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Storm Center

Storm Center(1956)

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teaser Storm Center (1956)

After All About Eve [1950], Bette Davis faced the challenge of being a middle-aged actress in a rapidly changing film industry. By mid-decade, she had begun to play mothers, matrons, and misfits, which signaled the direction her career would take. The much-loved family drama The Catered Affair, in which Davis costarred as a Bronx working-class mother named Agnes Hurley, may be her best-known film from this period while the controversial Storm Center, in which she played librarian Alicia Hull, has largely been forgotten. Storm Center [1956] was shot prior to The Catered Affair but released three months after the latter's premiere. Subsequently, it was lost amidst the attention and accolades that The Catered Affair received. According to Davis's The Lonely Life: An Autobiography, she had agreed to star in Storm Center because it was "a subject I felt [was] important . . . ." Unfortunately, the film did not live up to her expectations, and between the controversial subject matter and the disappointing critical reaction, it failed to reach much of an audience.

Davis stars as Mrs. Hull, the beloved librarian of the small town of Kenport who is coaxed by the town council into removing a propaganda book from the library titled The Communist Dream. Mrs. Hull agrees at first because the council has warmed her heart with the promise of a children's wing for the library, something she has wanted for a long time. Later, after she thinks about the ramifications of book banning and book burning, she returns The Communist Dream to the shelves and tells the council she can't go through with it. She argues that keeping it on the shelf does not subvert America's ideals but actually affirms them because in Russia the Communists would never allow a book about democracy in their libraries. Councilman Paul Duncan, who hopes to exploit anti-Communist sentiment to boost a political career, disagrees and questions her about several organizations she belonged to in her youth that had Communist ties. Though she claims that she had quit those organizations as soon as she realized their affiliation, Duncan, played by Brian Keith, accuses her of poor judgment for joining them in the first place. When she refuses to remove the book, Duncan and the council fire her.

Word spreads around town about her "connection" to Communism, and her neighbors and friends begin to shun her. A few townsfolk, led by the local minister, protest her dismissal, but Mrs. Hull realizes that they are putting their own careers and businesses in jeopardy, so she tells them to let it go. One small boy, Freddie Slater, takes her removal from the library very hard and soon falls prey to his bigoted father's rants against Mrs. Hull, with disastrous consequences.

Storm Center was the first film to openly take on the witch-hunt mentality of the McCarthy era - a very risky undertaking at the time. Today, many know the history behind the Hollywood blacklist, Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the devastation caused by House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), but it is difficult to measure the long-term effect of the unremitting paranoia that permeated the film industry because of those events. The story behind this film's production offers insight into what it was like to work in that atmosphere of fear and suspicion. Originally titled "This Time Tomorrow" and then "The Library," the script had been written earlier in the decade by Taradash and Elick Moll. Taradash was a respected screenwriter whose biggest critical success was the screenplay for From Here to Eternity. He and Moll were inspired to write the script by President Dwight Eisenhower's 1953 speech at Dartmouth College in which he warned an anxious America against book burning.

The script was first offered to Stanley Kramer, a producer acclaimed for his films with a social conscience, including Home of the Brave [1949], High Noon [1952], and The Defiant Ones [1958]. Kramer offered the role of Alicia Hull to Hollywood legend Mary Pickford, who was looking to make a comeback. However, Pickford was quickly talked out of doing the film by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, an arch conservative and fervent anti-communist who warned Pickford that the film was pro-Red. Next, the part was offered to Irene Dunne, who also declined. Some claim that big-name stars Barbara Stanwyck and Loretta Young also turned it down because of the content.

By 1955, Kramer was no longer associated with the project, and Taradash had teamed with producer Juilan Blaustein in an independent production company called Phoenix. Taradash had decided to direct Storm Center himself, making it his first and only film as a director. Columbia agreed to at least partially finance and distribute the film, but the studio kept stalling the project, obviously fearful of stirring up controversy. Finally, the production forged ahead after Taradash and Blaustein offered to take either small salaries or no salaries up front, opting for a percentage of the profits on the back end. Likewise, Davis, a Democrat with liberal leanings, agreed to work for a small salary after accepting the role of Mrs. Hull. The film was completed in the fall of 1955, but Columbia, who were still hesitant, did not release it until the following July.

HUAC's last round of hearings involving Hollywood occurred in 1952, and Senator Joseph McCarthy was censured by the U.S. Senate and then silenced in 1954, but the blacklisting of Hollywood personnel continued and the finger-pointing by gossip columnists and anti-communist groups was still detrimental to careers. No one was safe from accusations by those private political groups who published lists of Hollywood celebrities "engaged in controversial activity." Communist affiliations were no longer necessary to be ostracized by such zealots as Myron C. Fagan whose publications Reds on the Run and Documentation of the Red Stars in Hollywood smeared everyone from Danny Kaye to Darryl F. Zanuck.

