Afterbirth of a Nation

STORM WARNING is a terrific-looking Warner drama that wants to attack the Ku Klux Klan, but is afraid to get into exactly what that organization does and why it’s bad.

At one point prosecutor Ronald Reagan (!) learns that his right-hand man is a former member. He seems just curious, and kind of charmed, by this revelation. The guy tells him he joined because he wanted to do some good — Reagan is fine with this, although it’s about the least convincing explanation for membership I can imagine — then he says he got out because he discovered the thing was a crooked, money-making racket. Yeah, that’s the trouble with the Klan. They were fine before they went kommercial.

So, fashion model Ginger Rogers (!) stops off in this hick town to visit her sister, Doris Day (!) — and stumbles right into a lynching. One of those white-on-white lynchings you hear so much about. Seems the victim was a journalist who got caught trying to write an exposé on the Klan’s nefarious activities — so nefarious that Warners cannot allow us to ever know what they are. I half-suspect Warners of killing the guy, actually.

When Ginger realizes that one of the guilty men, Steve Cochran (no “!” for you, Steve) is her sister’s husband, and sis is pregnant, she does everything she can to avoid testifying — but Reagan is SO insistent. (Did Ron and Ginger sit around between takes plotting world domination, or did they just trade chimp stories? Oh, Ginger hadn’t made MONKEY BUSINESS yet? Well, maybe she did it on Ron’s recommendation. “Bonzo was super, and he didn’t try to bit my face off once.”)

Paul Roen (High Camp) compares this film to A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, and there’s certainly the bestial caveman thing going on in Cochran’s beetle-browed sweatiness, but there’s no suggestion that Ginger finds him anything but repellant. Doris manages to sell her sympathetic, simple-minded wife/sister role so that she’s moving rather than annoying — aware of the difference between right and wrong but simply unequipped to process what’s going on around her. Ginger is so tough we’re never really concerned for her, despite a rape attempt and a whipping — the film is nothing if not sadistic, in a noir fashion. Cochrane is memorably repellant. Reagan is… quite adequate.

All the sadism is there to torture Ginger for failing to do her civic duty, putting her pregnant sister’s well-being above her legal obligation to testify against Cochran. And this would work fine, is even a story that could be politically compelling while failing to deal with the Klan, but Reagan’s scenes diffuse the tension. His narrative purpose is to tiresomely point out to Ginger her correct course, and he does this well enough, but because he’s a leading man the script also gives him redundant scenes of his own. These are all intended to convince us that lynch mobs don’t face prosecution, despite the efforts of noble authority figures, because the communities protect the guilty. The last part of that statement is true, but we all know that the authorities colluded in the crimes. The movie does semi-implicate a couple of prison guards, but that’s as far as it will go.

The characters occupy such well-defined, stereotypical positions, either all good or all bad, that it must have been hard to get real life into the film, but at some point one of the writers has decided to cram in some strange humour, and a new kind of animation flares up for five minutes. The inquest into the central murder features a radio newscaster wandering the crowd trying to get vox pops from reticent or surly locals (we’re in the South, but nobody has a particularly southern accent), but keeps emitting tetchy whispers to his associate “Don’t step on the cable!” Then, we see the jury sworn in: “Raise your right hand. Your right hand.” A snarky touch — in a movie so anxious not to alienate the southern audience, suddenly suggesting that the average citizen is a moron probably wasn’t wise, but it’s very funny in an “oh dear” kind of way.

Everything I’ve seen from director Stuart Heisler has been good so far — nothing’s been quite great, but I’m certain there’s a masterpiece out there. THE BISCUIT EATER, THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL, AMONG THE LIVING, THE GLASS KEY, all are recommended — there’s real visual panache and emotional commitment in all of them.

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14 Responses to “Afterbirth of a Nation”

  1. One of the strangest “problem pictures” ever made. The Klan’s crimes do not include beng mean to Doris Day and Ginger Rogers.Heaven forfend an actual “negro” wanters into camera range.

    That still of Steve and Ginger screams Streetcar. Could Ginger have done Blanche to Steve’s Stanley? Doris is a natural for Stella. But who to direct?

    Jacques Tourneur peut-etre?

    Meanwhile if you’re looking for a movie about racism that actually means something, you want Intruder in the Dust

  2. David E…

    Do you know an American critic called Paul Roen? In one of his two books (titled High Camp, volumes 1 and 2) he explicitly compares Storm Warning to Streetcar and describes the parallel characters in much the same way you do. Well, great minds do think alike!

    As for Intruder in the Dust…yes, it’s a total masterpiece! Also an amazingly progressive film to come from MGM, known as the most right-wing and reactionary of Hollywood’s major studios.

  3. As I remember, Intruder In The Dust was more Clarence Brown’s baby than MGM’s.

    I wrote something on the Warner film Torrid Zone, saying that it slipped a lot of sociopolitical commentary about America’s relationship with banana republics in amongst the comedy. I think that back then, as soon as a film becomes an overt “problem picture”, the studio and exhibitors would get nervous which is why they ended up so halfassed.

