Storm Center (1956)

Synopsis:

A highly respected librarian, played by Bette Davis, is asked to remove a book, The Communist Dream, from the public library. She refuses and the enraged residents of the small town accuse her of being anti-American.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“You don’t belong here! You are communist!”

In 2006, a woman tried to remove J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels from a library because she thought the books were anti-Christian. The Board of Education refused, adding that “the books don’t support any particular religion but present instead universal themes of friendship and overcoming adversity.” The librarian in Storm Center would have argued that the Board’s defense of Rowling’s books misses the point entirely. In the movie, the librarian insists that the question isn’t whether or not the book is good; it’s about the right of people to have unrestricted access to information.

That, in a nutshell, is what Storm Center is all about: a plea for intellectual freedom. The film tackles this cornerstone of any democratic country head-on. Storm Center also touches upon other interesting ideas: tyranny of the majority, nativism, xenophobia and McCarthyism. There is also an interesting subplot about a child who is having a hard time processing the librarian’s moral stand against censorship.

The film was written by Elick Moll and Daniel Taradash (he also directed the movie). Moll and Taradash (From Here to Eternity and Picnic) were inspired by a 1953 speech by President Dwight Eisenhower: “Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you are going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed,” Eisenhower told a crowd at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. There are all kinds of movies, but this is probably the first time a movie is based on a Presidential speech!

I think the movie has its heart in the right place. Unfortunately, Storm Center misses true greatness by more than a few yards. The film is uneven in places. It’s a bit speechified, a common problem with “message films.” It pains me to say this, but the great Bette Davis is merely adequate here — she plays her character stiffly and humorless. She’s not bad, but this isn’t one of her best performances.

I didn’t particularly care for child actor Kevin Coughlin’s (The Defiant Ones) performance either. Coughlin, who plays the little boy who idolizes the librarian, is unable to convey the complex emotions the role demands. It’s a serious issue because this character serves as the film’s cathartic agent. As a matter of fact, Davis told biographer Charlotte Chandler, author of the book The Girl Who Walked Home Alone, that Coughlin was “too cool and detached” to be effective.

In addition to Davis and Coughlin, the excellent cast also includes the always wonderful Brian Keith (The Parent Trap) as an opportunistic politician and the talented character actor Kim Hunter (A Streetcar Named Desire) as Bette’s sympathetic assistant. Paul Kelly (The High and the Mighty) is also effective as Davis’s supportive but spineless friend. Kathryn Grant (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) has a small role as a townie.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Storm Center is about preserving our individual freedoms, so it’s ironic that the movie was initially perceived as anti-American. Rumors persisted that the powerful and influential columnist Hedda Hopper never forgave Bette Davis for making the movie and convinced producers not to hire the actress. Was it just a rumor? Coincidentally, Davis didn’t get a decent Hollywood offer for nearly six years, a full year after the red-scares had officially ended. Anyhow, Storm Center is a flawed, but provocative time capsule that everyone should watch at least once. B&W, 90 minutes, Not Rated.

9 responses to “Storm Center (1956)

  1. Hi Eric, I’m not sure how you stumbled across my short story post on Liz Thurlow but thanks so much for liking it. It was one in a series that I was using as an impromptu writing exercise. Life got in the way, so I never finished the story-line. I might come back to Liz’s unfinished business one of these days.
    I thought I would follow along your blog for a while as I am a member of a local film society. Maybe your reviews will inspire some recommendations to us 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Eric: Thanks for this perceptive review and an analysis of a thought provoking film. I agree that it’s uneven in places but think everyone involved should get credit for bringing some much needed attention to the hot button issue of censorship. I really enjoyed this little gem of a film. You can catch my Queen of the Lot blog at: maxmcmanus.com.

    Liked by 1 person

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