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.
After Foreman was subpoenaed to testify before HUAC and pleaded the Fifth Amendment, the Stanley Kramer Company was reorganized; Foreman was bought out of the company in which he’d been a partner, which led to bad blood between Kramer and Foreman. Navasky and others have previously reported on this falling out. But Darkness‘s version is largely based on a newly discovered, eleven-page letter that Foreman wrote to New York Times critic Bosley Crowther in 1952, alleging that Kramer took advantage of Foreman’s HUAC troubles, kicked him out of their company and deprived Foreman of producer’s credit on High Noon. (Stanley Kramer’s second wife, Karen Kramer, questions the letter’s authenticity.)
In keeping with the temper of the times it portrays, the documentary completely omits Kramer’s side of the story. The timeline is this: In 1947, Columbia’s Harry Cohn attended the infamous Waldorf Conference, at which the studio heads agreed not to knowingly employ Communists–in effect establishing the blacklist. On March 18, 1951, Kramer’s independent company signed a deal with Columbia. But when HUAC subpoenaed Foreman in September 1951 and he proved an uncooperative witness, it meant Columbia would no longer employ Foreman. In Naming Names, Kramer is quoted expressing concern over Foreman’s possible lack of candor about what he planned to say to the committee. “I looked him right in the eye, and I just felt he didn’t look me back in the right way, and we parted.” Kramer claimed he “protected Foreman to an extent…. He owned stock in the company and therefore he was bought out from that stock” and left with about $280,000. In typical fashion, Darkness obliquely refers to Foreman’s “settlement” but never mentions the amount–worth much more in 1951 than now–leaving the distinct impression that Foreman lived a life of hardship in London.
Darkness alleges that Kramer wrongly denied Foreman producer’s credit, and the documentary advocates that it be restored, just as the credits of blacklisted screenwriters have been. In the documentary, both the film’s editor, Elmo Williams, and Foreman’s second wife, Eve Williams-Jones, contend that Kramer took Foreman’s producer credit. Karen Kramer and others contest that claim. They point out that Stanley Kramer always produced his own films and indeed was known as a producer first and director second. His name often appeared above the title of his films, which were called Stanley Kramer Productions. (In 1991 Kramer received the Producers Guild’s David O. Selznick Award.)
Karen Kramer, who was married to Stanley from 1966 until his death in 2001, provided this reporter with documents from September 13 and October 22, 1951, signed by both Stanley Kramer and Foreman, specifying Foreman’s role as “writer and Associate Producer.” Karen Kramer also showed me a notarized letter dated January 18, 2002, from Joe King, identified as costumer for High Noon and other Kramer films. In it, King defends Stanley’s loyalty to his colleagues and writes that Stanley gave Carl “Associate Producer” credit. Whatever the case, Foreman got neither Associate nor Producer credit, although the Writers Guild protected his writing credit.
Darkness is written and directed by Lionel Chetwynd. Chetwynd seems to have a hidden or perhaps not-so-hidden agenda. He has won his share of awards, but his films often have betrayed a conservative tilt: the official US Bicentennial film The American 1776; To Heal a Nation (1988), about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; Ruby Ridge: An American Tragedy (1996); the made-for-TV film of Tom Clancy’s NetForce (1999). Leonard Maltin calls Chetwynd’s 1987 Vietnam POW feature, The Hanoi Hilton, “embarrassingly clichéd…. [It] throws in right-wing polemics and potshots at Jane Fonda.”
London-born Chetwynd moved to Canada, served in Canada’s military, debated at Oxford, became a US citizen and served on the President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities. He has written for conservative publications such as The Weekly Standard and National Review. Blacklistee Robert Lees calls Chetwynd “the Writers Guild’s most right-wing member.” According to David Corn’s Nation article “Looking for Mr. Right: Who’s Running the Conservative Club in Town?” [April 5/12, 1999], the day after Clinton was elected in 1992, neoconservative culture warrior David Horowitz and Chetwynd “set up the Wednesday Morning Club in the [L.A.] office that houses Horowitz’s think tank, the Center for the Study of Popular Culture. (In 1997 the center received $500,000 from right-wing billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife.)” “We have created a platform in the entertainment community where a Henry Hyde can come and get a warm welcome and respectful hearing,” Chetwynd said about the conservative forum. In an interview, Horowitz confirmed receiving funding from Scaife, who financed much of the right-wing inquisitorial reportage on President Clinton.
