8 September 2013 | secondtake
KKK and looking the other way made real, but not pushing hard enough at all
Storm Warning (1951)
An anti-KKK film that doesn't mention blacks or Jews or other persecuted groups. Instead, the victim is a journalist who we assume was uncovering those crimes. The drama is high, the filming dramatic with lots of night stuff (some of it daringly dark), and the leading actors very good.
The star here is Ginger Rogers, and she pulls off a subtle job of being both a very strong woman and an average American unwilling to stick her neck out. In a way, that's the one main point of the movie--that the KKK continues in little towns in mid-century America because regular people who are normally models of fortitude decide to just look the other way.
Doris Day and Ronald Reagan, both archetypes of some kind of social conservatism later in their careers, play ordinary folk here. Day is the wimpy sister who happens to be married to a lousy klan bruiser. She plays the weak American, you might say, who protects her man even when he's obviously murderous. Reagan is the easy going prosecutor--and he's easy going in the way he'd later be the easy going president. He gets things done by slowly and cheerfully persisting.
Director Stuart Heisler made a number of hard edged movies in his career, including one of my favorites, "The Glass Key." But, as in many of these others, he goes for style over substance here. You might say the American public wasn't ready to face their ambivalence over the KKK head on, and that the studios skirted the issue and were brave for bringing it up at all. Well, reviews from the period say otherwise. They call the movie wimpy and elusive, and it is.
What you do get is a series of really good but really familiar situations where the KKK members coerce and force the regular townspeople into going along with their evil ways. There is no mention at all of the what the KKK was against, or the racism that was at the heart of the issue nationally. There are, to be sure, several black actors as extras in a couple of scenes, but this is hardly relevant except to say that the opportunity was there to push the issue much harder, much harder. Even Warner Bros. own "Black Legion" from 1937 (and starring Humphrey Bogart) was better at making the issues pertinent. "The Intruder" from 1962 (and starring William Shatner) is better at getting to the point despite its low budget, and maybe shows how the country was dealing with the issue more openly by then.
"Storm Warning" is so well made and filled with great scenes--both the small town settings and the wild KKK meeting in the woods--it's worth seeing. And the opening ten minutes is so creepy it will really make you perk up. They say Rogers is miscast here, but I think she was supposed to be the sophisticated outsider who might, in fact, stand up for justice. And then she doesn't. See it.