What a classic '50s Western can teach us about the Hollywood Blacklist
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I am Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the 1952 classic Western "High Noon." We're going to hear about the film and its relationship with the Hollywood blacklist and the investigation of the House Un-American Activities Committee. We're going to listen to Terry's 2017 interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former Washington Post reporter Glenn Frankel, who wrote the book "High Noon" about the blacklist and the making of the film.
After World War II, the American government turned against some of America's most talented filmmakers and actors, accusing them of being communists or communist sympathizers. The so-called subversives were called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where they were asked to confess to communist ties and give the names of others in Hollywood they suspected of being communists. Anyone who didn't cooperate was put in jail or on a blacklist that would make it impossible to work in Hollywood.
The screenwriter of "High Noon," Carl Foreman, was one of those called before the committee, and he had to decide whether to violate his principles by complying or face the consequences. He intended "High Noon" to serve as an allegory about blacklisting. Terry and Glenn Frankel began with a scene from "High Noon." The film stars Gary Cooper as the marshal of the small town of Hadleyville. Hours after marrying a young Quaker, he learns that a killer he sent to prison, Frank Miller, has been released and is on the noon train heading to town, where three of his gang members are waiting for him.
The marshal knows they'll try to kill him, and he faces a difficult choice - retire and leave town with his new wife as they'd planned, or stand up for his principles and stay knowing he may be killed. He decides to stay, but it's going to be him against four gunmen, so he'll need the help of the townsmen. But he slowly learns that no one is willing to take the risk to help him. In this scene from early in the film, his wife, played by Grace Kelly, pleads with him to leave town with her.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIGH NOON")
GRACE KELLY: (As Amy Fowler Kane) Oh, Will. Will, I'm begging you. Please, let's go.
GARY COOPER: (As Marshal Will Kane) I can't.
KELLY: (As Amy Fowler Kane) Don't try to be a hero. You don't have to be a hero, not for me.
COOPER: (As Marshal Will Kane) I'm not trying to be a hero. If you think I like this, you're crazy. Look, Amy. This is my town. I've got friends here. I'll swear in a bunch of special deputies and with a posse behind me, maybe there won't even be any trouble.
KELLY: (As Amy Fowler Kane) You know they'll be trouble.
COOPER: (As Marshal Will Kane) Then, it's better to have it here. I'm sorry, honey. I know how you feel about it.
KELLY: (As Amy Fowler Kane) Do you?
COOPER: (As Marshal Will Kane) Of course, I do. I know it's against your religion and all. Sure I know how you feel.
KELLY: (As Amy Fowler Kane) But you're doing it just the same. Oh, Will. We were married just a few minutes ago. We've got our whole lives ahead of us. Does that mean anything to you?
COOPER: (As Marshal Will Kane) You know, I've only got an hour, and I've got lots to do. Stay at the hotel until it's over.
KELLY: (As Amy Fowler Kane) No, I won't be here when it's over. You're asking me to wait an hour to find out if I'm going to be a wife or a widow. I say it's too long to wait. I won't do it.
COOPER: (As Marshal Will Kane) Amy.
KELLY: (As Amy Fowler Kane) I mean it. If you won't go with me now, I'll be on that train when it leaves here.
COOPER: (As Marshal Will Kane) I've got to stay.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BALLAD OF HIGH NOON")
TEX RITTER: (Singing) You made that promise when we wed...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: Glenn Frankel, welcome to FRESH AIR. Do you see any parallels between today and the story you're telling about the blacklisting of people in the film industry accused of being communists or communist sympathizers?
GLENN FRANKEL: Yes, I do. I think that the blacklist movement stems out of what you might consider a backlash in politics in the late 1940s and early '50s, after World War II has ended and the Cold War has begun, and that sense of backlash by people who felt disenfranchised, if you will, during the time of the New Deal and now have the opportunity to come back into politics after the war has ended and Franklin Roosevelt is dead, that sense that they want to get their country back, that they feel it's been usurped from them by outsiders. In those days, it was communists and Jews and liberals. And that's exactly what we saw in the late '40s. And I think you can see a lot of similarities to what's going on now with the ascendancy of Donald Trump and a sort of new neopopulist movement.
