In the film The Contender, a liberal female politician who is undergoing a bruising confirmation hearing for a position in the president’s cabinet, uses the blacklist as an example as to why she won’t answer questions from Congress about her sex life. In true Atticus Finch fashion, she instructs a young hothead who wants her to answer the questions that, had the first witness before HUAC refused to name names, then other witnesses would have done likewise and the whole nightmare of the blacklist would have been stopped in its tracks. Thus the point of her “history lesson” is that she must refuse, otherwise blacklist part two will occur.
This is a prime example of the navel-watching that Left Coast Hollywood indulges in when they need an event to show America betraying its democratic ideals. In these sweepstakes, the more horrific event of the Japanese Internment cannot compete with their almost continuing citation of the blacklist–always the blacklist. For it happened to “them”: tinsel-town liberals, whose, more often than not, membership in the American Communist Party did not disqualify them from liberalism; indeed, it intensified their humanist ideals. And those who inflicted the blacklist, “culturally illiterate” right-wingers, suit the Left Coast’s description of their enemies today; Meryl Streep’s “mixed martial artists” and “brownshirts” that support her hated Donald Trump.
When those such as the Streeps and Baldwins conjure up the boogeyman of the blacklist one gets the sense that they want it to happen; that their sense of drama and fantasy demands their chance to defy their own form of “HUAC.”
The roles, in every sense of the word, have been established in the history of the blacklist: liberal humanist celebrities vs. knuckle-dragging conservatives—read fascists.
But in 2002, for one brief shining moment, these roles were challenged, and not with the typical conservative example of the Hollywood left blacklisting them. Conservative filmmaker Lionel Chetwynd made the documentary Darkness at High Noon, which defended a Hollywood Communist against a liberal betrayer. The “red” in question (who, in point of fact, had left the Party years before) was Chetwynd’s mentor, blacklisted screenwriter Carl Foreman, and the cowardly liberal was Foreman’s partner in a film production unit, Stanley Kramer, the “brave” liberal producer of such movies as Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.
The role reversal was present even in the reactions to this documentary. Suddenly, anti-anti-communists like Victor Navasky, who never left an opportunity go to waste to bemoan the cowardly behavior of those who named names and/or betrayed their comrades, were defending Kramer and bashing Chetwynd, and in effect, Foreman himself.
And this betrayal and blacklist occurred during the making of a cut-rate black and white Western (probably the most reactionary of film genres) with an aging A-list star, High Noon (1952).
In this excellent book, Glenn Frankel conveys the ironies involved in this Western that became a metaphor for what was happening offset. Foreman, who adapted the story of a sheriff abandoned by the townsfolk to face the outlaws coming back to town, felt more and more like the main character, played by Gary Cooper. Foreman was called to testify before Congress about his Communist associations mid-way into production. Because he refused to name names (although he did volunteer information, however limited, about his own political history), Congress gave Foreman the “kiss of death” for studio employment by declaring him “an uncooperative witness”.
When Cooper went down the town square to face an almost certain doom as townspeople closed their shutters, Foreman felt that represented his “leper” status among his friends.
And that was most evident in how Kramer, his friend and colleague of ten years, treated him after the testimony. Kramer always claimed that (a) Foreman lied to him about being a Communist and (b) that Foreman was going to falsely name Kramer as a red.
Frankel dispenses with both of these versions fairly quickly and effectively, and Kramer emerges as a cowardly, screen credit-hungry autocrat who attempts to get Foreman booted off the set. The “hero” in this tale is the film’s lone conservative, anti-Communist star, Gary Cooper, who intervened and kept the screenwriter on the set and on full salary. Cooper was an anti-Communist activist who believed Hollywood Reds were trying to take over the industry—a position in other contexts Kramer would have detested. But he emerges in Frankel’s tale as more fair-minded than ideological and even offers to invest in Foreman’s film production company even after the screenwriter is blacklisted.
Meanwhile, as the Academy Award nominations rolled in for Noon, Kramer took the full producer credit, even though Foreman helped co-produce the film.
The die was cast. Foreman, nominated for an Academy Award for Noon (Cooper got an Oscar for his role), was aware that he was now unemployable and took off for England where he did uncredited, Academy-Award winning work on The Bridge on The River Kwai. Meanwhile, Kramer stayed in lush Hollywood and garnered a reputation as a courageous liberal taking on racial taboos in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.
Frankel’s work is meticulous and forever validates Foreman’s version of the events, and is superb on recounting the atmosphere of the blacklist. I know of no other book, not even Navasky’s, that conveys the unfairness of being denied employment unless one names the names Congress already knows.
But Frankel sometimes lets his passions get the better of him. He does acknowledge that American perceptions of American Communists as ardent Stalinists at the time did have a basis in reality. But he never sticks around to show their considerable influence in Hollywood. During World War II, Hollywood Reds did wield power in Hollywood, so much so that Stalinist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, one of the first to be blacklisted, once bragged of being able to keep anti-Communist novels from being adapted to the screen.
Nor does he afford any complexity to the anti-Communist right. He has obvious admiration for Cooper the man but not his politics (Frankel praises Cooper’s testimony as a friendly witness before Congress because the actor didn’t name any names). Instead, he dismisses conservatives in the same manner as Hollywood Reds did at their zenith: quasi–and not so quasi–fascists. John Wayne, despite outbursts of mercy to those who reluctantly named names, is depicted by Frankel as some kind of draft-dodging chicken-hawk. Any friendly witness who approached the microphone before HUAC is portrayed by Frankel as either an ignorant nativist or a conscious fascist.
That said, Frankel has written an excellent book. He devotes individual chapters to each figure—Cooper, Foreman, Kramer, and director Fred Zimmerman–as they approach their meeting point in High Noon in such a way that suggests it was fate that brought them together. The reader comes away with the perception often noted by Hollywood: that classics are only created by turmoil behind the scenes.
And the turmoil behind the scenes was solely attributed to a fearful liberal.