration of High Noon. While the sheriff and Miller’s band are shooting at each other the music intensifies, using wind instruments to mark the danger of the final scene. It is not until the end, when Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly are about to leave town after having killed Ian MacDonald’s character, Frank Miller, that lyrics begin. But hence, words are not necessary to understand the pressure Gary Cooper’s character has to endure. Kane throws his tin star to the ground, almost disgusted of having worn it, for it did not represent as much as he thought it did. The lyrics sung in the movie do not correspond with the lyrics published on the Internet. In High Noon’s final scene, Frankie Lane – the singer – sings the song’s last stanza, but introduces new elements and erases other parts of the song. He sings for example: “I can’t be leaving, until I shoot Frank Miller dead”.

The insistence on the time shots during the whole length of the movie puts pressure on Will Kane and makes the audience nervous. The noon train is about to arrive and as time passes, the main character only finds himself even more alone. Frank Miller’s presence is a time bomb, which is about to arrive. Just like the summons Hollywood received. They knew it would arrive sometime, and maybe waiting for it, it made them more anxious that the actual HUAC. It was more the importance it was given to it by fear than its power. It seemed to be a mass hysteria, and even the big producers participated, as in fact the HUAC had no real influence on the screenwriters and directors work, it was the companies who decided to write the Waldorf statement. By the end of High Noon, when finally the train arrives and Frank Miller gets to Hadleyville, it can even be said that it is a little bit disappointing. It is the importance and power offered which made him more terrible than he really is. Kane ends up killing him, ending the problem. Unfortunately, MacCarthyism needed more than a gunshot to disappear. It happened, it was there and they had to face it.

This western has been very much applauded since it was released in 1952 and critics have only been but wonderful with this film, in modern and actual reviews the palpable MacCarthyism is mentioned, but in the year it was on the movie theatres, while MacCarthyism was still a very powerful influence, the critic Bosley Crowther wrote the 25th July 1952 about High Noon in the New York Times. This review begins as all the movie review about High Noon start: exalting its great work, the time so perfectly calculated, the splendid job of the actors and the wonderful music. But in almost all the reviews published these last few years, there is always a small mention of the parallelism between Macarthism and this movie. In Crowther’s review, this encrypted paragraph is the only clue he offers: “How Mr. Foreman has surrounded this simple and forceful tale with tremendous dramatic implications is a thing we can’t glibly state in words. It is a matter of skill in movie writing, but, more than that, it is the putting down, in terms of visually simplified images, a pattern of poetic ideas. And how Mr. Zinnemann has transmitted this pattern in pictorial terms is something which we can only urge you to go yourself to see.”

John Wayne, who profoundly disliked High Noon because of its un-American features, proposed Ward Bon and Howard Hawk, all of them right-winded, to make a film about just the opposite: how a sheriff refused the help of his town and faced the problem bravely with very little help, they called that movie Rio Bravo. Wayne loathed High Noon for the representation of his people as cowards, nervous and selfish. He was one of the most cooperative members of the HUAC and made everything he could, so that Carl Foreman was fired from the production of the movie. It is quite surprising that the following year, it was John Wayne who picked up Gary Cooper’s Oscar – because he could not attend the ceremony. In his speech he commented the power, the structure and the wonderful work they had made with High Noon and publicly regretted not to have taken part as the lead actor. So, in the beginning he makes it clear he hates the movie, but then, when the movie happens to be a success, he says he would have liked to be Will Kane. Wayne either lied saying he loved the movie when he was at the ceremony, or worse, he only followed the big MacCarthyism’s wave that said High Noon was very un-American, but had not a clear opinion about this and was just a popular puppet the HUAC could play with.

High Noon was one of the movies with metaphors about MacCarthyism’s situation, but it was obviously not the only one. On the Waterfront, 1954, and Inherit the Wind, 1960, are two good examples of the points of view of the movie makers. On the Waterfront was directed by Elia Kazan – famous for been a friendly witness and naming names – and it was written by Budd Schulberg – who called personally the HUAC, even if he had not been called, to declare his communist past. Inherit the Wind had been directed by Stanley Kramer – the producer of High Noon – and Harold Jacob Smith and Nedrick Young had done the screenplay. Young had been called by the HUAC and had followed Hollywood Ten’s irony and aggressiveness to respond to the questions, on the risk of following their same path.

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