Thursday, December 10, 2009

Storm Warning

Storm Warning attempts to take a strong moral view of the Ku Klux Klan, but it does so in such a timid way that the Klan and what it represents is hardly recognizable.  Released in 1951 and featuring Ronald Reagan in the lead roles, with the support of Ginger Rogers and a young Doris Day, Storm Warning is a film noir of sorts.  It presents the Klan as a group of community hoodlums who for relatively hazy reasons occasionally attack people identified as enemies of the community.  Most often these turn out to be enemies of the Klan.  In an early scene a reporter who has been investigating the Klan, and who has been jailed on trumped up drunk and disorderly charges, is hauled out of jail, beaten, and shot to death.  Ginger Rogers, who has come to town to visit her sister (Doris Day) witnesses the murder, and this becomes a key event in the film.

Storm Warning views the Klan as a dangerous vigilante group that threatens law and order in the town.  The men who belong to the Klan, most of them upstanding local citizens, have joined either because they believe government is too weak to maintain order, or because they've been pressured.

The film barely hints at the racist bigotry at the Klan's heart.  Even though the Klan in 1951 was well known for its Southern origins and activities, the film camouflages its setting.  We know that the film is set somewhere in the South, as opposed to the North, because folks keep speaking with disparagement of the way things are done up North.  No one speaks with any accent.  No cultural or regional markers connect the small town in which the film is set in any way with any sort of distinctive place.  It could as easily have taken place in Southern Los Angeles, or Southern Idaho, as somewhere in the American South.

Why?  In 1951 the McCarthy hearings were going full tilt.  Communists (so Americans were urged to believe) were threatening the woof and warp of American society.  In some sense does the film's portrayal of the Klan as a menace to social order make a veiled commentary on the commie danger?  What the film does seek to do is take a stand against hooliganism and vigilantism.  But it portrays the Klan members as hooded thugs, not as white supremacists. 

Explaining himself to Ginger Rogers' character, the leader of the Klan explains that his group exists to ensure that the streets will be safe for people like her.  Why would she be in danger to begin with?  She walks the streets of the small town at night in complete safety.  But what the leader is implying (and one has to lean over backwards to get the implication) is that the Klan ensures that white woman such as she will be safe from black men.  This is the closest the film comes to any open acknowledgment that the Klan has a connection to black people and civil rights.  It's a moment easily missed.

My colleague John Inscoe notes the similarity of aspects of the film's plot to A Streetcar Named Desire.  The film was released in the same year as Storm Warning, so any influence would have come from the published play or Elia Kazan's Broadway production.  In both works an older sister comes to visit her younger sister, who is married to a working class young man suspicious of the older woman.  Both works feature a subtle sexual tension between the man and the unmarried sister; in both works the younger sister is loyal to her husband despite all his faults.

Ronald Reagan is more than serviceable in his role as a young district attorney.  He's determined and ethical and not easily cowed.  He has integrity, and even when his legal career and (possibly) his political future are threatened (the Klan leader is one of the most powerful men in town), he stands tall.  What he lacks is heroic stature of the sort we see in Gary Cooper in High Noon or Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Reagan’s character is devoted to doing his job and doing it well but has no philosophical vision, ultimately. He views the Klan as a bunch of lawbreakers and is eager to take it down.

Storm Warning would like to be a drama of conscience.  Its focus is Ginger Rogers, who witnesses a murder and who, when it comes time to provide the courtroom testimony that will implicate the Klan (and her brother in law), suffers a failure of courage.  Again, the McCarthy hearings come to mind.

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