It's one of the most revered movies of Hollywood's golden era. Starring screen legend Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly in her first significant film role, High Noon was shot on a lean budget over just thirty-two days but achieved instant box-office and critical success. It won four Academy Awards in 1953, including a best actor win for Cooper. And it became a cultural touchstone, often cited by politicians as a favorite film, celebrating moral fortitude.
Yet what has been often overlooked is that High Noon was made during the height of the Hollywood blacklist, a time of political inquisition and personal betrayal. In the middle of the film shoot, screenwriter Carl Foreman was forced to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities about his former membership in the Communist Party. Refusing to name names, he was eventually blacklisted and fled the United States. (His co-authored screenplay for another classic, The Bridge on the River Kwai, went uncredited in 1957.) Examined in light of Foreman's testimony, High Noon's emphasis on courage and loyalty takes on deeper meaning and importance.
In this book, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Frankel tells the story of the making of a great American Western, exploring how Carl Foreman's concept of High Noon evolved from idea to first draft to final script, taking on allegorical weight. Both the classic film and its turbulent political times emerge newly illuminated.
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The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic
By GLENN FRANKEL
Bloomsbury Publishing PlcCopyright © 2017 Glenn Frankel
All rights reserved.
Whatever happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type? That was an American. He wasn't in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do.
TONY SOPRANO TO DR. MELH IN THE SOPRANOS, EPISODE I
In 1914, when Frank Cooper was thirteen years old, his father took him to the state capitol building in Helena, Montana, to see a stunning new mural created by Charles M. Russell, one of the great artist-mythmakers of the Old West. Mounted on the wall behind the desk of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Lewis and Clark Meeting Indians at Ross' Hole is a twelve-foot-high and twenty-six- foot-wide highly stylized depiction of the historic encounter in September 1805 between the legendary explorers and a hunting party of one of the region's fiercest Native American tribes. Flathead Indians dominate the canvas, their ponies pivoting wildly in the tall prairie grass while the majestic, snowcapped Bitterroot Mountains hover in the distance. Lewis and Clark and their fellow explorers stand passively to the side, overshadowed by the drama playing out before them.
This was Indian Country, bursting with motion and myth — just the kind of evocative, outsize drama that Russell, a former ranch hand who worked out of a log cabin in Great Falls ninety miles away, believed in and made his fortune from. Some of what it depicted might have been true, but that didn't really matter. It felt true, and it evoked feelings of excitement and longing for a time and a place and a way of life that had long passed — and it inflamed young Frank's imagination and ambition. "I was stopped, really nailed in my tracks," he would recall four decades later. "All I knew then ... was that I'd give anything to be able to paint like that."
From the beginning of his life, Frank Cooper was captivated by the power and beauty of the vast wilderness he had been born into. His parents were immigrants from England, strangers in a strange, half-tamed land that they grew to both adore and fear. Each passed on to their son their sense of awe at the vast, rugged spaces of their adopted home. And he in turn was moved in ways he could barely articulate by this evocative and challenging landscape.
Frank's father, Charles, had left his native Bedfordshire, forty miles north of London, in 1883 and headed to America, following his older brother Arthur. The Cooper men were drawn to the Montana territory by economic opportunity — first gold, then silver, and finally copper helped power successive financial booms — but also by the romance of Indians and cavalrymen and gunfighters and pioneers. It was, after all, less than a decade since George Armstrong Custer and his men had faced death before an overwhelming force of Sioux and Cheyenne Indians at the Little Bighorn in the southeastern corner of the territory. Charles wound up settling in the small town that became Montana's capital, which had recently changed its name from Last Chance Gulch to Helena. He got a job as an engineer for the Northern Pacific Railway during the day while studying law at night. Then he opened a law practice and dabbled in Republican Party politics, leading to his eventual appointment by President Theodore Roosevelt as U.S. attorney for the newly established state. Prosperity bred respectability, but Helena still honored its frontier past. As late as 1895 the town sent out printed invitations to public hangings in the main square.
Another young Englishman, Alfred Brazier, who had arrived in Helena at around the same time, sent for his younger sister Alice to come join him. She lacked her brother's uncritical affection for the new territory: as soon as she got to Helena, Alice deposited enough money in a local bank account to cover her return fare to England. When the panic of 1893 ripped the floor out from under the price of silver and Helena's banks collapsed, Alice consulted Charles Cooper as to how to retrieve her money. But instead of fleeing back to England, she married the young lawyer. A year later she gave birth to a boy they named Arthur, and six years after that, on May 7, 1901, they added a second son — Frank James Cooper — born in a bedroom on the second floor of a modest but comfortable Victorian at the corner of Eleventh Avenue and Raleigh Street.
