This week we take on two films which examine (or in Hollywood fashion, exploit) the era of communist witch hunts. “Trial” (1955) and “Storm Center” (1956) were both made after the most threatening period had ended, yet still timidly take a tentative stance on the violation of civil liberties. They both seek to make us understand the plight of the innocent caught in a web of social repression. However, neither takes the bold and rather obvious step to point out that nobody was ever indicted in this country of being a communist -- despite the showmanship of the McCarthy hearings -- simply because to affiliate oneself with communism is not illegal in a nation that guarantees no discrimination based on creed.
That neither of these films could address that is itself a testament to the intimidating politcal climate.
“Trial” (1955) is a film that is both typical of that era, and yet a bold move into new territory. Many complex issues are raised, including bigotry, political extremism on both the right wing and the left. Personal commitment is challenged, and the very idea of justice. The movie raises many questions, but supplies few answers. In this sense, it seems more modern than many of the films of its day in its cynical approach.
This fence sitting may make the film seem unsatisfying to classic film fans who are accustomed to enjoying simple resolutions. Fans of modern films will likely see this movie as an example of 1950s stereotypes and melodrama. The melodrama, I think, is part of what is fascinating about this movie. One downfall to the film is that it has so much going on. Issues too difficult to solve are dropped for other issues.
“Trial” begins with a very 1960s feel to it in the opening title sequence, crashing at us with a rapid cymbal beats, piano riff and timpani rumbling that makes us feel we are heading into 1960s political divide.
After the first flush of the bebop theme music we hear Campos calling for help and the camera zeroes in on a young girl lying at his feet. The girl is dead. He is Mexican and he is not supposed to be here.
We cut to Glenn Ford, a law professor being booted out of his faculty position because he has no criminal trial experience. We are told that he has an excellent war record, four battle stars and a silver star. That, and his determined pacing and his pressured speech, and his perpetually pained expression tell us that he’s the hero of the peace.
We soon learn that she and Mr. Kennedy have much in common.
Arthur Kennedy plays a complex character. We may see him first as an irascible fighter for justice, the kind of lawyer whose brusque manners put everyone off, but if he’s your lawyer you love him because you know he’ll fight to the death for you.
Arthur Kennedy grills the boy and even slaps him around a little in an ugly scene to get him to tell the truth. The boy is scared and confused. He explains that he knew he was not supposed to be on the restricted beach, but when he saw the girl coming up the stairs she recognized him from school and they struck up a conversation. He says she became friendly with him, talked to him, held his hand, placed his hand on her knee. When he tried to kiss her and touch her, she pulled away from him and ran up a set of wooden steps. Then she collapsed and died.
Because the girl was underage when she died, after a possible assault, the charge against him is murder. It seems a very difficult case, and is made even more difficult and more interesting by the fact that the girl had been known to have a weak heart due to rheumatic fever, and had collapsed only the year before and required months of bed rest.
In this circumstance, is Rafael Campos guilty of murder or manslaughter, or innocent of any crime? This issue at the very heart of the case gets dropped very quickly in the movie. We move on to other issues that are so big they linger today. Society steps in and the sharks are circling.
The town has a very virulent anti-Mexican bias. Hence the restricted beach. People are up in arms already that the girl died at the feet of a Mexican boy who put his filthy paws on her. They want to hang him.
“I may be a native-born white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, but in my heart I like to think I’m as good an American as if I just stepped off the boat.” There is much contemplation on racial perspectives in this movie. Later at a rally, Katy Jurado will complain to Kennedy that the obvious choice of Mexican food so often at the fundraisers is milking her heritage a bit too much. She sarcastically relates that she often just has meat, potatoes and vegetables at home like any white person. Kennedy exploits the symbolism of Mexican cuisine.
Then we have a scene at the courthouse where crowds attack the door with a battering ram to take Rafael Campos out of his cell and hang him. But, the jovial sheriff, played by Robert Middleton, is persuaded that he will look like a great guy if he a makes them go away. After all, the kid is probably going to lose the trial anyway and be hung legally. Otherwise, he could care less.
The movie is essentially a story about hypocrisy, but it is also a story about there sometimes being no right answers. We know in life that is sometimes true, but this does not always make a satisfying movie. The movie jumps around quite a bit it, so it appears convoluted. The traditional love story gets thrown in, in a most untraditional way.
Working late one night, Mr. Ford takes his suitcase and says he does not even have a hotel room. There is an interesting shot of Miss McGuire standing in the doorway silhouetted in the darkness, telling him to come on. Is she going to find him a hotel room or is she taking him home? We’re not given the answer, except in the querulous expression on Glenn Ford’s face.
Arthur Kennedy offers Ford the use of his country cabin while the case is going on and Dorothy McGuire goes with him now to be his girl Friday.
At the cabin Ford works on his notes. He has trouble with an electric blanket, and Dorothy fixes it. She has experience with it. She has fixed it before for Arthur Kennedy. What else has she done for Arthur Kennedy?
No, Ma’am, we don’t have any more questions. He kisses her, happy to take on both Kennedy’s trial and his old girlfriend. We are allowed to assume Ford and McGuire are sleeping together.
