Duke strikes an at once fierce and noble figure in John Ford’s very best films

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Like many Americans, the image of John Wayne’s silhouette is etched into my subconscious. Having the good fortune to partner with one of the greatest directors of his day—and the greatest Western auteur, bar none—the Duke strikes an at once fierce and noble figure in John Ford’s very best films. With pictures like Stagecoach, The Quiet Man, and especially The Searchers in his canon, there is nothing more dignified than the man stretching his arm, an homage to his own Western idol Harry Carey Sr., standing in the doorway to the wilderness he can never abandon. Olive Carey, Harry’s widow, was not wrong in comparing him to a ballet legend when she said the Duke “has the grace of Nureyev,” which was relayed by film historian Glenn Frankel in The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend.

Yet it is Glenn Frankel’s latest nonfiction study of Hollywood’s Golden Age, one that is as much about American history as it is the motion picture variety, that recalls the Duke’s grim role in another Western classic that neither he nor Ford had anything to do with. Like the title says, Frankel’s High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic is about how one of the most enduring Oaters to ever be put on celluloid came to be, as well as how despite much critical debate to this day about its allegorical content, the actual High Noon movie is obviously informed by the studio system’s own moment of truth. And few failed that moment greater than John Wayne, who time and again recurs in the High Noon mythology as an antagonist more successful than the picture’s onscreen and cowardly townspeople, who fail consistently in running Gary Cooper’s marshal out of town. By comparison, the real life Wayne boasted with pride in his part of sabotaging the career of High Noon’s screenwriter and (ultimately) uncredited associate producer.

High Noon is of course one of the quintessential Westerns about moral courage and integrity in the face of insurmountable pressure to bend. Subversive toward its genre’s most treasured tropes circa 1952, the film is bereft of vistas, fist fights, or comic relief, and it stars an over-the-hill Gary Cooper in a way audiences have never seen him: terrified. On what is supposed to be a happy day, one where he’s married a pretty young Quaker bride, Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly), Cooper’s retiring Marshal Will Kane learns that an old enemy has been pardoned by the governor and is arriving on the 12 o’clock train to shoot him dead.

When faced with the threat of the Frank Miller Gang coming back to town, Kane feels that even though he’s already hanged up his star, he must face this challenge. And yet, no one will stand by his side. One by one, his friends, his co-workers in the form of Lloyd Bridges’ lone deputy, and even his mentor turn their backs and shirk their responsibility to do the right thing, each plentifully rich in excuses but totally impoverished in grit. They tell him to run away. So in the end, Cooper’s scared but assured marshal stands alone, save for his Quaker wife who must forsake her religion to stand by a man whose community has disowned him.

Shot in black-and-white and with an intended modesty that was counterintuitive to the most popular grand Old West epics of that decade, many of them starring Wayne, High Noon was a jolt to the system for audiences inundated with Westerns that had little to say. And, depending who you ask, High Noon had quite a bit on its mind regarding the era in which it was made.

While produced by the Stanley Kramer Company, the film’s most hands-on producer was actually Carl Foreman, who also wrote the screenplay. Once Kramer’s earliest partner—they both met while in military service during World War II—Foreman was given a relatively wide berth by Kramer to oversee the production on his own screenplay, because Kramer was busy overseeing a new deal with Columbia Pictures, and, at least by Foreman’s telling of it, Kramer saw this small, black and white Western being produced for United Artists as an also-ran.

So Foreman and director Fred Zinnemann enjoyed plenty of latitude for much of High Noon’s production, especially because actor Gary Cooper, against all odds, had taken quite a shine to Foreman. The aging and Montana-raised, all-American movie star made an odd pairing in his new friendship with Foreman, the young, bespectacled, and Jewish screenwriter who was known for his leftist politics. That relationship was particularly troubling to the likes of John Wayne.

Like Cooper, Wayne was a member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. Which was the sanitized way of saying, “Hollywood’s Conservative Redbaiters.” Founded in MGM executive James K. McGuinness’ Beverly Hills home—Gone with the Wind producer David O. Selznick would later describe McGuinness as “the biggest anti-Semite in Hollywood”—the Motion Picture Alliance had its first public meeting in February 1944 with Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck, Ginger Roge

rs, Cecil B. DeMille, and John Ford in attendance. Gary Cooper’s frequent director, Sam Woods, was elected president of the organization and Walt Disney vice president. (Wayne himself would become president of the organization in 1949, and was its leader during the height of the Hollywood blacklist and the release of High Noon.) Gary Cooper joined later that year.

As a conservative counterbalance to the perceived communist threat in Hollywood movies, particularly during the wartime years when Hollywood was eagerly making films sympathetic to Soviet Union in lieu of a united war effort, the Motion Picture Alliance publicly and proudly campaigned for the need to hunt down and fire any secret communists in the studio system. They also essentially invited Congress’ now notorious House Un-American Activities Committee to begin investigating their industry.

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