Cowboys, Indians, wolf hunters, and women of uncertain virtue still walked the streets of Helena in 1901, but Charles Russell's Old West was already more fable than reality. The Coopers lived in a succession of houses just south of the state capitol building for a decade, while Charles built a legal and political career that eventually led to a seat on the state Supreme Court. They spent part of the year on a ranch fifty miles north of town on six hundred acres that Charles bought from the Northern Pacific in 1906. The 7 Bar 9 Ranch was located on the banks of the Missouri River in the foothills of the Big Belt Mountains parallel to the Rockies, an area named "the Gates of the Mountains" by Meriwether Lewis. He and William Clark and the thirty-two-member Corps of Discovery had camped a mile upriver on July 17, 1805, and one hundred years later young Frank Cooper could still explore the same sites and observe the same wildlife as Lewis and Clark: steep volcanic canyons and soaring rock formations, home to bear, deer, elk, mountain lions, bobcats, mountain goats, coyotes, grouse quail, geese, duck, and beaver. Frank would later recall his proper English mother shearing sheep, branding cattle, shoveling manure before dawn, and "swinging an ax at twenty below zero to break open bales of frozen hay."
Then there was the chinook, the warm wind that raced through the valley in early spring, melting the deep snow and creating a wall of water that barreled down the river gorge and swept away soil and seed, leaving the Cooper ranch stripped to its bedrock.
Alice Cooper never quite overcame her mixed feelings about this wild country and feared its coarse impact on her two sons, and she convinced Charles to take them to her native Kent for a proper English education. They deposited the boys for three years at Dunstable, a boarding school that sanded their rougher edges and subjected them to the rigors of Latin, French, and higher mathematics. It was there that Frank Cooper learned to speak French, solve an equation, wear a top hat, and bow from the waist.
He returned to Montana in 1913, grew six inches in two years, and began filling in his handsome, narrow face, with its sparkling blue eyes and long lashes. He learned to ride a horse with skill and precision, clean and shoot a rifle, hunt game with a bow and arrow, and spend hours alone in the silent landscape, sketching the wilderness in charcoal and pencil. Early in his teenage years, his friend Harvey Markham crashed the family Model T, throwing Frank from the passenger seat. Limping and in pain, he was told it was just torn ligaments, but many years later he found out his hip had been broken and never properly healed. The injury cost him two years of schooling. He entered Grinnell College in Iowa at age twenty, lasted three years, charmed teachers and fellow students with his easy manner and crooked grin, but never graduated. By then his father had left the bench for a lucrative private law practice. A complex real estate case brought Charles and Alice to Los Angeles for an extended period that became permanent. Frank, still hoping to become a commercial artist, came to visit at Thanksgiving 1924. He never left.
At first he looked for a job as a newspaper cartoonist but got nowhere. He drew display ads on commission but sold none. For a few weeks he went door-to-door seeking in vain to convince residents to pay to have their family photos taken, then spent three weeks as a theatrical scene painter. He was living at home with free rent and food-important for a young man who was now six foot three and harbored an endless affection for a square meal any time of the day or night. But his goal of saving up the funds to attend a private art school in Chicago seemed to recede from his grasp.
One day on Vine Street in Hollywood he ran into two pals from back home. They told him that Slim Talbot, a Montana rodeo star, was hiring riders to work as stuntmen in the thriving motion picture business. It was hard work but paid ten dollars a day-exactly ten dollars more than Frank Cooper was making in his artistic pursuits. Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, and dozens of imitators were riding the cinematic range, churning out cheap Westerns that relied on stunts, horseback riding, showmanship, and outsize cowboy costumes filmed on a variety of ranches and open-air studio lots on the outskirts of town. Frank had seen few movies, read no fan magazines, knew nothing about how pictures were made or who was making them. But he was a capable and fearless rider who could fall off a horse convincingly upon command, and the camera seemed to love his chiseled face with its thin lips and sculpted cheeks.
Soon he was getting bit parts beyond stunt work. He felt awkward in this strange new line of work. "My wrists were too long, my knees were too pointed, and my shirt looked as though it was draped over a wire coat hanger," he would recall. "Leading ladies resented playing scenes with me, complaining they had to stand on tiptoe and crane their necks to unladylike angles."
None of that mattered. His father arranged an introduction to a client, actress-producer Marilyn Mills, who along with her husband was making two-reel Westerns. Frank Cooper was just what they were looking for. She got him a role as a villain in a film called Tricks. Frank liked the work — and the money-enough to resolve to devote the next year to seeing if he could launch a successful career in movies. By now, thanks again to his father's connections, he had acquired an agent. Her name was Nan Collins and she got him small parts in more than a dozen films. But her most important contribution was to inform him that there were already two other Frank Coopers in the motion picture business and to suggest that he take the name of her hometown in northern Indiana instead.
From now on he would be called "Gary Cooper."
IN LATER ACCOUNTS, Gary Cooper would portray himself as a reluctant film idol who accidently and inadvertently fell into stardom. In fact, he plunged into the craft of movie acting with energy and commitment. He started going to the movies every day, studied Rudolph Valentino's smooth, fluid movements, and observed how the great British actor Ronald Colman used minimal gestures — a faintly raised eyebrow, a slight pursing of the lips — rather than the broad over-emoting of many stage-trained performers. According to Cooper, Colman realized "his audience was no farther away than the camera lens."
