Monday, July 30, 2012

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'Storm Center' (1956)

In 1956, Storm Center was probably a bold political statement, coming out against the censorship of Communist literature and strongly criticizing witch hunts based on perceived Communist affiliation. It's an admirable stance for a movie to take in the midst of a period of great paranoia and political pressure, but viewed in hindsight more than 50 years later, it just comes off as preachy, simplistic and didactic.

It doesn't help that Bette Davis basically plays a flawless martyr, not exactly her strong suit. She stars as small-town librarian Mrs. Hull, who's beloved by seemingly everyone in the town, kind and helpful to children and dedicated to her job of promoting literature and learning. When the town council, led by an ambitious young member played by Brian Keith, insists that Mrs. Hull remove a pro-Communist book from the library shelves, she refuses on principle, and thus begins a campaign to not only fire but also discredit her, such that nearly the entire town eventually turns against this nice old lady.

The nice old lady who loves books versus the cynical political climber is a pretty lopsided contest, and it's not like director and co-writer Daniel Taradash makes much of an effort to give Keith's character any nuances or depth. Mrs. Hull, too, is pretty one-dimensional, although Davis mines a bit of pathos out of her despair as the whole town (including the little boy who used to idolize her) shuns her for being a supposed Commie. Taradash goes overboard in making his point, though, having that little boy, played by the supremely annoying Kevin Coughlin, turn into a sullen delinquent when he learns that his favorite librarian is a traitor to America, and resorting to setting the library on fire before the town comes around to re-embracing Mrs. Hull.

Storm Center likely provided a valuable service at the time, offering up a comparatively measured (aside from the library burning down) counterpoint to anti-Communist hysteria. But its careful didacticism is what makes it such a chore to watch today, and even Davis' occasional moments of fierce determination can't overcome the stodgy moralizing.

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