High Noon

It’s not news that High Noon (1952)high-noon-1
was really about Hollywood’s cowardice during the McCarthy era. John Wayne knew it. He turned down the Gary Cooper role when it was offered to him. The movie was “un-American,” he said in a Playboy interview, bragging about having helped run its screenwriter, Carl Foreman, out of the country.

All of this can be found in an old book by Anthony Holden, Behind the Oscar: Secret History of the Academy Awards (1992) and in Glenn Frankel’s new one, High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic. You can learn a lot from the Wikipedia entry on the film, too, including the fact that, blacklist parable or not, High Noon was a favorite of presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton.

Gary Cooper’s principled marshal may have originated as a stand-in for the blacklisted Carl Foreman.”There are scenes in the film that are taken from life. The scene in the church is a distillation of meetings I had with partners, associates and lawyers,” the screenwriter said. “And there’s the scene with the man who offers to help and comes back with his gun and asks, ‘Where are the others?’ And Cooper says, ‘There are no others.’ I became the Cooper character.”

But High Noon has been co-opted by the Right. A recent article in the Conservative Tribune explicitly invoked the film in regard to Trump’s confrontational stance toward Iran. “If Iran wants a showdown with Trump at high noon, he is willing to give them one, and they aren’t going to be too happy once they see what type of six-shooter he’s packing.”

I think Iran is kidding itself if they don’t think there’s a new president in town, Spicer said, sounding just like a classic line from an old Western.

This wouldn’t have surprised James Baldwin. He had a thing about Gary Cooper, going back to his boyhood days watching Westerns. In a clip from a 1965 Cambridge University debate included in the marvelous documentary I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin said, “It comes as a great shock around the age of 5 or 6 or 7 to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians were you.”

Cooper was a foil for him, a symbol devilfindsworkof white innocence (as was Doris Day, and Grace Kelly in High Noon). Interviewed by educator and civil rights activist Dr. Kenneth Clark in 1963, he spoke about the anger of young black college students (they were still called Negroes), who had reached the breaking point.

“You can only survive so many beatings, so much humiliation, so much despair, so many broken promises, before something gives,” Baldwin explained. “Those children had to pay a terrible price in discipline, in moral discipline—an interior effort of courage which the country cannot imagine, because it still thinks Gary Cooper, for example, was a man—I mean his image, I have nothing against him, you know, him. . .”

Baldwin may have had nothing personal against Cooper, but he could not stomach the heroic myths that Americans liked to tell about themselves in Westerns like this one.

26 thoughts on “High Noon

  1. John Wayne….an arbiter of what’s “un-American”? Why? Did he mistakenly think that roles he played on the big screen gave him such standing?

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    1. Yes, I believe he did think that, and many were willing to give him that standing. It’s a problem we have in this culture, with celebrities. We elected one cowboy to the presidency, after all, and then there’s the current occupant of the White House, who ran his camapign and now seems to be running the country like a reality TV show.

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  2. We all know why HIGH NOON ranked as a favorite of those ex-presidents. It showed an ordinary guy standing up for what was right. Now if that isn’t Superman’s “truth, justice and the American way,” then I don’t know what is.

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  3. What a coincidence…mentioning Baldwin. He’s getting a lot of attention these days. His point about rooting for the Gary Cooper character and then realizing that in doing so he was rooting against himself (and other people of color) decidedly qualifies as a teaching moment. Talk about taking off the blinders!

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    1. Now, of course, the industry has veered in another distressing direction. Remember DANCES WITH WOLVES? Although praised initially (for depicting a group of people far more favorably than Hollywood had done in the past), it was later condemned for portraying a white man as a kind of savior. In other words, even when stories are supposedly about an underrepresented group of people, the spotlight has remained focused on a white actor instead. Take a look at CRY FREEDOM, for example, with Denzel Washington and Kevin Kline.

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    2. Quite so, Tiziana. I’m also reminded of a comment of Franz Fanon’s. As a student in Martinique during the 1940s, he was aware of anti-Semitism in France. A teacher told him, when they talk about the Jews, perk up your ears because they’re talking about you.

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  4. LIsa, why no mention of “do not forsake me, oh my darling”??? That song makes the movie. Tex Ritter’s voice hits just the right notes in singing it. Movies are more than characters, dialogue, themes, settings, etc. Music can enhance immeasurably the power of a movie’s message.

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    1. What a haunting plea!–“do not forsake me, oh my darling.” Whenever I hear it, it resonates with me powerfully emotionally. It speaks to me in ways that images of Will Kane himself never succeeded in doing.

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  5. As an historian, you are very probably familiar with the concept of American exceptionalism. During the ’50s, as the United States engaged in a Cold War with the Soviets and fear of Communism was running amok across the United States, movies such as HIGH NOON could be considered a form of propaganda, couldn’t they?

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    1. Certainly — and the Soviets criticized High Noon for its excessive emphasis on “American individualism.” I don’t know why John Wayne found it so un-American (see Camilla’s comment, above).

