Storm Center

by Glenn Erickson Nov 12, 2022

The first movie to directly confront McCarthyism!  Or so said the editorials touting this ‘Long-Awaited Screen Event’ in which ‘Bette Davis Hits the Screen in a Cyclone of Dramatic Fury!’  The storm of the title was based on a real activist in Oklahoma who lost her job for promoting equal rights. Bette’s polite librarian is victimized by small-minded civic types; a subplot depicts the traumatic reaction of one of her patrons, a child expected to despise her as a traitor to the country. Daniel Taradash’s movie is an excellent starting point to discuss the thorny dramatic subgenre of liberal social issue movies.

Storm Center
Viavision [Imprint] 155
1956 / B&W / 1:78 widescreen / 86 min. / Street Date September 30, 2022 / Available from / au 39.95
Bette Davis, Brian Keith, Kim Hunter, Paul Kelly, Joe Mantell, Kevin Coughlin, Sallie Brophie, Howard Wierum, Curtis Cooksey, Michael Raffetto, Joseph Kearns, Edward Platt, Kathryn Grant, Howard Wendell, Malcolm Atterbury, Edith Evanson, Burt Mustin.
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Art Director: Cary Odell
Film Editor: William A. Lyon
Title sequence: Saul Bass
Original Music: George Duning
Story and Screenplay by Daniel Taradash, Elick Moll
Produced by Julian Blaustein
Directed by
Daniel Taradash

This is being written on election day … and we’re not certain that’s a good idea.

Most postwar ‘social issue movies’ can hold their heads high, even the ones with klunky arguments for their liberal values — values still at risk in this grand Democratic experiment. The king of social issue movies was producer Stanley Kramer, who believed that an issue itself could be the hook to bring in audiences. Producers like Dore Schary couched their moral/social lessons under color of genre thrills, as in the superior murder mystery Crossfire. Directors tagged as fiery critics of the status quo, Joseph Losey and Cy Endfield, made statements so stark that they might as well have titled them Blacklist this Director.

The criminalization of the Hollywood Ten and the blacklisting activities of the HUAC and later McCarthyites broke the momentum of the first wave of social issue filmmaking. With many liberal-agenda writers and directors scalded out of their careers, message dramas moved to TV. It was several years before liberal subjects reassared themselves in feature films, as with the agreeably controversial 12 Angry Men. But by then a kind of play-it-safe style of writing had come to prevail. TV writers had discovered that fewer blacklisters came-a-calling if they adopted a softer ‘humanist’ approach, without implying that American institutions or the Capitalist system had flaws.

The 1949 Humphrey Bogart movie Knock on Any Door lectured the audience with the generic complaint that ‘society needs to do better.’ The oft-repeated mantra, now easily lampooned as liberal mush, had Bogart point the finger at the murdering young hoodlum in the defendant’s chair and say “He’s just an innocent boy. It’s society’s fault. This isn’t Nick Romano’s problem — it’s our problem!”  In other words, the emotion but not the politics.


Those of us who read TV logs in the early 1960s might remember the special treatment given telecasts of Columbia’s 1956 feature Storm Center: it was a powerful social drama that some may find controversial . . . or, translated, “If this movie makes you angry, don’t call the station.”

“Everybody’s against burning books, right? . . .   Right??”
Storm Center is often listed as the first Hollywood movie to directly attack the blacklisting, book burning mindset. It was inspired by the true story of librarian Ruth Brown of Bartlesville, Oklahoma. The actual subject is no more radical than the defense of Good Citizenship, which the screenplay approaches through a topic the filmmakers presume everyone will agree on. Banning books is firmly associated with Nazi Germany and is therefore BAD, right?  What’s wrong with a drama that’s part Public Service Announcement?

The writer-director is Daniel Taradash, one of the credited writers on Knock on Any Door. His first draft of Storm Center was written in 1952 under the title “The Library;” it was optioned for a time by Stanley Kramer, to perhaps star Mary Pickford, and then Barbara Stanwyck. After Taradash’s screen adaptations of From Here to Eternity and Picnic became big hits for Columbia, Harry Cohn responded by letting him make Storm Center. The budget was tight and Taradash would have to direct it himself.