GROSS: One of the ways we got the blacklist was that President Truman signed an executive order creating loyalty oaths. Would you describe that executive order?
FRANKEL: Well, that's exactly where it was. I mean, you have to remember, this is 1947. The Republicans have taken control of both houses of Congress after - in the '46 election for the first time in more than a decade. And Truman is on his heels. He's facing reelection the following year. So he gets together with his attorney general, and they announce that everyone in government is going to have to sign a loyalty oath.
And that's the beginning of - if you will, of Truman's acquiescence with the idea of the Red Scare and ultimately the blacklist. Because if people won't sign that oath or if they can be shown to have violated it, they're purged. They're purged from government. They're purged from schools - public schools and private schools. They're purged at all different kinds of levels - from labor unions. And so this is a time where people are held up to a loyalty test, and those who fail it have to go. And this has the permission and the imprimatur not just of the Republican right wing, but also of the Democratic administration.
GROSS: So the House Un-American Activities Committee, which is actually the predecessor of the House Judiciary Committee, started to hold hearings about who's a communist, who's a commie sympathizer. What was the stated goal of the hearings?
FRANKEL: Well, in this specific case in Hollywood, they were looking to see or to prove that there had been communist infiltration into Hollywood, that this was a part of a mass plot by - engineered by Moscow to take over our cultural institutions. It was an assault on our values. It was an assault on our way of life. And so the committee took full advantage of this to hold hearings.
The idea of these hearings was to expose the so-called communists and to have them purged from Hollywood to get rid of the Red influence that they said - they never proved it. They never had data to back it up - but that they said was - you know, was attempting to take over on many different levels in Hollywood, the trade unions, you know, for the crafts, the folks who were in the talent guilds like the Screenwriters Guild. The idea was to root out this communist influence, identify these folks, get them out of there, and turn the movies into a much more patriotic and Americanist kind of propaganda.
GROSS: And there was a part of Hollywood that really approved of these hearings. The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals wanted HUAC to investigate Hollywood. What was this alliance?
FRANKEL: This was a group formed in 1944 by people - by conservatives and anti-communists in Hollywood itself. It was led by several screenwriters. Walt Disney was involved in it - a number of directors and others and several actors who were identified with this point of view including Clark Gable, John Wayne. And Gary Cooper, the star of "High Noon" later, was a charter member of this group. And their original goal was to get after both communist influence and fascist influence. But very quickly, that evolved into strictly an anti-communist approach.
And in a sense, you're absolutely right. They invited the House Un-American Activities Committee to come out there and help them clean out the communists. They also cooperated with J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, which had started its own investigation. So together, these were the different prongs of the sort of anti-communist blacklist movement.
GROSS: Do you see any connection between the fears of Hollywood then and its, like, leftist orientation to the accusations today that Hollywood is liberal?
FRANKEL: Well, Hollywood was founded by the Jews, not to put too fine a point on it. Most of the studios...
FRANKEL: ...Were created by guys who were either - and they were all guys at the time - who either were immigrants themselves from Eastern Europe or whose parents were, and they came to Hollywood and invented this American empire, this empire of dreams, if you will. And so, you know, they were essentially very patriotic, but at the same time, liberal in outlook. And of course, it attracted so many thousands of talented people and a lot of writers who tended to be on the left. We're talking about the evolution of Hollywood, for example, through the Great Depression. And these folks come there - immigrants, refugees from Europe - add their their own views to the mix. And so there is a sense of Hollywood as a place where progressives are comfortable.