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  6. What irony! Baldwin no doubt appreciated it fully. I’m referring to the attempt of the United States (in the ’50s and ’60s) to attract so-called third world countries to the U.S. ideals of democracy. With Jim Crow laws prevailing throughout the South and then the use of law enforcement officers to go after demonstrators for civil rights with dogs and fire hoses, what was someone in Africa or Asia to conclude about just what democracy meant for people of color?

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  7. As we all know, before she became Princess Grace of Monaco, Grace Kelly worked as an actress. (I liked her best in DIAL M FOR MURDER.) She even won an Oscar for her work in THE COUNTRY GIRL. However, her role in HIGH NOON was her first appearance on the big screen. Watching her in this movie, I can’t help but think the casting director (and others) made a horrible mistake in putting her opposite Gary Cooper. There’s no chemistry between the two of them at all. At any rate, her portrayal in the movie appears to support the “stand by your man” thinking so well noted in Tammy Wynette’s song bearing that title. In the 1950s, apparently, that was all that a woman was supposed to do (according to Hollywood). In HIGH NOON, Grace Kelly did that effectively and unhesitatingly (although she very probably had concerns about what might have transpired between her intended and the Katy Jurado character).

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    1. I’ve read that Grace Kelly needed to be coached. She was rather wooden, didn’t understand that the camera captured more than the audience would see in a theater. Cooper was very helpful — perhaps offered some after-hours tutoring.

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      1. After hours tutoring, eh?
        I can easily imagine just how those sessions went. Both Cooper and Kelly played around with various sexual partners, as was the custom then in Hollywood. But, let’s NOT get off on a tangent that, in truth, does not merit our attention. Instead, returning our attention to the intent of HIGH NOON, I’ve always felt that the title itself (and how it’s been used over the years) denotes a willingness to fix upon a specific time to confront a specific threat. Moreover, since the plans of mice and men continually go astray, Will Kane’s hope of being supported by the town’s fine, upstanding citizens, as he faced the bad guys, failed to come to fruition. Despite that unwelcome turn of events, Kane steadfastly went ahead to face the bad guys. He was, in fact, a man of principle. And such a man stands his ground, even when the odds are against him.

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  8. Until Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood had “the man with no name” mesmerize moviegoers through so-called spaghetti westerns, Hollywood-produced westerns served to reinforce the heroic myth with which people in the United States identified so closely. In typical westerns, there were no shades of gray. Everything existed in terms of black and white. (And no, that’s not a pun on Baldwin’s outlook.) Something was either “good” or “bad.” Think about how those questioned before the HUAC were treated. Committee members didn’t want to evaluate shades of gray. No. Their purpose was to identify the “bad” and punish it. Not long ago TRUMBO illustrated that point quite effectively.

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  9. Oh, the ironies. President Trump as the marshall and Iran as the bad guys whom no one else will challenge? A handful of countries have made moves that may have been meant to test the mettle of America’s new president, North Korea among them (though it’s never easy to tell what the Hermit Kingdom intends), and Iran’s missile test might be one, but it’s still not clear that Iran “wants a showdown with Trump”—more nearly the reverse. And at least one of Iran’s regional rivals, Saudi Arabia, might be glad to join a confrontation, so the “marshall” in this picture wouldn’t be alone. But the Middle East situation is altogether too complicated to be sensibly addressed with the sort of easy tough talk that Conservative Tribune resorted to.

    The temptation is understandable, though. I was about to write something about the broad applicability of some parables, fables, and the like when I found, in the Wikipedia discussion of the film’s reception, that Bill Clinton had said it for me: “Any time you’re alone and you feel you’re not getting the support you need, Cooper’s Will Kane becomes the perfect metaphor.”

    As for James Baldwin’s stance, it makes perfect sense but is easy to miss or forget for anyone raised, as I was, in midcentury white America. Thank you for including it.

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    1. “Midcentury white America”…..I’m guessing that refers to the period BEFORE the tumultuous 1960s. If so, there’s no denying that Will Kane (among others) symbolized the heroic myth so cherished by U.S. citizens. What’s more, belief in that type of myth undoubtedly served to undergird the cohesiveness of U.S. society in that period. But then came the ’60s AND such movies as EASY RIDER. What a quandary for Hollywood then! Audiences no longer preferred to see tall, good-looking white males in leading roles, personifying that myth. Instead they welcomed the arrival on the screen of rebellious, not stereotypically handsome guys, who challenged the traditional values earlier generations had espoused.

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    2. As you know, the Oscars took place a week ago. The winner of the best documentary feature was OJ: MADE IN AMERICA. This past week ESPN aired it several times. (Yes, I watched all eight hours of it.) I mention it because the documentary reflects, in part, some of Baldwin’s insights. More specifically, it zeroes in at several points on how perceptions of blacks by whites (especially with respect to the treatment of blacks by the Los Angeles Police Department in the latter half of the 20th century) demonstrated how far short the country was falling from living up to the ideal of equal justice for all. Curiously enough, too, the documentary highlighted how and why O.J. had a distorted perception of himself in U.S. society. Briefly, he didn’t see himself as being a black man. I wonder what Baldwin would have to say about that!

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  10. Glad you found food for thought here, John. My idea of a good time is looking at the historical and cultural context in which classic films were produced, and then drawing out the present-day resonances. When one of my reviews provokes such a rich discussion, I know I’ve done my job well.

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