- - Monday, August 14, 2017

Some books are interesting but not entertaining, while other books are just the opposite. But every once in a while a book comes along that it is both entertaining and interesting. Glenn Frankel’s “High Noon” is such a book. It is the best nonfiction book I have read in a decade.

What make it so great is that it melds the history of a legendary actor — Gary Cooper — who had gotten a little long in the tooth, with the history of a period in our political and cultural life that had gotten a little crazy (make that more than a little crazy), plus the personal stories of several talented and dedicated men (and a few women) who, working together amid fractured friendships, failing marriages, much drinking, and many double-crosses, made some of Hollywood’s best pictures ever.

Mr. Frankel was a reporter for The Washington Post for many years, including stints as bureau chief in South Africa, London and Jerusalem (where he won a Pulitzer Prize for his “balanced and sensitive reporting” about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). After leaving the Post, he directed the School of Journalism at The University of Texas at Austin and was a visiting professor at Stanford.

Describing his research for this, his fourth, book, Mr. Frankel writes, “Three years, eight cities, and fifteen thousand miles later, I reached the end of a challenging and rewarding project” that included research done in: “Washington, D.C; London; New York; Los Angeles; Salinas; Helena, Montana; and Carthage, Texas.” That’s a lot of work and ground covered, but the written result reads seamlessly.

Between the mid-1940s, when screenwriter Carl Foreman (“Cyrano de Bergerac,” “The Men,” “The Bridge over the River Kwai,” and “Born Free,” et al.) got the idea for the film, and 1952, when it came out, Foreman and director Stanley Kramer (“Cyrano de Bergerac,” “The Men,” “Judgment at Nuremberg,” “Inherit the Wind,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “The Wild Ones,” and more than three-dozen other movies), formerly best friends, had become enemies, thanks to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).

HUAC held its first hearings in Los Angeles in 1947, and its terrible power lasted for five years, when the election of Dwight Eisenhower as president sent a signal to the nation that the while the Cold War may have been starting, the Red Scare era was ending, and before they went to sleep at night, God-fearing Americans no longer had to look under their beds for Communists.

During that period, the committee called numerous witnesses it knew or believed had been members of the American Communist Party and, even if they admitted they had once belonged and both renounced and denounced Communism, they were still asked to give, under oath, the names of others (often close friends) who had also espoused Communism. Many witnesses were willing to do the former, but balked at providing names, which the studios had decreed they must do or lose their livelihoods.

Among the casualties were some well-known stars, like Larry Parks, who’d played Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer,” and the group of writers, directors and producers who became known as “The Hollywood Ten,” which included such successful figures as Ring Lardner Jr., Dalton Trumbo and Ed Dymtryk. Because the major studios backed the HUAC, refusing to name names meant no more work, and most of the Ten never were again employed in the industry under their own names.

By this point, Stanley Kramer had his own studio, and he, too, disapproved of witnesses who didn’t cooperate fully with the committee. Carl Foreman testified and called Communism “evil,” but he adamantly refused to provide the names of others he knew to be party members. In 1953, he moved to England where he stayed until 1957. While he was away, his longtime marriage failed.

The Motion Picture Alliance (“For the Preservation of American Ideals”) and several major Hollywood figures, including John Wayne, Ward Bond, the columnist Hedda Hopper and Billy Wilkerson, publisher and owner of The Hollywood Reporter, wholeheartedly supported the HUAC, as did, to a lesser degree, Ronald Reagan. Those who opposed it were the actor Lloyd Bridges among a few others, and, also to a lesser extent, Gary Cooper. Cooper, who never wavered in his support and admiration for Carl Foreman, comes across in this book not just as a major movie star but as a major human being.

The star of the book, however, is Carl Foreman, whom Mr. Frankel in the final paragraph quotes as saying: “I discovered that I could be scared and still come through a situation. I actually was the kind of person I thought I was.”

Mr. Frankel then writes, “Carl Foreman had faced his own personal High Noon, had confronted his enemies and his fears, and he had survived.”

• John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

• • •

By Glenn Frankel
Bloomsbury, $28, 377 pages

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