Ed Rampell is a Southern California author and film critic who has published numerous works about Hollywood and film including "Progressive Hollywood" and "Pearl Harbor in the Movies", with Luis I. Reyes. This is the second in a three-part series about the Hollywood Left and its influence on the Western Movie genre. Part One appeared on The West page, but the story goes far beyond that, so Part Two appears here. Part One is still up on The West.
By Ed Rampell
Jimmy Stewart brought to "Destry" the moral authority he’d earned starring in Frank Capra’s 1939 filibuster masterpiece "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington", written by Communist Sidney Buchman (Washington got its revenge on Buchman in 1952, citing him for contempt of Congress during the HUAC purges). Stewart acted in numerous Westerns, including two 1950 classics, Anthony Mann’s "Winchester ’73" and Delmer Daves’ "Broken Arrow", a Cochise (Jeff Chandler won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this role) drama, which had a peaceful coexistence theme and was written by the Hollywood Ten’s Albert Maltz using a front. Both featured Will Geer, who portrayed Wyatt Earp in the former and a racist rancher, who wants to lynch Stewart’s ex-cavalry scout for trying to negotiate a peace deal with the Apaches in the Arizona-set, "Arrow".
Geer received third billing in another 1950 oater, "Comanche Territory" starring Maureen O’Hara, after playing the sheriff in 1949’s adaptation of William Faulkner’s novel about racial injustice, "Intruder in the Dust", written for the screen by Ben Maddow, whose credits include leftist documentaries, such as 1942’s Paul Robeson-narrated, "Native Land". Geer reunited with Stewart in 1968’s "Bandolero!", which co-starred Dean Martin and Raquel Welch. He appeared opposite Robert Redford in 1972’s "Jeremiah Johnson" as the mountain man, Bear Claw, as well as in various TV horse operas, including "Bonanza" and "Gunsmoke", plus the frontier series, "Daniel Boone".
But Geer was best known for his role as Grandpa Walton on the popular television series "The Walton"s, the beloved, benevolent patriarch of a Southern family with seven children living in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains during The Great Depression. This popular bit of archetypal Americana ran on CBS from 1972 to 1981 (Geer died in 1978). The six foot, four inch Indiana-born Geer was ideal for Western roles because “he was larger than life,” as his daughter Ellen Geer, artistic director of the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, puts it. Will’s ties to The West included his interest in botany -- the grounds of the Theatricum Botanicum, a 299-seat amphitheater in Topanga Canyon, near Malibu, includes a garden that Geer grew containing every plant mentioned by Shakespeare. Geer “wore overalls, had a down home feeling” and “spent many years with Woody Guthrie traveling throughout the migrant camps singing, so he got very attached to that whole period after the Dust Bowl,” notes Ellen.
Geer’s acting career began on the stage, debuting on Broadway in a 1928 production of Shakespeare’s "Much Ado About Nothing". He appeared in "Juno and the Paycock", Sean O’Casey’s drama about a strike and the Irish Republican Army. Geer also co-starred as the capitalist exploiter Mr. Mister in one of the most famous proletarian dramas of the Depression years, Marc Blitzstein’s 1937 "The Cradle Will Rock", which was directed by Orson Welles and supposed to be presented by the Federal Theatre Project, which balked at the last minute. Considered too hot to handle by that New Deal agency, the revolutionary musical relocated at the eleventh hour to another Broadway theatre, where it opened without sets or props but to great acclaim.
According to Jay Williams’ Stage Left Geer created a West Coast version of the fabled Group Theatre. When it presented Odets’ "Till the Day I Die", Geer, who directed the anti-Nazi play, “was kidnapped by members of the Friends of New Germany and beaten so badly that he was hospitalized.”
