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'High Noon' Showdown

Film* An upcoming PBS documentary, based on a letter by Carl Foreman outlining his role in the making of the classic film, is the basis of a dispute.

April 11, 2002|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A new PBS documentary, "Darkness at High Noon: The Carl Foreman Documents," revolves around a letter that blacklisted writer-director-producer Carl Foreman wrote in 1952 from England to Bosley Crowther, the famed New York Times film critic. Crowther had written a rave review of "High Noon," the classic western Foreman wrote.

Foreman relates in the lengthy and revealing letter his version of the history of "High Noon," his battle with the House Un-American Activities Committee and his subsequent firing from Stanley Kramer Productions, of which he was one of six partners, after he exercised his 5th Amendment rights before the committee.

The documentary, which screens tonight at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and is scheduled to air later this year on PBS, has raised the ire of Karen Sharpe Kramer, Stanley Kramer's widow. The film, she maintains, paints her husband as a villain. Karen Kramer also doubts the authenticity of the Crowther letter, explaining that the critic was a lifelong friend and admirer of her husband and never mentioned the letter to him.

"If I don't stand up and I don't say this is not true, this is not the way it was, then people will assume that what they made this film about is the way it was," says Kramer, a TV and film producer. "They have indicted Stanley Kramer and have provided no defense."

The documentary was written, directed and executive-produced by Lionel Chetwynd, an Emmy-nominated writer-director of such films as "Kissinger and Nixon" and "The Man Who Captured Eichmann," and executive produced by Norman S. Powell. "A lot of what she [Kramer] says is simply not true," says Chetwynd.

"These people ruined [Foreman's] life once. By what right do they do it a second time? That is what this is, the blacklist redux."

Foreman, who died in 1984, was a well-respected, Oscar-nominated screenwriter, director and producer who was a victim of the Hollywood blacklist. A member of the Army Signal Corps during World War II, he joined Stanley Kramer and his young company after the war when they made such socially conscious films as "Champion" (1949), "The Men" (1950) and "High Noon" (1952). Foreman's scripts for all three films received Oscar nominations.

A communist before and briefly after World War II, he refused to name names when called to testify before HUAC and fled to London before "High Noon" was released. He continued to work anonymously on scripts, including 1957's Oscar-winning "The Bridge on the River Kwai." He began his own production company in the early '60s, writing and producing the 1961 action-adventure classic "The Guns of Navarone." Kramer, who died last year, came to Hollywood as a writer in 1933 and worked as an editor and associate producer before World War II. After the war, he became one of the most daring producers in Hollywood.

After producing a string of successful films, he made his directorial debut in 1955 with "Not as a Stranger." In subsequent films, he examined racism in 1958's "The Defiant Ones," religious freedom in 1960's "Inherit the Wind," Nazi war criminals in 1961's "Judgment at Nuremberg" and race relations in 1967's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." Karen Kramer believes that "Carl Foreman was a very paranoid man. I would be paranoid, too, I suppose if this happened to me. But you have to understand that this was his free choice to become a communist. It wasn't Stanley's choice. Stanley didn't believe in the blacklist."

As for Foreman, she says, "they [Kramer productions] had just moved their offices to Columbia Pictures [from United Artists] and he had just signed a deal with Harry Cohn to have autonomy in his choice of material, but they were still under contract to Harry Cohn. This documentary skirts the role the studio played in this. Harry Cohn said, 'If Carl Foreman takes the 5th Amendment, I'm firing him.'"

Since receiving a copy of the documentary from an anonymous friend, Kramer has spent three months collecting evidence she believes refutes several points in the documentary. Kramer says that about six months before her husband died, she received a call from an assistant of Chetwynd's requesting an interview with her husband. He was too ill to do it and she offered to do the interview.

"They said: Oh, no, this is only in the first person. They never asked me: Do you know anyone [they could interview]?"

"We imposed a very, very stiff rule, only first-person testimony," says Chetwynd, who had been friends with Foreman since the late '60s in London. He first got a copy of the Crowther letter from Foreman's widow shortly after his death. He says he and Powell pleaded for Kramer's widow to supply them the name of someone from that time who could talk on her husband's behalf. "She never answered the calls," says Chetwynd. "We have records of the logs. Then we wrote her a letter and we never heard from her."

Kramer and several of the filmmaker's friends--including Abby Mann who penned the screenplays of "Judgment at Nuremberg" and "Ship of Fools"--feel Chetwynd has attacked the late director because Chetwynd is widely known for his conservative views. "I think on a deeper level, this is a political situation," says Kramer. "I am for freedom of speech, but when someone passes away you can say anything you please and there's not much you can do about it. You can't sue for defamation of character. Unfortunately, Stanley cannot fight back, not legally anyway ... the family's hands are tied."

*

"Darkness at High Noon: The Carl Foremen Documents" screens tonight at 7:30 at the Leo S. Bing Theatre at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. Following the screening, L.A. Weekly film critic F.X. Feeney will conduct a Q&A with filmmaker Lionel Chetwynd. Admission is free.

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