And that's the assumption that's made. And that's exactly what the committee and the FBI go after and nail then. I think the atmosphere is a little different now. Hollywood still has a very liberal, progressive sort of tinge to it. People are a little less frightened these days, I would say, about offering their opinions. The Jews who helped invent Hollywood were very cautious about showing a Jewish identity. They didn't want to be labeled as Jews. In fact, many of them were sort of trying to escape from the ghetto, if you will. These days, we've reached a different point in evolution, both for Jews in Hollywood but for other people as well. So there's less paranoia, but there's still a concern, of course, because nobody wants to get too far away from the box office. And the box office isn't as liberal as the people who are making the movies, by and large.
GROSS: So when people from Hollywood were called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, what was required of them?
FRANKEL: Well, they learned very quickly in the first set of hearings, which were in 1947, that they were being required to confess to their involvement in leftist causes, whether they had been members of the Communist Party or whether they were simply involved in progressive organizations that might at one point or other have been allied with the communists in some sort of joint movement - for example, in the anti-Nazi movement and in, you know, supporting the war. So they had to own up to that.
But that wasn't enough. They had to praise the committee for its courageous work in rooting out the communist menace. They had to describe the communist menace. And then finally, to make everything clear, they had to name names. They had to single out other people who had been in the party with them and present those names in public in order to sort of prove that they were - it was a purity ritual, if you will. And it also was a sort of self-humiliation ritual. And without naming names, the conversion back to Americanism wasn't considered genuine.
GROSS: And that created a very toxic atmosphere in Hollywood, where everybody was worried that their friends and their screenwriter and their director might rat them out.
FRANKEL: Well, exactly. It created a lot of fear and anxiety. Now, in 1947, when the committee first came out and held its first set of hearings, a lot of people in Hollywood banded against it. Even the studio moguls were not excited about some politicians on a committee telling them who they could hire and who they could fire. And so there was a lot of resistance. But that melted away in late '47 when 10 of the people who were called to testify were found in contempt of Congress and eventually were imprisoned for up to a year.
But it also melted away because the terms of the Cold War changed after 1947. I mean, there was the conflict in Korea. There were the atomic bomb spies, the Rosenbergs and others. Things had turned and were getting a lot nastier. And at the same time, Hollywood was losing some of its economic clout in the country because of the rise of television. Other things were going on. So when the committee comes back in 1951 for another set of hearings - a sequel, if you will - people are much more - the studios are more supine. People are much less resistant. Basically, they are submissive. And the committee therefore has a sort of free run. And that's when the Red Scare and the purge and the blacklist really gain their power in '51 and '52.
GROSS: "High Noon" was released in 1952. Carl Foreman, the screenwriter, who's the main character in your book, initially intended to make a Western that would be a parable about the post-World War II world and the importance of the new United Nations. But after the blacklist started, he decided to make "High Noon" a parable about the blacklisting era. So in what sense do you see and do - did he see "High Noon" as a parable about that era?
FRANKEL: Well, Carl talked about this later. Of course, he didn't say anything about it at the time...
GROSS: No, of course.
FRANKEL: ...Because it would have been dangerous for the movie.
GROSS: Yeah. Mmm hmm.
FRANKEL: But I think you basically see it in the way he treats the community. This is set in the fictional place called Hadleyville, which sounds a lot like Hollywood. And what Carl - what the good citizens of Hadleyville do when faced with the threat coming on the train - you know, this bad guy who used to run the town is coming back, and he's got three thugs waiting for him, and they're going to seek out and kill the marshal, the lawman who had resisted them and put him in jail years earlier. The lawman - Will Kane is his name in the film - played by Gary Cooper, thinks he can rely on the community, the same way he did originally when they imprisoned these guys, to support him. But he finds - and the core of the movie is him going around from place to place and person to person and to the church during a service and finding that the community is not backing him. There's a sort of moral corruption going on. There's a cowardice. And he ends up standing alone.