The film’s producer was Daniel Taradash’s former writing partner Julian Blaustein, who had produced several hit films at 20th Fox, including the excellent liberal-message science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still. Taradash and Blaustein signed Bette Davis to play the starring role, and were relieved that she had no objection to the script. The word around Hollywood had been that Mary Pickford had pulled out of the project because columnist Hedda Hopper, a member of the Motion Picture Association for the Preservation of American Ideals, claimed that the film was pro-Communist propaganda.

Filmed on location in Santa Rosa, California, Storm Center uses the same library seen in the Alfred Hitchcock classic Shadow of a Doubt. The building bears a proud sign: ‘Free Public Library.’ Producer Blaustein said that the people of Santa Rosa were enthusiastic about the location shoot, which took place late in 1955.


The fictional Storm Center only uses the ordeal of Ruth Brown as a starting point. Librarian Alicia Hull (Bette David) is dedicated to her work. Her best friend Judge Robert Ellerbee (Paul Kelly) has known the ‘spinster’ Alicia since she lost her fiancé in World War One, 35 years ago. Schoolboy Freddie Slater (Kevin Coughlin) spends his afternoons reading fantasy stories at her library. Alicia is dedicated to the library as a place for children like Freddie to ‘open their minds.’ It is also a place for adults to read books of all kinds, even ones with distasteful ideas, like Hitler’s Mein Kampf. This freedom of ideas becomes a problem for the local city council: the mayor, several businessmen and the politically ambitious Paul Duncan (Brian Keith). They’ve learned that the library contains an ‘offensive’ book — The Communist Dream. Alicia won’t get rid of the book, out of general principle.

The council tries to bribe Alicia with a new wing for her library, but she refuses to toss The Communist Dream. Paul Duncan leads then leads council in firing Alica, and then features the issue in his upcoming Mayoral campaign. It’s a sticky exit from a job Alicia has held all her life. Her successor will be Martha Lockridge (Kim Hunter), a library assistant who also happens to be Paul Duncan’s fianceé. As soon as the word is out, public opinion decides that Alicia is a Communist and an enemy of the people. She’s shunned on the street and in the local restaurant.


The political poison aimed at Alicia also strikes at Freddie Slater’s house. Upset that his son is more interested in reading than sports, the quick-tempered George Slater (Joe Mantell) rants that Communist influences are at work. Little Freddie has traumatic nightmares, now that his mentor Miss Hull has been demonized. His anxiety finds an outlet in destructive acts . . .

Storm Warning was often given credit for its liberal good intentions, but it has serious problems. The script is thin and obvious in its message-making, and the characterizations show little in the way of nuance or understanding, not even Alicia Hull herself. The McCarthyite opportunist Paul Duncan intuits that ‘fighting communism’ will help him become the new Mayor. But Paul’s fianceé Martha eventually recognizes his unprincipled behavior for what it is — even though she doesn’t protest her promotion to the job vacated by her unfairly dismissed boss.

The story makes Alicia a rather confused victim — she can’t quite comprehend why she’s been deprived of her life’s work. It’s obvious that she isn’t trying to indoctrinate children with anything but an interest in reading. Her only real crime is having an open mind, and believing that a library should offer a free exchange of ideas. As for the disputed book The Communist Dream, she argues that she hates it as well. When she doesn’t follow orders, the council brings up the fact that she once belonged to some ‘suspicious and subversive’ organizations. The unstated fact is that anything in America dealing with the term ‘Communist’ is now social Kryptonite — in the McCarthy mindset, any contact with it will make one a subversive.


Alicia Hull’s ‘political neutrality’ doesn’t align with the original Ruth Brown, who was a busy advocate and activist for desegregation and equal rights. (her Wiki page gives the basic facts.) In Brown’s case, the city commission got rid of the entire library board before firing Brown. Officially, she was let go for insubordination, not subversion. The political cleansing hid behind a non-political procedure.

Bette Davis’s Alicia Hull doesn’t really put up a defense. The movie instead jumps forward to show the effect of her demonization on Freddie, the little boy punished by his father for wanting to read instead of play ball. This is where Storm Center fails . . . mainly through weak direction and inadequate performances.

This is Daniel Taradash’s first and only directing effort, and something didn’t click. The key relationship between Alice and little Freddie Slater is entirely unconvincing, in a way that faults Taradash — either Kevin Coughlin is a terrible child actor or Taradash couldn’t direct him. The kid’s every reaction is an overreaction, often with emphatic music that doubles down on his trauma. The Freddie-Alicia business never begins to work, so neither does the movie. When Bette Davis tries to comfort him, she might as well be patting a doll.

