Well, belatedly I’ve seen it: the first Hollywood film to address openly and directly McCarthyism and the postwar reactionary atmosphere engendering hysteria and fear in the U.S.; (as far as I know) the first Hollywood film to use the term “civil liberties”; the first Hollywood film to ask the pertinent question, “What would Thomas Jefferson say?” Low-budget, unadorned, but acute, Ibsenian and possessed of the power of a sledgehammer, Storm Center is an important American film. It is a frightening portrait of American conformity and parochialism—and one, I might add, that makes its case without resorting to cardboard villainous caricatures. The members of the pictured small town’s city council merely wish to be re-elected. Alicia Hull (Bette Davis, brave where Mary Pickford, originally announced for the role, chickened out) is the librarian who will not take off the shelf a (fictitious) controversial book, The Communist Dream, and is fired and vilified for it, whipping up the townsfolk against her for being an outed “Red.” Her position: We should not be afraid of freedom of speech; the book’s sickening propaganda is self-exposing; would a book promoting U.S. freedom and democracy be allowed on a Soviet library shelf? Based on Ruth Brown, a Bartlesville, Oklahoma, librarian who, suspected of being a Communist, lost her job in 1950 after thirty years of service, Hull is a trusted member of the community until the winds of reaction turn against her. For me, a remarkable moment arrives at the city council meeting when she is confronted with her (cancelled) membership in Communist front-organizations. Politically ambitious Paul (“Dick Nixon”) Duncan says to her, “You must have believed in some of their ideas”—to which Hull instantly responds, “No! They believed in some of mine.”
The Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency waged a campaign against this essential film, and its first-time director, Daniel Taradash, never made another one.
The script, by Elick Moll and Taradash, soars in spots and is stilted in several others. Hull’s close relationship with a 9-year-old avid reader, who becomes unhinged by her pariah-status and turns against her, never convinced me; but the fire he starts, which razes the library, results in a visually stunning, breath-stopping passage, an evocation of Nazi book-burning where we see volumes by Shakespeare, Voltaire and others consumed by flames. It’s a fucking shame that Taradash did not make—probably could not make—another film.
Bette Davis convinces as a woman ten to fifteen years her senior, but her acting is mannered and grows monotonous. (Vocally, she reminded me of her schoolmarm in The Corn Is Green, Irving Rapper, 1945.) Also, Davis fails to embody one key element of Hull’s history: the loss of her spouse, who was killed in World War I. (Ruth Brown, I believe, was a spinster, and Davis’s Hull seems that way to me.) Paul Kelly and Kim Hunter, as Hull’s longtime friend, a judge, and her assistant librarian, on the other hand, are complex and electric.
Whatever its flaws, this is one not to miss.
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