And that's exactly, I think, the point that Carl was trying to make - that Hollywood, when faced with these gunmen, thugs, whatever you want to call them, of the committee coming back to Hollywood, didn't stand up. He found himself being shunned. Friends crossed the street to avoid talking to him. His partners in the little film production company that created "High Noon" and that was a very creative and interesting little group of people led by Stanley Kramer - he found himself suddenly facing a challenge from them. At first they were very supportive, but as time went on and Carl faced a subpoena, they were concerned. What are you going to say when you go before the committee? Are you going to take the Fifth Amendment? Because if you do that, and you refuse to testify, we're going to be tainted as well.
So Carl saw this turning against him and this sense of cowardice as he interpreted it. And that's what he wrote into "High Noon." And that's what makes it - that's the sort of political tinge to it, this kind of anti-populist turn of the movie that makes it different than a lot of Westerns and gives it the sting that I think Carl was looking for.
DAVIES: Writer Glenn Frankel speaking with Terry Gross in 2017 when his book "High Noon" was published. We'll hear more of their interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're listening to Terry's interview with journalist Glenn Frankel, recorded in 2017. Frankel had just published the book "High Noon" about the classic Western's relationship to the Hollywood blacklist and investigations of the House un-American Activities Committee.
GROSS: One of the points of the movie is that people don't have the courage to stand up for justice and truth. They don't want to take risks.
FRANKEL: Exactly. This marshal, who is convinced that his close friends are going to be with him, discovers very differently. And the crucial moment, I think, is during the scene in the church when he goes there to recruit support. It's a Sunday morning. Everybody's there in town - or the important people. And his closest friend, a sort of alderman played by Thomas Mitchell, starts to give a speech that the lawman thinks is going to be, OK, let's all unite around our marshal and go, you know, stand up to these guys.
But it quickly turns into a speech about the need to, you know, tamp things down and we've got a good community here and we don't need a shoot-out in the streets and an order to the marshal or strong suggestion that he'd better get out of town and get out now. And at that point, you can see in Cooper's face and in the way he conducts himself that he realizes he's on his own. He's got to make a decision as to what he's going to do without being able to count on any of these people to support him.
GROSS: Why don't we hear that scene? So this is a scene from "High Noon."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIGH NOON")
THOMAS MITCHELL: (As Mayor Jonas Henderson) All right, I'll say this. What this town owes Will Kane here, it could never pay with money. And don't ever forget it. He's the best marshal we ever had, maybe the best marshal we'll ever have. So if Miller comes back here today, it's our problem, not his. It's our problem because this is our town. We've made it with our own hands out of nothing. And if we want to keep it decent, keep it growing, we've got to think mighty clear here today. And we've got to have the courage to do what we think is right, no matter how hard it is.
All right, there's going to be fighting when Kane and Miller meet. And somebody's going to get hurt, that's for sure. Now, people up north are thinking about this town, thinking mighty hard, thinking about sending money down here to put up stores and to build factories. It'll mean a lot to this town, an awful lot. But if they're going to read about shooting and killing in the streets, what are they going to think then? I'll tell you. They're going to think this is just another wide-open town. And everything we worked for will be wiped out.
In one day, this town will be set back five years. And I don't think we can let that happen. Mind you, you all know how I feel about this man. He's a mighty brave man, a good man. He didn't have to come back here today. And for his sake and the sake of this town, I wish he hadn't because if he's not here when Miller comes, my hunch is there won't be any trouble, not one bit. Tomorrow we'll have a new marshal. And if we can all agree here to offer him our services, I think we can handle anything that comes along. And to me, that makes sense.
To me, that's the only way out of this. Will, I think you'd better go while there's still time. It's better for you, and it's better for us.
GROSS: That's a scene from "High Noon." My guest is Glenn Frankel, author of the new book "High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist And The Making Of An American Classic." So Carl Foreman, the screenwriter of "High Noon," was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. What did they think they had on him?
