Tuesday, September 3, 2013

When good anti-censorship movies go wrong



A search of the blog suggests that I have not done a post on Storm Center. It's airing tomorrow morning at 10:15 AM on TCM, and is certainly worth a viewing, even if it does wind up going off the rails.

Bette Davis plays Alicia Hull, a spinster who is the librarian in one of those small-to-medium sized cities that could be Anytown, USA. She's an institution in the town, with her work being largely responsible for the success of the library and the children liking her, especially one child in particular (we'll get to him a little later). Currently, Hull is trying to get the funding for an addition to the library. However, there's a problem. The town fathers, led by politically ambitious councillor Paul Duncan (Brian Keith) has learned that one of the books in the library is a book titled "The Communist Dream". Oh my, how dare she have a book that might actually defend a totalitarian ideology! Alicia points out in her defense that she also had "Mein Kampf" on the shelves, and that allowing people to read it let them discover what a vile ideology Hitler believed in; why not do the same for Communism? That's not good enough for the town politicians. Nowadays, it's Nazism that's uniquely evil, but back in the 1950s, it was Communism that was a menace, what with an expansionist Soviet Union around.

Anyhow, Duncan has an ace up his sleeve. He discovers that, during World War II, Alicia was one of those dupes that Communists tried to recruit, at least as documented by a movie like The Iron Curtain. Alicia says that once she realized these organizations she joined were actually Communist front organizations, and not progressive peace organizations, she quite them. But that's not good enough for the poliitcians, who think that once you're a Communist, you're always a Communist. It's off to being shunned for Alicia.

And this is where the kid really comes in. Oh, we see the kids from the beginning of the movie. And the particular kid in question who's important to the plot is no exception. Freddie Slater (played by Kevin Coughlin) is a bookish kid who reads as many books as he can and really admires Alicia. Mom (Sally Brophy) is OK with this, but Dad (Joe Mantell) is put off, thinking that this isn't manly enough behavior for Freddie. When Dad learns that the librarian was a dirty Commie, he finally has a way to get through to his son. Dad's behavior is unrealistic, I think. It's part of the American mythos, and certainly would have been in the 1950s, that you can get ahead through education. You'd think Dad would be proud to have such a bright son. But what's even more unrealistic is the way Freddie reacts when he learns his librarian hero might have been a Communist. He does a complete 180, becoming the psycho kid from hell, almost as bad as Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed.

It's never a bad time to warn people about the dangers of censorship, regardless of which half of the political spectrum is holding the levers of political power. Some of the issues surrounding censorship are well handled; others, not so much. (The suggestion that government involvment inevitably leads to government control and therefore you shouldn't get the government involved in the first place is, needless to say, fully ignored.) But Storm Center eventually enters the land of the unintentionally funny as it becomes increasingly heavy-handed, and that's even before the Freddie character goes laughably nuts. Storm Center is a half-good, half-hilarious movie.

Storm Center has been released to DVD, courtesy of Sony/Columbia's MOD program.

1 comment:

livius1 said...

Interesting article. I thought about picking this movie up but I actually feared it might be a bit on the heavy-handed side - perhaps the presence of Davis got me thinking that way.