“Storm Center” (1956) asks the question -- what is the meaning of the phrase free public library? Bette Davis plays a widowed librarian who defends free speech against the town council, and the town, that is uncomfortable with it. We have several shots of the library where she works, on which is chiseled in stone FREE PUBLIC LIBRARY. Director Daniel Taradash wants us to remember this.
The library, by the way, is an old friend to us movie buffs. You may recognize it is the same library where Teresa Wright bolted in the night to get information from newspapers on her sinister uncle in “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943). Both movies were filmed in Santa Rosa, California.
Teresa Wright in "Shadow of a Doubt"
Another shot from "Shadow of a Doubt"
The movie starts out with a bold title sequence and music theme that, like the movie we discussed on Monday, “Trial”, seems forward-looking and carries a hint of a turmoil of the early 1960s. The title sequence is by Saul Bass, another favorite among old movie buffs.
Similar in style to the title sequence of “Vertigo” (1958), we have a face, in this case a pair of eyes superimposed over the typeface of a book. The eyes are eagerly reading the pages as if searching for some information. We hear the ominous sound of the kettle drum and soon the words and the blinking eyes are enveloped in flames. It is a premonition of things to come.
The movie has an interesting premise. Bette Davis carries a book in her library about communism. It is a kind of manifesto on the idealized communist society. We don’t really know too much about the book, except that we are told it is propaganda. Bette Davis admits herself that it is propaganda, and she believes it is a foolish book. We are told from the beginning that she is an open-minded guardian of free speech. She keeps the book in her library not because she agrees with its premise, but because she believes it will educate that the communist way of life is unappealing, false, and inevitably strips the citizens of such a society of their freedoms.
The film wants the viewer to know this right off about her to have no doubts about her sincerity (or her being a nice person), and the film is not very subtle in pointing out who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. The film’s chief problem is its lack of subtlety. The other problem is that the movie was not made earlier. As noted in Monday’s post, by 1956, the worst years of the communist witch hunts both in Hollywood and in America had begun to fade by this time, when people began to wise up that repression is repression whether its imposed on us from other nations or home-grown. It would have been better had this movie been made in 1950, that certainly would have been a bold move. Hollywood is famous for concocting films as an afterthought.
Bette Davis’ work in this film is interesting in two respects. First, we see again her admirable willingness to work as a character actor. She found character parts far more interesting and this probably gave longevity to her career. On the other hand, this is one movie where Bette Davis performs at her most heavily mannered. Her prim and proper intonation becomes somewhat grating after a while. I think her finest scene in this film is towards the end where she breaks down under the heartbreak of having lost the affection of the town’s children.
Her character has been widowed many years. She lost her husband early in their marriage when he was killed in World War I. She never remarried, she never had children. We are meant to see that the kids in town, on whom she dotes, are like her surrogate children. When the children follow their parents’ example and shun Miss Davis, she falls apart. It gives the film a needed human touch to it, because for most of the time we are dealing with very intellectual matters. Freedom of speech, civil liberties, repression, and taking a stand politically is often based on airy notions rather than gut wrenching and heartfelt responses to a social issue. Her emotional scene here reminds us that she is not just an intellectual middle-aged woman fighting for some intangible believe like freedom of speech; she’s a lonely woman who lived for her town and is now an abandoned by it.
Another nice scene, very brief, is when she is discussing her plans for a new children’s wing for the library with Paul Kelly, who is a local judge and a longtime friend. We last saw Kelly in “Split Second” in this post. Kelly often played villains but in this film he plays a man on the fence, a decent man who was caught in the spokes of a wheel being turned by others. They stand together in the stacks, (for anyone who has never worked in a library, the stacks are the rows of bookshelves) and as he talks she stands behind him and picks lint off his shoulders. It is a nice homey touch.
Later on in the film Kelly gets a monologue where he seems to give us a hint of their youth, that perhaps he regrets that her husband was the one who won her.
Brian Keith is an up and coming young city official who leads the movement to have this book removed from the library, and when Bette Davis refuses, he heads the movement to remove her. Keith is good in this role; he was in any role he took. Bette's chief nemesis is not played by a stereotyped close-minded ignorant bigot. Keith is intelligent, smooth and professional. We know he has political ambitions, but he never comes off as a man who willingly would destroy the lives of others for his own purpose, even though that is what happens. He does not seem hypocritical or insincere. When he talks about the book’s propaganda message, he says we’re in a war, and we can believe that he means it. It would be nice to know more about his character, but we really don’t see too much of him.
Much of the story is devoted to a young boy who becomes a symbol of what intolerance can do in a community, and becomes the catalyst for change in a tragic event. The boy is played by Kevin Coughlin, who was about nine or 10 when he did this film. This was his first movie. Before this he worked for four years as a minor character, T.R. Ryan, on the TV show “Mama”, which was taken from the book and film “I Remember Mama.” Young Kevin makes a big impression in this movie. I would not say that he was a terrific child actor, indeed his performance is almost as stilted and mannered as Bette Davis’ is. However, he plays a boy who is high strung and obsessive. He throws an extreme amount energy in just about every scene he plays. Whether he is happy, tired or pleased, frightened or angry it all pretty much comes out the same way, like a burst of uncontrollable agitation. One wonders if the little guy was exhausted by the time filming was over. Again, it’s not a great performance technically, but you have to admire the energy with which this boy attacked this part. He gave it all he had.