FRANKEL: Well, earlier that summer, they had found a witness, a man named Martin Berkeley, who was a screenwriter, and who had been a member of the Communist Party and then had turned and became a guy who named names. And he not only named five or 10 or 15 names like some of the previous witnesses, he named 150 people. And Carl was one of those. They already had their eyes on Carl because there'd been a previous committee in the California Legislature that had singled out people.
But this time, they really had him nailed. And so Carl had been a - you know, Carl was a minor figure in '47. But by 1951, he'd been nominated for two Academy Awards for screenplays that he'd written. Later, he'd be nominated for a third for "High Noon." So he was suddenly a much more prominent figure and a real target. So they wanted him to come there and tell them about his previous membership in the Communist Party, which he'd been in in the late '30s and early '40s. And they wanted him to name names. And they saw the opportunity there with Carl of getting more of the kind of stuff they had gotten from Martin Berkeley.
DAVIES: Writer Glenn Frankel speaking with Terry Gross in 2017 when his book "High Noon" was published. We'll hear more of their interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIGH NOON")
RITTER: (Singing) Do not forsake me, oh, my darling on this our wedding day. Do not forsake me, oh, my darling. Wait, wait along. The noonday train will bring Frank Miller. If I'm a man, I must be there.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Let's get back to Terry's interview with Glenn Frankel, author of the book "High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist And The Making Of An American Classic." It's about the film "High Noon," which was made 70 years ago. The book focuses on how the House Un-American Activities Committee targeted Hollywood, blacklisting filmmakers and actors who had once been or suspected of being communists. Many careers were ruined. One of the screenwriters who was put on the blacklist was Carl Foreman, who wrote the classic 1952 Western "High Noon." He intended the film to be an allegory about the blacklist. When we left off, Glenn Frankel was talking about how Carl Foreman was called to testify before the committee.
GROSS: So had he been a member of the Communist Party?
FRANKEL: He had indeed. He and his wife, Estelle, when they came out to Hollywood in 1938, had fairly quickly joined the party. Remember, we're talking about the tail end of the Great Depression. We're talking about a time when the progressive movement was in alliance with the small American Communist Party. And he saw the Communist Party, as a lot of his fellow members did, as a force that was fighting fascism, that was fighting for civil rights, all kinds of things. Gradually, he soured on it. And he eventually left for good at the end of World War II.
Nonetheless, he had friends in the party. He didn't disagree with many of their positions. He saw himself as an American patriot, but as a progressive. So he was put in a very difficult situation because he wasn't in the party anymore. He didn't want to risk his wonderful career, which was just reaching its height. But at the same time, he didn't want to name names. He didn't want to rat out the people who he had been close to. So he's left in the horns of a terrible dilemma. And I found Carl so interesting, in part because, you know, he's not a big hero. He's not up there trying to be a martyr. He's just trying to figure out a way to get through this and still be an honorable person, in many ways, just like the law man in "High Noon."
GROSS: So Gary Cooper, the iconic star of "High Noon," is very conservative, anti-communist. What was his reaction when Carl Foreman, the screenwriter, called to testify before HUAC?
FRANKEL: Well, you have to remember that Cooper was 50 years old and at the stage of his career where he was kind of desperate for good parts. The studio system was beginning to fall apart. He was the ultimate product of the studio system in many ways, and he had prospered under it. But the scripts weren't as good anymore, and the people he was working with, he didn't have the same respect for. He loved the "High Noon" script. He thought it was very powerful, very suspenseful.
So when Carl came to him, they'd already worked together for a while here. And Cooper, like a lot of folks, was very sort of intuitive. Yes, he had strong beliefs, but at the same time, having worked closely with this guy, he liked him. He trusted him. He said, look, I knew you were, you know, left wing, you and Cramer, but I trust you. If you tell me you're not in the party anymore and, you know, you've been honest with me. And I don't want to give this up, so I'm going to support you. And he did support Carl, both at that moment in insisting that Carl be kept on the movie, and then afterwards, when Carl was blacklisted, Cooper even agreed to try to help him form a new production company. So Cooper supports him, does his best to stay with him.
