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‘High Noon” and Hollywood’s Red Scare

Glenn FrankelGlenn Frankel worked for the “Washington Post” for three decades, winning a Pulitzer Prize in the process.  Since retiring from the day-to-day news business, he’s kept an eye on social and political issues, but he’s explored them in the context of Hollywood.  His last book, “The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend,” was a best-seller and received strong critical reviews.  His latest book, “High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic,” explores Hollywood and the United States in the middle of the 20th century.  Published in the Houston Chronicle on February 26, 2017.


Mike Yawn: Putting aside social and cultural and political history for the moment, where does “High Noon” stand in terms of cinematic history?Gary Cooper, High Noon, Mike Yawn, Glenn Frankel, Red Scare

Glenn Frankel: “High Noon” marks the moment when Westerns grow up. It eschews the genre’s familiar trappings—beautiful scenery, exuberant cattle drives, set-piece battles between cowboys and Indians—for social drama. Although its protagonist is the iconic Gary Cooper, it portrays him as aging, vulnerable and frightened, forced to confront not only four murderous thugs but also the moral cowardice of his own community.

Mike Yawn: Describe the impact of the Red Scare on Hollywood in general and “High Noon” (released in 1952) in particular?

Glenn Frankel: Originally, Hollywood resisted the Red Scare, but by 1952—with the Korean War going on and Russia’s development of the A bomb—that changed.  The studios were fearful that groups would boycott their films, and they began requiring employee “clearances” and loyalty oaths.  Hundreds of performers, writers, and crew members were denied employment without any kind of legal proceeding. Carl Foreman, the scriptwriter for “High Noon” was one of these.

Mike Yawn: Tell us about Foreman.

Glenn Frankel: Carl came to Hollywood with dreams of becoming a great writer.  He was a progressive [he was a member of the Communist Party in the 1940s], so he had a political point of view, and he was ambitious.  He partnered with the talented Stanley Kramer and they formed their own independent company.  They were able to make high-quality films with good actors and social meaning, and Carl’s career took off.  By 1951, he was sufficiently prominent that his name came up when the House on Un-American Activities (HUAC) began their second round of hearings on “Communist infiltration in Hollywood.”  He was working on “High Noon” when he received his subpoena.  He believed his friends were avoiding him.  He felt isolated.  The people he worked with were beginning to pressure him, concerned that his testimony might taint the company and the films on which they work.  The film “High Noon” reflects some of these themes, and on a personal level, Carl had a decision to make.  The Committee didn’t just want him to “confess” to being a Communist at one time, but also to “name names.”  Refusing to do so meant the end of his career and his goals, but if he cooperated, he would violate a fundamental principle for himself.  That’s the crisis he faced, and it’s the dilemma I build the book around.

Mike Yawn: “High Noon” is a famous film, but most people think of it simply in terms of being a Western.  Can you elaborate on its metaphorical qualities?

Glenn Frankel:Well “High Noon” is about a community at risk, and it’s a metaphor for Hollywood and the United States.  Carl saw liberals shriveling in the face of a kind of anti-Communist hysteria, refusing to stand up to the HUAC.  Similarly, in “High Noon,” when the bad guys are returning to Hadleyville, Marshall Will Kane hopes he can count on the towns’ citizens and its institutions to support him, but they back away.  He’s left alone to fight these dark forces.  And, in real life, Foreman was left to face HUAC without much support.  He refused to back down, but he had to leave the United States and find work in England as a result.

Mike Yawn: How did writers cope after being blacklisted?

Glenn Frankel: Carl left the US and went to London and worked under pseudonyms. Others took similar actions.  Writers might also use a “front,” that is a person who would claim to have written the film.  The real writer and the front would then divide the money.  The advantage of using the front is that there was a real person on the script.  In the case of “The Brave One,” that film was credited to a Robert Rich, but it was actually written by Dalton Trumbo.  When “Robert Rich” won an Oscar, everyone said, “Who is this guy?”  He didn’t exist.  The writers had to make all kinds of compromises to keep working.

Mike Yawn: “High Noon” is a favorite film of US Presidents.  Why do you think this is?

Glenn Frankel: Eisenhower showed it in the White House, and according to presidential records, it’s the film most often seen in the White House.  Bill Clinton was the ultimate “High Noon” watcher—he’s seen it 20 times!  I think presidents identify with Marshall Kane, who is left alone to face the community’s problems.

Mike Yawn: In “High Noon,” the Gary Cooper character was clearly the hero.  Who are the heroes in this book about “High Noon” and the Hollywood Red Scare?Carl Foreman, Red Scare, Mike Yawn, Glenn Frankel

Glenn Frankel: My idea of a hero is an ordinary person who, when faced with a terrible dilemma, rises to the occasion.  I believe Carl Foreman did that when he refused to cooperate with HUAC, despite a large personal cost.  It was a decision similar to that of his fictional creation, Will Kane, who chooses to confront four gunmen, not because he wants to be a hero, but because he feels he has to.  There were a lot of bombastic phony heroes who appeared during the Red Scare, but real heroes are quieter, more reluctant, and more vulnerable.  The question that history asks is: if we were confronted by similar circumstances, how would we behave?




