Monday, July 31, 2017

The Timelessness of “High Noon”

By Mary Claire Kendall

Gary Cooper in the film trailer for High Noon (1952)

If ever there was ever a moment for the classic Western High Noon (1952), starring Gary Cooper, it is now. 

“High Noon” premiered 65 years ago this month in New York City. Since then, presidents from Dwight David Eisenhower on have emulated the example of Marshal William “Will” Kane (Cooper) when faced with political dilemmas and high-stakes fights.

As the film opens, Kane is poised to get out of Dodge with his new bride, Amy (Grace Kelly) after handing in his badge. Then the telegraph office breaks the news that newly freed Frank Miller, whom Kane sent to prison years earlier, is arriving on the noon train intent on deadly revenge. Kane briefly leaves town, as everyone urges, only to realize escape is no solution. After he returns to face Miller, not one townsperson will join him. So he faces Miller and his gang alone, killing them all. As townspeople resurface offering hardy congratulations, Kane removes his tin star and pitches it to the dusty ground. Contrary to legend, he does not step on it. 

More than the storyline, the making of the film itself was a political allegory for the tension-filled early 50s when America was fighting the Cold War against its sworn enemy, the Soviet Union (USSR). Birthed 100 years ago through the Bolshevik Revolution, the USSR ended in 1991, with former Hollywood star President Ronald Reagan playing his historic role in the communist state’s dismantling.  That Russia, the USSR successor state, shows signs of wanting to reconstitute its empire is, of course, presently creating an equally charged political atmosphere.

“‘You’re never going to work in this blank, blank town again, Cooper, if you do this film,” his daughter Maria Cooper Janis said John “Duke” Wayne told her father in the summer of 1951, an anecdote she shared at last month’s Film Forum  featuring “High Noon.”  

Both “Coop” and “Duke” were Republicans, staunchly anti-communist and co-founders, along with Reagan, of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, the goal of which was to ensure Hollywood stayed true blue, while eschewing red communist ideals.

The issue for Wayne was he deemed the film’s screenwriter, Carl Foreman, insufficiently blue. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had subpoenaed him in June 1951 as he was finishing the screenplay and wanted him to testify that September during filming.

“Like the marshal in ‘High Noon,’ (Foreman) really didn’t want to be a martyr,” said Glenn Frankel, author of High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making ofan American Classic.  “He had a wonderful career in Hollywood… But, the naming of names and the betraying of friends was… a bridge too far.” As he struggled with this, said Frankel, “you can see lines, you can see the themes emerging… He sees himself as the marshal. And, he sees the four killers coming to get him (the marshal) as the committee (HUAC). And, he sees the sort of cowardly citizens of Hadleyville as similar to (how) some of his friends and business partners… were treating him in Hollywood.” 

His decision was simple. He would disavow his communist party membership—he had joined when he was young and it was in vogue; but he would not name names.                                                                           
But, that was a ‘bridge too far for Duke.’ 

Coop, on the other hand, Kane-like, told the film’s producer, Stanley Kramer, if they dumped Foreman, he would walk. 

“He thought a lot of the stuff that was swirling around was just not on the level,” said Maria. “People were getting so worked up, so hot under the collar and paranoid about everything. He understood the seriousness. But he also felt it was way overblown.”

In the end, Cooper was too big of a star to lose. So they made the film, based on Foreman’s script, and, under Fred Zinnemann’s direction, turned out a masterpiece, especially visible on the big screen, that drew seven Oscar nominations, including Best Actor for Cooper.

Cooper, said Maria, unavailable to attend the Oscars as he was filming on location in Mexico, “calls up Duke Wayne and said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to win, but, in case I do, would you mind picking up the Oscar?’… ‘Sure, Coop, I will.’” Coop, of course, won, while Duke “gave his agent hell,” said Maria, “for not getting him the part.”

All of which shows, though opposing sides, even of the same party, might believe we’re falling off a cliff—for entirely different reasons—steadiness not overreaction, (and humor) will save the day.

Mary Claire Kendall is author of Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends, published in Madrid under the title También Dios pasa por Hollywood.