GROSS: So what was Carl Foreman's approach to testifying before the committee?
FRANKEL: Well, he gets there and he is rather coy, I would say. He says, I'm not a member of the Communist Party now. And he says that by saying, look, last year, everyone in the Screenwriters Guild and the executive board were required to fill out an loyalty oath. And I signed the loyalty oath then saying I wasn't a member of the party. That statement is still true. But that's as far as he would go. He wouldn't denounce the Communist Party. When asked repeatedly if he'd been a member before he signed the oath, say in the 1940s, he cited the Fifth Amendment against incriminating himself. He simply wouldn't play the game. And this put him on very dangerous ground. You can't really cite the Fifth Amendment unless you answer every question with it. Once you breach that, you're running into the possibility of being charged with contempt of Congress. But nonetheless, that's the way he maneuvered. I think he knew or he came to know that this wouldn't work, that it might keep him from going to jail, but it wouldn't keep him from the blacklist.
GROSS: So what were the consequences for him of not fully testifying and of not naming names?
FRANKEL: Well, as of the newspaper coverage, you know, headlines the next day said that he had refused to cooperate. And that same day, the Stanley Kramer Company, which was now, as I say, in a production deal with Columbia Pictures, Columbia issued a statement in Stanley's name saying, you know, I have a great disagreement with Carl Foreman. And we're going to have to sit down - our company - and decide what to do about it. But we have to take steps. So basically, they disowned Carl the day after the testimony. And over the course of the next month or so, Carl's lawyer and their lawyer sat down and worked out a severance agreement. It allowed him to keep his credit for the screenplay. That would have been very hard to take away from him. But it took away his associate producer's credit because he and Zinnemann had been doing "High Noon," not just on their own, but they were the principals in it. And so he got a severance deal and a pretty good one. But he really lost his control over the film. And for all intents and purposes, that was the end of his Hollywood career.
GROSS: He self-exiled to England. And then his passport was revoked, except for travel back to the U.S. And so there are real serious consequences he paid.
FRANKEL: Absolutely. I mean, he was one of thousands. Many people lost their passports and weren't allowed to travel. It took years for the courts to reverse the State Department's process on that. Again, a process that began in the Truman administration, not with the Eisenhower administration. So he was faced - he was out there in England. He had his settlement. You know, he was living well. But he was isolated. And he couldn't use his own name on the scripts. The most egregious case of that is when he and Michael Wilson, another blacklisted writer, write the screenplay for "The Bridge On The River Kwai," and the screenplay is nominated and wins an Academy Award for Best Screenplay. But the credit goes to Pierre Boulle, the French novelist who had written the original novel and who didn't speak English. And it's only many, many years later that Wilson and Foreman are recognized as the true authors.
For Carl, this was enormously damaging to his psyche, to his spirit. He really felt that he was an outsider. And one of the things that's so fascinating about the blacklist to me, Terry, is the intimacy of it, the way it divided families, the impact it had on close friends like Kramer and Foreman. You know, you expect to have conflicts with your enemy, I mean, the right wing versus the left wing and all of that, the committee. But the really damaging and heavy duty emotional damage was between friends and within families and, you know, former business partnerships. Carl had a lot of trouble getting over that. He could forgive his enemies, and he did forgive a number of people who had gone after him. But he could never talk to Stanley Kramer again. And so this really ate at him. Even when he had a very successful later run in his career, he never really got over the fact that he had been purged at the height of his success in Hollywood.