“I’m sure that you consider yourself completely without race prejudice, but you’d bar me from the bench in this trial because of the color of my skin.” He puts Ford put in his place.
But, I particularly like in gentler moments when the judge calls Glenn Ford, “boy,” the prerogative of an older man addressing a younger man. That simple line said in an affable manner probably made white supremacists in the audience choke, and I hope they did.
I also like the way Miss McGuire busily feeds Ford information during the trial like a catcher throwing signals to the pitcher. Too bad she’s not the lawyer, she’s the smartest person on Campos’ defense team.
Most of the movie is taken up simply trying to pick an impartial jury.
The rally is an impressive scene. It takes place in a public auditorium and is absolutely full to the rafters with extras. There are banners and songs, and it has the flavor of an old revival meeting. Glenn Ford is disgusted. When he tries to make a few statements in the microphone, Arthur Kennedy orders him cut off and it is almost like that scene in “Meet John Doe” (1941) discussed here, where Gary Cooper is silenced at the hands of fascists.
She can be a woman of easy virtue, but her political beliefs are what taints her.
Dorothy McGuire next has a scene where she explains how she came to be involved with communists. She tells him that she drifted when she was in college. That she was “one of a thousand freshmen and I wanted to be different. And I found out they were clubs and meetings, and if went to them you were different. Suddenly people pointed you out and you became kind of campus curiosity… Suddenly you had friends who were going to change the world with you.”
It is a rather dishwater way to explain one’s move toward a new political perspective, even if for many it happened that way. Dorothy McGuire’s role, possibly simply because she was played by Dorothy McGuire the all-American girl type, was never meant to be a card-carrying communist. She is portrayed only as someone who was duped even as Glenn Ford has felt himself duped in this movie, who went astray and who regrets her actions.
She tells him that the communists dumped her. Because she was “…hopelessly bourgeois. They were right. I could never really accept the party line. The way it kept changing. Monday’s truth would be Tuesday’s lie.”
A great line, but the movie fails to consider the very irony that one of the biggest and most shameful actions of the McCarthy era is that people who had a minor role or even nothing to do with communism were painted with the same brush as the dictator Joseph Stalin. Stalin was unreachable to them, so they bullied and persecuted anybody at hand, usually for fame and profit. Indictments were slim in “un-American activities” trials; bribes were more common.
The movie moves on to the trial, after an arduous jury-picking process.
“The More the Merrier” (1943) as well as in “Strange Bargain” (1949) here. He can give no proof that her heart would not have given out anyway. A montage of witnesses testify. Glenn Ford intends to wrap up his defense quickly and not bring Rafael Campos to the stand because that would jeopardize the case, but Arthur Kennedy shows up to take over. He puts Rafael on the stand.
Meanwhile, a man stalking Ford turns out to be a Elisha Cook, Jr. in a minor role, who turns out to be a process server. It seems a local red baiter, a state congressman named Battle has subpoenaed Ford to testify before his own Un-American Activities Committee. Ford is really up to his ears in trouble now. Just by going to Arthur Kennedy’s communist rally he’s tainted himself.
We never get to see the character named Battle and that is a shame because it would be a much more courageous movie if this character were depicted. Today we might infer that Battle is meant to be an ersatz Joe McCarthy, and he is, but he really has a closer real life counterpart in a California State Senator named Jack Tenney. Tenney conducted anticommunist investigations in California in the 1940s and early 1950s. Among hundreds of people, the most famous entertainers he attacked were singer and actor Paul Robeson, and Edward G. Robinson. As is usual with these witch hunts not one single person in eight years of harassment resulted in one single indictment. It was a ploy to further his career, just as it was Joe McCarthy’s. Like Joe McCarthy, Tenney’s career petered out into oblivion eventually, but not until much harm was done.
Back to the trial and a very strange sort of grand finale. The jury finds Campos guilty of murder. The sentencing is put off until the next day. Glenn Ford decides to put an 11th hour bid to save the boy, runs off to the library (libraries feature big in our films this week, that haven of solutions -- I believe librarians are superheroes) and tries to find answers.
He addresses the court and raises an obscure ruling where Campos might, instead of being sentence to death, be committed to a juvenile offenders’ detention center for an undetermined period of time. Arthur Kennedy does not want young Rafael to be saved. He wants him to be hung as a martyr to the communist cause. He tries to scuttle Ford’s tactic.
In another switch, John Hodiak, the prosecuting attorney, agrees with Ford that sending Campos to the detention hall is the right thing to do. The judge so orders, and Campos is saved. Arthur Kennedy gets 30 days in jail for contempt of court.
We are also told that the red baiter Battle will drop his case against Glenn Ford because Ford is a fighter, and Battle only takes on fights he can win. A convenient end, and a copout.
If Rafael Campos was really innocent, as we are made to believe he was, why is it right that he should go to a detention center, still having a criminal record to his name? The movie is not really about justice, but about expedience, and how sometimes we trade one for the other.
Come back Thursday for more fellow-travelers and red baiters, and libraries, in “Storm Center” (1956).