During the 1990s Horowitz bashed public television for alleged liberal bias, and received $1.3 million from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS and conservative foundations. He and Chetwynd worked on National Desk, which aired from 1997 to 2000. The two Hollycons have had a falling out, however; in July the Los Angeles Times reported that Horowitz was suing Chetwynd for “fraud and breach of fiduciary duty,” alleging that he (like Foreman?) was “forced to resign.” (The director of a documentary film about an alleged brouhaha fifty-one years ago, which he didn’t witness and which didn’t result in lawsuits, incidentally, questioned the relevance of being asked in an interview about an apparently similar dispute with a business partner a mere two months ago that resulted in litigation.)
Like Grace Kelly in High Noon, Mrs. Kramer is fighting to protect her husband. She and Chetwynd confirmed in interviews with me for another publication that Chetwynd did seek to interview Stanley Kramer before he died, though he was 87 and in failing health in a nursing home, not well enough to be interviewed. Contending that after thirty-five years of marriage she was very knowledgeable about l’affaire Foreman, Karen Kramer offered to be interviewed, but Chetwynd declined, explaining that all interviews had to be first-person witnesses. The filmmaker maintained that as a documentarian, he adhered to traditional journalistic standards, and that the no-hearsay rule enhanced Darkness‘s veracity.
Assuming the decision not to include an interview with Kramer’s widow was made in good faith, it may have had the opposite effect from that intended. It insured a one-sided recitation of a half-century-old dispute, based largely on a letter written by Foreman, who died in 1984. As implemented, the no-hearsay rule obliterated the presentation of Stanley Kramer’s viewpoint. Furthermore, the rule isn’t consistently applied. Sketches illustrating many of the described events are almost certainly drawn by an artist who wasn’t an eyewitness to supposed private arguments between Foreman and Kramer or John Wayne, etc., and seem to be based on hearsay (Foreman’s narrator-read letter). Furthermore, Eve Williams-Jones discusses Foreman’s early Hollywood and London days–also a case of hearsay. (Chetwynd’s publicist wouldn’t answer follow-up questions regarding the sketches and Williams-Jones.)
Moreover, while the producer/director of Judgment at Nuremberg–and not HUAC chairman J. Parnell Thomas or Senator Joe McCarthy–is the blackguard in this Hollywood Red Scare documentary, Darkness mentions nothing about Kramer’s possible role in helping break the blacklist. Josh Smith says that Kramer knew that his father, Harold Jacob Smith, and Ned Young were blacklisted when they brought him the script of The Defiant Ones (1958). Kramer had at that point left Columbia and regained his independence.
“Kramer bought the script at top dollar, hired them for rewrites, brought them onto the lot, put them in the movie [with] their names underneath their picture in the opening credits,” Josh declares. Smith received screen credit using his actual name. (The pair also wrote Inherit the Wind for Kramer.) Josh also noted that in the new documentary, when Gary Cooper was pressured to back out of a business deal with Foreman, Coop’s “a nice guy for not standing up,” but “Kramer’s evil for [doing so].”
Chetwynd (who was befriended by Foreman when they worked together in London at Columbia) told Variety‘s Army Archerd that Darkness was “an indictment of Stanley Kramer.” And he told the New York Times, “The point of the film is…the blacklist created a category of citizens who were unprotected. You were deprived of the normal protection of society.” But this appears to be precisely what Darkness does to Kramer; he’s just guilty as charged. Although Chetwynd is a self-proclaimed “First Amendment absolutist” opposed to blacklisting, he in effect blacklisted Kramer’s viewpoint.
Chetwynd’s account of the injustices inflicted upon Foreman is one thing, but his denunciation of one of Hollywood’s main producers of message movies, with his social-conscience legacy, is something else again. He is entitled to his view, but he really ought to include and answer the case against it. Even more troubling is why the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS chose to fund and air such a slanted condemnation of a dead man who can’t defend himself, and whose widow and children were denied the right to speak on his behalf. The point isn’t to silence Chetwynd, but in the interest of fairness, at a minimum PBS should find a way to restore the balance.
Perhaps an on-air debate would help. A local PBS affiliate in Los Angeles, KCET, planned to air a follow-up special looking at Kramer’s career, the controversy and the blacklist period in general, in which Rush to Judgment author and attorney Mark Lane would represent Karen Kramer’s viewpoint. Both Karen Kramer and Chetwynd declined to appear on it. KCET news director and executive producer of the special, Philip Bruce, said Mrs. Kramer did not wish to be on a show presenting Chetwynd’s point of view, and Chetwynd did not wish to appear to be “beating up on a poor widow.” The special will be available to other PBS stations, but if PBS itself does nothing further, we can’t be sure that Stanley Kramer’s side of the story will ever be widely heard. It’s no better than those townsfolk who deserted Gary Cooper in High Noon.