Storm Center (1956) stands against McCarthyism

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University

One American film which stood out clearly against McCarthyism was Storm Center (1956) which focused on a small town in America where a librarian Alicia Hull, played by Bette Davis, was dismissed for having a book called ‘The Communist Dream’ on the library’s shelves. 
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

One American film which stood out clearly against McCarthyism was Storm Center (1956) which focused on a small town in America where a librarian Alicia Hull, played by Bette Davis, was dismissed for having a book called ‘The Communist Dream’ on the library’s shelves.  The local council wanted the book removed and for future decisions about questionable material to be brought before them.  She told the council:

There was a book in our library for many years.  It is still there.  It made me sick to my stomach every time I checked it out, Mein Kampf.  Maybe we ran the risk of spreading Hitlerism but it didn’t work that way.  People read it.  It made them indignant.  Maybe it helped defeat Hitler?  Don’t you see by keeping it in the library we attack the communist dream?  We say to the communists, ‘We do not fear you.’ We are not afraid of what you have to say.  Tell me, would they keep a book in a Russian library praising democracy?[1]

The council demanded that the book be removed and she refused to withdraw a book because ‘it has ideas we don’t like’.  A politically ambitious councilor then told her that Hull had been linked to several communist front organisations such as the ‘American Peace Mobilization’ and the ‘Voice of Freedom Committee’ during the war.  Hull denied that she was a communist and she had resigned form the organisations when she found out they were fronts.

The council sacked her as well as telling the press that she had former communist affiliations.  The community began to shrink from her, just as the Hollywood community pulled away from those who spoke up for the Hollywood 10 and its supporters.  The councilor who leaked the information prepared to use it as a platform for further political battles ahead.  The councilor was a depiction of those politicians who used their investigations to further their political careers.  Hull was one of the victims whose liberal sympathies were now out of step with the political conventional wisdom.

The film also depicted the traditional American family in a less than appealing light.  One man was hideous anti-intellectual, he resented even his wife’s fondness for music and his son’s taste for reading.  In its defence of the little boy who liked reading books, the film may have been reacting to the depiction of the American family in My Son John.  Provoked by his father’s hatred of ‘pinkos’, the son in Storm Centre burned down the library.  The message of the film was that stamping out even one set of ideas – even repellent ideas – was a short step to book-burning fascism.  The film was an extraordinarily bold statement for its time.

Director and writer Daniel Taradash mad his position on the film clear in The New York Times.

Storm Centre is a dangerous picture about dangerous ideas.  It is about the burning of books and assassination of character.  It is about gossip and its peculiar impact on children.  It is about faith in headlines and distrust of the intellectual.  It is about political ambition disguised as patriotism.  It is about the unpredictable line of cause and effect which can start with the banning of a book and end with the creation of a lunatic.  And on the positive side, it is about a person who believes the best way to save a country is to be loyal to its own traditions, rather than afraid of another’s propaganda.[2]

The film had enormous problems despite its liberal and anti-communist message.  In 1952, Mary Pickford had almost signed to do the picture but had backed out after being approached by he anti-communist columnist Hedda Hopper.  Bette Davis decided to take the role after it had been rejected by Barbara Stanwyck and Loretta Young.  Davis did not work for three years after doing the film.[3]  At studio insistence, screenwriter Daniel Taradash was extremely careful to make sure that Hull acted from liberal motives rather than communist sympathies.[4]  Even so, the Catholic Legion of Decency described it as ‘hugely propagandistic’ which offered a ‘warped, oversimplified and strongly emotional solution to a complex problem’.[5]  Taradash later included a jab at the witch-hunt in the film Bell, Book and Candle (1958) when Kim Novak tried to tell James Stewart about her hidden secret and he asked her if she had done ‘something un-American’.[6]  Her secret was that she was a witch.

[1] Storm Centre Columbia/Phoenix (Julian Blaustein), (d) Daniel Taradash, (w) Daniel Taradash, Elick Moll.

[2] New York Times, 14 October 1956.

[3] Lawrence J. Quirk, Fasten Your Seat Belts: The Passionate Life of Bette Davis, Bantam, New York, 1990, p. 388.

[4] Ibid., p. 386.

[5] New York Times, 12 July 1956.

[6] Bell, Book and Candle, (d) Richard Quine, (w) Daniel Taradash.

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