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Cary Grant: A Touch of Class

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the passing of Cary Grant, an actor whose extraordinary looks, sophistication, and star power continue to define Hollywood’s image of the leading man.  Others had longer careers, but Grant’s three-decade career coincided almost perfectly with Hollywood’s Golden Age; he was the industry’s finest leading man in its finest hour.

Cary Grant

The glamor that Grant enjoyed in Hollywood, however, was notably lacking from his childhood in Bristol, England. He was born “Archie” Leach, and he spent most of his time in poverty, with his schooling and childhood cut short.  When he was nine, he returned home from school to find his mother missing.  She had taken “a long holiday,” he was told.

In fact, his father had committed her to the “Country Home for Mental Defectives,” where she stayed, unhappily, for 22 years.  It wasn’t until he was in his early 30s that “young Archie” learned that his mother was still alive.  With his help, she was released from her “Country Home.”

But her long absence from his early life took its toll.  He was expelled from school at the age of 14, and shortly thereafter joined a troupe of vaudevillians, which eventually landed him in New York.  After trying his hand on the New York stage, Grant headed west to Hollywood.

Within two years of his arrival, he was spotted on a studio lot by Mae West. “If he can talk,” she said, “I’ll take him.”  The result was She Done Him Wrong, the movie in which she famously invited Grant to come and see her sometime.

Cary Grant and Mae West in I'm No Angel

Starting his career at the dawn of the Golden Age of Hollywood, Grant worked industriously under the old studio system. In his first six years of film making, he churned out 28 films, learning the craft alongside more established stars such as Gary Cooper, Charles Laughton, and Myrna Loy.

This period also allowed him to demonstrate the brand of physical comedy he had learned in vaudeville.  He was a natural at the screwball comedies of the time, and soon films such as Topper, The Awful Truth, and Bringing Up Baby made him a star of the first order.

As a star, Grant was able to develop his acting further.  He applied his physicality to adventure films such as Gunga Din; and he refined his skills to become a master of light comedy, as evinced in films such as The Philadelphia Story, My Favorite Wife, and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream Home.

As his screen image evolved, he seemed consciously to leave “Archie Leach” behind.  In His Girl Friday, Grant incorporated his former identity into the script, saying, “The last person to say that to me was Archie Leach, just a week before he cut his own throat.”  And in Arsenic and Old Lace, his former name was written on one of the props—a tombstone.

But if Archie Leach was dead and buried, Cary Grant the movie star was alive and well in Hollywood.  Even as he approached middle age, he occasionally returned to the broad comedy of his early years, as in Monkey Business with Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe. He ventured into light thrillers such as Stanley Donen’s Charade and Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest.  He also teamed with Hitch on darker films such as Suspicion and Notorious.  It was perhaps the latter film that prompted Ian Fleming to use Grant as a model for his superspy, James Bond.

But it was his work in romantic comedies that came to typify the Cary Grant on-screen image.  He was handsome, graceful, and he possessed impeccable timing, giving his films a unique mix of physicality, sophistication, and humor.

Moreover, he appealed equally to males and females.  Women loved him, but not in a way that threatened their dates.  Cary Grant was a screen image, not a flesh-and-bones romantic competitor, and he seemed to sense this perception: “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant.  Even I want to be Cary Grant.”

For more than three decades, he was able to be Cary Grant, at least on the screen.  He was Hollywood’s biggest star when Hollywood offered the nation’s most popular entertainment.

By the early 1960s, however, both Hollywood and Grant were beginning to show their age.  The studio system was crumbling, and television had made inroads into Hollywood’s monopoly on visual entertainment.

Even Grant was showing wear.  His hair was going gray, a change that prompted his mother to suggest that he use hair dye.  Grant declined, noting that he didn’t mind looking old.  “But it makes me look older, too,” she replied.

Cary Grant

Not wishing to watch himself “grow old on screen,” and wishing to spend more time with his young daughter, Grant retired from Hollywood at the age of 60.  His retirement, like his on-screen image, was graceful.

In his later years, according to Hollywood lore, a reporter wired Grant’s agent, asking “How old Cary Grant?”  Intercepting the message, Grant responded, “Old Cary Grant fine.  How you?”

But there never  was an “Old Cary Grant,” at least not one open to the public.  He left in his prime, the Joe DiMaggio of the silver screen.

Always the master of timing, his timely departure preserved his image as the matinee idol that graced cinema screens during his, and Hollywood’s, Golden Age.

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