Oscar Politics: Fear of McCarthyism, Or Why DeMille's Movie Won in 1952

The Greatest Show on Earth High Noon poster Ivanhoe poster Moulin Rouge poster The Quiet Man poster

The second era in which politics impinged directly on the Oscar Awards was in the early 1950s, during Senator Joseph McCarthy's second round of Hollywood investigations; the first was in 1947. Most of the winning films in those years could be described as light, escapist fare. In sharp contrast to the 1940s, in which the Oscar honored timely films, just a few years later, Hollywood was so fearful of McCarthy that it went to the other extreme, honoring films that had little to do with the surrounding political reality. 

The 1950 Best Picture nominees included tales about Hollywood (Sunset Boulevard), the New York theater (All About Eve), a witty comedy with social messages (Born Yesterday), a family comedy about marriage and suburbia (Father of the Bride), and an adventure set in the African jungles (King Solomon's Mines).
 
The Best-Picture Oscar winners of 1951 and 1952 were also nonpolitical, escapist entertainment, showing again the Academy voters' fear of voting for films that were explicitly political, not to mention critical of the American Way of Life.
 
MGM's musical, An American in Paris, inspired by George Gershwin's celebrated score, won the 1951 Best Picture, competing against serious films, such as George Stevens's A Place in the Sun, based on Theodore Dreiser's novel, An American Tragedy, and Elia Kazan's powerful version of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire.            
 
The win must have surprised MGM itself, for the next day it took out ads in the trades that showed Leo the Lion smirking coyly at the Oscar statuette, with the caption reading: "Honestly, I was just standing in the sun waiting for a streetcar."
 
The 1952 Best Picture, Cecil B. DeMille's circus adventure?melodrama, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” unaccountably won the Best Picture over Fred Zinnemann's psychological Western, High Noon, and John Ford's picturesque romance, The Quiet Man. 
 
High Noon, which was earlier cited by the New York Film Critics, earned the largest number of nominations, seven. The movie probably lost the important prizes for political rather than artistic reasons. More than a few critics perceive High Noon as an allegory of American foreign policy during the Korean war. Marshal Kane (Cooper) is eager to achieve peace after cleaning up the town five years earlier (World War II), but reluctantly, he's forced to face a new aggression (the Korean war). According to this ideological reading, the Quaker wife (played by Grace Kelly) stands in for the American pacifists and isolationists, though she too later changes her mind and ends up supporting her husband's cause, and, at the end, violates her principles and kills to save her husband's neck. In this and other messages, High Noon propagated the widely acceptable idea that "war in certain circumstances may be both moral and inevitable."
 
The critic Philip French regards High Noon as a liberal statement, the archetypal Kennedy Western, standing in sharp contrast to Rio Bravo, which he considers the archetypal Barry Goldwater, right-wing Western. Considered in this light, High Noon is seen as an existential parable about a conscientious man, Marshal Kane, who stands alone to defend his moral principles in the McCarthy era. The townsfolk, who refuse to help the marshal, desert him one by one, and are viewed as prototypes of the American masses, people who're afraid to stand up and fight for their rights.
 
These particular readings may or may not be valid, but most critic would at the very least agree that High Noon deals with civic responsibility, passive versus active involvement in public life, and heroic behavior in political crises–all issues with explicitly political overtones in the 1950s. The filmmakers responsible for High Noon, producer Stanley Kramer, director Fred Zinnemann, and screenwriter Carl Foreman, were all known for their liberal politics. This was Foreman's last Hollywood film, after which he was forced into exile to England. 
 
Cooper, known for his Republican leanings, claimed to be unaware of the political message imbued in his role. But some of Cooper's colleagues, like John Wayne, objected strongly to the film's message, claiming that the rugged men of the West, who fought nature and the Indians would uniteemdash not cower–in the face of four villains.  In a 1971 Playboy interview, Wayne described High Noon as "he most un?American thing I've ever seen in my whole life," referring to "ole Coop putting the marshal's badge under his foot and stepping on it." Proud of his politics, the Duke declared, "l'll never regret having helped run Foreman out of this country."