DAVIES: Writer Glenn Frankel speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2017 when his book "High Noon" had been published. We'll hear more of their interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DIMITRI TIOMKIN'S "HIGH NOON SUITE")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to Terry's interview with journalist Glenn Frankel, recorded in 2017. Frankel had just published the book "High Noon" about the classic Western's relationship to the Hollywood blacklist and the investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
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GROSS: So the way our government ruined the lives of many people during the blacklist - you know, this was only about 70 years ago that it began, and it didn't end until the early 1960s. So this is in the lifetime of many people who are alive today. What are some of the lessons that this chapter of American history has for us today?
FRANKEL: Well, I think our institutions let us down in the 1940s and early '50s - not just, you know, this runaway congressional committee, but the courts who didn't act on this, who actually, you know, denied the appeal of the Hollywood Ten and took many years to look and reverse, you know, the denial of passports, things like that. But not just those institutions - the press was more or less supine. I mean, there were some very brave people out there who did great work in The Washington Post, The New York Times, the cartoonists like Herblock and Bill Mauldin. But generally, the press took whatever the committee came up with and ran it without really doing the independent reporting to see whether it was truthful or not. So they played a role.
And in Hollywood, columnists like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons and The Hollywood Reporter were cheerleaders for the blacklist. So the press let us down. The liberals who were very much opposed, I think, by and large, to the blacklist and to the committee also, in the end, submitted to it. People like Dore Schary, the head of MGM at that time, and some others who, I think, sincerely wanted to stop this, were unable to stand up to it for a number of reasons, many of them economic. So our institutions let us down then.
And here we are 70 years later, at another time of political tension and backlash, a toxic atmosphere that's just as vicious as anything that happened in the '40s and early '50s. And here the question is, how are our institutions going to stand up at this point?
GROSS: You quote Alan Barth, who was the editorial page editor of The Washington Post. And you say that he was one of the few mainstream journalists to speak out about the press's role in blacklisting. I'll read that quote. He writes, (reading) the tradition of objectivity has operated in this context to make the press an instrument of those seeking to inflict punishment by publication. Allegations that would otherwise be ignored as groundless and libelous are blown up on front pages and given a significance out of all relation to the intrinsic merit after they've been made before a committee of Congress.
How did you find that quote?
FRANKEL: Well, Alan Barth wrote a couple of books on this subject, and I read them and found this quote in one of them. And, yes, Alan Barth was one of the people who did stand up and whose editorials were quite strong. I mean, basically, as you probably know, anything that you say before a congressional committee is protected against libel. So you can make the most outlandish allegations you want. Unless you can be convinced to make those same allegations outside of the committee room, nobody can sue you.
And the press ended up - I was a little surprised by this, being a former journalist myself. But even, you know, the great news organizations - the New York Herald Tribune, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the LA Times - in reporting on the hearings, they would report the allegations that people like Martin Berkeley made. They would name the names of the people that he named, but they wouldn't go to those people and ask for their comment. They simply reported that they'd been named and charged with this and that.
And so, I mean, they become the abettors, if you will, of the folks who are running the blacklist. The assumptions are, well, it's just news. They did the same thing, by and large, for Joe McCarthy for several years, the senator from Wisconsin, who took the blacklist and took the Red Scare and amped it up and eventually amped it up so far that he got caught in it. So the press played the role of the aider and abettor. And for - again, I don't want to overgeneralize 'cause there were some very brave people out there who did their job. But they didn't do the accountability journalism that we demand of the press and that is necessary if they're going to keep powerful institutions, like HUAC and the FBI, honest.
GROSS: So we've talked a lot about the blacklist. Let's talk a little bit about the film itself. "High Noon" is a great film. So there's a lot of great, iconic close-ups of faces that reminds me a lot of what Sergio Leone did later with his Italian Westerns. And I'm assuming he liked "High Noon."
FRANKEL: It sure looks like it, doesn't it? The difference is, of course, that "High Noon" is in black and white, and it had a sort of documentary look to it. This was something that Fred Zinnemann and his cameraman, Floyd Crosby, did. They were following their own mentor, a guy named Robert Flaherty, who'd been the great documentarian of the '30s. They wanted it to look like a documentary. They also looked at a lot of Mathew Brady photographs from the Civil War.