The studios had reacted to HUAC's threats and accusations by making simplistic anti-communist dramas such as I Married a Communist (1949), The Red Menace (1949), and My Son John (1952) to prove their patriotism. Between 1948 and 1951, a dozen of these films were released, with production increasing after the second wave of HUAC hearings in 1951-1952. A peak was reached in 1952, when 12 of these films were released, followed by 5 in 1953. The number of anti-communist films decreased the following year, but a handful still popped up here and there. Within this context, the making of Storm Center-the first film to criticize McCarthyism directly - amounted to a bold and courageous stand by Blaustein, Taradash, and Davis.

When Hedda Hopper discovered that Davis was starring in Storm Center, she publicly criticized the respected actress, insisting that she had recklessly endangered her career by accepting this role. During the shooting of the film in Santa Rosa, California, local women's groups harassed Davis with letters warning her of the film's dangerously subversive content. And, Martin Quigley, publisher of the Motion Picture Herald and coauthor of the Motion Picture Production Code, demanded that Blaustein and Taradash make changes in the script to insure that the film could not be misinterpreted as pro-Communist. When the film was finally released, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) issued a special brochure in a bid to prevent any backlash. The brochure reassured exhibitors and audiences by acknowledging the controversial viewpoint but emphasizing the film's entertainment value: "You may not agree with its conclusions but you can't afford to miss this intriguing and entertaining photoplay."

Whether Storm Center hurt the careers of Blaustein, Taradash, and Davis is impossible to determine. If the actress thought the film affected her career, she did not bring it up in her autobiography. However, Lawrence Quirk, author of Fasten Your Seatbelts: The Passionate Life of Bette Davis suggests otherwise, noting that after Storm Center she was not offered any "decent feature" roles until Pocketful of Miracles in 1961. While this could be attributed to her struggle to redefine her career as she aged, Quirk does claim that Hollywood rumors maintained that Hedda Hopper and her ilk held a long-standing grudge against Davis for this film and that even a congressman once asked him if Bette Davis was a communist.

Unfortunately, Storm Center was not well received by either critics or viewers, which Davis believed to be the fault of the film, not the subject matter. She did not agree with the casting of little Kevin Coughlin as Freddie, complaining that Taradash did not direct him well. According to Davis, this resulted in a lack of emotional rapport between her and Coughlin, making it difficult to believe the extent of the little boy's feelings of betrayal. Not all of this can be attributed to Taradash's direction, however. Both Davis and Taradash were shocked at Coughlin's mother, who prepared the little boy for his crying scenes by pinching him till it hurt.

While Davis found the subject matter to be important, Taradash and Blaustein had difficulties getting that subject across clearly. Almost every night during shooting, the two revised and rewrote the next day's scenes. The outcome was often poorly written sequences in which the points were murky and the dialogue didactic. As Bosley Crowther, the veteran reviewer for The New York Times, wrote, "The crisis seems less a real-life issue than a hypothetical case put in a tract." But social dramas in which important issues take center stage often have problems with heavy-handed dialogue and stories that serve the message rather than the other way around. In this regard, Storm Center can be compared to the moralistic anti-communist films on the other side of the political fence.

Despite its shortcomings, Storm Center has much to offer. Shot on location in Santa Rosa, where Hitchcock filmed Shadow of a Doubt [1943], the film takes advantage of its small-town settings. Two key scenes involving Mrs. Hull, which are meant to be compared and contrasted, take place on the town's quaint-looking main street. Early in the film, she dashes down the street to attend a meeting with the town council about her library's new wing. Two young boys race to catch up with her to sell her a raffle ticket for school. The scene offers a warm-hearted glimpse of friendly small-town life. Later, after she has been dismissed and branded "red," Mrs. Hull chases after the boys, hoping to reconnect with them. But, they shun her, revealing the dark side of tight-knit communities in which simple virtues and limited experiences can result in shallow conformity and narrow minds.

While Taradash and Moll may have had some problems with the script, their use of metaphors and symbolism does add a few nice touches. Mrs. Hull gives little Freddie a book about myths, and he is particularly intrigued by the three-headed Chimera. As he describes the relentless monster that storms across the country destroying everyone in its path, it becomes clear that the Chimera is a metaphor for McCarthyism. The most provocative part of Storm Center may be Saul Bass's opening credit sequence in which a close-up of a child's anxious eyes is superimposed over a shot of a burning book-an image that makes a powerful statement in a matter of minutes.

Though the plot of Storm Center is directly related to the socio-political issues of the 1950s, its themes of book banning and censorship are still relevant. Periodically, schools and libraries are threatened by groups who wish to pull books from the shelves or to prevent the public from making their own choices regarding reading material. The film's point that it is future generations who suffer the most from narrow-minded attitudes makes Storm Center thoughtful viewing for the ages.

Producer: Julian Blaustein
Director: Daniel Taradash
Screenplay: Daniel Taradash and Elick Moll
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Editor: William A. Lyon
Art Director: Cary Odell
Musical Score: George Dunning
Cast: Alicia Hull (Bette Davis), (Brian Keith), Martha Lockridge (Kim Hunter), Judge Robert Ellerbe (Paul Kelly), Freddie Slater (Kevin Coughlin), George Slater (Joe Mantell), Laura Slater (Sallie Brophy), Mayor Levering (Howard Wierum), Rev. Wilson (Edward Platt).

by Susan Doll

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