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Storm Center (1956) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

library censorship council hull

Principal social themes: censorship, education/literacy

Columbia. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Bette Davis, Brian Keith, Paul Kelly, Kim Hunter, Joe Mantell, Kevin Coughlin, Joseph Kearns, Sallie Brophy, Howard Wierum, Curtis Cooksey, Howard Wendell, Kathryn Grant, Edward Platt, Michael Raffetto, Burt Mustin. Written by Daniel Taradash and Elick Moll. Cinematography by Burnett Guffey. Edited by William A. Lyon. Music by George Dunning. Produced by Julian Blaustein. Directed by Daniel Taradash. B&W. 85 minutes.

Overview

Storm Center , intended as an unpretentious protest against censorship and the Red-baiting virus of the early 1950s, itself became the center of a critical storm after the Legion of Decency created a special classification outside their usual rating of a film’s moral content to denounce the picture for presenting “a warped, oversimplified” view of American life. Other groups, such as the Motion Picture Industry Council, fired back, calling the Legion’s attack “a form of censorship” itself. The controversy provided a profitable publicity boost during the film’s initial run, but later caused the film to be broadcast rarely on television. In any case, Storm Center was remarkably successful in raising concerns over the issue of censorship.

Synopsis

Mrs. Alicia Hull (Bette Davis), a middle-aged widow, has served as the library director of a small, midwestern community for the past twenty-five years. Despite her school-marmish ways, she is well liked, particularly by the children who frequent the library. One youngster in particular, a boy named Freddie Slater (Kevin Coughlin), adores her and reads with enthusiasm every book she recommends, from the classics to Greek mythology. One day the Town Council summons her to an informal meeting held at a local restaurant. They approve her request to expand the library by building a new wing dedicated to children’s books. After the vote, they add a small request. They ask her to remove one title from the library shelves, a controversial book called The Communist Dream , which has been the target of a few letters of complaint. Mrs. Hull herself considers the book to be a rather preposterous attempt at propaganda. Reluctantly, the librarian agrees in order to please the council. Later, she considers the principle of freedom of thought and the issue of censorship, and she decides not to discard the book.

When she informs the council, they summon her to a formal meeting. Alicia makes a strong argument that censorship is against American beliefs. After all, the library also circulates Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler, a hateful volume, but when it is read and understood, the ideas in it repel the reader. The same, she believes, is true about The Communist Dream . She reminds the council that a similar volume praising Western democracies would not be allowed behind the Iron Curtain, and that is why American values are stronger. Paul Duncan (Brian Keith), one of the council members, questions Mrs. Hull about having belonged to several organizations that were determined to be Communist fronts. She replies that when she learned their true beliefs, she resigned from those groups. Nevertheless, Duncan says she has proven that she can be duped and insists in the future that the Town Council review her book purchases. Mrs. Hull still refuses to discard the book, and after she leaves, the Town Council takes a vote to fire her. She is replaced by her assistant, Martha Lockridge (Kim Hunter), who is also Duncan’s fiancée. Moreover, Duncan publishes his beliefs that the library director has been tainted by Communist doctrines. A protest rally is sponsored at the local church, but when Mrs. Hull sees how cantankerous the issue has become, she decides not to fight and asks that nothing be done on her behalf.

Instead of calming the firestorm, Mrs. Hull’s withdrawal leads most of the town’s citizens into believing Duncan’s slander. She becomes ostracized. Worst of all, her young friend, Freddie Slater, turns against her. Slater’s uneducated father, who dislikes reading and books in general, tells his son that Mrs. Hull has filled the library with subversive poison for twenty-five years. When Freddie has a series of nightmares, his father blames the library books. The atmosphere in the town has become so poisonous that Mrs. Hull decides to abandon her hometown and move. Finally, the disturbed Freddie sneaks into the library one night and sets fire to the place. In a short time, the building goes up in flames. The whole town watches in shock, and they all, including Martha, turn against Duncan. Mrs. Hull is asked to stay and help rebuild the library. She agrees, promising never to back down on her principles again.

Critique

Despite the criticism that Storm Center is a contrived film, the issue of library censorship has been a continuing one, and every year attempts have been made to ban particular books from library stacks. Most of these battles, however, have been fought in public school libraries rather than town libraries as in Storm Center , but at times they, too, have become battlegrounds. The second Town Council meeting provided a clear discussion of the topic, both pro and con. Students examining censorship should carefully evaluate these arguments. They should compare Mrs. Hull’s points with those of the American Library Association, which promotes events such as “Banned Book” weeks to effectively highlight the issue. Why did so many of the town’s citizens turn against the librarian? Why did Freddie’s father use the incident to poison his son’s mind against reading and education?

This film was the first directorial effort of Daniel Taradash, who was best known as a screenwriter, having won the Academy Award for his script for From Here to Eternity (1953). Bette Davis was somewhat criticized for her rather smug and mannered interpretation, but Kevin Coughlin’s performance as Freddie received strong praise. (The young Coughlin later met a tragic early death, having been struck by a car.) The scene in which the library is burned has been cited as one of the most powerful sequences of the 1950s, and, oddly enough, many of the titles that are shown in flames are classics that themselves have been targets of censorship at one time or another. In a sense, the scene is a symbolic visual allegory of censorship itself. The climax of Storm Center inspired similar scenes in Fahrenheit 451 (1966), based on a Ray Bradbury novel, in which the firemen from an oppressive future society seek to burn each and every book since they all are considered to be subversive.

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