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Storm Warning (Jan. 17, 1951)

Storm Warning
Storm Warning (1951)
Directed by Stuart Heisler
Warner Bros.

Storm Warning is an incredibly frustrating film. It was one of the first films made since D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) to openly depict the Ku Klux Klan, but Storm Warning completely whitewashes (no pun intended) the Klan’s religious and social prejudices and history of racially motivated violence.

About the only good thing I can say about The Birth of a Nation is that it was completely open about its agenda; it was racist propaganda through and through. Storm Warning, on the other hand, is a well-meaning anti-Klan film, but if the script ever contained any pointed messages, they were stripped out one piece at a time until only a few tantalizing details remained.

After I watched Storm Warning I read a bunch of reviews online, and was depressed by the number of people who justified the film’s focus only on white characters by saying that the Ku Klux Klan also killed white people like the Freedom Riders, and that this film just “showed the other side of the coin.” These people are either deeply ignorant or crypto-racists, because to ignore the Klan’s racial animus is to ignore history itself.

I read one review that said the term “Ku Klux Klan” is never spoken in the film, and that the white-robed racketeering organization depicted in the film is only ever referred to as “the Klan” (or possibly “the Clan”), but this is not true. The words “Ku Klux Klan” are spoken once, by a television news reporter outside of the courthouse.

Also, the film takes place in the town of “Rock Point,” which sounds like a coastal Maine vacation destination and looks and feels exactly like a small town in California, which is because that’s where Storm Warning was filmed. Most of the characters don’t speak with a Southern accent, and a few even sound like they didn’t leave New York City before they turned 21. The Klan was active outside of the South, but this film doesn’t take place anywhere. It’s a nebulous Hollywood small-town America that rings as false as the film’s story.

Cochran and Rogers

Storm Warning is a frustrating film because there’s so much good going on in it. I really like Ginger Rogers as a dramatic actress, and I thought she was wonderful in this film. The opening sequence in which she witnesses the Klan drag a reporter out of the town jail and murder him, then flees for her life, is stunning. Carl E. Guthrie’s cinematography is gorgeous and makes me wish he had worked with more prestigious directors instead of toiling in the “B” trenches for most of his career.

Stuart Heisler’s direction is workmanlike, but he keeps things moving along at a nice pace. Doris Day and Ronald Reagan both deliver competent performances, but the most interesting performance in the film is Steve Cochran’s role as Day’s husband — Ginger Rogers’s brother-in-law. To say that his character is lifted directly from Tennessee Williams’s 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire is an understatement.

Marlon Brando had been playing the role of Stanley Kowalski on Broadway for a few years when Storm Warning was made, and Cochran’s slow-witted, sweaty, violent, childlike, and white T-shirted brute is incredibly similar to Stanely Kowalski, right down to a penchant for bowling and attempted rape. Is it a coincidence that Warner Bros. — the studio that made Storm Warning — is the same studio that brought A Streetcar Named Desire to the screen less than a year later? I kind of doubt it.

Klan rally

Storm Warning is a great-looking film with some good performances and a laughably milquetoast story considering the subject matter.

It’s curious that the film retains real-world terms like “Klan” and “Imperial Wizard” and details like nighttime rallies, Klan uniforms, lynchings, and burning crosses while barely acknowledging that African-Americans exist, let alone the motivations behind the formation of the KKK in the Reconstruction-era South and its campaign of terror against black Americans and its hatred of Jews and Catholics.

Whatever socially progressive intentions were present in the original script by Daniel Fuchs and Richard Brooks, what ended up on the screen is laughable. Framing the Klan as a greedy racketeering organization who are only opposed to “outsiders,” “troublemakers,” and “busybodies” is cowardly, and framing their victims as exclusively white is ridiculous.

Seeing Ginger Rogers bullwhipped at a Klan rally is the stuff of high camp; it’s more appropriate for the cover of a spicy pulp magazine than any kind of social exposé. Also, the fact that she’s saved by a heroic prosecuting attorney played by Ronald Reagan is ironic, since Reagan would go on to use the term “states’ rights” as a dog-whistle appeal to racist Southern voters when he was campaigning for president in 1980.

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