Geer first appeared onscreen during the 1930s and after World War II, with "Winchester ’73" and "Broken Arrow", his increasingly successful movie career was establishing him as a Chill Wills or Slim Pickens type of cowboy actor -- until he was called to testify before the HUAC. According to Walter Rufus Eagles, who calls himself a family friend of Geer at a website, “When Will was subpoenaed and subsequently appeared before HUAC, he came to the hearing dressed in costume (at the time he was playing Jeeter Lester in Tobacco Road on Broadway) wearing red flannel underwear beneath his overalls… Thus clad, Will walked into the hearing room chewing gum (as if it were tobacco), looked around, and said, ‘Where is the hot seat?’”
In "The Fifties: The Way We Really Were", authors Douglas Miller and Marion Nowak write that Geer “pok[ed] fun at HUAC. When asked if he would be willing to fight for the [U.S.] in the event of war with the Soviets, the 49-year-old Geer… quipped that he would grow vegetables and entertain in hospitals as he had in World War II.” Ellen remembers that her father “pled the Fifth Amendment, because he was not a rat,” and told the Committee “it was the biggest ‘turkey’ he’d ever been in,” and asked to be excused because he had “to go do his spring planting.”
Indiana historian Evan Finch gives this account of Geer’s testimony before HUAC:“It had been, perhaps, the longest day of Will Geer’s 49 years. Subpoenaed to appear before the 82nd Congress’ House Un-American Activities Committee, he had dutifully gathered his wife and family, made the long trek to Washington, and settled in for a grueling afternoon of accusations and character assassination. The hearing had dragged on torturously, and Geer steeled himself as yet another inquisitor leaned into a microphone. ‘Do you,’ droned Republican Harold Velde of Illinois, ‘consider yourself to be a patriotic citizen?’ Cameras whirred and flashbulbs popped as the question hung in the courtroom air, heavy with implication. ‘I do, indeed, sir,” Geer replied. ‘I love America.’ He shifted his long frame restlessly and paused for the briefest of moments before continuing on. ‘I love it enough to want to make it better.’
Geer, who appeared before the committee on April 11, 1951 – understandably chose to stand on their Fifth Amendment rights of freedom against self-incrimination.
“Refusing to ‘name names’ or to confirm or deny his past membership in the Communist Party, the unrepentant Geer had harsh words for HUAC. ‘I believe that [the Communist party is] being persecuted,’ he told the assembled Representatives, ‘Like the Mormons, the Jews, the Quakers, the Masons … Even radical Republicans in Lincoln’s day.’ ‘The word ‘Communist’ is an emotional, hysterical word,’ he said, ‘like the word ‘witch’ in Salem.’ Though some onlookers were amused by his irreverence, the committee was not. Neither was the cautious motion-picture industry,” which banned Geer.
Ellen recalls, “It was terrible. It really destroyed his working life for years.” However, some Hollywood talents discretely assisted the Geers, “they hired Pop, because they knew of his gardening ability; but they would never pay him by check because that would be a record.”
Accounts vary as to whether or not Will was a dues paying Communist; Ellen insists, “Pop wasn’t a joiner” and that “he was never a member of the Communist Party.”
She admits her maternal grandmother, “Ella Reeve Bloor, was a Communist” – indeed, reportedly a longtime central committee member. Ellen adds that her father “knew some people [who were CPers], of course… there were some great writers,” such as "Broken Arrow" screenwriter Albert Maltz. Ellen describes their relationship as “Two people probably going… through the same thing,” and says they were on good terms. Years later, Will met politically-progressive Robert Redford, “a wonderful man [who] remained very close to Pop after” they worked on "Jeremiah Johnson".
Across the political spectrum, Ellen says her father and his "Bandolero!" co-star Raquel Welch “adored each other. Both are bigger than life people.” As for his longtime conservative co-star Jimmy Stewart, Ellen states: “They were on opposite sides of the fence, of course. I actually did a TV series with Mr. Stewart [the 1971-72 NBC sitcom The Jimmy Stewart Show], I was hired if I promised not to talk politics…When Pop came on as a guest, I remember them hugging and making up. Because they were very opposite, you know? Mr. Stewart -- whom I adored, he was very, very kind to myself and my son… Two beautiful people, but they had different ways of thinking -- and that’s okay… It was a rough time, the 1950s.”