Cooper bought his own makeup kit, which he tried out at home. He would pile on chalk-white face powder, heavy lipstick, and coal-black mascara, then adjourn to the backyard where his mother, an amateur photographer, would take snapshots and develop them immediately. Remember, Marilyn Mills had told him, "you don't go by how it looks to your mirror. The only judge of how you look is the camera." Looking at the photos his mother took, Cooper noticed something peculiar: "The more ferociously I scowled, the funnier I looked. On the other hand, if I just looked at the camera impassively, and thought to myself, You treacherous little box, if you don't make this one good, I'm going to tear you apart with my two hands ... the picture of me would come out looking so mean I'd be shocked."
He also invested sixty-five dollars — a major sum — for his own screen test. He rented a horse and a motion picture camera, hired a cameraman, and set them up in a vacant lot at the corner of Third Street and La Brea. He charged the camera on horseback, made a flying dismount, swept off his hat, and gave what he called "a ghastly grin." Then he took the reel to the Goldwyn studio, where he had the good fortune to run into a director named Henry King, who liked the graceful riding and easy manner, and cast him in a small part in Ronald Colman's new picture, The Winning of Barham Worth (1926). When the actor who was supposed to play Colman's rival for the love of a young woman had to bow out suddenly, King decided that his lanky Montana boy could do the job. Cooper's character died in Colman's arms. "Easy does it, old boy," the star actor advised him before the camera whirled. Women wept. When he saw the rushes, Cooper said he nearly cried himself.
He was good enough that Paramount Pictures signed him to a contract for $150 a week. The studio's leading young star, Clara Bow, was entranced by Cooper's good looks and physique and insisted he be given a bit part in It (1927), her next movie. The Brooklyn-born actress, one of the sexiest and most uninhibited celebrities of the era, had a long list of lovers and paramours, ranging from the dashing director Victor Fleming, to actors Buddy Rogers, Richard Arlen, Fredric March, Eddie Cantor, and John Gilbert, to various and sundry members of the UCLA football team. Cooper for a brief time served as her newest companion and was rewarded with the co-starring role in her next film, Children of Divorce (1927). He also got the male lead in Arizona Bound (1927), his first starring role and his first Western, in which he convincingly wore an oversize cowboy hat and did his own stunt work.
But his biggest break came when director William Wellman, at Bow's urging, cast him in a small role in the aviation epic Wings. It was a tiny part: he played Cadet White, a doomed flight instructor whom two cadet flyers, played by Rogers and Arlen, meet when they first arrive at flight training camp.
His only scene ran just 105 seconds. Cadet White wakes from a nap, climbs out of his cot, pushes his mussed hair off his face, tucks in his shirt, pulls on an overcoat, produces a chocolate bar from the pocket and offers it to his new tent-mates, then heads for the tent door. When the new boys wish him good luck, his face suddenly turns serious. "Luck or no luck, when your time comes, you're going to get it!" he tells them. Then he gives them a two-fingered salute and a toothy grin and heads off to his destiny — a fatal midair collision.
It required only one take, Wellman would recall. Seventy years later, actor Tom Hanks, one of Cooper's spiritual heirs as an ingratiating and naturalistic performer, paid tribute. Cooper "does something mysterious with his eyes and shoulders that is much more 'being' than 'acting,' " wrote Hanks. "In this one scene, Cooper somehow crosses a bridge from the artifice of acting to the manner of behavior via a process that eludes most other performers."
Wings, which won the first Academy Award for Best Picture, helped launch Cooper as a star. His scene was "the most valuable of my life," he would recall.
His fling with Clara Bow was the first of many in Cooper's early days in Hollywood, with a list of actresses that included Evelyn Brent, Marlene Dietrich, and Tallulah Bankhead (who once famously told reporters, "I've come to Hollywood to fuck Gary Cooper." Asked later how it had gone, she replied: "Mission accomplished."). His most serious entanglement was a tempestuous two-year affair with Lupe Velez, a passionate, self-destructive starlet whose disastrous taste in men would lead her to commit suicide a decade later. Cooper's mother took credit publicly for helping break up the romance.
Excerpted from High Noon by GLENN FRANKEL. Copyright © 2017 Glenn Frankel. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 The Natural 1
2 The Elephant Man 18
3 The Icon 36
4 The Boy Wonder 56
5 The Committee 72
6 The Viennese Gentleman 91
7 The Falling Star 105
8 The Committee Returns 114
9 The Screenplay 142
10 The Informer 158
11 Citizen Kane 176
12 "Bombshells" 191
13 The Witness 197
14 The Exile 210
15 The Music Men 222
16 The Process 236
17 The Movie 247
18 Writer's Block 264
19 The Return 273
A Note on the Sources 319
Select Bibliography 351