Kevin’s dad is played by Joe Mantell, an average palooka in a loud shirt who wishes his son would get his nose out of a book and act like the other boys. Bette Davis, who apparently counsels parents on the side, tells him, “Stop wishing Freddie were somebody else…we put far too much stress on conformity in this country.” That’s something, to hear that in the middle of the 1950s.
She tells him to value his son’s differences, forward thinking surely, but when Bette Davis recommends to Freddie a book called “Stories from the Bible”, we know we are being told by the director and the producer, and the studio, that even though she thinks conformity is lousy she still has “real” American values. We’re being condescended to. For the audience, it’s a little like being made to ride a bicycle with training wheels. We’re big kids and we don’t need training wheels.
Kim Hunter plays Bette Davis’ assistant at the library. Miss Hunter is also Brian Keith’s girlfriend. He wants to marry her, but she is reticent because she has been married previously and is afraid of making the same mistakes. Whether or not she had ever been married before has nothing to do with the story, so it’s interesting that they chose to put that in.
Kim is a defender of Bette Davis. When Brian Keith complains that Miss Davis is being stubborn by not taking that book out of the library, Hunter explains that Davis is a proponent of civil liberties and intellectual freedom, just a harmless old lady set in her ideas. The phrase “civil liberties” strikes a chord in Brian Keith and he gets the germ of an idea. He tries a new tactic.
In a smooth and almost sinister manner he asks Miss Davis about organizations to which she has belonged or to which she has donated money, and he rattles off the names of a few of them. It seems that many of these organizations later turned out to be communist fronts. She says that she knew that and that is why she no longer belongs to them. Mr. Keith’s interrogation is not hysterical or barking the way Joe McCarthy conducted his public events, and for that reason it is all the more eerie because of his controlled manner. He makes no accusations, he only asked questions that are veiled insinuations, and these begin to turn the minds of the fellow council members. They all start to feel uncomfortable with this little old lady librarian. When she walked in the door she was their old friend, but now she’s a spy for the Kremlin.
Bette Davis defends her decision again about the book by saying she also kept “Mein Kampf” in the library. She says it made her sick to her stomach to see people take it out, but that it did not lead to the spread of "Hitlerism" in this country, because people were able to read for themselves that nazism was monstrous. She believes that given a choice, intelligent people will always decide intelligently.
But, intelligent people often lose their intelligence when gripped by fear and paranoia.
They fire her.
The rest of the film is meant to take place over a series of months as Bette Davis is slowly shunned by townspeople and then finally by the children. What she does for an income is not explained. Kevin Coughlin begins to obsess more and more on what his father has told him about the librarian. Joe Mantell recalls her remark about there being too much conformity in this country, and he calls that “Pinko talk”. Freddie becomes increasingly hostile to people and to books, which he once loved. He feels that he has been betrayed.
Some of her old friends are torn by what has happened to Bette Davis and begin to feel guilty that they did not stand by her, Paul Kelly included. Look for Kathryn Grant, who would marry Bing Crosby the following year, the mayor’s daughter. She is one who supports Bette Davis. The movie has a very large collection of people in minor roles and in bit parts. The whole town shows up for the dedication ceremony of the new children’s wing of the library.
A pair of identical twin sisters, interestingly named Dora Dee and Laura Lee Stansauk, sing a hymn to the library. I think this was their only film. They sing well, and one wonders how they came to be in the film, if perhaps they were Santa Rosa locals, much as the standout Edna May Wonacott in “Shadow of a Doubt”? If any reader knows more about them, please give us a shout.
Bette Davis pretty much gives up her protest about free speech and prepares to slink away from town. Not before Paul Kelly decides enough is enough and brings her to the dedication ceremony. Young Kevin confronts her and calls her communist, his shrieking echoing in the loudspeaker.
She is so rattled by his repeated shouting, that she slaps him several times in the face. It is a very weird scene, and one today is inclined to laugh. A wee bit over the top, yes indeed. And one wonders why no one in the crowd objects to the ex-librarian hitting this young boy in the head and shaking the stuffing out of him. One can only assume that they are tired of Kevin’s shrillness as well. By this time we all need a break from Kevin.
Kim Hunter breaks up with Brian Keith because she’s pretty sick of the whole mess. She’s got a nice piece here:
“Whatever was the issue? Do you remember? A stubborn woman was fired. The council blew itself up with civic virtue. The city got something to buzz about. I got a better job. You got a platform.”
Keith is offended and responds, “You make it sound like a grab bag.”
“What do you think it was? Patriotism?” A great scene of weary sarcasm, disgust, and despair.
Okay spoiler time.
Kevin burns down the library.
You still with me? Should I have given you more warning? Sorry, I was only talking to myself and I forgot you were there.
No sir, not subtle at all, this movie. We have a close-up on the titles of several books that are burning, including Shakespeare, “Alice in Wonderland”, and “The Story of Jesus”.
The townspeople are now contrite that they have fired a nice old lady and driven a high-strung little boy to lunacy. Bette’s lesson is that she should have stood her ground and fought back.
Hard lessons, easy platitudes. Both “Trial” and “Storm Center” reflect on a dark era in our history, but do it from a safe distance. Both raise interesting questions, but sometimes handle them clumsily. Nevertheless, the films give us a taste of the turmoil of those years. It is very easy to decry extremism, whether it be left wing extremism or right wing extremism. The trouble is it’s always the other guy who’s the extremist. We rarely recognize it in ourselves. In this respect, these films remain quite timely. Particularly in an election year when slapping labels on people is an easy way to get attention.
That impressive old brownstone library in Santa Rosa I believe no longer exists. Maybe some readers can tell us more about that.