Monday 1 December 2008

Storm Center (1956)

When it comes to defending freedom of speech and protecting the library system from censorship, Bette Davis would seem to be pretty high up on the list of people to do the job. She's up against it here though. She's Alicia Hull, who got the free public library built in this unnamed small town 25 years ago, still runs it today and is something of a pillar of the community. She's in the process of pushing for an expansion, a children's wing, which the local council are happy to finance. However they have something they want her to do in return. On the shelves of her library is a book called The Communist Dream, which is pure red propaganda and not very palatable, and they want it removed.

Hull agrees initially, as a sort of trade off given that she's going to get a children's wing out of it, but she spends the rest of the day thinking about it, about the question, 'How do you get rid of a book?' She's never had to do it before and, put simply, the concept hurts. She has strong principles and she's more than willing to stick to them, asking the council a lot of valid questions about what happens when you break them. They want this one book removed from the shelves, but what about the rest of the shelves full of political theory? What about Mein Kampf? Hull doesn't agree with the contents of that book either but she sees the very presence of it on her shelves as part of the fight against what it stands for.

So out she goes. She makes it very clear that the council has the power to remove the book and to remove her and the one would mean the other. However, one member of the council takes it a little further and rakes up her past memberships in wartime organisations that turned out to be communist in nature. It doesn't matter that she resigned from them as soon as that became apparent and it doesn't matter that she leaves without a fuss, it all ends up on the front page of the paper anyway. And once someone's stirred up the bee's nest, it doesn't matter how calm the beekeeper is, the bees are stirred.

The film unfolds reasonably well but the character of Alicia Hull isn't played right at all. She isn't a quitter and should never have been shown that way. While I buy her motivations for not bringing anyone else into it, I don't buy her motivations in keeping quiet entirely. I especially don't buy her sitting back while the children turn their backs. She's not stupid and there are points where she makes it clear she knows what's going on, but she still sits back and lets it happen. Her replacement also isn't stupid but she makes out that way and I don't buy her ostrich act, while being engaged to the councilman who was happily building his political career on this fake victory. Most of all I don't buy the reactions of the town: if Hull was as well loved and respected as would seem to be the case and if she has the ardent support of many of its occupants, whether shouted from the rooftops or not, I don't buy how quickly she could become a pariah.

The performances are decent throughout but they don't feel right. I thought about how I would have seen this had I not known who Bette Davis was, and came to the conclusion that she didn't give a bad performance. It merely isn't what she could have done with the part had the part been written properly. I know who she is and I know what she's capable of, and the way the part was written removed most of her opportunity. I think that goes for other members of the cast too, especially Brian Keith and Kim Hunter. Only Joe Mantell as the pig ignorant father of a key child character in the story really gets an opportunity and he does fine with it, as painful as it is to listen to his lines.

Most painful though is watching books burn. This is one of the most painful things for me to watch because I know it's real and I know what it means. I also know when I watch murders and rapes and all sorts of horrific violence that it's just happening on screen, it's acting and makeup and special effects. However when books burn on screen, that isn't a special effect, it's real and it hurts. It doesn't matter if there's a point behind it, it still hurts. Be warned: this film has one of the most protracted book burning scenes I've ever seen and it's hard to get through.

At the end of the day, the message is a good one and it must have been a daring one in 1956, something that must also have flavoured how those characters were written. I can appreciate what writer/director Daniel Taradash had to say in a time when this could easily have caused problems for him and for members of his cast and crew. Communism is just the MacGuffin here: there's no communism in the film whatsoever and not one of the characters is a communist, but it's the most important thing in it. It was apparently the first anti-McCarthyism film made in Hollywood: no wonder the Legion of Decency didn't like it and no wonder Taradash never directed another film, though he continued as a screenwriter.

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