Storm Warning (1951) is a bold slice of moody noir that is unabashedly a “message film” and is successful, however, by neither lecturing opponents, nor preaching to the choir, but by holding up a mirror and whispering, “Is this you?”
Ginger Rogers stars as a model who interrupts a sales trip for her company to detour to the sleepy southern town where her younger sister lives, for a long-delayed visit. Her kid sister is played by Doris Day in her first dramatic role. Steve Cochran plays Doris Day’s husband. He is a truck driver; she works at the town’s entertainment center, which is really a glorified bowling alley that substitutes for nightlife in this town (Its owner, Ned Glass, is probably the nicest guy in the movie. A tougher job than you might think, considering his clientele.) She is expecting a baby.
Miss Rogers witnesses a murder. A group of Ku Klux Klan thugs drag a guy out of jail, beat him up, and then shoot him. Ronald Reagan plays the county prosecutor who investigates the murder. The movie is quite good, solid acting and moody cinematography, a fast-paced plot, that makes the film stylish and intriguing, and a bit creepy. That this movie has such entertainment value is important, because it is so obviously a message film. We have commented before on this blog that message films do not always appeal to the public, even when it is a message they need to hear. Nobody likes being preached to. The particular success of this movie is that though the audience is being lectured, they may be unaware of it, because it really is a good crime story – because the criminals are average Joe’s. Sometimes having an easily identifiable, sneering, Snidely Whiplash villain can be a bit tedious. We know where the plot is going. The bad guy is going to get his in the end.
But when the villain is pretty much everybody in town, and finding a bad guy to prosecute is like herding a bunch of cats, the story becomes more interesting because we don’t know who all the bad guys are, which ones of them are going to be brought to justice, and is there any justice at all?
One of the most common comments about this film is the complaint that the victim of the Ku Klux Klan murder is not a black man. He’s a white reporter. There are very few African Americans in this movie. Many viewers feel that because of the prejudices of the day that the studio, Warner Bros., pulled a punch. That’s a valid complaint. Maybe they did. It was certainly a big risk to offend the southern distribution market. However, there is another way to look at this. I think in putting across the message, Warner Bros. did a sly, subtle, and intelligent maneuver by not making this film solely about racism.
Put a white robe and a white hood on a guy and we automatically identify the Ku Klux Klan with its brutality against blacks. We know that message. But some people, even those disgusted by this prejudice, may forget that blacks were not the only victims of the Ku Klux Klan. They also lynched, brutalized, and terrorized Roman Catholics, Jews, foreign-born individuals, and not a few journalists who were poking their noses in Klan business. The Ku Klux Klan are racist, but they are also fascists. Racism and fascism go hand-in-hand; you cannot have one without the other.
If Storm Warning does not particularly address racism against blacks, it does tackle the broader view of fascism, because the Klan in this town is made up of average nice people whose membership in this heinous organization they defend with a sense of self-righteousness. They feel they are above the law. When they are not terrorizing others, they threaten fellow members to stay in line. There must always be a constant threat, or there is no reason for having a Klan. As we mentioned in last week’s post on Address Unknown, fascism is always cannibalistic.
This is our third entry in our series discussing how old Hollywood tackled the subject of fascism. We discussed The Mortal Storm (1941) here, and Address Unknown (1944) here. Those two movies dealt with fascism and the rise of Hitler in Germany. Today we discuss native-born fascists. The Ku Klux Klan, not the only fascist hate group, but certainly the most well known, was born from the ashes of the Civil War, but the height of the clan really occurred during the 1920s, an era of great prosperity, and rose mainly in the Midwest, chiefly Indiana, the home state, coincidentally, of Republican vice presidential nominee Michael Pence.
Recently, a group of historians made their opposition to Donald Trump’s candidacy on social media. One of them was 93-year-old William E. Leuchtenburg, whose The Perils of Prosperity 1914-1932 is a book I’ve long admired. He addresses the rise of the Klan in the 1920s among fundamentalist conservatives, the atrocities committed, and their astounding political power—until sexual and financial scandals drove them underground again.
At the recent Republican Party convention, congressman Steve King (R-Iowa) made headlines with his white supremacist remarks, and upon closer examination by the press, the so-called “Confederate” flag and the Tea Party’s (erroneously claimed) Gadsden flag on his desk.
We know the old adage that politics makes strange bedfellows, and that even those who believe themselves to be virtuous will march in lockstep with people who are not, turning a blind eye to corruption, even evil, if it suits their purpose.
Donald Trump’s bullying rhetoric is asinine, his grandstanding is immature, unintelligent and without integrity, and so naturally appeals to those who are immature, unintelligent and without integrity, both in those politics and with the general public. There will always be some to whom his antics will appeal (including the television media, whose lust for ratings these days makes them the most shallow segment of the Fourth Estate).
