“Sure she talks sweet as honey. All the time you can bet she was working away back there. She has twenty five years to fill those shelves with poison. She and those books of hers. All they want is one thing: smash and destroy. Smash everything we’ve ever built up in this country.” – George Slater (Joe Mantell) via IMDB
I thought I had seen every Bette Davis film ever made until last week, when I happened to catch ‘Storm Center’ on GetTV — one of several new movie channels popping up on broadcast television.
Storm Center (1956) stars Bette Davis as a small town librarian branded as a communist because she refuses to remove a controversial book from the library’s shelves.
The film was released two years after the *McCarthy hearings, at the height of the cold war. It plays up the McCarthyism theme. Complaints are made to the city council about a library book called ‘The Communist Dream’. Mrs Hull (Davis) is asked by the council to remove the book from circulation because they feel it promotes communism and could corrupt young minds. Hull agrees at first, then changes her mind. The council fires her and here is where things spin out of control.
A young lawyer (Brian Keith) takes the opportunity to use “The Red Scare” as a platform for his political future. Rumors spread. Lies are told. Mrs Hull is branded a communist. Even her favorite little book worm, Freddie Slater (Kevin Coughlin) makes up far-fetched tales about his mentor. Everyone is willing to believe the outlandish stories in spite of their personal experiences with the librarian. The extremism reminded me of today’s political climate. In particular, our Tea Party movement.
*For those of you too young to remember, Joe McCarthy was a Republican senator from Wisconsin who led the witch hunt against American citizens, including famous actors, writers, and fellow politicians, whom he thought might be associated with the communist party. It was the height of the cold war. America was hyper paranoid about Russia. Many people lost their jobs, homes, and families in disgrace because McCarthy branded them “Un-American”.
It’s striking how little has changed in fifty-eight years. Oh sure, we like to convince ourselves that we are more evolved than our elders but when it comes right down to it, we are just as susceptible as they were to fear and propaganda. It’s how George W Bush got away with invading Iraq. Everyone of us who argued against it was branded “UnAmerican”. My own father questioned my allegiance. I think he even called me a commie. 🙂
We humans do love to rally around a common enemy. — even if the enemy is made up.
Storm Center is a little melodramatic. The ending is kinda corny, but overall, the film is enjoyable. Kevin Coughlin’s Freddie reminds me of me as a little bookworm. Like Freddie, my neighborhood librarian was my best friend. She helped me navigate through the library’s stacks and even allowed me extra books when she thought I could handle it.
You’ll have to hunt for Storm Center. It’s not available through Netflix. If you see it scheduled on a local TV station, set your DVR. It’s worth your attention.
- Storm Center was the first movie to criticize the McCarthy era directly.
- The Legion of Decency did not like the movie because of what it considered the film’s “pro-Communist” leanings. Instead of condemning the picture, though, it used a “separate classification” for it. That had previously been used on Blockade (1938) (a Spanish Civil War film that the League also thought was anti-Catholic and pro-Communist) and Martin Luther (1953) (because the film portrayed the life of the man who split Christianity, and also because the League thought it was full of inaccurate presentations of Church teachings).
Trivia via IMDB