Cowboy heroics, cautionary tale woven into new book featuring Montana’s Gary Cooper

March 30, 2017

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Frankel said he could smell the land that Gary Cooper grew up on near Helena.

Frankel came to Montana in 2015 to research his latest book, “High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic.” The book explores the making of the 1952 film “High Noon,” which is considered one of the best Westerns in cinema. But back in 1951 when it was shot in just 37 days on a shoestring budget, “High Noon” almost didn’t get released. Then, a Montana cowboy stepped in — Gary Cooper.

Cooper was already a star when he was cast as the marshal who stands alone to face of gang of killers in “High Noon.” The town refused to back him up in this fight for justice.

The plot of the film, written by screenwriter Carl Foreman, was viewed as an allegory of McCarthyism. Before filming, Foreman was called before a House Committee on Un-American Activities for being involved with the Communist Party. Even though Foreman said it had been a decade since he was a member of the Communist Party, he was given an ultimatum: Produce names of Communists or be blacklisted. Foreman chose the latter and moved to Europe where he continued to write screenplays. He returned to the U.S. shortly before he died in 1984.

During this tumultuous time, Foreman was almost kicked off the film, but Cooper and others intervened. It is Cooper’s involvement and his Montana roots that fascinated Frankel and brought him to Montana for extensive research.

‘Smell the land’

“It was more than 100 years later, but I could see some places, the outside of his birthplace and his father’s ranch that helped me understand Cooper,” Frankel said. “Even 120 years later, in Montana, you can smell the land.”

Frankel said he went to the state Capitol in Helena to stare at the C.M. Russell mural, “Lewis and Clark Meeting the Flatheads in Ross Hole,” the same one that impacted Cooper in a dramatic way when he looked at it as a young man.

“He (Cooper) wanted to be an artist he was so struck with the mythology of the West,” Frankel said. “He describes that in an interview.”

Frankel said he enjoyed the research for the book because he admired the film so much, and was curious about the era in which it was made.

“I had done a book about John Wayne’s ‘The Searchers,’ the novel that John Ford turned into film. That story was told and retold over and over. I had a great experience marrying a great movie and a tragic event in history. I was more than happy to do it again.”

His book, “The Searchers,” was named one of the Top Ten Books of 2013 by the Library Journal.

His newest book, “High Noon,” turned into a three-year project for Frankel, who was teaching full time at the University of Texas in Austin when he started it.

“The research and the reporting is always the most fun part. I found the writing always painful, but I got better at it. With this book, I enjoyed it more. I decided to will myself to enjoy it. If writing were easy, everybody would do it.”

Frankel said he chose to open the book with Cooper because he comes “first in all this.”

Politics and Hollywood

“I keep going back and forth between the movie and the politics,” he said.

The book has been praised by critics, including a Kirkus Reviews article that called it a “comprehensive guide to both a classic film and the era that created it.”

Frankel spent 30 years working for newspapers, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for “sensitive and balanced reporting from Israel and the Middle East.”

Writing non-fiction is a natural extension of his journalism career. The process is just longer.

Frankel came across as a humble, articulate man with a quick laugh. He acknowledged that the book is somewhat of a cautionary tale about our democracy, and Frankel noted that we have a tendency to blame outsiders when we are concerned about what’s happening in our country.

“It was Jews, Communists, liberals. Now, it’s immigrants, Muslims, other titles.”

Wayne, who was head of the Screen Actors Guild at the time the film “High Noon” was released, called the film Un-American. It seems to me it’s the most American of films, highlighting the efforts by an individual to stand up for justice.