Indeed. From 1951 until 1962 -- when Geer returned to the big screen in Otto Preminger’s political drama "Advise and Consent" -- Geer was blacklisted from movies. With one notable exception (plus a minor one, 1956’s Mobs, Inc.): 1954’s "Salt of the Earth", a New Mexico-set strike drama about Chicano miners, made by blacklisted talents, including director Herbert Biberman (one of the Hollywood Ten), writer Michael Wilson and Geer, who shot their film outside of the Hollywood system under extraordinarily adverse conditions. The actor who’d portrayed Wyatt Earp in "Winchester ’73" plays the sheriff in this social realist, feminist, pro-Latino, pro-labor classic.
Geer may have played a cowpoke onscreen, but offscreen, Ellen laughs, “Papa never learned how to ride a horse. What they had to do, especially in "Bandolero!" was put some heavy piano wire in order to get the horse to stop when it was supposed to. You’d probably have to tie Papa on a horse… but he sure looked like he knew what he was doing.” She also recalls that as Jeremiah Johnson’s mountain man, in one scene, Geer had to have honey smeared on his back to induce a bear to chase him.
Ronald Reagan and the Reds
Before seeking public office, Reagan appeared in his share of Westerns, including as Custer in 1940’s "Santa Fe Trail" and as Wyatt Earp-like Frame Johnson in 1953’s Arizona-set "Law and Order". Reagan’s McCarthyite marshal matches the Cold War tenor of the times, as he overzealously enforces the law. Like the actual Earp, Frame bans carrying guns within city limits.
In Edmund Morris’ 1999 book about Reagan, "Dutch", he quotes Howard Fast -- an ex-Communist who was called to testify before Joe McCarthy’s Senate Sub-committee and wrote the novel that "Spartacus" is based on -- as claiming that Reagan tried to join the CP: “The local Party leader asked around, and word came back Reagan was a flake ... [who] couldn’t be trusted with any political opinion for more than 20 minutes.” (This allegation is disputed.)
When Reagan was the Screen Actors Guild’s president in 1947, author Victor Navasky alleges in "Naming Names" that he was “FBI informant ‘T-10,’” who “enforced the blacklist.” Navasky claims that under special agent Reagan’s SAG presidency, the guild “banned Communists and non-cooperative witnesses from membership.”
Whatever the truth is, in Morris and Navasky’s accounts, one thing is certain: The only feature that co-starred Reagan with his future wife, Nancy Davis, 1957’s "Hellcats of the Navy", was written by a blacklisted former Communist Party member named Bernard Gordon under the pen name Raymond Marcus. Ironically, Gordon shared Hellcats’ writing credits with David Lang, whom Gordon wrote in his memoir "Hollywood Exile" was “an especially malodorous informer who had notoriously given [HUAC] names of people he had never met,” including Gordon’s own best friend, Julian Zimet. After Reagan moved to the White House, Gordon fantasized about telling the president an ex-Red had co-written his sole movie with Nancy.
Gordon also joked that his lefty friends criticized him for not killing Reagan off when he had the chance during an underwater scene in this WWII Pacific Theater submarine drama, directed by Nathan Juran, who’d also helmed "Law and Order".
Zimet’s screen credits include several Westerns -- Roy Rogers’ 1946 "Heldorado", 1955s "The Naked Dawn" (starring Arthur Kennedy, adapted from a Maxim Gory short story) and 1967s "Custer of the West" -- plus the 1964 John Wayne movie, "Circus World". Zimet co-wrote the latter two with Gordon, who fled to Franco’s Spain -- which he found to be less repressive than America during the blacklist period -- to continue screenwriting. Gordon also became a producer of low-budget flicks such as 1972s "Pancho Villa", co-starring Telly Savalas, Clint Walker, Chuck Connors and Anne Francis. Zimet’s script deals with Villa’s cross border raid at Columbus, New Mexico, one of the few attacks on American Territory prior to 9/11 -- an interesting theme for two ex-Communists.