So the characters are sweating. It's a hot Sunday morning in this little town. There's a lot of dust and grit. And so when you get to those close-ups of faces, you're looking right at them. And with Cooper, who was 50 years old then and looked older - I mean, this guy smoked two or three packs of cigarettes a day. He was not in the best of health. He's still a very handsome man, but you can see every nook and cranny of his face. And with the sweat coming into it, it just gives us an air of realism and of really being there that you don't see in many Westerns.
GROSS: There's two really strong women characters in the film. One of them's played by Grace Kelly, and she's in her 20s. She's just married the Gary Cooper character, the marshal. And she's a Quaker. And she doesn't believe in violence. So when Gary Cooper wants to, like, stay and kill the bad guys, she decides to leave. She doesn't want to wait around to see if her husband's going to be shot down on the street or not. And she just opposes his whole approach to this.
But she does come back to save him and to be with him. And she, in fact, literally saves his life. She shoots one of the bad guys who's about to shoot him. She wrestles herself away from one of the bad guys who was holding her hostages and is about to shoot her husband. You don't see that a lot in Westerns of that era where it's the woman who saves the man. It's usually the man who saves the woman.
FRANKEL: Well, that's exactly right. And it's interesting - she stands up for herself in the first part of the film. Her husband can't really articulate to her why he has to stay, why he feels he has no choice. She thinks he wants to be a hero. And really, he doesn't have any desire to be one. But she won't stand for that because, as you say, she's a Quaker. She has her own views. And so the marriage, which has just taken place a little earlier in the film, suddenly is broken as she decides to get on the train and leave at noontime.
But in the end, she turns back. And in the end, as you point out, she's the one - she kills one of the bad guys herself, and she scratches the eyes and the face of the other one, allowing her husband to kill him. And by doing that, she's the only person in town who stands up with him against these guys. And so the marriage, if you will, that has been torn is healed. It's put back together. And it's very satisfying in its way because she does what she has to do in the end, just like her husband does. And the two of them have that in common.
And when they ride away together, rejecting the town and its values, Cooper leaves his badge behind in the dirt. Off they go. We know that these two are going to be much stronger and that they are good partners, even though they had such a terrible disagreement earlier.
GROSS: And her standing up and defending her husband - it's not part of her belief system. Like, her belief system is being a Quaker and opposing violence. But she responds to what's happening at that moment in real life and decides to leave that system and just, you know, shoot when she has to, which is kind of interesting because you're dealing with ideology in the world of blacklisting.
FRANKEL: Well, that's true. Well, here you have, I guess you could say, sort of situational ethics. I mean, she has a principled stand. She wants to stick to it. But this is her husband's life at stake. And when, you know, when the stakes are really high, she has the courage to go through and carry it out. She knows what she has to do, and she doesn't hesitate to do it. So it makes it even more powerful, of course, that she'd been opposed to it. It makes it more genuine.
She's dealing with the situation - again, I love the fact there are no superheroes here. There's nobody who knows exactly what they're doing and carries it out. Everybody has to make decisions on the fly based on the circumstances in front of them. And they do it with a lot of anxiety and fear. It's not a simple thing to stand up to these guys. But they do it because they have to, and that's how they survive. And similarly, I think Carl faced a similar dilemma. He's not a hero. He's not looking for this. But he does what he has to do based on what he believes.
GROSS: Glenn Frankel, thank you so much for talking with us.
FRANKEL: Well, thank you, Terry. It's been a real pleasure.
DAVIES: Writer Glenn Frankel spoke with Terry Gross in 2017, when his book "High Noon" was published. Frankel's latest book is "Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation And The Making Of A Dark Classic." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF WARREN WOLF'S "CAROL OF THE BELLS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.