Release Date(s)1956 (October 7, 2022)
Studio(s)Columbia Pictures (Imprint/Via Vision)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: F
[Editor's Note: This is a Region Free Blu-ray release.]
Storm Center concerns the freedom to express and offer information about ideas, including unpopular ones, as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution, though the First Amendment itself is never mentioned. The story takes place during the Cold War and revolves around a concerted attempt at censorship in a small American town.
Alicia Hull (Bette Davis), a middle-aged widow, has been the town’s head librarian for many years. She is respected and loves her job, devotes her energy to the library and serving its many users, and hopes that some day the town council will finally approve funds to build a much needed children’s wing. Young Freddie Slater (Kevin Coughlin) is an avid reader and a regular user of the library. The little boy looks up to Mrs. Hull and is proud to consider her a friend.
Invited to join the council members one afternoon, Mrs. Hull anticipates that the meeting will be about the children’s wing. She brings along her plans and is ready to present a well organized case for the library addition. But that is not the councilman’s main order of business. The council has received complaints about a book in the library that discusses communism. If she will remove the book, they will grant the funds. Initially she agrees, but her decision bothers her and she later replaces the book on the shelves.
This sets in motion a confrontation between censorship and freedom of expression. Because the setting is a small town, the conflict is very personal. Some residents back Mrs. Hull but most demand that she remove the book. Overhearing negative talk about Mrs. Hull, Freddie fails to understand the politics behind the comments and undergoes a complete reversal in his esteem for the librarian that leads him to take drastic measures.
During the Cold War, the issue of communism was a hot topic. Many felt that it threatened their way of life and wanted to squelch any information about it. The theme was timely in the 1950s, when the film was released, and still has relevance today with some citizens demanding revisions in history books and the elimination of topics in school curricula.
Bette Davis, 48 at the time, is made to look considerably older with shaded make-up, dowdy dress, and a short conservative hairstyle. Her trademark delivery, with its odd emphases, animated head movements, pauses, and lilting cadence, is in full swing as her character takes on the town for the sake of an important principle. In her early scenes with Freddie, she conveys motherly tenderness. Later, with town council members, her manner shifts to righteous defiance as she holds her ground, placing her own job on the line to defend what she believes is vital. Whatever the film, Davis is always riveting, and here she delivers a solid if somewhat melodramatic performance.
Joe Mantell plays George Slater, Freddie’s father, a boorish man who resents his son’s fascination with books and his wife’s piano playing, and doesn’t understand why his family can’t be more like him. The role is a thankless one, with Mantell approaching the status of villain, though his character insists he only wants the best for his family.
Brian Keith plays Paul Duncan, a council member who is particularly adept at manipulating Mrs. Hull by bringing up questionable organizations she innocently joined in the past, then abandoned on learning their true purpose. Paul persists in this duplicity for political gain despite the objections of his fiancee, Martha Lockridge (Kim Hunter), who is also the assistant librarian and looks up to Mrs. Hull.
Co-writer (along with Elick Moll) and director Danial Taradash has created an entertaining morality play, though it’s often on the heavy, obvious side. Rather than portray the council members as narrow-minded dopes, they are family men, reasonable and courteous to Mrs. Hull, though faced with a potential political firestorm if they can’t deal successfully with the problem. The concern of the community was not uncommon at the time. The effect of the controversy on Freddie is overblown and never rings true, though.
Though the theme of Storm Center is important, the execution of the story is somewhat awkward and contrived. Freddie’s strained relationship with his father seems to have been created only to help explain actions he takes late in the film that seem highly unlikely and melodramatic. Davis has certainly been better in films that call for her character to be a human being rather than a metaphor for the First Amendment. Apart from the library, Mrs. Hull is an enigma. We know very little about her other than she lost her husband during World War I. A few scenes showing her with friends or engaged in social activities apart from the library might have developed her character better.
Storm Center was shot by director of photography Burnett Guffey with spherical lenses on black-and-white 35 mm film, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Imprint’s Blu-ray release is sourced from a new 2K scan and features the aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Clarity and delineation are very good, particularly in the books on the library shelves, patterns on clothing, and Davis’ hairstyle. Greyscale is good. The image is clean with no visible imperfections. Shadows are used for dramatic effect as Mrs. Hull closes the library for the night. A climactic conflagration at night brightens the screen and throws shadows on the faces of shocked onlookers.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono LPCM. English SDH subtitles are an available option. Dialogue is clear and precise throughout. In interior wide shots, there’s a slight but audible echo. George Duning’s music is loud, often approaching triumphant, as when Mrs. Hull replaces the controversial book on the shelf after a great deal of soul searching. A high school band is heard at the dedication of the library’s children’s wing, and sirens break the nighttime silence in a major scene late in the film.
No bonus materials on the Region Free Blu-ray release have been included.
At just under 90 minutes, Storm Center is fast-paced and keeps us involved, though the trajectory of the narrative is not much of a surprise. Bette Davis in the role of the beleaguered librarian adds stature to the film and compensates somewhat for weaknesses in the script.
- Dennis Seuling