October marks the 75th anniversary of Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott, and Dalton Trumbo’s refusal to answer the House on Un-American Activities Committee’s question: “Have you now, or have you ever been a member of the communist party?” All 10 cited their first amendment rights, and all 10 were voted in contempt of Congress and sentenced to prison. Some did six-month stints. Others served a year. They all were blacklisted from work. And that was only the beginning.
It would be 13 years until Exodus ceremonially broke the blacklist, with director Otto Preminger giving Trumbo screenplay credit after a decade of using a front, but throughout the 1950s, the United States operated under a cloud of communist suspicion. Hollywood bore the public brunt simply because HUAC needed the reflective glory of famous artists to keep the witch hunt going.
Why did HUAC take on Hollywood? The reasons given—both told and untold—are legion but the one with staying power was the fear that California-based artists were corrupting the wholesomeness of America through coded messages via the silver screen. And why not? America just fought the war against fascism, and Hollywood propaganda played a significant role. All movies carry a message of some kind—though it’s seldom received the way it’s intended. Take 1952’s High Noon from director Fred Zinnemann and writer Carl Foreman. Did moviegoers pick up on how the town shunning Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) when news comes that Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) is coming to town with murder on his mind visualized how Foreman felt walking around Hollywood prior to testimony before HUAC? Or did they see the great American individual standing up for what he believed in? This is Gary Cooper with a six-shooter we’re talking about, after all. I suspect the latter.
Ditto for 1954’s On the Waterfront, written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan. Another lone hero, another individual standing up for his beliefs. Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) even gives a speech about why he did what he done. It’s quite a moment, and Brando sells it for everything it’s worth. Americans love that stuff, and Waterfront won eight Academy Awards, including Oscars for Kazan, Schulberg, and Brando. Cooper also won an Oscar for his portrayal of Kane, by the way. Like I said, America loves an individual.
Statuettes and accolades are nice, but they didn’t stop Hollywood from blacklisting Foreman for refusing to testify and ostracizing Kazan for naming names. Those two men and the movies they made confronting HUAC at the height of the hearings are juxtaposed in TCM’s latest original production High Noon on the Waterfront.
Written and directed by David C. Roberts and Billy Shebar, High Noon draws material from Kazan and Foreman’s archives—as well as TV footage from the hearings—to juxtapose High Noon and On the Waterfront as opposite approaches to the committee’s questions.
Edward Norton reads from Foreman’s papers while John Turturro gives voice to Kazan’s words. Clever editing and music by Phillip Glass add to the mix to produce an effective piece of work exploring the intersection of Hollywood and history. High Noon and On the Waterfront are emblematic of the decade—in content and form, filmmaking and performance—and both have stood the test of time as bonafide classics. High Noon on the Waterfront makes you want to watch both movies again, no matter how many times you’ve seen them. Thankfully, TCM will be screening both High Noon and On the Waterfront on Thursday, Oct. 13, with two showings of High Noon on the Waterfront nestled in between for context.
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