On September 17, PBS aired Darkness at High Noon: The Carl Foreman Documents. On the surface, this documentary is a posthumous homage to a worthy blacklisted screenwriter. Presumably for this reason, the Writers Guild of America screened the documentary last spring in Los Angeles.
However, underneath the surface, Darkness is a thinly veiled attack on Foreman’s longtime producer, the late Stanley Kramer, previously regarded as Hollywood’s archetypal liberal. The two met in the Army and after World War II set up an independent movie company, creating some of the era’s landmark films, often featuring controversial subject matter: In their Champion (1949), Kirk Douglas was Oscar-nominated for portraying a greedy boxer, while Home of the Brave tackled racism in the military; The Men (1950) debuted Marlon Brando as a paraplegic war veteran; Jose Ferrer won the Oscar for their Cyrano De Bergerac. High Noon (1952) was the partners’ most acclaimed movie–winning four Academy Awards, including Gary Cooper’s for Best Actor–and their final collaboration.
According to Darkness, Foreman came to Hollywood shortly before WWII, wrote Bowery Boys comedies and joined the Communist Party (Victor Navasky’s authoritative 1980 book, Naming Names, says he quit in 1942, although he briefly rejoined). During the war, Foreman served in Frank Capra’s film unit and went on to receive multiple postwar Best Screenplay Oscar nominations. Congressional witch-hunters subpoenaed Foreman to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and when he invoked the “diminished fifth” (he denied present party membership but refused to name names from the past), the unfriendly witness was blacklisted. Unable to work in Hollywood, Foreman went to England and wrote, produced and/or directed movies such as 1961’s The Guns of Navarone and 1966’s Born Free. By late in the decade, Foreman was running Columbia Pictures’ London studio.
In High Noon, gunslingers previously imprisoned by the marshal, played by Cooper, return to town on the lawman’s retirement and wedding day. The cowardly townsfolk abandon the marshal, who faces the villains alone–and then leaves town, after throwing his star into the dust. Just as friendly witnesses such as Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg justified informing in 1954’s On the Waterfront, many believe Foreman used the Western genre to denounce McCarthyism.
In an interview with me, Dave Wagner, who co-wrote Radical Hollywood with Paul Buhle, thought Cooper might symbolize the people’s vanguard, who’d vanquished villains in the 1930s by creating unions and reforms like Social Security. But when the bad guys–representing HUAC–return during the cold war, a fearful people forsake their champion, abandoning the one who had won their rights, leaving him to fight alone, standing against the crowd. This was indeed the fate of many blacklistees such as Foreman, who, like the marshal, left town (a shellshocked Hollywood and America) after the shootout (testifying before HUAC).
What’s different about the teledocumentary Darkness is that it makes a right turn from most histories of Hollywood’s blacklist, like ex-Communist/screenwriter Bernard Gordon’s Hollywood Exile, or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist, Nancy Lynn Schwartz’s The Hollywood Writers’ Wars, the documentary Hollywood on Trial and features like The Majestic. While Darkness condemns blacklisting in general, in its revisionist take, the biggest heavy wasn’t HUAC, collaborationist studio chiefs, informers or supine union leaders. Indeed, Republican icons who supported Tinseltown’s inquisition–John Wayne, Ronald Reagan and Cooper–are exculpated and favorably portrayed. Rather, Kramer–independent pioneer who went on to produce progressive pictures such as the antiracist The Defiant Ones (1958), the antinuclear On the Beach (1959), the pro-free-speech Inherit the Wind (1960), the antifascist Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and the groundbreaking Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967)–is depicted as the villain in this blacklist drama.