Today’s film, Storm Warning, deals with fascism on its most lowest level, the small town, where the big men in town are not hidden, even if they wear a hood. Indeed, the funniest line of the movie is when Ronald Reagan approaches a Klan rally and sees a man completely covered by robe and hood and addresses him, “Hi, Ed. How are things at the dairy?”
None of these men are very powerful, and none of these men are very bright, and so we might not feel terribly threatened by them. But when they are all in a mob, they become a frightening spectacle indeed. It’s the particular sleight-of-hand of fascism. Whip people up into a frenzy, make them feel they are above the law, and then turn them loose. And then if they do wrong, whose fault is it? Who can we pinpoint to blame? It’s a wonder this country hasn’t suffered several slipped disks with all the shrugging we do.
Ginger Rogers suffers an obstacle course of horrors in this movie. She witnesses the murder while hiding in the shadows. It is a powerful scene as she stumbles away in the dark night, shaken, leans behind a lamppost and vomits. She finds her sister at work at the bowling alley and they go home together, and she tells her sister about the murder. Then her sister’s husband comes home.
Steve Cochran is an affable workingman, weak minded and easily influenced, and somewhat immature, who drinks a little too much and when he gets a little rowdy, is always astonished to find there are consequences to his behavior. He meets Ginger Rogers for the first time and welcomes his sister-in-law in a warm and friendly manner.
Ginger is frozen in horror at the sight of him. Steve Cochran was one of the mob who attacked the dead guy. We will find out later in the movie that it was Cochran, having had too much to drink, and getting excited at the mob frenzy, was the one who actually shot the guy.
Miss Rogers’ acting in this movie is quite good, understated, and believable. She suffers the humiliation and the guilt of going on the stand at the inquest and lies about what she saw in order to protect Steve Cochran. She doesn’t like the guy, but Doris Day has begged her to keep his name out of it, and Ginger would do anything for her sister. Later, when she gets him off, Steve will get very brave, and very drunk, and spy on Ginger when she is changing her clothes and packing to leave. He catches her in her slip and makes overtures. Instead of shrinking away from him, Ginger stands right up to him, does not even pretend to cover herself, and lets him have a good long look while she tells him to his face that he is a “stupid, vicious ape.”
Then he attempts to rape her, but Doris comes home in time, pulling him off Ginger. Doris finally comes to the realization that her husband is really not such a nice guy, and she is ready to leave him. Now Ginger is free to go to the authorities and tell them what she saw. Cochran, panicked, punches Ginger and drags her to a Klan meeting to suffer their punishment.
I like Cochran's work in this movie, he is charming and exasperating, and scary at the same time. We last saw him play a very different villain here in Slander (1957), where is character was more cool and intellectual. He was a handsome actor, with a good solid range.
I also like Ronald Reagan’s acting in this movie. It is low key and understated. With his Fedora pushed back off his head and his low, quiet voice, he represents a decent man of authority in town. He is not an outsider, he grew up here. He is not so much a shocked crusader of human rights, just a guy who knows this town inside out and is sick of its imperfections. He’s tired and disgusted. But he plods along trying to do his best, persevering, and hoping one day to catch enough evidence on the Klan to put somebody in jail. So far, he has been unsuccessful. He is not an idealist, but a pragmatist, knowing nobody’s going to have a very good life in this burg if everybody’s a slave to a bunch of rowdies.
As regards another complaint about this movie and it’s skirting of the racial injustices in the South at this time period of the early 1950s, no one in this movie speaks with any regional southern accent. This time around, I don’t feel that that is typical Hollywood sloppiness. I really sense that this was a subtle and quite intentional move to bring the subject to a level where it applies to everybody. Though the Klan was a product of, and continues to be, a blot on the South, it is also possible to discuss racism as it applies to everyone in this country without pinpointing a particular group of people. Sometimes when we pinpoint one segment of our society of being guilty it is very easy for us to wash our hands of the guilt. We say, oh, that’s those people. We would never behave that way ourselves.
But fascism is a template that fits anywhere. In today’s political climate there is a great resentment, and perhaps always has been, of “Washington.” Ronald Reagan complains to the boys at the police station, “Every time someone from New York or Washington pokes his nose into our affairs, we holler, ‘Foul!’ Well, if we don’t want them meddling, one of these days we’re going to have to start cleaning up our own nests.” He is calm, world-weary, and his quiet voice tells us he is sick of the lynchings and sick of trying to tell his best friends and neighbors what is so obvious: stop dividing the world into us and them. That is where fascism has its roots. There is an inherent thuggishness in an "us" and "them" attitude.
The minor characters show the warts and make his point for us. The bus station baggage claim guy played by Paul E Burns, is afraid to stand up to the Klan. It sickens him, and sobbing, he begs Ronald Reagan not to question him because he’s afraid they will burn him out. He regrets being a coward. Later some of the boys will rough him up teasingly, and Ginger Rogers will come to his rescue.
Even the Klan’s leader shows his contempt for his own men. “You know these boys. Without those hoods, they are no heroes. That’s why they need the hoods in the first place.”
The scene with the reporter arriving to do man-on-the-street interviews at the enormous crowd in front of the courthouse is quite good. It looks real, not stagy, as the reporter struggles to pull his microphone cable through the crowd, and he makes comments and ask questions and the people either pipe up or else tell him to get lost. This is the only scene where we see a few African Americans in the crowd. I think it is used intelligently. They show us quite visibly that this is a topic that includes them. Almost as if to say, yes, the murdered guy was white, and we haven’t mentioned racial prejudice here, but you know we really are talking about that, don’t you? You know what this is really about, don’t you?
In case we missed it, the local Klan boss played by Hugh Sanders puts it bluntly in his defense of the Klan to Ginger Rogers, “You have to think of all the good the Klan does. Without us, a girl like you wouldn’t be safe in the streets at night.”
Safe from whom? We know to whom he’s referring. If he had bluntly said or referred to in the most vulgar vernacular, that she was in danger of being raped by black men, it would have been a different movie. Yes, it would have been bolder, but it also would have switched the focus for people who automatically turn that message often their minds because it offends them, because they do not wish to face their own prejudice, or else because they feel their own prejudice is justified. By talking about racism as fascism and applying it to everybody as a principle that is evil and a danger to everybody, we reach more people because the audience cannot say, oh, you’re talking about them, you are not talking about me. Because I am not like that.
Yes, we’re talking about you.
By the way, I love the reporter’s Ted Baxter voice. Why do not radio and television reporters speak like that anymore?
We are also talking about Ginger Rogers. She is a girl of integrity, street smart, and even though she is a high-tone fashion model, we know she is not upper crust, not removed from the realities of the day. When the ad man accompanying her on the trip makes passes at her at the beginning of the movie, she sends him off like an expert fencer and shoves him on his way. This gal is a tough dame. She is no pushover.
But she rolls over and plays dead for the Klan and lies to Ronald Reagan in front of everybody, because she thinks that protecting her sister’s husband will get her sister out of a jam. It is like putting a Band-Aid on a severed artery. She just wants to smooth things over and leave town as quickly as possible. In such innocent ways do we become complicit with corruption.
A nice touch when, trying to squeeze out of the close crowd at the end of the trial, she and the dead man's widow are pushed together, face-to-face, and Ginger squirms under the woman's accusing stare.
When she leaves the courthouse, Ronald Reagan, frustrated in defeat, tells her off and actually shoves her out the door, “Now, beat it.” He tells her over the sound of the jubilant men outside whooping and hollering because they have won and nobody’s going to go to jail, “They just found out the law cannot touch them. You did that.”
It’s a powerful ending with two scathing realities: first, Reagan tells the Klansman at the rally, a huge burning cross above them lighting up the black sky, “It’ll take more than these sheets you’re wearing to hide the fact that you’re mean, frightened little people, or you wouldn’t be here desecrating the Cross.”
They are mean, and they are frightened and they’re letting their fears make them mean.
They kidnap Ginger Rogers, but things are too hot for them right now to just kill her outright. Instead, they will punish her with whipping. The scene could easily be gratuitous—most movie whipping scenes tend to go for eroticism, to varying degrees, certainly when the victim is female. Instead, they slash her in the face with the bullwhip, repeatedly, to scar her. We don’t see any marks on her – the magic of Hollywood—but the image of her being hurt in this manner does not stray into eroticism and therefore seems more profoundly cruel.
But the Klan in the 1920s, as Dr. Leuchtenburg points out, had a particular fondness for stripping naked “fallen” women – according to their standards (which included divorcees) – and whipping them. Filming such a scene would have been truthful, but impossible to film without it being also gratuitous.
I have to applaud Warner Bros. for the courage of the second reality: to just let the movie end in tragedy with no happy ending, no, “Maybe we were wrong and things will be better now,” and no romantic clinch between Reagan and Ginger Rogers. There is no flirtation between them; indeed, as mentioned above, he gives her a shove in disgust. He’s arrived in the nick of time like the cavalry to save her, but he’s not her boyfriend. The only clinch at the end is when Ginger Rogers cradles the dying Doris Day in her arms. Day has been shot, accidentally, by her husband who was aiming for Rogers. The end. Go home and chew on that for a while.
Fascism is always racist, opportunist, and corrupt, and it poisons every level of society.
But it doesn’t start there. “Populist” movements have a big hand in keeping fascists in power, but they don’t have the clout to put them there. That takes money. All the dictators of the world had their backers, wealthy men holding the purse strings, powerful men in the military, some to drive the vote to their best interests, and some to grab public office for themselves. This will be the case in our last two movies: Keeper of the Flame (1942), and Seven Days in May (1964), which we’ll discuss in August.
Next Thursday, however, a break with a return to our monthly state of the classic film fan series. See you then.
My audio book version of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star., narrated by Toni Lewis, is now for sale on Audible.com, and on Amazon and iTunes.