Mirrored Politics a film review of 'Storm Center' Starring Betty Davis (1956)
Just this morning I came across an interesting film. As I scanned the channels, I stopped at Turner Classic Movies (TCM) as usual to see if they had any classic films on. It was perfect timing, one movie had just ended and the next was about to start. I hit the info button on the remote control and pushed the arrow facing the right, the next film scheduled was Storm Center. Naturally I was intrigued, anything that mentions storm, I usually relate to the weather. I clicked on info to discover it was actually not about weather but was a Bette Davis film from 1956 about “A small-town librarian is branded as a Communist by local politicians when she refuses to withdraw a controversial book from the library's shelves” (IMDB). The film was directed by Daniel Taradash and produced by Julian Blaustein Productions. As you can tell the film being made in the 1950’s, during the Cold War and during the McCarthyism era, it was going to have an interesting message. The film being an hour and 25 minutes I figured I would watch it. Although it is one of Bette Davis’s later films, pasted her peak in beauty she puts on a great show. Not only did I find the film to be very captivating I also found myself comparing it to current discourse in the United States.
The film follows a widowed librarian Alicia Hull (Bette Davis), she is a matronly figure standing presence of the books or the “secrets of the world” as she calls them. She is loved by many, especially the children and a little boy Freddie, who has a remarkable obsession with reading. One day she is invited to lunch by the town council, which consists of some her long time friends and others. The meeting over lunch turns to a children’s book on the Joys of Communism. It has brought about the red scare amongst the town council, especially one of its younger members Paul Duncan (Brian Keith), who is starting his political career. Even after Mrs. Hull assures them that she despises the book but thought it was interesting to have that perspective in the library, if anything to discourage people from believing in communism. The council is adamant on banning the book; Hull is not comfortable with this censorship but subtly agrees. As they are about to throw out the book right there at the lunch table, Hull grabs it and says she’ll take care of it, she hates to see books destroyed. After lunch and back at the library she sits contemplating what to do with the book. Once the library is closed and lights dimmed she decides to place it back on the shelf, a passive aggressive approach. When the council finds out she hasn’t gotten rid of the book they, mostly Duncan attacks Hull’s own relation to the reds, even producing a list of names of suspected communist. At this point Hull is completely offended and gives the council an ultimatum, if the book goes so does the librarian. Under pressure from the blooming politician and Hull’s association with communist not only does the council ban the book but fires Hull as well.
After being fired Hull is at first up for a fight, meeting with friends in a church to come up with a plan to defend her job and fight against censorship. Soon after the meeting starts she backs down realizing the impacts it would have on her friends and not wanting them to suffer as she has. At first it was ok but as she began to be ostracized from the very town she lived in for twenty years she began to falter. She feels completely broken when the children, the ones that she cared so much for begin to mirror their parents and ostracize her as well. It is especially hurtful that Freddie is visibly upset by her presence and even blames her for giving up.
We begin to see the impacts of not just Hull and Freddie but other members of the community. It comes to a climax at the dedication ceremony for the new children’s wing at the library. Freddie has won a contest to speak at the ceremony and the town council is on stage. Hull, although librarian for years was never invited until one council member, her old friend comes to get her. She finally agrees to go and is met with gasps and stares as she walks up to the stage. She is then given the privilege to break ground on the new library, she asks for Freddie’s help. In this attempt to regain a lost friendship Hull is screamed at by Freddie for giving up and then is accused over and over by Freddie, in front of the whole crowd that she is communist. Hull’s only reaction is to try to snap him out of it by slapping him a few times and shaking him, emotionally breaking down in doing so. The emotional trauma exhibited by the boy is just one of the negative impacts removing this one book as spiraled into. Could this decision to ban the book be more for personal game, a platform, then an act of patriotism, Duncan’s fiancé asks. Later that night we see Freddie upset sitting in the left over chairs from the ceremony, he proceeds to break down and start a fire in the library. This brings us to the last seen where the town overlooks the burning library, Hull returns to the scene, where the town council apologizes and asks her to return as the library. Hull’s response, after seeing the affects of standing down and not fighting for what she believed in, says yes, that she would help rebuild the library and would never let another book be banned over her dead body!
As the film comes to an end, I particularly liked the ending shots of the movie, which shows the books burning in the library(don’t worry it’s not because I like burning books) but because they showed the titles of some famous ones like Shakespeare, philosophy, Huckleberry Finn, and finally a book titled The Life of Jesus. I thought this was genius the metaphor being that you take away the individual right to believe in anything or censor just one viewpoint and eventually you will lose all other view points as well; Just as the town council only wanted to ban that one book yet lost the library. It says a lot about around individual freedoms in the United States and how important it is to retain rights for all, even those that the majority might not agree with.
Themes of the film
The themes of the movie are not pro communist or anti communist like many would believe on the surface. Instead this is a movie about American rights and censorship. In censoring any idea, or in this case book, that goes against the “American” way you effectively destroy the American way by default of the act of censorship. The film reminded me of other great movies like Inherit the Wind (1960) starring Spencer Tracey or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) starring James Stewart. It may not be to the caliber of these other films but it was surely up there in terms of principle.
Mirrored issues of today
So here we are some fifty years after the red scare, almost 20 years since the fall of the Soviet Union and the same tactics of the cold war exhibited in this film seems to be resurfacing. Yes, we hear the word socialist thrown around a lot today and yes we unfortunately still have book burnings (specifically attempts at Koran burnings) and yes we do still ban books from schools and libraries. However, one line in the movie that caught my attention, because although filmed over 50 years ago, I have heard it used, almost verbatim in today’s political discourse. In the film Duncan responds to Hull’s attempt to justify anyone’s political beliefs by saying “that’s what they do; they hide behind our laws in order to destroy our laws”. This is in reference to communist and the belief that they hide behind the rights given to American’s to believe in whatever they choose to, only to use it to position themselves in a way to destroy American laws and way of life. It sounds a little crazy but people do believe this position, even today. I have heard this same concept being said about Muslims, especially in regards to freedom of religion. Many who believe that because the terrorist of September 11 practiced Islam, all who this religion have it out for Americans and their way of life, just like anyone who had an opinion other than that of the American way after world war II were labeled as communist. I have heard of conspiracies where Muslims are plotting against the United States on American soil while using our laws of Freedom of Religion to shield their cause from the world. This isn’t a coincidence that one line from 50 years ago still applies to current politics. The only difference is who is on the receiving end. American politics like to have an enemy, whether they do or not, they also like to have a scapegoat for things they don’t understand. Unfortunately this usually ends in the violation of our own American rights as seen in the film.
In all this film was a great find and I am happy I came across it. The main message of this film for yesteryear and today is that if we let fear consume us, it consumes our rights as well. I recommend you view this movie for its political message, it helps to see a movie dealing with similar issues of today in a different context, the smoke screen of time and context may give you a different point of view on today’s events.