High Noon and HUAC
Dave Wagner, who co-authored at least four books about the Hollywood Blacklist with Paul Buhle, including "Radical Hollywood", calls 1952s "High Noon", “a perfect expression of what was going on during those days.” The definitive Western was produced by Stanley Kramer, Tinseltown’s iconic liberal; directed by Fred Zinnemann, an Austrian-Jew whose parents died in the Holocaust, his first feature, 1936s "The Wave", was about a strike in Mexico; and written by Carl Foreman, a former CPer literally driven off of the film’s set by blacklist enforcers.
According to Wagner, “"High Noon" is an allegory about the return of fascism after World War II. Frank Miller [Ian MacDonald, who specialized in Western roles], a killer, has been mysteriously pardoned, released from prison and coming back to a small town in the Southwest” named Hadleyville, which like Hollywood, starts with an “H.” “Frank Miller is basically the looming, dreadful figure of Joe McCarthy.
McCarthyism might be referred to as the ‘junior form of fascism,’ and it’s returning not only to this small town, but to Hollywood. This is 1952, after most of the [HUAC] purges have already taken place, when the anti-Semites and anti-leftists in Congress have combined to railroad some of the finest artists in Hollywood out of town. This is the story of the blacklist in a sense -- what happened in that small town when Frank Miller returns is pretty much what happened in Hollywood. They all duck and run and are scared to death of Joe McCarthy and refuse to support Marshal Will Kane [Montana-born Gary Cooper, who played many cowboys such as Wild Bill Hickok in 1936’s "The Plainsman", a populist hero in Capra’s 1936, "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" and the Hemingway-esque anti-fascist guerrilla in 1943s "For Whom the Bell Tolls"]. Those few conscience liberals who do strap on their guns fade away fairly quickly, who like Humphrey Bogart [and the Committee for the First Amendment] were good people but could not by themselves stand up… Everybody caves.”
In Wagner’s allegorical interpretation, “"High Noon" is an apotheosis of all that had been happening for the past seven years [since 1945]: The dissolution of the Popular Front Against Fascism. It’s all left to one guy,” Coop’s character, embodying those Americans who’d fought for labor reforms during the New Deal and then against fascists. Tex Ritter’s ballad, "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling" perfectly expresses the theme of abandonment and the subtext of those who’d been in the forefront of the struggle for the townsfolk -- the common people -- to be able to live decent lives, now being deserted as the forces of reaction stage a Thermidorian comeback. The failure of nerve of the Deputy Marshal played by onetime Communist Lloyd Bridges eerily paralleled that actor’s own brush with HUAC. In the end, Kane’s Quaker wife Amy (Grace Kelly) -- a pacifist! -- is just about the only character who joins her husband in the epic gunfight against Miller’s "High Noon" goons.
At the end of "High Noon", Kane tosses his marshal’s badge into the dust and leaves Hadleyville (in real life, the blacklisted Foreman moved to England, where he worked as a screenwriter and producer on films such as "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and 1961s "The Guns of Navarone"). This and the film’s anti-blacklisting subtext prompted John Wayne to reportedly call "High Noon" “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.”
(Editor’s Note: Per Michael F. Blake in his Code of Honor – The Making of High Noon, Shane and The Searchers – the film never might have been released if not for the composer of the score, Dimitri Tiomkin. Tiomkin often kept the rights to the songs that were part of many movies in the 1950s and 60s. When the studio stalled for a year on the release, Tiomkin went out on his own and hired Frankie Lane to release the now famous ballad as a single. After it was on the top of the charts for a while, the studio went ahead and released the movie – only with Tex Ritter singing it! At one point, both versions were in the Top Ten! – EF)