Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Shady Doings at High Noon

Yesterday, September 29, would have been Stanley Kramer’s 101st birthday. But he died in 2001, at age 87. The following year, there appeared a harsh documentary that undermines Kramer’s standing as the liberal conscience of Hollywood. If Darkness at High Noon is to be believed, the man behind such principled motion pictures as Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner robbed his friend and associate Carl Foreman of a richly-deserved producing credit. But can we accept the allegations of Lionel Chetwynd’s documentary film at face value?

What role did Foreman actually play in the Oscar-winning 1952 western High Noon? Was he entitled to an on-screen producer credit? There’s no argument that – as a screenwriter and an officer in Stanley Kramer’s production company – Foreman adapted a short story called “The Tin Star” for the screen. And there’s evidence he was deeply involved in on-set supervision of the production in its early weeks. But then he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. When asked about his past involvement with the Communist Party, he invoked the Fifth Amendment, taking a moral stand against naming names. Soon thereafter he was relieved of his duties at Stanley Kramer Productions, was paid handsomely for his shares of company stock (to the tune of $280,000), and set sail for England. The finished High Noon  bears his writing credit, leading to an Oscar nomination, but it doesn’t name him (or anyone) as producer. Chetwynd’s film labels this a cold-hearted “betrayal by the colleague this man loved most”: Stanley Kramer.

Was Kramer, who is widely acknowledged as High Noon’s producer of record, a credit hog, like so many in Hollywood?  Was he a coward who knuckled under to the right-wingers looking for Communists under every bed? Or was the truth far more complicated? Kramer, at this time, had a new deal in place with Harry Cohn’s Columbia Pictures. Columbia was a signatory to the 1947 Waldorf  Declaration, which prohibited Hollywood studios from employing former Communists. The press was loudly clamoring for Foreman’s ouster. Foreman had apparently concealed his own years of Party membership from Kramer, who was now reluctant to risk the future of his production company under these difficult circumstances.

Moreover, the legal documents signed by both men on September 13, 1951 reflect Foreman’s hiring as the film’s writer and its associate producer, a second-in-command position. Since Foreman had to be banished from the Columbia lot, he never completed his associate producer duties, so perhaps even this lesser credit was not fully earned.

But on scanty evidence Chetwynd’s documentary makes Foreman a martyr and Kramer a villain. Dramatizing a private confab between the two men with crudely caricatured sketches, it even labels Kramer “the Hitlerian carpet-eater” (whatever that means). Here’s a possibility: Chetwynd himself is known to be an outspoken political conservative. He could well be siding with a long-deceased former Communist as a way to smear the reputation of a famous Hollywood liberal.

Much of  Chetwynd’s “proof” stems from a lengthy, mysterious letter apparently written by Foreman in 1952, outlining all the injuries he’d suffered. But Foreman’s credibility is shaky. Witness how High Noon’s esteemed director, Fred Zinnemann, became furious enough to threaten a lawsuit once Foreman began implying to the British press that he alone was responsible for the film’s success. (I’ve seen their correspondence.)

Stanley Kramer, meanwhile, boldly credited two blacklisted screenwriters under their own names for 1958’s The Defiant Ones, thus striking a blow against McCarthyism two years before Kirk Douglas’s much-trumpeted hiring of Dalton Trumbo for Spartacus. Did Kramer wrong Foreman? You decide.

This post is dedicated to Karen Sharpe Kramer, whose faith in her late husband has never wavered. In a real-life version of High Noon, Karen would be playing the Grace Kelly part.


  1. Wow - that is some shady stuff there. I am no fan of High Noon - but this drama playing out behind the scenes is fascinating. I would imagine that much like most such disputes - the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

  2. I'm sure the truth is compllcated: the McCarthy era definitely didn't bring out the best in people. Karen Kramer is of course biased in her views (this happened long before she was in Stanley's life), but I must say I was shocked by Foreman's behavior in England, and the way he responded to the legitimate complaints of Zinnemann about Foreman's apparent claiming of full credit for High Noon's success. His letter to Zinnemann, whom he professed to admire, was really nasty in the extreme.