High Noon

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High Noon was one of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s favorite movies. In fact, it’s one of the movies most frequently screened in the White House, according to Wikipedia at least. It is a distinctly American story.

Released in 1952, it tells the story of a town marshall (played by Gary Cooper) who is about to be married to a nice quaker girl (played by Grace Kelly). Because of her devout Quaker pacifism, he is going to step down from his postion to lead a quieter, non-violent life. However, an outlaw the marshall was instrumental in convicting has been pardoned and is returning to the town and kill him. Cooper’s successor as marshall had not yet arrived in town, and rather than flee his potential killer Cooper stays in town to fight alone— the citizens refuse to help him.

His fiance also leaves him, boarding the stage out of town. High Noon was slang for “High and dry,” or left the lurch. An old flame, Helen Ramirez (played by Katy Jurado), tries to convince Grace Kelly to help him fight. His old mentor, played by Lloyd Bridges, urges him to run and save himself. Cooper knocks him out.

Cooper’s situation causes Grace Kelly to eventually surrender her beliefs and rush to her future husband’s aid. She shoots one of his attackers in the back, and is taken hostage by the primary bad guy. She struggles to distract him, and the marshall shoots the outlaw dead. He throws his badge to the ground in disgust at the town’s failure to help him, and hops the first stage out of town with his corrupted bride.

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A landmark in American westerns, High Noon was filmed by Floyd Crosby (father of musician David Crosby). David Crosby claims that his father was deeply influenced by the look of Matthew Brady’s photographs of the civil war, and sought an austere look with bleached skies and stark contrasts to set the tone of the tale. It’s a legendary film with a legendary heritage.

Perhaps it speaks to the American anxiety about non-violence— the “big stick” is never out of reach— or perhaps it’s simply that we always want to envision ourselves forever the outsider, forever alone, standing firm against barbarism. Brady looms large as an iconic presence in the American character as well, capturing the history of our bloody civil conflict and contributing an austerity and simplicity to the modern view— a black and white impression of things, with every nuance of that metaphor preserved.

But searching the legend, the markings fade away.

Brady is the most famous blind photographer I know, who didn’t actually take many of the photographs preserved under his name. There is a dilemma, elaborated by James Horan in his 1955 biography (and curiously never mentioned by Mary Panzer’s now canonical book on Brady) that makes me wonder about the failure of Americans to even care about the details, the real connections between people and history. It’s as if there’s simply a consciousness of a Brady “brand,” or a Eisenhower brand (everyone likes Ike) and no real desire to know people as people rather than symbols. Does it matter what the Gary Cooper character is named? Brady attached his name to the works of photographer’s under his employ, with their consent and sanction. He also allowed his name to be attached to words clearly written by others as well.
Brady LetterNotice the flowing script of this request to photograph Lincoln. It dates from 1865, a time when Brady was most certainly blind. Though it is signed by him, chances are very slim that he wrote it. Of all the extant “Brady” letters I’ve found samples of, the handwriting in each case is different– they are not from his hand. They were no doubt composed by his assistants and studio staff. It seems likely that he supervised important work, but he wouldn’t have been able to focus a camera or write well. Horan was quite frustrated by the lack of evidence left by Brady’s own hands.

In selecting the plates for this biography I found an abundance of riches, but in searching out the facts of Brady’s life I discovered a vast drought of evidence. His family records helped but I had to spend many weary months examining old books, diaries, periodicals and newspapers from the eighteen-forties to the early nineties.

I thought it was unusual that Brady had not kept a diary, but I was amazed to discover that there did not exist among his family records a single letter, a note, or a receipted bill in his own handwriting.

Mrs. Cox and Mrs. Evans told me that to the best of their recollection they had never seen a letter written by Brady, nor had they ever seen him write a letter in the years when he lived in their home at 494 Maryland Avenue.

One day in the quiet of the library of the New York Historical Society the thought came to me with the suddenness of a blow; Perhaps Brady, the greatest photographer of them all, could not write although there seemed no doubt that he could and did read. (xiv)

James Horan, Matthew Brady: Historian With a Camera (1955)

Horan eventually reaches the conclusion that he could write, but as there is no real evidence that he actually placed pen on paper to leave his thoughts. His legendary status is based on hearsay and contracted work. This is a common situation with historical figures, and this status passes unremarked as heroes become signposts along the way to wherever we’re going. We don’t know them at all, we simply get lost in the legend. Horan is drunk on the legend of Brady, no doubt just as drunk as presidents from Eisenhower to G.W. Bush have been on the legends of the American West.

To write a complete Brady biography, to present his life “in the round” so to speak, it is necessary to deal with the lives and times of the men with whom he was associated with in the pioneer days of photography and the men who served under him during the war. Some of Brady’s genius rubbed off on a few of them so we find that although Brady did not record the opening of the American West or the impassable jungles of the Isthmus of Darien, the skills and techniques he initiated were carried on in these frontier outposts by the men he had befriended and trained. Unfortunately some of these men are only names. We know nothing of their backgrounds, their hopes, dreams, their desires. (xvi)

James Horan, Matthew Brady: Historian With a Camera (1955)

In the end, Brady is less a man worthy of legend than a complex set of relationships created by a business founded in celebrity. He built his livelihood initially by chasing down and photographing celebrity, and then history. In 1873, he was forced to declare bankruptcy. When his wife died in 1887, he began drinking heavily. His last venture, (and his fifth studio) was opened in 1890 as a “museum of historical photography.” He died after breaking his leg in a traffic accident in 1895. New York’s Seventh Regiment made him an honorary member and paid for his funeral.

Brady’s celebrity was fleeting and he died penniless and in obscurity, high noon.