  4. Speaking of films about race relations…

    RIP Ann Rutherford, one of the last principal cast members of Gone with the Wind. Cast as Scarlett’s sweet younger sister Careen, Ms Rutherford died yesterday aged 91 or 94 (depends which source you read). Is Olivia now the last survivor?

  5. Don’t know Paul Roen — thanks for the heads up.

    Ann Rutherford (who married QUITE well) was a total delight in her later years. Exceptionally stylish in “real life.” She was a good pal of Marsha Hunt (who is still flourishing well into her 90’s.)

  6. Love Marsha Hunt and her sweet smile!

    I think problem pictures are problematic in themselves, for artistic as well as political reasons. It’s all very well having something to say, but a film must succeed first as a beautiful object, not so much as a statement. Hence Truffaut’s “The more important the subject, the less likely it is to make a good film.”

    Intruder in the Dust is a film which pulses with truth and a sense of life and a southern gothic weirdness, and is more interested in telling a story than making a point. So it makes a point all the more effectively.

    It’s surprising when a few black extras turn up in Summer Storm — I guess somebody felt they couldn’t, in all decency, be ENTIRELY excluded, but they’re like spectres at the banquet, surreal reminders of what the film OUGHT to be about.

  7. Preston122 Says:

    A few years back I screened “Intruder in the Dust” at a museum series in Memphis. A woman came up afterward to show her copy of the souvenir program from the Oxford premiere in Oct. 1949. Imagine, they proudly held the film’s premiere there, even considering the portrayal of snarling, snaggletoothed rednecks in the mob scenes! Not exactly Chamber of Commerce stuff.

    Her late brother played one of the thugs, and she hadn’t seen the film since his death. We had a great discussion, in which she pointed out that the mob is mostly made up of rural outsiders, while most of the townspeople have good intentions or can be persuaded by reason. This appealed to the college town’s sense of itself as a beacon of civilization in that initial post-war era. That, plus someone in the mayor’s family or something was owner of the big new movie theatre in town, helped ease the reaction.

  8. Thanks, Preston!

    I wrote about IITD here: http://mubi.com/notebook/posts/the-forgotten-browns-requiem

    I think Brown’s advantage over Heisler, asides from much better material and the courage to deal with the subject, is that he knew the world of Faulkner’s story. It makes a difference.

  9. STORM WARNING has long had a warm place in my heart, and I’ve seen it recently enough to have the memory rather clear.

    As for the STREETCAR stuff … it should be noted that the same studio, Warners, was making STREETCAR at approximately the same time. Echoes of it were appearing in other pictures — cf. Howard Roark’s, um, wooing of Dominique Francon in THE FOUNTAINHEAD, as compared with Stanley and Blanche and their predestined “date.”

    The STORM WARNING script, as written by Richard Brooks, was one of the ones that Bette Davis rejected when she left Warners in the late ’40s (as I learned from a recent Davis biography). Jerry Wald was the producer. Doris Day was cast as the sister. For a brief period, Joan Crawford — cf. the Jerry Wald influence — was considered in the lead, but Crawford’s rather sensible response was that she and Day would not be credible as sisters. Enter Ginger Rogers.

    My sense is that a large part of the duties of co-scenarist Daniel Fuchs (cf. THE HARD WAY and CRISS CROSS) was remodelling the script for a new leading lady.

    Of course it’s odd that an anti-Klan picture has no (or *almost* no) African-American faces. Still, though, to base your argument on the fact that [unnamed group] happen to be thugs and bullies and traffickers in unreason is not at all a bad approach.

  10. The script is all pretty decently written, but the snappy dialogue at the start and the funny, surprising moments in the middle do seem like the work of another hand.

    The movie certainly shows its unnamed Klan as a nasty collection of crooks and liars, and the final rally is a triumph of sinister noir lighting, but you can’t do justice to how noxious the organization is without acknowledging its foundation in hatred. The movie has it that the Klan passes as a “decent” vigilante group, but isn’t, to use Gary Cooper’s HUAC testimony soundbite, “on the level.” That’s more than mealy-mouthed, it’s inaccurate, and it ducks out of the chance of making a difference. So their heart is kind of in the right place, but they haven’t got the guts to follow through on their best instincts.

  11. My guess, David, is that Fuchs is that “another hand.”

  12. Makes sense. Brooks had a weakness for preaching, and his version of humour was anything but sly (see Wrong is Right).

  13. David E…

    For my money, Paul Roen is the best critic ever to write on film from an explicitly gay perspective. Far less angry and doctrinaire than Vito Russo, far more readable and accessible than Parker Tyler. Don’t get me wrong, I like both those authors, but the Inimitable Mr Roen is in a class by himself!

    His two books, High Camp, volumes 1 and 2, are officially out of print but still easily (and cheaply) available via Amazon. If and when you get hold of them, do please let me know what you think.

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