Bette Davis plays a small town librarian who ruffles the citizens’ feathers by refusing to remove a book, The Communist Dream, from the shelf. No, no, no, she’s not a Commie. She is, as the character played by Kim Hunter tells Brian Keith, “set in her ideas – civil liberties, censorship, intellectual freedom.”
In her defense, Davis tells the City Council that she is being true to the American spirit by refusing to censor ideas to which she is opposed. She mentions one of the library’s holdings, a book that “made me sick to my stomach every time I checked it out: Mein Kampf. Maybe we ran the risk of spreading Hitlerism, but it didn’t work that way. People read it, it made them indignant, maybe it helped defeat him.”
She goes on: “Don’t you see that by keeping this book in the library, we attack the Communist dream? We say to the Communists, ‘we do not fear you, we are not afraid of what you have to say, but you fear us, you fear the truth. Tell me, would they dare keep a book praising democracy in a Russian library?”
After her stirring speech, Keith grinds out his cigarette in an ashtray. Remember, this is 1956, long before the Communist dream of dictating our personal habits took hold right here in the United States, before politicians thought they had any business telling us we can’t enjoy tobacco or get a super-sized refill of Mountain Dew at a fast food restaurant. Keith rattles off a list of organizations in which Davis was once a member. Prepare to gasp: The Council for Better Relations with the Soviet Union, the American Peace Mobilization, and the Voice of Freedom Committee.
Keith accepts Davis’ denial that she is not nor has she even been a Communist nor is or was she ever sympathetic to any red-tainted philosophy. Indeed, she resigned from those groups once she became aware that they were, as Keith calls them, “Communist fronts.”
Davis gives the councilmen no choice. She won’t remove The Communist Dream from the library shelf. If they want it removed, they must remove her.
Some of the townsfolk are pleased. She was a bad influence all around. Why, do you know that she encouraged kids to read, and not necessarily subversive titles about Communism, but adventure stories like the one that left little Freddie so entranced that his father had to rip it from his hands at the dinner table? The father is delighted that the librarian is gone. “Maybe Freddie will spend some time with the kids now instead of at the library.”
Freddie doesn’t spend time playing with other kids, though. He broods and starts defacing the books he loves. He feels betrayed by the librarian. The father thinks she betrayed him, too. “She had 25 years to fill those shelves with poison,” he says. When a sympathetic councilman invites Davis to cut the ribbon at the opening of the library’s new children’s wing, Freddie goes berserk, calling her a Communist and pounding her with his fists. The incident becomes the talk of the town, but Keith stubbornly sticks to his guns.
“We happen to be in a war. Cold, hot, or lukewarm, that’s what it is, war, and we better win it. Sure, some innocent people are going to get hurt, but that’s too bad.” This little speech comes before Freddie sets fire to the library that was once his second home. The camera shows us the flames consuming Gulliver’s Travels, the collected works of Charles Dickens, and lingers on shelves marked “Philosophy,” “Psychology,” and “Religion.” The music swells to dramatic heights when we see The Story of Jesus reduced to ash.
The filmmakers deserve credit for not tacking on a phony warm-hearted ending in which all those intolerant folk suddenly become tolerant. Davis assigns some of the blame to herself. “I didn’t fight back,” she says, and now she vows to stay on and do so.
Storm Center might have been powerful stuff back in 1956 (though most critics of the time, and even Ms. Davis herself, expressed disappointment with the results). Today, we might marvel at how little times have changed. You can still check out any book you want from the library, but that book about Jesus is more likely to ignite controversy than one about Communism. Censorship is alive and thriving in the United States of 2013 with laws against “Hate Speech” that lawmakers pass by appealing to emotions rather than logic or the facts. In modern times, it’s not the conservative that wants to censor, but the supposedly open-minded liberal. It seems that everybody, regardless of their political stance, favors censorship. The only disagreement is on what to censor.
© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks