Storm Warning (1950)

Storm Warning (1950) is an investigative journalist Ku Klux Klan murder thriller film noir starring Ginger Rogers, Ronald Reagan, Doris Day, and Steve Cochran. 

Directed by Stuart Heisler, it follows a fashion model (Ginger Rogers) traveling to a small Southern town to visit her sister (Doris Day), who witnesses the brutal murder of an investigative journalist by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). 

The cop hard on the case is Ronald Reagan and the unwilling and unstable weak link in the criminal chain is the erratic Steve Cochran — often appearing in a Stanley Kowalski-style white tee-shirt.

The original screenplay was written by Richard Brooks and Daniel Fuchs and is a curiosity in some respects, as it seems to demand interpretation.

It is however even worth asking about this need for analysis. Could it be the case that Storm Warning is accidentally provocative in what it says or fails to say? Could it be the case that Storm Warning has simply been made carelessly and with no thought of the impact of the provocative elements of its script?

Late nite diner in film noir Storm Warning (1950)

This idea would elevate mishap and creative misadventure to quite a degree and open Storm Warning to criticism. The larger question cannot however be answered: why make a movie about the Ku Klux Klan with no reference whatsoever to racism?

Insofar as Storm Warning is a warning for anything, it can barely be any storm of potential racism from this organisation, who seem in the mode of any Hollywood production to be well established and organised in their southern American town — a town in which equally annoyingly, nobody adopts a southern accent. There is a possible exception in the acting of Steve Cochran, which from time to time suggest he is making southern-style noises in his speech.

The Klan however are as described, well established. Not only are they organised enough to manage murders on the open streets of their home town, but they also run largescale rural cross burning meet-ups where no good will ever venture.

Ginger Rogers in Storm Warning (1950)

The issue of the lack of racism from the hooded menaces of the KKK must be around sensitivity felt towards Southern audiences, and an expectation from the studio bosses at Warner Bros. that nobody in the South would be interested in a film that dared cast racist aspersions on that entire compass-point. There's an inability embedded in that opinion to separate the local from the ideology, but studio moves are blunt, and they might even have been concerned about the Klan itself, enough to offer this quite outrageous whitewash.

Ronald Reagan in Storm Warning (1950)

The levels of Klan power visualised in Storm Warning are yet impressive and an expression of evil will on a quite marvellous scale, and one that seems to infect the entire population who are either a part of the Klan or in fearful thrall to them.

Ginger Rogers is Marsha Mitchell, a dress model from New York City, who travels by bus during an extended job for her employer at Christmas. En route, she decides to spend the night in the rural Southern town of Rock Point to visit her newlywed sister, Lucy Rice. 

Steve Cochran in Storm Warning (1950)

Within minutes of entering the town she notices unwelcoming and evasive behaviour from the townspeople — to a degree that would seem to rest uneasily in its own tropic somewhere between Western and science fiction. Everybody in Rock Point is living in fear and she does not know why. Even stranger the town's entire lights go out.

Ronald Reagan within some classic film noir photography in Storm Warning (1950)

Ronald Reagan seen here amid some classic film noir photography in Storm Warning (1950), representative of a style that was on its way out, largely because often after about 1950, cinematographers shot with one eye — or sometimes both — on the television. 

As she walks down the darkened main street Martha sees a wild and drunken KKK mob murdering a man just outside the jail.  The man untangles himself from their Ku Klux noose and manages to run a few steps before being cut down by gunfire.

Steve Cochran in Storm Warning (1950)

The mob approaches the fallen man, arguing among themselves and Marsha gets a good look at two of the men, who have removed their hoods. This is the simple act of witness which drives the body of Storm Warning onward, although it is not a simple effort to conclude this when the powerful criminal Klan are so ubiquitous, again like a science fiction concept, that  they seem to be able to see everything, control everything, and just kill those who threaten to expose them.

There are certain themes in Storm Warning that are close to the surface — violence against women and familial dysfunction being the more immediate. 

Both Rogers's and Day's characters are punished for their family loyalty as well as their sexuality. As Storm Warning commences, Ginger Rogers's character Marsha romantically rejects the salesman she works with, while her sister played by Doris day remains loyal to the attractive but thuggish Klansman husband.

Ronald Reagan in Storm Warning (1950)

The Ku Klux Klan as the bare-faced subject matter invites several possibilities, including the notion that Storm Warning may be somehow allegorising the Red Scare of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

The problem remains as to which side this film might be on, as it could be seen as sympathetic or antipathetic to communism. There are appear to be readings that find Storm Warning as a defence of the HUAC hearings themselves, or as strongly anti-communist as it warns against violent secret conspiracy — see the Wikipedia link to read more.

It seems on reflection that Storm Warning trivialises bigotry by rather removing this as subject matter, and opting instead for melodramatic with an inadequate depiction of the Klan. This may be because the Klan are so faithfully portrayed, down to their badges and regalia, which are all well drawn and exact.

Perhaps instead of creating their own anti-race grassroots mob, and using the real thing, that the producers and even director Stuart Heisler themselves ran into trouble. From the outside, it would seem ridiculous to make a picture about the KKK and not feature race as a thread.

Steve Cochran and Ginger Rogers in Storm Warning (1950)

The "Ku Klux Klan" name was used by numerous independent local groups opposing the civil rights movement and desegregation, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. During this period, they often forged alliances with Southern police departments, as in Birmingham, Alabama; or with governor's offices, as with George Wallace of Alabama.

Several members of Klan groups were convicted of murder in the deaths of civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964 and there is no doubt that in 1950, such murders occurred and would have gone unpunished.

In 1915, the second Klan was founded atop Stone Mountain, Georgia, by William Joseph Simmons. While Simmons relied on documents from the original Klan and memories of some surviving elders, the revived Klan was based significantly on the wildly popular film The Birth of a Nation. 

The earlier Klan had not worn the white costumes and had not burned crosses; these aspects were introduced in Thomas Dixon's book The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, on which the film was based. 

When the film was shown in Atlanta in December of that year, Simmons and his new klansmen paraded to the theatre in robes and pointed hoods — many on robed horses — just like in the film. 

Ginger Rogers — a prisoner of the Klan in Storm Warning (1950)

These mass parades became another hallmark of the new Klan that had not existed in the original Reconstruction-era organization.

Beginning in 1921, the Klan adopted a modern business system of using full-time, paid recruiters and it appealed to new members as a fraternal organization, of which many examples were flourishing at the time. 

Ginger Rogers is whipped by the KKK in Storm Warning (1950)

The national headquarters made its profit through a monopoly on costume sales, while the organisers were paid through initiation fees. It grew rapidly nationwide at a time of prosperity. Reflecting the social tensions pitting urban versus rural America, it spread to every state and was prominent in many cities.

The existence of modern Klan groups has been in a state of consistent decline, due to a variety of factors: from the American public's negative distaste of the group's image, platform, and history, infiltration and prosecution by law enforcement, civil lawsuit forfeitures, and the radical right-wing's perception of the Klan as outdated and unfashionable.

Storm Warning winds up being Steve Cochran's film, despite his character and its set up flying far too clos to Streetcar Named Desire. But as a flawed film noir killer and lousy husband he is great, absolutely unable to control his swinging emotions and impulses, making him super-menacing.

Yet, the Klan is kind of offered a free pass, somehow. Their enemies are busybodies and outsiders and the only person they kill in the movie is a pesky outsider snooping journalist.  There are no Afspeaking roles, and Storm Warning instead tacks on a story in which where the Klan leaders are embezzling money from the membership, as if that‘s the reason they’re so vile.  

Ronald Reagan seems partially extraneous and even ill at ease. Here he applies Hollywood liberal values as a klan nemesis.

He later transformed into the racist right-wing icon who was once caught on tape ranting (regarding a United Nations session), “To see those, those monkeys from those African countries — damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” 

However Reagan had railed against the KKK just a few years prior to the making of this movie, and he has something of a supporting role as District Attorney Burt Rainey 

Warner Bros. had actually made many powerful social dramas before this one, including I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932); Black Legion (1937); Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), but Storm Warning would not classify as powerful in this mode. And it certainly does not seem to highlight any bad feeling for or special criticism of the Klan.

A shocking finale does save Storm Warning from history's final dustbin but perhaps in a studio effort to avoid the film being banned in the South, the KKK in this film shows no ill will nor even utters any bad words against African Americans and Jewish people, and hatred is directed toward “outsiders” --- for which read “Northerners” --- and the final and serious major crime committed by the group’s top officers is income tax evasion.

Storm Warning (1950) upon Wikipedia

No comments:

Post a Comment