The surprise is that the great actress Bette Davis does not come off well either — her Alicia is a collection of superficial behaviors. In the library she just seems fussy and affected. Alicia spends the second half of the movie in a daze, reacting without fully comprehending. We assume that the movie is set in the mid 1950s. One would think that the well-informed Alicia would be aware of current events — what librarian wouldn’t know about the publication Red Channels and its lists of citizens denounced as Reds or Red sympathizers?  If she was a progressive ‘joiner,’ surely she would associate with professional peer groups that might have advice to offer a colleague under attack.


The movie is cast with interesting, quality actors that cared about more than just a paycheck (and don’t mind risking political trouble, one would think). Paul Kelly’s Judge is the one reliably sane character in the story. Rugged Brian Keith plays his scenes lightly, pretending to be Alicia’s friend in the council meetings. Edward Platt is the ineffectual local Reverend. Newcomer Kathryn Grant has couple of good scenes, poking with questions that challenge the City Council’s motives.

The beloved Kim Hunter is given no story arc, just a ‘bingo’ moment when she recognizes her boyfriend’s hidden agenda. Hunter was herself a blacklist victim, her feature acting career interrupted a year after winning an Oscar for A Streetcar Named Desire.

The film’s truly thankless role goes to Joe Mantell, who must play Freddie’s dad as a reactionary thug, grasping any weapon with which to maintain his dominance over his family and his son — in this case, anti-Communist zeal. Mantell specialized in quirky, not-too-appealing types, like his obnoxious Angie in the previous year’s Marty.

The drama loses its way in a library awards ceremony. Alicia was going to avoid the event, but the Judge talks her into attending. Little Freddie explodes at Alicia like a psycho, screaming accusations until she bats his face around with her open palms — whack whack whack!  Nobody reacts!  Even in 1956 you’d think the assembled townspeople would pounce on this attack on a child.


The film ends with a fiery vision of America playing into the hands of its Communist enemies: consuming itself with political paranoia. A montage of books burning looks exactly like what François Truffaut assembled for his later Fahrenheit 451. The library burns to the ground, providing the film with dramatic advertising images of Bette Davis standing before the flames, traumatized but unbowed.

The arson fire finale ends the movie without directly pointing out the real menace represented by oppressive blacklisters and book burners, the kind of guilty, fearful social poison that encourages people to conform to a safe ‘norm’ and keep their opinons to themselves.

The Catholic Legion of Decency called Storm Center ‘propaganda,’ which brought criticism from Variety and also from other entities wishing to be pro-library and pro- free speech. But most of the reviews were tepid, or negative, praising the film only for its good intentions. One vocal supporter was an ex- First Lady:

“I hope this picture will be widely seen. Something similar could so easily happen in almost any American community -— the misunderstandings, the exaggerated fears, the lack of real belief in the principles that underlie our democracy all come out in this story.”  — Eleanor Roosevelt

The real victims of the McCarthy years were the thousands of ordinary people across the country deprived of their livelihoods for their liberal activism, for a ‘suspicious’ association, or because they were denounced and had no way to defend themselves. Their only recourse was often to just slink away and pray that the persecution didn’t follow one to one’s next job. The real process was more of an invisible purge, with no heroes.



Viavision [Imprint]’s Blu-ray of Storm Center is a solid transfer of an unusual picture that may be essential viewing to understand the filmic evolution of social conscience movies. Burnett Guffey sticks with a good B&W docu-drama look, with few dramatic lighting schemes. The undistinguished direction is mostly standard coverage of the actors, with few angles that help express the dramatic conflict.

Everybody notes the excellent main title sequence, an early design by Saul Bass. The understated use of text and Freddie Slater’s concerned eyes sets the stage well.

They really got a good blaze going for the final nighttime fire scene. Is it possible that this was done back on studio property?  We’d hate to think that they burned down that handsome Santa Rosa library building, covered with ivy.

The original poster used for the package artwork is a good choice — other styles (seen in the disc menu) rejuvenate Bette Davis’s appearance by twenty years. It was tough for most over- 40 women in Hollywood, even actresses established as top-rank stars.

[Imprint] gives Storm Warning no extras. That was one reason for this review — the well-intentioned liberal movie brings up some interesting thoughts about what makes ‘well intentioned liberal movies’ tick.

Much assistance came from contributor ‘B.’

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Storm Center
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good – minus
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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